Religious Freedom — For Everyone

That is what Russell Moore says is one of his biggest policy priorities. Religious freedom certainly is on the lips of most U.S. Christians.

But when you hear someone like Peter Lillback, you begin to think that religious liberty is only for religious Americans (thanks to our Texas correspondent):

A careful reading of the First Amendment shows us that the concern that motivated our Founding Fathers was to protect the conscience from governmental encroachments. Twenty iterations of the language for the First Amendment ensued in the congressional debate before the final version was sent to the House on Sept. 24, 1789. Not once in any of those 20 attempts to write the First Amendment did the phrase “separation of church and state” appear. The word conscience, although it does not appear in the final form, occurs in 12 of these iterations.

Clearly, the drafters of the First Amendment wanted to protect conscience from government, not protect government from religion. This is where public theology comes in, calling for the application of religious principles to every area of life, including politics.

Washington called religion and morality “indispensable pillars” of America’s political happiness. In his farewell address, he noted, “experience has taught us that morality is impossible for a people unless it is brought to us through religious teaching.”

But what about freedom for gays and lesbians and trannies? And how in the world to you bring religion into politics and allow freedom for people to play football on Sunday, get a divorce on non-biblical grounds, or be exempt from police following home a guy who has just picked up a girl at the local bar?

In other words, lots of religious conservatives want protection from government so that they can use government to take away freedoms (okay, call it moral licentiousness) from other Americans.

That’s why the rhetoric of religious liberty is not simply hollow but disingenuous. If only Lillback and other anti-naked public square types were libertarians like J. Gresham Machen:

Against such tyranny, I do cherish some hope that Jews and Christians, Roman Catholics and Protestants, if they are lovers of liberty, may present a united front. I am for my part an inveterate propagandist; bu the same right of propaganda which I desire for myself I want to see also in the possession of others. What absurdities are uttered in the name of a pseudo-Americanism today! People object ot the Roman Catholics, for example, because they engage in “propaganda.” But why should they not engage in propaganda? And how should we have any respect for them if, holding the view which they do hold — that outside the Roman church there is no salvation — they did not engage in propaganda, first, last, and all the time? Clearly they ahve a right to do so, and clearly we have a right to do the same. (“Relations between Christians and Jews”)

I see right away that folks like Moore and Lillback will read Machen and think, exactly. We want freedom for religious groups. Seldom do religious conservatives admit, thought, that they are advocating freedom for that which they oppose, meaning, that I suppose Lillback and Moore do not favor Roman Catholicism but are on the side of Luther and Calvin.

So if they can advocate freedom for that with they disagree, then where do they stop? If freedom for the wrong religion, why not freedom for the wrong morality? (And get this, if everything starts from one’s presuppositions, isn’t LBGT really a religion? And so isn’t a case for religious liberty a case for LBGT on Van Tillian grounds?)

The test then is how wide are you willing to draw the circle of freedom. Here’s how wide Machen’s circle was:

Tolerance, moreover, means not merely tolerance for that with which we are agreed but also tolerance for that to which we are most thoroughly opposed. A few years ago there was passed in New York the abominable Lusk Law requiring private teachers in any subjects whatever to obtain a state license. It was aimed, I believe, at the socialists, and primarily at the Rand School in New York City. Now certainly I have no sympathy with socialism. Because of its hostility to freedom, it seems to me to be just about the darkest thought that has ever entered the mind of man. But certainly such opposition to socialism did not temper in the slightest degree my opposition to that preposterous law. Tolerance, to me, does not mean merely tolerance for what I hold to be good, but also tolerance for what I hold to be abominably bad. (Ibid)

Mencken Day 2016

After a visit to Charm City for Mencken festivities, the man remains the king of charm and truth (general revelation sense). What follows is from his coverage of the 1928 presidential election which witnessed the first Roman Catholic run for the White House on a major party ticket (that would be Al Smith):

I daresay the extent of the bigotry prevailing in America, as it has been revealed by the campaign, has astounded a great many Americans, and perhaps even made them doubt the testimony of their own eyes and ears. This surprise is not in itself surprising, for Americans of one class seldom know anything about Americans of other classes. What the average native yokel believes about the average city man is probably nine-tenths untrue, and what the average city man believes about the average yokel is almost as inaccurate.

A good part of this ignorance is probably due to the powerful effect of shibboleths. Every American is taught in school that all Americans are free, and so he goes on believing it his whole life — overlooking the plain fact that no Negro is really free in the South, and no miner in Pennsylvania, and no radical in any of the dozen great States. He hears of equality before the law, and he accepts it as a reality, though it exists nowhere, and there are Federal laws which formally repudiate it. In the same way he is taught that religious toleration prevails among us, and uncritically swallows the lie. No such thing really exists. No such thing has ever existed.

This campaign has amply demonstrated the fact. It has brought bigotry out into the open, and revealed its true proportions. It has shown that millions of Americans, far from being free and tolerant men, are the slaves of an ignorant, impudent and unconscionable clergy. It has dredged up theological ideas so preposterous that they would make an intelligent Zulu laugh, and has brought the proof that they are cherished by nearly half the whole population, and by at least four-fifths outside the cities. It has made it plain that this theology is not merely a harmless aberration of the misinformed, like spiritualism, chiropractic of Christian Science, but the foundation of a peculiar way of life, bellicose, domineering, brutal and malignant — in brief, the complete antithesis of any recognizable form of Christianity. And it has shown, finally, that this compound of superstition and hatred has enough steam behind it to make one of the candidates for the Presidency knuckle to it and turn it upon his opponent — basely to be sure, but probably wisely. (“The Eve of Armageddon,” Nov. 5, 1928)

I wonder if neo- and New Calvinists with all that w-w and earnestness and hope for a Christian society would have voted for the Democrat and Roman Catholic Smith. J. Gresham Machen, a life-long Democrat, did. Part of the reason was 2k.

Do Historians Do This?

Last night’s conversation at Presbycast about a lot of things Presbyterian, together with current research on Roman Catholic debates during the 1980s about the church and American identity, got me thinking about whether I, as a historian of J. Gresham Machen and the OPC get away with writing this kind of evaluation of the PCUSA. What follows is from Jay Dolan’s The American Catholic Experience (1985) [Dolan taught history for many years at Notre Dame]. Here’s his description of what happened in the United States after Vatican II:

Another change that transformed the religious world of Catholics was a new understanding of sin. The traditional concept of sin was grounded in a system of laws, some of which were rooted in Scripture or the natural law, while others were promulgated by the church. The new Catholic morality argued for a more personal, less legalistic, approach to sin. The virtue of love became primary, together with the individual conscience. The implications of this shift, publicized in both scholarly and popular works, was tremendous. Perhaps most dramatic was the decline in confession. A 1974 study found that only 17 percent of the Catholics surveyed went to confession monthly, compared to 37 percent in 1963. Soon form followed function, and reconciliation rooms, where priest and penitent could interact face to face, replaced the dark confessional box. Penitential services became popular, and on some occasions a public general absolution replaced private confessions. (434).

For those who say nothing changed after Vatican II, Dolan is a contrary voice and a recognized authority on Roman Catholicism in the United States to boot (not a blogger or apologist).

But that’s not the primary reason for unearthing this quote. The point is this: what if I wrote this about the PCUSA after the OPC’s formation? What if I asserted in a book published by a trade press (Doubleday) that the PCUSA had become liberal, that it changed its theology on sin and salvation, and that these departures from historic Presbyterian practices constituted a “new” Presbyterianism, or Protestantism for a “new age.”

Of course, while wearing my OPC hat, I think that about the PCUSA. But I can’t get away with that in the mainstream publishing world without running the risk of being ostracized from the profession as the Gary North of American historians. Call me a coward. But historians of American religion cannot make certain claims about communions everyone knows to be theologically accurate because they don’t want to admit that the fundamentalists had a point.

It could also be a function of 2k. What is acceptable for churchmen’s judgments is not so for professional historical scholarship. We don’t always succeed but we do try to keep theological judgments from informing historical analysis. Sometimes that’s artificial. But it’s also the case that professional academics is not the place to settle ecclesiastical conflicts.

Still, why do those academic calculations not apply to Jay Dolan, the history of Roman Catholicism in the United States, or Doubleday? Is it a function of academic seniority? Once you acquire tenure you can write whatever you want?

Or is it that what Dolan said is actually good history and that converts and apologists have yet to catch up with the church they’ve joined and celebrated?

Machen Day 2016: Before Jimmy and Bunk

My father, who died in 1915 at the age of eighty-eight, and my mother, who died in 1931 at the age of eighty-two, were both Christians; from them I learned what Christianity is and how it differs from certain modern substitutes. I also learned that Christian conviction can go hand in hand with a broad outlook upon life and with the pursuit of learning.

My father was a lawyer, whose practice had been one of the best in the State of Maryland. But the success which he attained at the bar did not serve in the slightest to make him narrow in his interests. All his life he was a tremendous reader, and reading to him was never a task. I suppose it never occurred to him to read merely from a sense of duty; he read because he loved to read. He would probably have been greatly amused if anyone had called him a “scholar”; yet his knowledge of Latin and Greek and English and French literature (to say nothing of Italian, which he took up for the fun of it when he was well over eighty and was thus in a period of life which in other men might be regarded as old age) would put our professional scholars to shame. . . .

He was a profoundly Christian man, who had read widely and meditated earnestly upon the really great things of our holy faith. His Christian experience was not of the emotional or pietistical type, but was a quiet stream whose waters ran deep. He did not adopt that “Touch not, taste not, handle not” attitude toward the good things or the wonders of God’s world which too often today causes earnest Christian people to consecrate to God only an impoverished man, but in his case true learning and true piety went hand in hand. Every Sunday morning and Sunday night, and on Wednesday night, he was in his place in church, and a similar faithfulness characterized all his service as an elder in the Presbyterian church. At that time the Protestant churches had not yet become political lobbies, and Presbyterian elders were chosen not because they were “outstanding me [or women] in the community,” but because they were men of God. I love to think of that old Presbyterian session in the Franklin Street Presbyterian Church of Baltimore. It is a refreshing memory in these days of ruthless and heartless machinery in the church. God grant that the memory may some day become actuality again and that the old Christian virtues may be revived! (J. Gresham Machen, “Christianity in Conflict,” Selected Shorter Writings, 548, 549)

May Institutions Confess Sins of Persons?

The overture to the PCA General Assembly on racism continues to intrigue if only because this is conceivably a problem just as much for the OPC as for our sister denomination. After all, J. Gresham Machen was no integrationist but held a view of blacks (typical at the time) that anyone today would consider not simply micro but macroracist. So I wonder if the PCA adopts the following overture, will it also petition the OPC to repent for Machen’s sins (for starters):

Therefore be it resolved, that the 44th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America does recognize, confess, condemn and repent of corporate and historical sins, including those committed during the Civil Rights era, and continuing racial sins of ourselves and our fathers such as the segregation of worshipers by race; the exclusion of persons from Church membership on the basis of race; the exclusion of churches, or elders, from membership in the Presbyteries on the basis of race; the teaching that the Bible sanctions racial segregation and discourages inter-racial marriage; the participation in and defense of white supremacist organizations; and the failure to live out the gospel imperative that “love does no wrong to a neighbor” (Romans 13:10) . . .

One of the arguments made in defense of overtures like this one is that as the continuation of the Presbyterian Church US, the PCA is institutionally in continuity with the views on race that afflicted its southern Presbyterian forebears:

why should we confess for the sins of a church that we were not a part of? Frankly, I do not really understand this objection. The PCA is a continuing denomination; we claim to continue the PCUS. We must publicly confess and repent for sins of those whom we share a covenantal relationship with. God holds our covenant community responsible for our actions, even our sins, collectively. That’s how God works. We must confess for our failures as a church during the Civil Rights Movement and wherever we’ve sinned.

If you peel back the onion layers of institutional/covenantal ties, where do you stop? Why for instance do the overtures not include slavery since the PCUS and the PCUSA both had church members that owned slaves?

In fact, when it comes to institutional continuity, one could argue that PCA is good since the PCUS adopted measures to condemn segregation and approve integration. In his book on the origins of the PCA, Sean Lucas observes:

In 1954, the PCUS General Assembly adopted a report that affirmed “that enforced segregation of the races is discrimination which is out of harmony with Christian theology and ethics” and that urged southern Presbyterian colleges, campgrounds, and churches to be open to all, regardless of race. (For A Continuing Church, 121)

Of course, resolutions like this prompted conservatives in the PCUS who also eventually led in forming the PCA, to oppose the centralization of church power and ecumenism. Some of the opposition also came from sessions and presbyteries. But as for institutional succession, PCA officers could regard themselves as standing in line with the PCUS’s disapproval of racism and segregation.

In fact, throughout Sean Lucas’ five-part series on race and the roots of the PCA, the overwhelming examples of questionable views about race come not from the institutional church but from persons or periodicals. Here is how Lucas describes G. Aiken Taylor:

He told Nelson Bell, “I don’t like agitation on the social question from either side. I am not an integrationist, neither am I a segregationist. My position on this issue is that a view point of whatever kind should not be made the criterion for determining the place or the worth of a man…or a church paper.” In reply, Bell assured him that there was a range of opinions on segregation among the board of directors for the magazine and that he would not be required to hold to a particular party line. That said, the older man also counseled him not to push his more moderate racial views either: “I feel you would be utterly foolish to come to the Journal as editor and make race an issue–certainly at this juncture. There are so many more important things which need to be faced.” As it would happen, Taylor’s position on race, as evidenced in his writing and editorial practice, would largely harmonize with Bell’s own racial views: downplaying forced segregation, dismayed by outside agitators who stirred up the racial issue, and concerned not to let racial politics divert attention from the largely doctrinal and social issues of the day.

Sometimes presbyteries might weigh in but in one case the condemnation concerned rioting not integration:

In 1961, East Alabama Presbytery declared itself against the mob violence that engulfed the Freedom Riders in Birmingham and Montgomery: “We express our deep regret and emphatic disapproval of mob violence for whatever cause.”

Even then, only four years later the PCUS took action that would seem to give its Presbyterian successor cover from charges of racism:

When the 1965 PCUS General Assembly endorsed a range of Civil Rights activities, including peaceful demonstrations and sit-ins, over sixty commissioners filed a dissent. Nelson Bell presented it to the assembly, arguing that “some of the methods sanctioned in the document are ‘contrary to or go beyond the jurisdiction of the Church.'” Even if the church desired to support “worthy goals” like racial justice, Aiken Taylor noted, that did not mean that it could do so through “radical measures” or “extremism or vindictiveness.” Later in 1965, Bell worried again that peaceful demonstrations were a small step from civil disobedience and “the step from civil disobedience to riots and violence is even shorter.” Willfully breaking laws, even for a worthy goal, is wrong: “No nation should permit injustice and discrimination to be a part of its accepted way of life. But no nation can survive which placidly allows people to make of themselves prosecutors, jurors, and executioners–and this applies to all citizens.” Means do not justify the end: breaking the law, whether to support segregation or integration, was never right.

Yet, interesting to see is that opposition to General Assembly resolve was not premised on race but on the value of civil disobedience. Yet, when church bodies did engage in explicit forms of racial bigotry, the response of the PCUS and many conservatives (who went into the PCA) was to object:

Second Presbyterian Church, Memphis, Tennessee, drew national attention for its refusal to admit mixed-race groups to corporate worship services. One of several Memphis churches targeted in early 1964 by the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for its “kneel-ins,” Second Church reacted the most negatively. The groups were refused admittance and church officers patrolled the narthex and the front of the church looking for those who would seek to “integrate” the services. The Second Church kneel-ins drew media attention not only because of their racial component, but also because the congregation was scheduled to host the PCUS General Assembly in 1965. As a result, several presbyteries and synods, along with the liberal Presbyterian Outlook, protested allowing the Memphis church to host the assembly; by February 1965, the assembly’s moderator, Felix Gear, a former pastor of Second Church, made the decision to move the coming meeting to the denomination’s assembly grounds in Montreat.

Lucas’ conclusion may be correct that the founding fathers of the PCA sinned, though his book and series show a lot more complications than simply the yes-no question of white supremacy (or not). But the theological question of institutional responsibility for personal sins is a theological question begged rather than answered. Lucas invokes the example of Daniel confessing Israel’s sins:

But his confession is strange–because he doesn’t confess his own private sins, but the sins of Israel and Judah that led to the judgment of the exile: “We have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. We have not listed to your servants the prophets, who spoke in you r name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land. To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but us open shame” (Dan 9:5-7).

This wasn’t simply lip synching or going through the motions. Rather, Daniel recognized his own covenantal complicity in what his fathers and forefathers had done and in bringing about the exile. And he confessed those sins and repented: “We have sinned, we have done wickedly” (Dan 9:15).

By that same exegesis, isn’t the PCA righteous for the way its parent body, the PCUS, condemned racism and segregation?

If Only the Orthodox Presbyterian Church Would Join

This Day in Presbyterian History has the remarks of Richard Gray in 1965 at the merger of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the Reformed Presbyterian Church General Synod which became Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod (the tree that bore the fruit of TKNY). Several themes stand out.

First, the trauma of 1937 was not the death of J. Gresham Machen:

I sat on that day in June in the New Century Club in Philadelphia with a group of people known as the Presbyterian Constitutional Covenant Union. There the constituting act for the Presbyterian Church of America was adopted. There stepped to the platform the young professor of philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania, Gordon H. Clark, and in “Clarkian” style he took from his pocket two 8 1/2 x 11 pages and delivered a terse but brilliant nominating speech which made J. Gresham Machen moderator of the First General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America.

It was like standing upon a tower. There was a great vista before us. I felt as though I was a part of church history and in my bones were some of the great convictions of the Reformers and of the early Christians. But within one year I was to know something of the disillusionment and the discouragement that causes the Psalmist to cry out in the first three verses of Psalm 60. This initial group split and each side tagged the other with labels which it has taken about 25 years to wash off.

Second, Dutch-American Calvinists did not own w-w rhetoric:

I believe we are still in the warfare and we still have the same banner. The banner raised in the cause of truth was raised for the turth against compromise inecclesiastical matters. We were standing for the purity of the visible church. We felt that the organized church had been instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ and it was not simply an association of convenience, or an organization that one joined because he wanted to get ahead, or even merely to give one the opportunity of preaching the gospel.

Also the banner of truth was raised against compromise culturally. We believed that Christianity was not only a fire escape from hell, so to speak, but it was a life-and-world view. We still believe this. We held this against the encroaching secularism of the day, against the deadening formalism of the church, and against the contaminating worldliness with which the church had become tainted.

Third, the OPC needed to join the RPCES to add forces to the culture war:

“There is a great need on the American scene for a sturdy, conservative Presbyterian denomination. The union of the EPC and the RPC is an important step in achieving this. If next the OPC can be brought to join forces, a truly impressive denomination would resutl. Numerically they would form a pretty good network of churches across the country. Separatist movements usually carry in themselves the seeds of further division as shown again in the days of 1936. The new denomination has learned these lessons it may be hoped.

“If the OPC should come along, too, there would be adequate number of experienced men with balanced judgment to keep the denomination on a sound course, one to encourage steady growth by local progress in attracting to the new church our Presbyterian groups seeking a happy spiritual home.

“To assist” (and I think this is a very important paragraph) “this last suggested development to occur the new denomination should follow a statesman-like policy toward the USA and the Southern church. They might well feel that their role in the south should be to testify without derogating. Criticisms that have to be made in faithfulness to Scripture could be offered in an evident spirit of loving concern, in sorrow not condemnation. It might be indicated that the line of separation that sometimes has to be drawn is often very difficult to decide upon, one man’s conscience not having received the same education as another’s, and Biblical interpretation on the issue of separation not standing out sharply and obviously clearly.”

The OPC is still on the outside looking in. Will the PCA show the same respect for conscience among “southerners” as Gray mentioned?

Douthat Channels Machen

On modernism in the Roman Catholic church:

I am not saying that you can’t be a Christian if you believe that Jesus got important things wrong, that his human nature exposed him to errors and mistakes and misapprehensions that found their way into his teaching. I have a certain respect, indeed, for contemporary writers who are willing to grasp that nettle: I didn’t write on it when it came out, but I admired this piece by Brandon Ambrosino last year for the forthright way it dealt with the “what would Jesus think about homosexuality” question by simply arguing that not only Paul but Jesus himself had a contingent and limited-by-his-times view of sexual ethics, and that contemporary believers need to transcend the limitations imposed by Jesus’s human side — because Jesus’s divine side would want us to.

But can you be an orthodox Christian if you believe that Jesus’s teaching was shaped and stamped by all-too-human limitations? Can you be a Roman Catholic Christian?

However they answer the first question, clearly a number of Catholic theologians think the answer to the second question should be “yes.” But then it’s hard not to see the “Roman Catholicism” being envisioned as something that’s basically Anglican except more so, in which you have your semi-Arian or Deist wing over here and your high-Christology wing over there and everybody just assumes that unity matters more than orthodoxy and agrees to muddle through.

Except, again, that Anglicanism isn’t muddling through anymore, and except that a great many Catholics, living as well as dead, would look at the above description and say “that ain’t no Catholicism, bruv.”