Imagine if the Presbytery of New York Had Apologized for Fosdick

Readers may have heard that Max Lucado, who seems to have avoided controversy until now in the post-Ferguson state of American evangelicalism, preached at the National Cathedral. And then he became for the Cathedral was Tim Keller was for Princeton Seminary. Lucado had preached a sermon in 2004 in which he asserted that homosexuality was sinful. (The people who run the Cathedral don’t have computers with search engines?). He issued a clarification after this news came to light and apologized for hurtful words. (This is a fuller account.) But that was not enough and so the Dean of the Cathedral and the Episcopal Church’s D.C. bishop have issued an apology for letting this evangelical pastor preach in their pulpit:

I would like to apologize for the hurt caused in inviting Max Lucado to preach at Washington National Cathedral, and for not heeding the appeals that came to Dean Hollerith and me prior to Sunday, February 7 asking us to reconsider. I didn’t take the time to truly listen to your concerns. In a desire to welcome a wide variety of Christian voices to the Cathedral pulpit and on the assumption that Max Lucado no longer believed the painful things he said in 2004, I made you feel at risk and unwelcome in your spiritual home. I am sorry.  

In the days since, I have heard from those who were not only wounded by things Max Lucado has said and taught, but equally wounded by the decision to welcome him into the Cathedral’s pulpit. I didn’t realize how deep those wounds were and how unsafe the world can feel. I should have known better.

More than apology, we seek to make amends. As a beginning, we invite all who wish to speak of their experiences in the church as LGBTQ+ persons and their allies to join Dean Hollerith and me for a listening session on Sunday, February 21 at 7:00 p.m. EST. 

Back in the day, liberal Protestants were not so squeamish about giving offense:

In response to the assembly mandate of 1923, Coffin and his modernist allies in the New York Presbytery addressed the Fosdick situation. In February the Presbytery adopted a report that essentially exonerated Fosdick of any wrongdoing and proposed no change in his status. If this were not enough to ruffle conservative feathers, two other events further agitated the situation. First, in June 1923 the New York Presbytery voted to license two Union students, Henry P. Van Dusen and Cedric O. Lehman, who refused to affirm the truth of the virgin birth. Then, on 31 December 1923, Dr. Henry van Dyke, former pastor of the Brick street Church in New York and then a professor at Princeton University, publicly relinquished his pew at First Presbyterian Church, Princeton because of disagreement with the preaching of Machen, who was serving gas stated supply preacher of First Church. (Bradley J. Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy, 100)

The rest is history. Van Dusen went on to preside over Union Seminary in New York City during the heady days of Reinhold Niebuhr’s greatness.

Liberal Presbyterianism before Erdman

Not science or naturalism but politics, community, social capital, and civility have weakened Presbyterian convictions way more than higher criticism or evolution. The situation in Scotland after the Glorious Revolution and the restoration of Presbyterianism in the Kirk:

This new urban sociability reflected and contributed to the pan-British and European shift towards latitudinarianism near the turn of the century. The clergy’s co-operation in pursuits that lay outside the narrow boundaries of theology fostered camaraderie among individuals from across the religious spectrum. ‘We perfectly agree with you in your sentiments’, the London Society for the Reformation of Manners wrote to their Scottish counterparts, ‘that however Christians may differ in opinion as to other things, yet they should all agree in advancing the common interest of Christianity in promoting the practice of piety and virtue.’ In turn, the Scottish Societies resolved ‘not to meddle with the particular opinions or practices of persons in religion, [for] although we differ in our sentiments as to some things, yet that we are united in our zeal for God, our charity for men, and concern for our country, do invite and entreat all’. When the Scottish Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge sought donations to establish parochial libraries throughout northern Scotland in the early 1700s, they relied on English clergymen of all theological stripes for assistance. An analysis of the libraries’ catalogues reveals an interesting result from the joint endeavour. In addition to the expected staples of orthodox Presbyterians, English men and women sent discourses that were disproportionately comprised of moderate English Episcopalian bishops or archbishops, such as John Tillotson, Gilbert Burnet, Edward Stillingfleet and Benjamin Hoadly, as well as Robert Leighton, the former archbishop of Glasgow who had attempted to unite Presbyterians and Episcopalians in the 1670s. Furthermore, scientific and philosophical writings by John Locke, Francis Bacon, Robert Sibbald, Robert Boyle,William Chillingworth, Hugo Grotius and Samuel von Puffendorf, in addition to Cicero and Euclid, were also quite popular. Records for Inverness, Dumbarton, Dingwall, Dumfries, Sleat, Duriness, Kilmoor, South Uist and Bracadle all confirm this pattern to be the norm.

Against this trend of tolerance and intellectual innovation, a majority of Presbyterians vehemently resisted with protests in the General Assembly and legal depositions in the parishes. There was a noticeable dichotomy between the Assembly’s leanings and those of the Presbyterians who comprised it. How, then, did the moderates attain their victories and enforce their influence? They relied upon the Williamite state, which was committed to forging inclusive national churches in Scotland and England, to turn a numerical disadvantage into an opportunity via diplomacy and undemocratic means – namely, the strategic manipulation of key religious institutions. (Ryan K. Frace, “Religious Toleration in the Wake of Revolution: Scotland on the Eve of Enlightenment, 1688-1710s,” Journal of the Historical Association, 2008, 369-70)

Can You Write This After 2019? (finale)

Another entry under the category of timelines, to go with part one and part two.

What did the black church need roughly fifteen years ago?

We are now living in a generation of African Americans who are significantly unchurched. For three centuries, the black church stood as the central institution of black life. Its relevance was unquestioned and its moral and spiritual capital unparalleled. Now, the church is largely viewed as irrelevant by vast numbers of mostly young African Americans, despite concerted efforts to make the church a multipurpose human service organization with housing, child care, after school, health care, economic development and other social service programs. It seems the more the church does the less relevant it becomes.

The reason for this state of affairs is that the unbelieving world tacitly understands that the primary reason for the church’s existence is not temporal. Though the world is wracked with pain and suffering, it intuitively grasps the fact that the answers it longs for are transcendent, not earthly. So, the more the church appeals to the world’s felt needs and physical deprivations, the more irrelevant it becomes to those who lack a true and saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. (Thabiti Anyabwile, The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity [2007] 244-45)

How Puritans Shaped Anglicanism

Some will not like reading this, but Alec Ryrie cannot be canceled so readily .

Between the Elizabethan settlement and the English Civil War, the Church of England was unapologetically a Reformed Protestant church. It was also much closer to being a truly national Church than it has ever been since. This has left some awkward legacies to later Anglicanism. The fact that many Puritans were driven into nonconformity after the Restoration has given rise to a wholly unjustified myth among Anglicans: that Puritans had been cuckoos in the Church of England’s nest since the beginning, and so are not truly a part of Anglicanism’s history. The majority of Anglicans are in long-standing denial over their Puritan heritage, reluctant to recognize that these people are part of Anglicanism’s story — and fully so, not on sufferance. Meanwhile, a minority strain within Anglicanism is so enthusiastic to claim England’s Protestant, Puritan Reformation as its heritage that it asserts that Reformation ought to be normative for Anglicanism, not merely a strand within it.

The plain facts are, first, that the Church of England was once a mainstream Reformed Protestant church; and second, that is is not any more. How it, and the English-speaking world more widely, should deal with that mixed heritage is a story of two books.

The Book of Common Prayer is the more complicated of the two. When Thomas Cramner introduced its first two editions in 1549 and 1552, it was an alarmingly radical engine of reform. . . this new English ‘common prayer’ was intended to be a united voice, in which the minister spoke to the people as much as to God and in which the greatest part of worship was instruction. The outwardly traditional elements of the new liturgy were a digestif intended to make two novel features palatable to a largely conservative people: first, the huge slabs of the Bible that comprise the bulk of most of the services; and second, the robustly Protestant theology that is texts taught. . . . But when the Prayer Book was re-imposed by Charles II in 1662, although its text was virtually unchanged from a century earlier, its meaning was reversed. Despite its title, it no longer aspired to national ‘common prayer.’ It was an instrument of division, not of unity. It was designed to smoke out those who wished to remain part of the national church but could not tolerate this half-reformed liturgy. . . .

The second book is of course the English Bible. The English Reformation produced no theologians of European stature, but in Tyndale it did produce a truly great translator. It is a plain fact that he did more than any other individual to shape the modern English language, and that the English Bible he set in motion would become central to English identity for centuries. (The English Reformation, 63-65)

Keeping Thanksgiving Real

Two years before the 1619 Project — even — the New York Times was demythologizing America’s Protestant history.

The Mayflower did bring the Pilgrims to North America from Plymouth, England, in 1620, and they disembarked at what is now Plymouth, Mass., where they set up a colony. In 1621, they celebrated a successful harvest with a three-day gathering that was attended by members of the Wampanoag tribe. It’s from this that we derive Thanksgiving as we know it.

But it wasn’t until the 1830s that this event was called the first Thanksgiving by New Englanders who looked back and thought it resembled their version of the holiday, said Kate Sheehan, a spokeswoman for Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth.

The holiday wasn’t made official until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln declared it as a kind of thank you for the Civil War victories in Vicksburg, Miss., and Gettysburg, Pa.

Beyond that, claiming it was the “first Thanksgiving” isn’t quite right either as both Native American and European societies had been holding festivals to celebrate successful harvests for centuries, Mr. Loewen said.

If you think about giving thanks for religious freedom (as if, during the pandemic) over your white meat and mashed potatoes, think again.

The Pilgrims had religious freedom in Holland, where they first arrived in the early 17th century. Like those who settled Jamestown, Va., in 1607, the Pilgrims came to North America to make money, Mr. Loewen said.

“They were also coming here in order to establish a religious theocracy, which they did,” he said. “That’s not exactly the same as coming here for religious freedom. It’s kind of coming here against religious freedom.”

And if you wind up unwittingly at a casino today, you have something in common with those seventeenth-century theocrats.

Possibly the most common misconception is that the Pilgrims extended an invitation to the Native Americans for helping them reap the harvest. The truth of how they all ended up feasting together is unknown.

But don’t feel too badly about the day that we are sort of celebrating in a way that saves lives. The Times has plenty of recipes to satisfy even the most sinful glutton. The Harts will be serving Turkey Breast Roulade with Garlic and Rosemary.

Turkey Breast Roulade With Garlic and Rosemary

I feel white Protestant guilt floating away.

Luther on Protests (violent, verbal, or peaceful)

In light of the point derived from Luther that justice requires peace (“No Peace, No Justice“), along comes Luther’s reflections on Psalm 37 (“Fret not yourself because of evil-doers; be not envious of wrong-doers”):

The 37th psalm is a psalm of comfort that teaches and exhorts us to have patience in the world and warns us, especially, against envy. For it is vexing and painful to the ‘Weak in faith when things go so well for the godless and the opposite happens to those who fear God. It is a great spiritual virtue when-seeing the great misdeeds of the peasants, the townspeople, the nobility, the princes, and every one who has any power-one yet exerts himself not to blaspheme or inwardly wish this and that curse on them. Moreover, he still suffers and sees that all things go well for them and they remain unpunished. Indeed, they are praised and honored, while the God-fearing are miserable, despised, hated, begrudged, obstructed, vexed, and persecuted.

The message is: Learn to have endurance. Take your heart to God and do not let yourself be vexed. Do not become envious, or curse, or with evil to fall, or murmur, or look at them with hatred. Let these people go and commend them to God, who will surely find all things out. The psalm teaches this and comforts us in a variety of ways with abundant promises, with examples, with warnings. For it is a great and difficult art to manifest such patient longsuffering, when reason and all the heathen count envy as virtue. For it appears as though it were just and fair to envy and begrudge the ungodly for their wantonness, their good fortune, and their riches.

This works so many ways. It should caution those woke Christians who rush to join the ranks of all those condemning all manner of imperfection. It should also provide counsel for Christian political conservatives who think the American republic is about to sink.

Beware, of course, that if you follow such advice you may be on the receiving end of those who think you are just like the German Lutherans who did not rise up and overthrow the Nazis. If that happens, remember “No peace, no justice”:

The office of vengeance has not been given to [us]. Later he will talk about the law of the gospel, which calls us to turn the other cheek, but that is not his point here. Luther’s point here about nonviolence does not rest on a Christian account of pacifism, but rather on natural law: civil society requires that some rule while others are ruled. Even if rulers are morally unjust, subjects have no right to rebel, which is tantamount to pretending that they themselves must rule. Such a pretension violates order, or “justice” in the Platonic sense of “everyone doing his own job.” Luther puts it this way: “The fact that the rulers are wicked and unjust does not excuse disorder and rebellion, for the punishing of wickedness is not the responsibility of everyone, but of the worldly rulers who bear the sword.” Order has priority over justice.

Selah

Machen Day 2020

Ages well.

The purpose of this book is not to decide the religious issue of the present day, but merely to present the issue as sharply and clearly as possible, in order that the reader may be aided in deciding it for himself. Presenting an issue sharply is indeed by no means a popular business at the present time; there are many who prefer to fight their intellectual battles in what Dr. Francis L. Patton has aptly called a “condition of low visibility.” (Patton, in the introduction to William Hallock Johnson The Christian Faith Under Modern Searchlight, [1916], p. 7.) Clear-cut definition of terms in religious matters, bold facing of the logical implications of religious views, is by many persons regarded as an impious proceeding. May it not discourage contribution to mission boards? May it not hinder the progress of consolidation, and produce a poor showing in columns of Church statistics? But with such persons we cannot possibly bring ourselves to agree. Light may seem at times to be an impertinent intruder, but it is always beneficial in the end. The type of religion which rejoices in the pious sound of traditional phrases, regardless of their meanings, or shrinks from “controversial” matters, will never stand amid the shocks of life. In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight. In the sphere of religion, in particular, the present time is a time of conflict; the great redemptive religion which has always been known as Christianity is battling against a totally diverse type of religious belief, which is only the more destructive of the Christian faith because it makes use of traditional Christian terminology. (1-2)

How not to Be an Erdman

Aside from being Machen’s nemesis, Charles Erdman was the son of a premillenialist and holiness Presbyterian evangelist who had close ties to Dwight Moody and the Keswick Conference (which stressed holiness as the biblical norm for sancification). Charles was also one of the editors of the series of pamphlets that historians associate with the origins of the fundamentalist movement. The Fundamentals were published between 1910 and 1915 and promoted some of the emphases that became associated with the 1920s opponents of theological liberalism. From all appearances, Erdman had “conservative” credentials. For historians who know very little about Old School Presbyterianism or the Princeton Theology, the spat between Erdman and Machen made no sense and so must have been the product of personal differences (read Machen’s idiosyncrasies). Why Princeton hired a premillennial professor of practical theology is another question.

For the pamphlet series, Erdman drew the straw to write on “The Church and Socialism,” not what you’d expect from a PT prof or a premillennialist. Here is part of what Erdman wrote:

This protest of Socialism is a call to the Church to proclaim more insistently the social principles of Christ. This does not mean the adoption of a so-called “social gospel” which discards the fundamental doctrines of Christianity and substitutes a religion of good works; but a true Gospel of grace is inseparable from a Gospel of good works. . . .

This protest of Socialism demands of the Church a more consistent practice, on the part of her members, of the social teachings of Christ. It is easy to bring false charges against Christians; it is even customary today to hold the Church up to ridicule and scorn as a society of hypocrites untrue to their professions and their Lord. It is not necessary to even consider these accusations which spring from ignorance or prejudice or spite. The great masses of Christians are striving to be faithful and seeking to live well-pleasing to their Master. However, it is true that there are some in the Church who are consciously guilty of sins against society, and others who, because of the difficulty of the questions involved, excuse themselves on the ground that their wrong practices are necessitated by the industrial system of the age. Some are quite comfortable under w what they regard as orthodox preaching, even though they know their wealth has come from the watering of stocks and from wrecking railroads, and from grinding the faces of the poor. . . .

The protest of Socialism is a distinct call to the Church to define anew to herself her function, and to interpret anew the prophecies of her Lord.
There are many who, in the name of Christianity, have been promising a new social order, a kingdom of God, which they declare the Church will
introduce. The long continued failure to realize these promises has led to criticisms of the Church, and has done not a little to increase the bitterness of socialistic attacks upon her. The Church is now being held responsible for social sins and injustice, for the wrongs and grievances of the age; and for this unfortunate position she must largely blame herself. She has arrogated functions which are not her own; she has made promises for which there is no written word of Scripture. It should be remembered, for instance, that the state is quite as purely a divine institution as is the Church. It is for the state to secure social reconstruction when necessary; it is for the state to punish offenders, and to secure by legal enactments and legislative processes the abolition of abuses, and the establishment of justice. When the Church assumes functions belonging to the state, she involves herself in needless difficulties and places herself in a false position before the world. . . . but the real blessedness of the Church and of the world awaits the personal return of Christ. The hope of the world is not in a new social order instituted by unregenerate men; not a millennium made by man; not a commonwealth of humanity organized as a Socialistic state; but a kingdom established by Christ which will fill the earth with glory at the coming of the King.

That is an odd mix of progressive politics, spirituality of the church, and premillennialism.

That contrasts with what Machen wrote about socialism for the Christian Reformed Churches, The Banner, in an exchange about the Child Labor Amendment:

What, at bottom, is the difference between the ethics of socialism and the ethics of Christianity? In some ways the two look very much alike. Both are seeking to relive creature distress; and both require men of wealth, at least under certain circumstances, to give up their wealth and become poor. But the socialist seeks to accomplish that by force, and the Christian seeks to accomplish it by love. There lies the profound difference. The socialist says to the man who possesses this worlds’s goods: “We intend to compel you to distribute your wealth as we see fit: we should regard ourselves as degraded if we received it from you as a gift, but we intend to take it from you by force.” The Christian, on the other hand, says to the man of wealth, or rather to the man who has any amount, large or small, for this world’s good: “the Lord loveth a cheerful giver; will you not have compassion upon those less fortunate than yourself; and will you not take any possible sting of degradation from the receivers of such a gift by letting your gift be prompted truly by love?” I think there is a deep-seated conflict between these two views of life; I do not think that that conflict between them can permanently be concealed. (“Voices in the Church,” 391-92)

Liberalism 301

From the July 2000 Nicotine Theological Journal:

The prefix “post” has any number of proper usages. And most of those – postscript, postlude, posterior – clearly fix its meaning. Whatever is “post” comes after the main thing, such as after the letter, after the liturgy, or after the rest of the body.

The usage of this prefix in such words as postmodernism and postliberalism, however, is more ambiguous. Postmodernism suggests a period and intellectual sensibility that has moved beyond the age and mentality of being modern, though some argue that the intellectual and cultural fads going under the name, “postmodern,” are actually a heightened form of modernity. Postliberalism is even harder to explain. And part of the reason stems from whether those advocating postliberalism have actually moved beyond liberalism into a theology that is clearly “after” the sort of teaching that has characterized twentieth-century mainline Protestantism.

JAMES GUSTAFSON, FOR MANY years a professor of ethics at Emory University, raised questions about postliberalism for the mainliners who read the Christian Century (March 24-31, 1999). Gustafson himself may not be the best inquirer since his survey of the theological landscape is about as nuanced as the famous New Yorker poster of the world where everything west of the Hudson River dissolves into Walmart and Disneyland. For instance, Gustafson wonders if there is any difference between postliberal affirmations of “divine personhood and activity” and “the virtually magical expectations of divine interventions that one hears proclaimed by television evangelists.” In Gustafson’s universe, Karl Barth is next to Jerry Falwell. (And we thought liberals were supposed to be the rocket-science party in American Protestantism.)

Notwithstanding Gustafson’s fundamentalist-like version of liberalism, his article does help to expose the limitations of postliberalism. In many ways, Gustafson’s piece has a stale smell to it. If he is any indication, liberals are still spooked by world religions and natural science, and so adjust the claims of Christianity in order to avoid giving offense either religiously, culturally or intellectually. But the big question, and one that he acknowledges comes from Ernst Troeltsch, concerns Christian particularism. Did God “choose to reveal Godself in a unique and exclusive way in a single historical event, Jesus Christ?” If postliberals answer “no” to that question, then they are really liberals, according to Gustafson. And so after 150 years of theological development in the United States, liberalism still boils down to being uncomfortable with Jesus only. (Could it be that the origins of not keeping score in Little League baseball games may reside in liberal Protestant timidity – wouldn’t want those little tikes scarred by the exclusive brands of “winner” and “loser”? Mind you, losing in baseball is a lot less painful than losing eternal life. But the good news of the gospel is that Christ made his exclusive salvation available to all people through the ministry of the church – something liberals gave up when they replaced the gospel with culture, and the church with institutions of cultural transformation.)

WILLIAM PLACHER, WHO teaches theology at Wabash College, was the only suspect the editors at the Century could round up to respond to Gustafson’s questions (April 7, 1999). And we must give him credit for answering Troeltsch’s big question pithily and Christianly. “Do postliberals claim that God chose to reveal Godself in a unique and exclusive way in a single historical event, Jesus Christ?” Placher’s unequivocal response is “yes.” To be sure, Jesus Christ’s ministry involved more than one event as the various stages of his humiliation and exaltation indicate. Still, Placher deserves credit for not blinking.

HE ALSO MADE SOME interesting observations along the way which suggest just how hard it is to move beyond liberalism. For instance, when Placher was in grad school in the early 1970s, Schubert Ogden, Gordon Kaufman and David Tracy were at the center of American mainline academic theology. He adds that Barth tended to be dismissed “out of hand.” Which raises an interesting question – what kind of mark did neo-orthodoxy make in the United States? Placher’s recollections, along with other impressions, suggests that the brothers Niebuhr, Tillich and Barth were far more of a fad that allowed the mainline denominations to absorb an existentialist form of Christianity than any kind of movement that righted the ship of American Protestantism.

Placher’s own positive comments about the gospel imply as much, and suggest that postliberalism may reach a similar outcome. As much as he is willing to affirm the particularity of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, his affirmation carries all the baggage of liberal Protestant timidity and turns Christ into a strange brew of abstract particularity. “Jesus Christ reveals and anticipates,” Placher writes, “the culmination of God’s will for creation, and in that sense Christianity is uniquely right about what is most important in the ultimate purpose of things.” How’s that? The real question isn’t just whether Christ is unique but whether what he did makes him unique. Did he die, rise from the dead, and ascend into heaven for sins, and will he one day return to judge the world? To be sure, that is a whole lot more exclusive than anything Gustafson is prepared to accept. But it also makes the uniqueness of Christ much more lively (and efficacious) than the neo-orthodox-inspired maneuvers Placher executes.

In the end, the Gustafson-Placher exchange is eerily reminiscent of an essay Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote also for the Century, sixty-five years ago when the theological grenade-thrower took back some of what he had said in his inflammatory sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Fosdick’s topic was “Beyond Modernism” (Dec 4, 1935), and the reasons he gave for being a postliberal stemmed from liberalisms’ over-intellectualizing of the faith, sentimental belief in progress, and watered down theology. But the worst feature of modernism, according to Fosdick, was its loss of nerve. “We cannot harmonize Christ himself with modern culture,” he declared. “What Christ does to modern culture” is not accommodate but “challenge it.”

THIS MAY BE WHY IT IS impossible to go beyond modernism. If liberals and postliberals can’t figure out that Christ’s work of redeeming and judging sinners is more challenging than simply being the moral compass of the culture, then both groups, whether followers of Troeltsch or Barth, miss the point. Christianity is not about culture, whether cheerleading for it or self-righteously condemning it. It’s about sin, grace, and preparing for the world to come. For that reason, the only way we will be convinced that significant theological developments are afoot in the mainline churches and seminaries is when the prefix “pre” comes into vogue, as in preliberalism.

Henry M. Lewis

Liberalism 201

From the April 2000 Nicotine Theological Journal:

What does it mean to be conservative in the United States? According to Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, being conservative has to do with the maintenance of “existing views, conditions, or institutions.” Conservatism’s synonyms are “traditional,” “moderate,” and “cautious” with respect to older norms of “taste, elegance, style, or manners.” This is all well and good, but such a definition, from an American dictionary no less, does not help much with the American form of conservatism. The reason is that, American exceptionalism aside, the United States is a novel phenomenon in the course of human history. Of course, antecedents for our form of government exist in ancient Greece and Rome. But the United States as they (anti-federal emphasis ours) emerged in the late eighteenth-century were hardly conservative since they abandoned the two institutions that had preserved some semblance of cultural and political order in the West since at least the fifth century, namely, crown and church. What is more, the freedoms won in the American colonies’ war for independence were also fairly novel from a European perspective – hence the Old-vs.-New-World rhetoric.

THE UNITED STATES GRANTED incredible intellectual, political and economic freedom to its citizens (slavery notwithstanding) and these freedoms were so unusual that in 1899 the papacy, one of those traditional institutions of European social order, condemned Americanism as fundamentally incompatible with Roman Catholic teaching and practice. What Pope Leo XIII regarded as hostile to Catholicism was not so much theological novelty, but the liberal ideology that advocated representative forms of government, free markets and the separation of church and state, an ideology that Pius IX had already condemned in his Syllabus of Errors. In other words, the very old and very traditional institution of the papacy condemned ideas and sentiments that today’s conservatives ironically regard as old and traditional.

THIS IS ANOTHER WAY OF saying that conservatism in the United States is something of an oxymoron. From a historical perspective, our conservatism is really liberalism since it is on the side of the things that nineteenth-century liberals championed – limited government, individual freedom and economic opportunity. This means that watching conservatives trying to deny their liberalism can be very confusing or very amusing.

No doubt, J. Gresham Machen would be another example of American conservatism’s strange ways. In 1926 he testified before the Congress of the United States against the formation of a Federal Department of Education. Machen’s reasons for opposing the proposal stemmed from his politics which were decidedly liberal. They may not have been all that unusual for a southern Democrat, which Machen was. But they must have sounded odd coming out of the mouth of a fundamentalist who during the same month that he appeared before Congress also testified before a committee of the northern Presbyterian Church and there did exactly what he criticized Congress of doing. In his remarks before the church Machen blamed liberalism for the controversy that was dividing Presbyterians and argued that preachers who could not affirm such doctrines as the virgin birth be barred from the Presbyterian communion. For Machen, liberalism was an entirely different religion. But before Congress, instead of blaming liberalism for America’s woes, he did the liberal thing of telling government officials to leave the American people alone.

SO WAS MACHEN GUILTY OF contradicting himself? Does ideological consistency, for instance, require theological conservatives to be conservative in all walks of life, including politics, economics, and culture? Could it even be that Machen’s apparently double-minded performance in 1926 is simply the dark side of conservatism in the United States? What, in fact, Machen’s apparent inconsistency shows is that political and religious liberalism are not synonymous. What is more, it suggests lessons for religious conservatives who think they are political conservatives. Whether the philosophy of limited government is liberal or conservative, it is not the easy road to the good life that many political conservatives think.

Machen’s reasons for testifying before Congress would likely delight the fans of Rush Limbaugh. The Princeton professor opposed the creation of a federal department of education because he opposed any increase in Washington’s powerful bureaucracy. The issue wasn’t education; it was politics. “Let us be perfectly clear about one thing,” he stated, “if liberty is not maintained with regard to education, there is no use trying to maintain it in any other sphere. If you give the bureaucrats the children, you might as well give them everything else.” Machen thereby established his political identity as a liberal, that is, as one fundamentally committed to the principle of limited government.

Machen’s politics started with the idea that government was a necessary evil. The state’s purpose was not “to produce blessedness or happiness” but rather to prevent “blessedness or happiness from being interfered with by wicked men.” The aim of government, then, was to sustain the good life of individuals and families, rather than making a people into a great nation. In a lengthy passage from an address given before Christian day school teachers and administrators, Machen outlined the political creed of all genuine liberals.

There are certain basic rights of the individual man and the individual family which must never be trampled under foot – never for any supposed advantage of the whole, never because of the supposed necessity of any emergency – certain basic rights like the right of personal freedom, the right of property, the right of privacy of the home, the real freedom of speech and of the press. I believe in the specifically American idea in government – not a nation divided for purposes of administrative convenience into a number of units called states, but a number of indestructible states, each with its inalienable rights, each with its distinctive features, with its own virtues to be cultivated by its own citizens, with its own defects not to be remedied at all unless remedied by its own citizens, and, on the other hand, a Federal government not in possession of any general and unexpressed sovereignty but carefully limited to powers expressly granted it by a Constitution which was not of its own making.

Machen’s commitment to limited government was his chief reason for opposing the proposed federal department of education. Governmental control and regulation of education implied that children “belong to the State, that their education must be provided for by the State in a way that makes for the State’s welfare,” an assumption that undermined the legitimate authority of parents. Protecting the rightful authority of local powers, what Protestants used to call, lesser magistrates, was the other piece of Machen’s commitment to limited government. In other words, he opposed federal intrusion into the affairs of other duly constituted authorities, from families, neighborhoods, and counties, up to the state governments that comprised the United States of America. For this reason, Machen saw in federal programs like a department of education or the Child-Labor Amendment, the same sort of centralization and consolidation of political power that Germany was exhibiting under National Socialism and the Soviet Union under Communism. The American alternative to such efforts was not to centralize and consolidate power in a more progressive fashion, but to avoid centralization altogether and limit national government by dispersing power to a host of local authorities.

OF COURSE, DECENTRALIZING power – what we today call devolution – would mean less uniformity and even less efficiency. But Machen would not blink in the face of these negative consequences. He even went so far as to say that inefficiency and diversity were good things in and of themselves. Although Machen was not at all happy with many of the individual states’ policies, he was far more comfortable with forty-eight governments having a spoon in the pot rather than allowing the federal government to be the sole chef. In fact, he thought there was “a great safeguard” in the multiplicity of local governments. What is more, Machen believed that such multiplicity would foster greater competition, another benefit of decentralization. He held that “there ought to be the most unlimited competition – competition between one state and another.” If such competition led to inefficiency so much the better. Efficiency was no magic wand. Instead, if directed to harmful ends it was equally destructive. As he told senators and congressmen, “a more uniform and efficient system of public common school education . . . is the worst fate into which any country can fall.”

THIS IS A PLACE WHERE contemporary conservatives would likely be uncomfortable with political liberalism since many on the right not only want to reduce the hold of the federal government on educational policy and funding, but also think they know what a good education looks like and desire to see the blessings of such a curriculum extended to all of America. But Machen did not flinch from the consequences of limited government. Local control in the service of liberty meant all people having a say in the way they lived their lives. And this meant a greater chance of diversity in all walks of life. Of course, the distribution of power to local authorities would not work out automatically for the good of the nation. What Machen thought to be in the best interests of America was a wide spectrum of families and local communities determining their own affairs, not the dissolving of familial and regional idiosyncracies for the sake of national interest.

Today, Machen’s views would not make sense to many Calvinists. That’s because they follow the older Puritan view that insists on commonly held convictions being the best way to preserve social harmony, and on true religion as the bedrock for good government. Machen clearly departed from this tradition, and this is partly explained by the legacy of the Puritan conception of government in postbellum America. Ever since the end of the Civil War, northern Protestants had been advocating various ecumenical and interdenominational endeavors in order to work together more efficiently, establish a united Protestant front against the centralized and uniform power of America’s growing Roman Catholic population, and extend the virtues of Anglo-American morality to all classes, races, and regions. But even if such uniformity and power were in Protestant-friendly hands, Machen’s liberal instincts resisted.

If some would accuse Machen of leaving religion out of politics, his defense was that injecting morality into public debates is not the only form religious influence can take. Machen appealed to aspects of theology other than the Decalogue, such as liberty of conscience, the limits of church power, Presbyterian polity, and sphere sovereignty. The Westminster Confession’s teaching on liberty of conscience supplied a hermeneutic of suspicion ever watchful for abuses of power. Even in cases where authority was legitimate, such as in the spheres of the home, church and state, the doctrine of sphere sovereignty implied that these authorities had limits and could not go beyond them. State control of education was a flagrant violation of sphere sovereignty. But so was parochial or church-based schooling since the family was the sole institution responsible for the training of children.

PRESBYTERIAN POLITY WAS another piece in Machen’s political liberalism. Unlike episcopal forms of government, Presbyterians and Reformed locate church power, not in the hands of one officer or bishop, but rather vest it in a series of graded courts, the membership of which consists of pastors and elders holding equal rank. Presbyterian polity protects the rights of lower courts against those of the higher, and contributed to Machen’s wariness of higher courts usurping the powers of local bodies. In other words, Presbyterianism is the form of church government most compatible with such sociological notions as mediating structures or the Roman Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity. The idea behind both concepts is that large structures like those of centralized government are clumsy if not ruthless in addressing the variety of circumstances and problems of ordinary individuals, families, congregations and communities. Accordingly, the state should not perform tasks which other institutions and communities can perform for themselves. In the words of Pius XI’s Quadragesimo anno, “Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.”

IRONICALLY, IT HAS BEEN Roman Catholics in the twentieth century, those who affirm an infallible centralized authority, who have done the most to explore the political implications of subsidiarity. In contrast, twentieth-century American Protestants, whose very denominational diversity vindicates the principle of subsidiarity, lament their lack of uniformity and pine for a Protestant pope who will give them the order and stability necessary for greater influence.

Be that as it may, a commitment to liberalism in the classic political sense need not mean an equal commitment to individualism. One of the reasons why Machen’s liberalism fails to resonate with contemporary Calvinists is that they do not see how his politics are rooted in the notion of legitimate authority. It was not that Machen believed all governmental power was always harmful. Rather, it was when government overreached its proper bounds that Machen expressed alarm. The real problem with the growth of the centralized power is that it breeds individual rights. The tension of modern politics is not between individuals and the compelling interest of the state. Instead, as Mark C. Henrie argues, the power of the state has risen in direct proportion to growth of individual rights. “For the rights that have been ‘recognized’ by the modern liberal state are not so much rights against the state as they are rights against other social bodies that used to have some measure of authority in the lives of men and women.” Machen’s plea for liberty, in fact, was an argument for the freedom of legitimate authorities to exercise power in their proper spheres. For him it was the essence of paternalism to let government do good things that involved it in spheres where it should not go.

THE LESSONS OF MACHEN’S liberalism are many. But the one that sticks out during a presidential primary season when neo-Calvinists are jumping on the George-W.-Bush bandwagon because of his born-again experience and their own biblical convictions is that it’s okay for religious conservatives to be liberal. This is another way of saying that theology does not determine politics, especially if we keep in mind that theology is a little more than morality. World magazine recently received the brush off from the Times’, William Safire, for the publication’s hatchet-job of John McCain. Marvin Olasky, who edits World and serves as an advisor to Bush, lamely responded that World covers the news from a “biblical perspective.” This means, “among other things, that we take personal morality seriously.” But so does William Safire who thought World’s coverage was immoral. Could it be that a biblical perspective on politics would attend to such matters as scale, power, economics, and self-interest, not just the Sixth Commandment (i.e. abortion) and the Seventh Commandment (i.e. drunkenness and Cindy McCain’s stock in Anheuser Busch)? Machen’s politics would surely indicate so. But as long as religious conservatives continue to evaluate candidates and issues simply through a moral squint, they provide positive proof, contrary to their own assertion, that religion is irrelevant to all areas of life. Morality may, but the doctrines of the Trinity, creation, providence, and eschatology do not have much to say about NAFTA, HMO’s or NATO.

IRONICALLY, BY REDUCING Christianity to ethics, today’s religious right turns out to offer little more than the old religious left which performed a similar reductionism in its effort to shape American public life and show the relevance of Christianity.

Liberalism is a hard subject to learn.

Townsend P. Levitt