From What Machen Tried to Spare American Protestants

Walter McDougall reminds of the synergy between progressive theology and progressive politics:

Historians disagree on how to date and define the Progressive Era except to say it had everything to do with reform.[16] By the 1890s it was apparent that American institutions couldn’t cope with the modern problems thrown up by industrialization, urbanization, and immigration, including corporate trusts, labor strife, corruption, big city machines, public health, women’s rights, and more. To elites in the academy, government, business, and the clergy it seemed the modern solution to those modern problems was scientific management by credentialed experts. As one scholar put it, “The Progressives believed in a … national government directing the destinies of the nation at home and abroad. They had little but contempt for the strict construction of conservative judges, who would restrict the power of the national government to act against social evils and to extend the blessings of democracy to less favored lands. The real enemy was particularism, state rights, limited government.”[17]

Note the words “believed in,” “contempt,” “social evils,” and “real enemy.” We think of Progressivism as a secular movement inspired by the natural and social sciences of that era. Why then does a language of faith and good vs. evil come so easily to the historian of Progressivism and why does it go unnoticed by most readers? The short answer is that secularism is a myth or, to put it another way, if you don’t believe in sectarian religion you will believe in some species of civil religion.

For a hundred years after 1789 Americans were not conscious of a potential conflict between their mostly Protestant faith and their civil faith because the former encouraged republican virtue and the latter ensured free exercise of religion. But under the stress of the Civil War and the onslaught of modernism (Charles Darwin first published in 1859) the main-line Protestant churches surrendered their prophetic role to the civil religion, surrendered their faith in an inerrant Bible, and surrendered cultural authority to … the Progressives! That is why, in the words of my colleague Bruce Kuklick, “We should associate Progressivism most with the rise of a more relaxed Protestantism in higher education after the Civil War.” Ivy League universities, new ones like Chicago, Johns Hopkins, and Stanford, and land-grant universities devoted themselves to secular research on the German model, and the knowledge generated in science and engineering, sociology, political science, and economics easily persuaded politicians that cultural authority must pass from the clergy to the intelligentsia, who knew how to “manage God’s universe for the benefit of mankind.”[18]

Progressives meant to break up capitalist concentrations of power and wealth, purge federal, state, and municipal governments of corruption, and protect and empower the people. We know their accomplishments including trust-busting, the Pure Food and Drug Act, civil service reform, the income tax, direct election of senators, the Federal Reserve bank, women’s suffrage, and Prohibition. But these were also the heyday of Jim Crow laws. There was no contradiction in that because the science and social science of that era endorsed racial hierarchy, Social Darwinism, and “the propriety of American imperialism.”[19]

What has all that to do with “a more relaxed Protestantism”? The answer lies in the parallel Social Gospel movement whose preachers imagined their modern spirituality was the counterpart to modern science. “The law of progress is the same in both,” said Lyman Abbott, whose “applied Christianity” blessed philanthropic cooperation with Progressive government. The Social Gospel dismissed the Augustinian distinction between the City of Man and City of God.[20] It stressed collective reform over personal salvation. It made peace with evolution, put its faith in progress, and imagined good government could perfect society over time. In Walter Rauschenbusch’s exultation, “The social gospel registers the fact that for the first time in history the spirit of Christianity form a working partnership with real social and psychological science.”[21]

The origins of liberal theology are legion: the rationalism of the Enlightenment, the “Higher Criticism” of the Bible, Darwinian evolution, discoveries in geology and paleontology that seemed to debunk the Genesis account of Creation, psychological theory that seemed to debunk the concept of sin, and technological wonders that seemed to leave nothing beyond mankind’s reach. In the intellectual universe of liberal pastors Christ ceased to be a redemptive messiah and became a prophet of social uplift. Some post-millennialists even believed America was called to build a literal heaven on earth in preparation for the Second Coming and thousand-year reign of the saints.

The American Civil Religion implications of the Progressive Social Gospel were profound.[22] The cross got confused with the flag, which preachers like Josiah Strong and politicians like Beveridge made into a veritable fetish. “We cannot retreat from any soil where Providence has unfurled our banner … for liberty and civilization are God’s promises fulfilled, and the flag must henceforth be the symbol and sign to all mankind.”[23] William Guthrie, a University of Chicago professor, even preached a “religion of Old Glory” and “evolutional view of good and evil,” even prophesying the Stars and Stripes would become “the flag of a Federation of Nations” and “the Ideal of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.”[24]

In sum, the Social Gospel was the marriage bed wherein mainline Protestantism mated with the civil religion. Their offspring was a newly Progressive ACR that no longer preached virtue, prudence, humility, and self-reliance, and instead preached power, glory, pride, and paternalism at home and abroad.

Reading McDougall (and Machen) gives a new meaning to woke.

If More Congregationalists Read Machen

They might understand the difference between a Baptist and Presbyterian. But to UCC pastor, Peter Laarman, Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne’s proposal to re-brand evangelicalism (post-Trump) is a fool’s errand:

Campolo and Claiborne even get their history wrong. What they regard as the first successful re-branding of Bible-centered “orthodox” American Christianity in the early 20th century was in fact a complete failure, just as their proposed “Red Letter” re-branding will be this era.

They cite Carl F.H. Henry as the principal re-brander in the 1930s, but Carl Henry was not really a force to be reckoned with prior to the 1940s and 1950s. Moreover, Carl Henry’s beliefs were immediately understood to be contaminated by the same poisons that had fatally tainted Fundamentalism: i.e., a rigid view of biblical inerrancy (including a literalist view of the miracle stories), insistence that mere individual conversion fulfills God’s will, complete acceptance of the old patriarchal frame, etc.

It would be hard to find any daylight at all between the theological commitments of Carl Henry and those of J. Gresham Machen, who was heralded during the 1930s as the single brightest light among the Fundamentalists.

See what he did there? Machen signals fundamentalism (and Laarman didn’t even give Orthodox Presbyterians a trigger warning). Therefore, invoking Carl Henry is really to say you haven’t progressed beyond fundamentalism (yuck!), which makes Campolo and Claiborne even more clueless from a mainline Protestant perspective than even progressive evangelicals can fathom.

The problem is that you can see separation between Machen and Henry if you actually care more about theology, sacraments, and polity than about being in the American mainstream. Henry may have been a Calvinist on soteriology but his Reformedness didn’t go much beyond that (plus his high view of the Bible). Henry also refused to baptize babies, which puts Machen closer to Laarman than to Henry. And then Machen took Presbyterian polity seriously — hello, his church refused interdenominational cooperation in settings like the National Association of Evangelicals where Henry was an intellectual guru.

But that kind of Protestant fussiness only comes up fundamentalist for mainliners. Even though telling the difference between Congregationalists and mainline Presbyterians is impossible (and something you’re not supposed to do in polite Protestant ecumenical company), if you do did in your heels on denominational identity you are merely a separatist. You lack the good graces and tolerant bonhomie of mainstream, well-connected Protestantism. Never mind that after 135 years of ecumenical activism, the UCC and the PCUSA remain — get this — separate. And by all means don’t notice that Congregationalists and Presbyterians descend from the mother of all church separations — 1054, the year that the church Christ founded (as some put it) split up.

Lots of separations out there in church history, but the UCC puts “United” in church unity. As if.

If More Rod Drehers Read Machen

Once again, Rod explains the Benedict Option:

Do you think that is generally true about our society and our civilization — that people, whether they are conscious of it or not, and operating in a sauve qui peut (save who you can) panic? To be perfectly clear about the Ben Op: it is based on the idea that Christianity itself within the West is facing this state of affairs, and that believing Christians, therefore, have to build new structures and reinforce old ones to last through the religious crash that is already happening.

If Rod had read Machen and knew anything about the 1920s contest within U.S. Protestantism over modernism, he would know that some Christians were thinking the West faced a difficult set of affairs — wait for it — a century ago.

Should we really welcome someone who is so late to the party?

If More Anglicans Read Machen

Would they avoid the problem that Alan Jacobs describes here (for Anglicans who read Machen see this)?

What should Anglicans do with a gay couple that wants to have their baby baptized? Jacobs thinks the child should be baptized:

[T]o deny people the sacraments is to deny them one of the primary means by which they can receive the enlightening and empowering grace by which they can come to know God and follow Him. For the Anglican with a high sacramental theology, it is to deprive them of the “spiritual food and drink” that should be our regular diet. This strikes me as a massively dangerous thing to do. How can we expect people to think as they should and act as they should if we are denying them access to this empowering grace? If we could think and act as mature Christians without regular access to the sacraments, then what need do we have for those sacraments?

But how has the enlightening power of grace worked out in the lives of this gay couple which Jacobs admits has disregarded church teaching and Scriptural imperatives on marriage and sex? It hasn’t worked well and that is why Jacobs thinks the problem is not really with the sacrament but with the failure of Anglican catechesis (in effect a failure of ministry that includes baptism and catechesis):

It is extremely unlikely that any of the people involved have been well-catechized in the Faith. We all need to face up to the fact that almost no churches in the Anglican tradition, conservative as well as liberal, have taken catechesis seriously for a long time. To deny the sacraments to people the Church has failed to catechize is to make others suffer for the failings of the Church’s leadership.

Almost everyone in our society — with the exception of monastics, the Amish, and a few fundamentalist Protestants — has been deeply and persistently catechized by the mass media into a very different model of sexuality than the Christian and biblical one. We should have the same compassion for them as we would for people who have been raised in a brainwashing cult.

So you continue to do what Anglicans have done for a long time — baptize without catechesis? Or do you admit that for baptism to take, it needs the work of instruction in the faith?

[W]e should remember that the task of re-catechizing the Church is going to take a very long time — decades, perhaps centuries — and in the meantime we must be generous and loving to those who have been brainwashed by the world, and not prevent those who desire it from taking the true spiritual food and drink on which we were meant to live.

Why doesn’t Jacobs see how much his sacramental theology really depends on catechetical theology? Or that the ministry of the sacraments cannot be isolated from a larger understanding of pastoral theology? Is it because he doesn’t want to admit that Puritans had a point about the Elizabethan Church?

Inside the Bubble, All White Christians Look the Same

President-elect Trump’s pick for Department of Education, Betsy Devos, has deep ties to the Christian Reformed Church:

She is daughter of Edgar Prince, the founder of Prince Corp., an automobile parts supplier based in Holland, Mich. While her mother, Elsa, and her husband’s parents have supported anti-gay marriage efforts in the past, Betsy Devos has focused primarily on education.

DeVos has been member and an elder at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, which was formerly led by popular author Rob Bell. Former president of Fuller Seminary Rich Mouw said he served on a committee with her to replace Bell, and he said DeVos is heavily influenced by Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch writer and Calvinist theologian.

“I wouldn’t consider her to be right wing,” Mouw said. “She’s a classic free-enterprise conservative. She takes public life, art and politics very seriously.”

Middle-class work ethic – check

Anti-gay marriage – check

Abraham Kuyper – check

Rob Bell – what the bleep?

Root Root Root for the Home Team

A return to Called to Communion led me to a review of Rodney Stark’s book, Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History. Surprise, surprise, Casey Chalk finds the book valuable (even if his encouragement leans more heavily on faith than reason):

I have examined only two of the ten topics Stark addresses in this review of the historical data regarding a number of contentious issues pertaining to Catholic history. Readers will likely find all the chapters worthy of attention, including those on anti-Semitism (think “Hitler’s Pope”), the Dark Ages (did the Church seek to limit intellectual development?), slavery (how complicit was the Church in New World chattel slavery?), and Protestant Modernity (Weber’s “Protestant work ethic” thesis mentioned above). Stark has done the Catholic Church a great service in presenting a thorough dismantling of many anti-Catholic narratives, as well as offering analysis as to how and why this happened (the answer, in Stark’s review of the history of historians, is overt anti-Catholic bigotry). Even those outside the parameters of the Catholic Church should welcome this study, as it enables us to move beyond the usual sniping characteristic of so many church history debates, and pursue a more thorough, historically faithful ecumenical dialogue.

Have historians engaged in excess? Sure. But pointing that out does not right the wrongs committed by the Roman Catholic Church or its followers. As Eric Smith pointed out in his blog post/review, apologists like Chalk still have some ‘splainin’ to do:

Stark’s argument in many of them can be summarized as “it wasn’t as bad as you think.” Chapter 4: The dark ages weren’t as bad as you think. Chapter 5: The Crusades weren’t as bad as you think. Chapter 6: The Inquisition wasn’t as bad as you think. Chapter 7: The church’s anti-science views weren’t as bad as you think. Chapter 8: Slavery wasn’t as bad as you think. Even when Stark has good points to make (“dark ages” is a misleading and unhelpful category, the Inquisition wasn’t insatiably bloodthirsty always and everywhere, and the church opposed slavery at many points), the reader finds himself disagreeing with Stark, because of the questionable assumptions and poor evidence he brings to the table. He starts most chapters by building a straw man. He presents what he imagines is commonly held knowledge, and then proceeds to poke holes in the poor scarecrow. This is a compelling literary device, since it draws the reader into Stark’s indignation. “Everyone believes that the Catholic church loves slavery!” (I’m paraphrasing). “But it turns out that the Catholic church doesn’t love slavery! This is satisfying as an organizational structure, but it leaves out and excuses many instances in which the church was complicit, was turning the other way, was not keeping its hands clean. It obscures the actions of a few rogue individuals, which Stark almost always concedes while claiming that they didn’t stand for “official” church policy. This structure makes Stark read like an apologist for colonialism, slavery, violence, and ignorance–things I doubt he would claim for himself. And ultimately this book makes Stark read like an apologist for conservatism broadly construed, since somehow, the true enemy almost always seems to turn out to be liberals. (And Voltaire…Stark hates Voltaire). Examples of questionable claims could be multiplied from later chapters–Protestantism is most properly characterized by Max Weber’s work on capitalism, witches who were actually practicing magic probably had it coming, and the church was an innocent victim of the French Revolution–but this review is already too long.

All of which goes to the frequent claim made on behalf of Roman Catholicism by the apologists. It’s the oldest, most historic, church that Jesus founded. History is good! But when historical inquiry reveals aspects of church life less wholesome, then it’s the bias of historians. Is that anti-intellectual, anti-Enlightenment, anti-Protestant, anti-anti-Catholic? Whichever anti it is, it’s just as much a bias as anti-Catholicism is made out to be.

One way around the problem of church errors is to chalk them up to the limits of time and place. Did Roman Catholic officials treat Jews well in the thirteenth century? Not really, but who did? Given the possibilities of human imagination available at the time, to expect 13th-century Roman Catholics to think like moderns is anachronistic. They were creatures of their context and hard pressed to do any better.

But there’s the rub for the proponents of papal audacity. Isn’t the teaching of the magisterium about papal authority as much the creation of historical circumstance — the need for the Bishop of Rome to assert autonomy against European kings, or the collusion of European princes with the Bishop of Rome to outmaneuver a political rival — as the Fourth Lateran Council’s directives about Jews?

All the help of Aristotle’s logic or Aquinas’s scholasticism will not free Bryan and the Jasons from that riddle.

Protestantism as Trump

While Pope Francis is commemorating Martin Luther in Sweden, Karl Keating is doing what apologists do — deriding Protestantism:

We commemorate December 7, the “day that will live in infamy,” because it was the prelude to a long and costly war. Again, there was heroism, but we wish that heroism had never needed to be called up.

We commemorate Bastille Day and the October Revolution not because what came from them, the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution, were good but precisely because they were evil, and we want to remember that evil so that it won’t return in another guise. . . .

I see nothing to celebrate in the Protestant Reformation. It was the greatest disaster the West suffered over the last millennium. It brought theological confusion, political turmoil, and decades of war. The religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries killed about three percent of the world’s population, the same proportion that died in World War II. The religious wars would not have occurred had the Reformation not occurred.

But unlike the critics of Trump, Keating acknowledges that the other candidate has problems:

Much was wrong in the Catholic Church of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Personal morality was lax (though not matching today’s laxity), and corruption was widespread among the clergy and was particularly scandalous the higher one’s gaze went up the hierarchical ladder. One should keep in mind, though, that, however bad things were in the decades before Luther took out his hammer, they had been worse in the tenth century. If there were a few “bad popes” in Luther’s era, there were worse popes, and more of them, five or six centuries earlier.

The Church of the tenth century desperately needed reform, not revolution, though it might have fallen into the latter if reform hadn’t come about. But reform did come about, and the Church not only soldiered on but prospered. The result was the High Middle Ages, the era in which Catholic principles most effectively (but still inadequately) undergirded Western society.

By the turn of the 1500s a once-again-complacent Christendom was in trouble. It again needed reform, but what it got was the Reformation.

What Keating doesn’t answer is whether his communion ever experienced reform, or if his very different interpretation of the Reformation compared to Pope Francis is another indication that calls for reform, like the poor, are always with us.