Liberalism 101

From the January 2000 issue of the Nicotine Theological Journal:

On June 24, 1936, the Christian Century reported that with the founding of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, J. Gresham Machen had finally come “very close to the place where he will find peace in no church except one of his own making.” Among the reasons for the Century’s condescension was the fact that the OPC had been formed because of modernism in the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.’s Board of Foreign Missions. According to the Century, anyone who could possibly detect apostasy in the “operations of a missions board administered by such men as Robert E. Speer [and] John Mackay” should finally have done with the PCUSA. The point being that the likes of Speer and Mackay were so honorable and men of such character that they could never countenance the apostate views that Machen deemed modernist.

Surprisingly, the verdict of modern day conservative Presbyterians is similar to that of the Century two generations ago. Of course, today’s conservatives, if they know who Speer and Mackay were, would not judge them to be as good and decent as the editors of the Chicago religious weekly. But they do evaluate liberals in remarkably similar terms: if someone is a moral and decent Christian he can’t be a liberal or apostate. This line of reasoning is especially evident when contemporary Reformed believers conclude that a liberal must have a character on the degenerate order of William Jefferson Clinton because any decent person (who doesn’t beat his wife, gives to the poor, picks up trash) must be a conservative. In other words – to put it succinctly in the parlance of rabid Presbyterianism – liberals are scoundrels. (Which is the flip side of the modernist argument against conservatives – fundamentalists are un-American. Talk about ad hominem.)

THEN HOW DO WE EXPLAIN THE pro-family, love-thy-neighbor tone of the liberals who suspended Machen from ministering in the PCUSA? The very same report in the Century that summarized the proceedings of the General Assembly were Machen was suspended (June 17, 1936) also carried word that with the conclusion of the fundamentalist controversy the Presbyterian Church could turn to more pressing issues of social welfare. Among the items on the PCUSA’s agenda were the “evils” of Hollywood and alcohol. The church’s standing committee on social welfare was particularly alarmed that the movie industry “seems to have joined hands with the liquor traffic in portraying drinking scenes which tend to give young people the impression that these practices have general social approval.” The church also reaffirmed its commitment to “abstinence from the use of alcoholic beverages as the Christian ideal” and to “the progressive control and eventual elimination of the liquor traffic.”

BUT WHILE THE POWER OF liquor interests was “brazen” and “unparalleled,” at least the Century could find a few good words about Hollywood, which it supplied regularly in its weekly column, “The New Films,” which rated the latest movies and made recommendations for family viewing. For instance, here’s the capsule summary of “Border Flight,” a 1936 thriller, starring John Howard and Frances Farmer: “Crudely portrays coast guard’s heroic airplane fights against smugglers. Much thrill, mediocre acting, absurd character values. Villain, completely obnoxious throughout, becomes heroic suicide and wins what sympathy is left.” For “intelligent adults,” the Century’s reviewer deemed it “crude. For ages 15 to 20, “Poor.” And for children under 15, “Poor.” Later in the column the author recommended for family viewing “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “Show Boat,” and “Dancing Pirate.” Villains must not be so bad if their nimble on their feet.

To change the old adage, with liberals like this, who needs friends? So ingrained is the habit of thinking defective theology and loose morals go together that many contemporary conservative Presbyterians would be shocked to see how family-friendly institutions the Century and PCUSA were and still are. That’s because some conservatives have never thought carefully about the relationship between theology and practice. Instead, they have assumed that right practices automatically follow from orthodoxy and hence that anyone with questionable doctrine is invariably wicked. Which is only another way of saying that conservative Presbyterians fundamentally misunderstand liberalism. Hence the need for some remedial instruction.

THE BEST BOOK ON LIBERALISM in the United States is still William R. Hutchison’s Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (1976). And Hutchison gives a handy definition that should be particularly useful for conservative Presbyterian types. Simply put, liberalism is any modification of received orthodoxy. Typically, the doctrinal changes advocated by liberals run along the lines of divine sovereignty, human depravity, and Christian exclusiveness. But in America, liberalism made its biggest splash when Unitarians denied the deity of Christ. This is why Hutchison begins his study of modernism with a chapter on Unitarianism.

But for Hutchison liberalism does not equal modernism, and here is where this introductory course becomes tricky. Modernists advocated the self-conscious adaptation of Christianity to modern society by appealing to the doctrine of God’s immanence and by locating God’s presence in the unfolding of western civilization, which for them was the kingdom of God. Though modernism and liberalism clearly overlap, one need not believe in adapting Christianity to culture to be a liberal. Some liberals, Hutchison points out, were deeply suspicious about developments in modern society. Modernism, then, is a subset of liberalism. And as Hutchison also shows, the sorts of liberals that J. Gresham Machen was battling in the 1920s were actually modernists. They were not doctrinaire liberals. Instead, they were intent on being all things to all people (well, at least all WASPs ) for the sake of maintaining a Christian culture.

JUST AS SUBTLE AS THE distinction between modernism and liberalism is the apologetical nature of liberalism. Typically conservatives think that a liberal is someone who has denied the faith and that such denials are easy to spot. Having grown up in a fundamentalist home, I can well remember visiting preachers haranguing liberals for denying the deity of Christ, the virgin birth – the list goes on – the way that Hell’s Angels did. Liberals came across as scary people, sort of like witches or Democrats, folks who not only could not be trusted but were vicious, mean and calculating. But the classic work on liberalism, Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, assumes the best, not the worst, about the Protestant left. Modern science, technology, and culture had all made historic Christian teaching implausible. And so liberals, seeking to save Christianity, rescued “certain general principles of religion,” the so-called “essence of Christianity.” This was the same verdict of H. L. Mencken who wrote, modernists, “no doubt with the best of intentions,” have “tried to get rid of all the logical difficulties of religion and yet, preserve a pious cast of mind.” The Baltimore sage thought it a “vain enterprise.” But it was still an attempt to defend Christianity against its culture despisers.

AND IT IS THIS APOLOGETICAL side of liberalism that confounds so many conservatives. If liberalism is pernicious – which it is ultimately – how can it be credited with doing anything honorable? The answer to that question is fairly obvious when you keep in mind that there is another option available – it is to reject Christianity outright and become an atheist or pagan. But typically conservatives treat all non-conservatives as if they are atheists or pagans, forgetting that there is a middle ground, no matter how flawed, inconsistent or dishonest it is. Which is just to say that there is a huge difference whether you have a member of a Satanic cult, a member of the Dallas Cowboys, or a member of the Episcopal church living next door. Eternally all three persons may be heading for the same place, but here and now the Episcopalian would be more likely to take in the mail when you’re out of town, let the gas meter reader in without stealing the high fi, or feed the cat without strangling her. So the question, “how can people deny orthodoxy with good intentions?” invites the obvious answer, “well, duh.” Everyday when we cross intersections, balance check books, or buy bread, we assume that other drivers, bank clerks, and bakers, who may not hold orthodox views of the atonement or the inscripturation of God’s word, will not try to destroy us, our property or our reputations. Why would liberals be any different?

The decent and honorable intentions of liberals also helps to explain why liberalism is hard to spot. In his book on the Presbyterian controversy of the early twentieth century, Presbyterian Pluralism (1997), the sociologist William Weston claims that the PCUSA contained no full-blown modernists. Instead, the church only had the milder sort, evangelical liberals. And this was the same conclusion that the Special Commission of 1925, appointed to study the cause of the fundamentalist controversy. No one in the church was denying Christianity outright. But whoever said that liberals did that? It’s as if Madeline Murray O’Hair defines liberalism and since Harry Emerson Fosdick was not an atheist he must have been evangelical, though a little light in the divinity-of-Christ loafers. Liberalism, like life, is a lot subtler than that. Liberals try to have it both ways – being Christian without being orthodox. But they don’t want to abandon Christianity.

OF COURSE, THE HARD PART IS determining whether they have left the faith. This is hard because a liberal affirmation of the faith usually employs evasive language. But ethical considerations will not yield any greater clarity because liberals are generally such upright people, the kind who see villainy everywhere, from tobacco to racism.

J. Gresham Machen had no trouble recognizing the high ethical standards of liberal Protestantism. In fact, that is how he explained their inability to account for the apostle Paul’s invective against the Judaizers. “What a splendid cleaning up of the Gentile cities it would have been,” Machen could hear a run of the mill liberal saying, “if the Judaizers had succeeded in extending to those cities the observance of the Mosaic law, even including the unfortunate ceremonial observances.” But this excessive interest in making people moral is also what prompted Machen’s devastating critique. Instead of taking comfort in the Golden Rule or the Sermon on the Mount as liberals were wont to do, as if successful Christian living hinged on determining what Jesus would do, Machen thought Christ’s ethical teaching only produced despair. “In reality, if the requirements for entrance into the Kingdom of God are what Jesus declares them to be,” Machen wrote, “we are all undone; we have not even attained to the external righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.” The problem with liberals, then, wasn’t their disregard for Christian morality. It was that their high regard of human nature.

BUT IF MACHEN WAS HARD ON liberals for denying historic Christian teaching about sin and grace, he did not stoop to calling them villains. He believed it a Christian duty to sympathize with anyone who had lost their “confidence in the strange message of the cross.” What is more, despite their deep and abiding differences, he thought conservatives still shared “many ties – ties of blood, ties of citizenship, of ethical aims of humanitarian endeavor” with those who had abandoned the gospel. Believers even had a good deal to learn from non-believers and should treat those who differed from them with respect. Socrates and Goethe were not Christians but still towered “immeasurably above the common run of men.” And the reason for this respect was the gospel. “If he that is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than [non-believers], he is certainly greater not by any inherent superiority, but by the virtue of an undeserved privilege which ought to make him humble rather than contemptuous.”

So instead of piling on liberals and attributing all manner of wickedness to their theological equivocation, a basic lesson is in order: to paraphrase Neuhaus’ Law, Where Orthodoxy Is Optional, Righteousness Will Sooner Or Later Be Proscribed.

Allen Rich

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