The Irreverent and Progressive Midwesterner George Norris

24 Jul

PhD student Paul Putz, a Nebraskan, offers a nice post about a mostly-forgotten U.S. Senator from Nebraska: George Norris. Norris gained fame during his lifetime as an insurgent Republican during the Progressive Era (1900-1920). As Putz notes,

For an earlier generation of liberals, Norris was a saintly figure. His stubborn opposition to “monied interests,” his belief that the government could be a positive force for good in people’s lives, his reputation for integrity, and the fact that he remained a steadfast progressive throughout progressivism’s 1920s nadir captured the imagination of idealistic young Americans. In the 1950s, a panel of scholars put together by the U.S. Senate to determine the five most outstanding senators in American history voted Norris number one. In 1957, “John F. Kennedy” “wrote” Profiles in Courage, featuring Norris as one of his Courageous Eight U.S. senators.

Norris’s greatest hits are indeed impressive. He opposed Joe Cannon, J. Edgar Hoover, American entry into World War I, the Espionage Act, and the poll tax (this did not come until the end of his career). He championed the TVA, Norris-LaGuardia Act, 20th Amendment, Rural Electrification Act, and Nebraska’s Unicameral. And perhaps most impressive of all, he used an eight-foot spider labeled “Wall Street” as a prop for a speech on the Senate floor.

Putz is a religious historian, and he notes that Norris, while raised to know the Bible well, rejected organized Christianity but “held the ‘lowly Nazarene’ in high esteem.”

Putz interacts with some of Norris’ “editings” of an old hymnbook. He concludes:

I can’t help but think that the altered songbook, irreverent as it may seem to some Christian believers, was at least as sacred to Norris as a pristine edition would have been to anyone who merely sang along solemnly to the words. And I can’t help but think that the book represents something more — one part of Norris’s lifelong process of forming a personal, difficult-to-classify (“none”-ish?) faith of his own, a faith in which “humanity was his God” and in which, sometimes at least, the old wine skins worked just fine for the new wine.

I am struck by how Norris exemplifies some populist themes in Midwestern politics and religion (themes that arguably seem to have waned in more recent decades). Putz’s entire post is available here, at Religion in American History: Religion in American History: Take a Stand for Peanuts: Thinking Out Loud About The Irreverent George Norris.

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