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.

Thompson to Dreher: “Say it Better”

Greg Thompson’s review of Rod Dreher’s new book in the Neo-Calvinist publication, Comment, should be good news to those worried about progressive PCA pastors (if Thompson fairly qualifies as such). Thompson agrees with Dreher that America is undergoing a disturbing number of changes:

[Dreher’s] argument is this: The liberal order of America and of the West is currently under attack from a progressive, illiberal, and anti-religious ideology rooted in the Marxist tradition. While the core claims of this ideology have long menaced American culture, it is currently taking on a new and more dangerous shape. Cultivated in the classrooms of our universities, embraced by the elites of our institutions, enabled by the moral malaise of our therapeutic culture, and empowered by the technological ubiquity of surveillance capitalism, this ideology will harden—indeed has already begun to harden—into an entire cultural order. In this cultural order, best understood as “soft totalitarianism,” liberal ideals of individual freedom will give way to tribal collectivism, cultural memory will be replaced by utopian dogma, and civic dissent will be met with firm reprisal. Indeed, the evidence that this has already begun is everywhere around us, and of all citizens swept up into these waves of illiberalism, faithful Christians are among those most at risk. 

Thompson is also concerned:

I am, for instance, concerned about the illiberal ways in which cultural and political perspectives increasingly serve as justification for dehumanization and malice. I am concerned about our increasing default to exclusively identitarian accounts of ourselves and our neighbours, and the potent tribalism this nurtures. I am concerned about a preening civic moralism that feels more performative than principled, and for the plague of self-righteousness that blooms around it. I am concerned about the contradictions of a therapeutic culture that venerates self-expression even as it normalizes self-harm. I am concerned about the ways in which our extraordinary technologies invite exploitation and obstruct wisdom. I am concerned about economic and cultural actors whose power places them beyond the reach of any practicable form of accountability. I am concerned by the ubiquity with which each one of these tendencies manifests itself on both the cultural left and the cultural right and in so doing threatens the health, indeed the very possibility, of our common life.

So why does Thompson write that Dreher’s book is “egregious” and “dangerous”? The reason has to do with the way Dreher expresses his alarms:

While in the world of entertainment punditry such a transparently reductive manner of speaking about one’s cultural enemies may be indulged and even celebrated, in a work that claims the intellectual mantle of liberalism and the moral mantle of the Christian church, such an account is a disgrace. Why? Because in characterizing progressivism in this way, Dreher tacitly claims the powerful heritage of liberalism for himself and places his cultural enemies outside of it, all while either unaware of or indifferent to both the moral incoherence and social consequences of doing so.

Sweeping claims about good guys and bad guys may not be the first strike against a writer for anyone ministering in a communion that has some regard and attachment to Francis Schaeffer.

Observing the deficiency of Dreher’s (he is a journalist, after all) prose may also prompt a writer to think about lines like this:

Dreher’s gauzy invocation of liberalism is reflective not of the rigorous complexities of history but of the simplistic nostalgia of Cracker Barrel.

“Simplistic,” “nostalgia,” or “Cracker Barrel,” each on their own would have made the point. Throwing them all into the sentence is either redundant or piling on.

This Would be Transformationalist(izational)

Imagine if Christmas songs started this way in the eighteenth century:

Oh, the weather outside is frightful
But the fire is so delightful
And since we’ve no place to go
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

Man it doesn’t show signs of stoppin’
And I brought me some corn for poppin’
The lights are turned way down low
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

When we finally kiss good-night
How I’ll hate going out in the storm
But if you really hold me tight
All the way home I’ll be warm

And the fire is slowly dying
And, my dear, we’re still good-bye-ing
But as long as you’d love me so
Let it snow, let it snow, and snow

When we finally kiss good-night
How I’ll hate going out in the storm
But if you’d really grab me tight
All the way home I’ll be warm

Oh the fire is slowly dying
And, my dear, we’re still goodbye-ing
But as long as you’d love me so
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

Then, two hundred years later, most English-speakers were singing (or hearing in the convenience story, for example) this:

Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.

By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.

That would be something on the order of taking a song with reference only to the affects of a holiday and giving them serious Christian significance.

Why, though, does transformationalism so invariably go the other way? Leigh Schmidt had a theory. It was commerce and no one did it better than (sort of) New School Presbyterian, John Wanamaker, founder and owner of Philadelphia’s great department store, Wanamaker’s (now Macy’s):

The store’s holiday slogan in the 1950s was “Christmas Isn’t Christmas without a Day at Wanamaker’s,” and the slogan contained a grain of ethnographic description along with its advertising hype. A Catholic nun and schoolteacher, for example, wrote warmly to the store in 1950: “I made a special trip, as many of us do, just to ‘see Wanamaker’s.'” These excursions to behold the Grand Court each year at the holidays had become, she said, part of her “Christmas ritual.” (167)

Schmidt added:

For more than a century, the American marketplace has displayed a striking capacity for consecration at Christmas. Christian symbols have been repeatedly brought into the public square and made a matter of public recognition through commercial institutions. . . . At no other time in the year have the tensions over religious pluralism been more evident: Christmas has been set up as an all-embracing cultural celebration often with only passing sensitivity to those whom the holiday marginalizes. (169)

That was 1996.

Evangelical History written by Mainline Presbyterian Abides

Some obsess about Jerry Falwell, Jr., other about Tim Keller. This time the latter obsession runs to Keller’s recommendation of a book that came out over forty years ago and remains seminal for him. Richard Lovelace’s Dynamics of Spiritual Life (1979) is what made Redeemer NYC tick. As Keller admits, “Anyone who knows my ministry and reads this book will say, ‘So that’s where Keller got all this stuff!'” (He has help from other allies.)

One oddity is thinking back to what you were reading forty years ago and then seeing whether it still holds up. Since Keller has ministered in NYC, he has read a lot of books that other pastors and theologians do not typically read — works in sociology, history, urbanism, journalism. He is the pastor as intellectual. Someone might think that reading historical scholarship over the course of a career would give you a different estimate of a history of revivalism, one not written for a university press and that reflects more the debates among 1970s evangelicals than it does what happened with Whitefield and Edwards. This is sort of like mmmmeeeEEE today recommending Francis Schaeffer’s He Is There and He Is Not Silent as the key to understanding God and revelation. After reading Schaeffer in the 1970s, I went on to read a number of theologians and confessions that let me know how little I had understood from reading Schaeffer (who at the time was a great aid). I now turn to Ursinus, Berhkof, Calvin, and Bavinck. Aren’t I special.

Equally odd but also perhaps revealing of Keller’s place in PCA dynamics are a number assertions and arguments that Lovelace, who was ordained as a minister in the PCUSA while teaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, makes about evangelicalism around the time the book was written. These may reveal less about planting churches or carrying out the ministry than they do about ways of perceiving the church in the United States.

Lovelace abounds in identifying the polarities of a dynamic and then shooting for the middle, the third way, which of course is classic Keller:

Currently our denominations seem to break down into two categories: smaller, conservative separatist bodies maintaining the pure church ideal with antisceptic discipline so strong that it occasionally sterilizes their own creativity; and the large, historical descendants of earlier separations, now so indiscriminately inclusive that to Evangelicals they resemble mission fields. Evangelicals themselves, similarly, are divided into those who might be characterized as white corpuscles, members of separated churches committed to rigorous discipline, and red corpuscles, those who have tried to adapt themselves to the large, pluralistic bodies in order to feed and serve their memberships. (291-92)

Notice the biological metaphors and think the Gospel Ecosystem.

Here’s another contrast that makes the way straight for the via media:

In the early twentieth century the immense thought storm of secular humanism, made up of apparently consistent and convincing alternates to the biblical world view, burst upon the church and shattered the clarity of its thinking and hence the unity of its forces. Live orthodoxy might have weathered the storm and risen to the educational challenge humanism presented, setting out to construct a consistently biblical counter-position which would seek to integrate all the new data pouring into human consciousness. But [Evangelicalism] broke into two. Half of it emulated the ostrich, turned its back on the culture, immersed its head in the biblical world and almost became an enculturated folk religion. The other half grappled with the task of integrating modern and biblical thought but often lost its biblical moorings and slipped away into another kind of enculturalst: conformity to the secular mind. (281)

Actually, that does remind me of Schaeffer, sweeping historical claims with remarkable confidence. A sentence distills a book and a century of developments (or not). Who does that after reading at all widely in history and knowing how accidental and contingent the past was?

Where you do see in Lovelace a forerunner to Keller’s operations is this:

What about transdenominational renewal within the ecumenical movement? We have noted above that there is already a functionally Evangelical ecumenical movement. The recognition of this fact is remarkably apparent in the recent admirable decision of the Presbyterian Church of America (the product of secession from the Northern and Southern Presbyterian Churches) not to form its own Department of Missions, but rather to use the existing network of interdenominational Evangelical faith missions to disseminate its Reformed doctrinal position throughout the church. (332)

Come to think of it, with Redeemer City-to-City in mind, the blueprint for Keller’s ministry very well have been in Lovelace’s book (except that City-to-City, though interdenominational, is not OMF International, Africa Inland Mission, and Ethnos 360).

Why Do Anglicans Get a Pass?

Anyone familiar with debates over two-kingdom theology have also encountered the argument that allegedly proves this outlook’s error — namely, that Lutherans were 2k and it led them not to offer any resistance to Nazi Germany. Case closed. But here‘s an example of that logic — more like a claim:

the charge made against Luther is not that he made theological errors that led his followers astray in their private religious lives. On the contrary, the accusation is that Luther’s beliefs and actions led to disastrous historical consequences, not only in the Germany of his time (with the Christian submission to the princes and the slaughter of the peasants), but in the Germany of the twentieth century, when Lutheran Christians failed to resist the rise of Adolf Hitler. These charges are extended to Lutheran communities in South Africa and Chile, for example, which allegedly identified themselves with an unjust status quo on the basis of their Lutheran convictions. Further, so the indictment goes, the Lutheran accommodation to the Communists in East Germany is a confirmation of Troeltsch’s judgment that Lutheranism will comply with any political establishment. It has no social ethic on which to take a stand against worldly powers.

The thing is (maybe only “a” not “the” thing) that bishops and theologians in the Anglican church, especially under Elizabeth, James I, and Charles I (roughly 1570 to 1650) went Lutherans one better. They did not commit the supposed error of separating the church from the state in a way that left minsters without a voice in politics (a prophetic one, of course). Anglican theologians actually argued for the supremacy of the crown over the church and insisted that this was God’s will as revealed both in nature and Scripture. Imagine trying to find an argument for resistance to a selfish and bloated ruler when your queen or king is not merely the head of the church (instead of Christ) but also the divinely appointed guarantee
of order and truth in church and society.

Consider the following summary of Richard Hooker’s views (he was the author of The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity and lived between 1554 and 1600):

The political philosophy of Hooker is an integral part of his defense of the Erastian relationship of the Church of England and the Tudor monarchy. He was commissioned to supply the reasonable foundation for the existing establishment. Hooker writes from the standpoint or a conservative impelled by the exigency of the time to justify the status quo. In order to prove that the Puritan contentions were inconsistent with the political structure of England, he was obliged to examine the nature or the State and the sources of authority. He hoped to show that criticism or the Anglican Church and refusal to conform to the Elizabethan Settlement could not be rationally justified. He had concluded in Book III that the Scriptures do not require a particular form of church polity, and thus, demonstrated that the Church of England was not contrary to either the Word of God or to reason. His doctrine that resistance to authority can be vindicated only in the case of immoral law condemns the Puritan position as a denial of the fundamental nature of political obedience.

The motivation for Hooker’s conservative political theories and indeed for the philosophical and theological work as a whole, was an intrinsic fear
that a general acceptance of the doctrine of private revelation would lead to spiritual chaos and civil confusion. Hooker distrusted the extreme individualism of Puritanism, alarmed by the possibility that it might replace the corporate spirit of the English State. For the all-embracing cause of public order, Hooker was willing to submit private interpretation to public reason determined by the law of the legislature. He believed that a rational decision of a Parliament or Convocation was more likely to be in accordance with the will or God than the inspiration of a saintly individual. (pp. 19-20)

Of course, no English monarch measures up on the scales of heinousness crimes to Hitler (though most governments commit unjust actions and hurt innocent people). That is not the point. Nor is this an case of an American who takes democracy for granted taking exception to what looks like an odd form of government. Actually, The Crown portrays monarchy in a way that has this American second-guessing (even more) the powers of POTUS.

The question is why the critics of two-kingdom theology who fault it for an inability to resist tyranny (or its mistaken detection of tyranny) don’t see the much greater dangers that lurked in English bishops who sidled up to English and British monarchs. They did so not only for the sake of administering the church. They also made the case for divine-right monarchy in a way that made dissent sinful.

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)

Names Change, Systems Abide

Let the record show, Princeton University, during the last wave of heightened aesthetic consciousness about public art, had a chance, just like Mayor James Kenney in Philadelphia (with the Frank Rizzo statue), to get rid of Woodrow Wilson’s name at its School of Public and International Affairs. The university, with the same president as today, Christopher Eisgruber, decided to keep the Wilson name. Here is part of Princeton’s reasoning:

The challenge presented by Wilson’s legacy is that some of his views and actions clearly contradict the values we hold today about fair treatment for all individuals, and our aspirations for Princeton to be a diverse, inclusive, and welcoming community. On the other hand, many of his views and actions – as faculty member and president of this University, as governor of New Jersey and a two-term President of the United States, and as an international leader whose name and legacy are still revered in many parts of the world – speak directly to our values and aspirations for our school of public and international affairs and for the first of our residential colleges.

… There is considerable consensus that Wilson was a transformative and visionary figure in the area of public and international affairs; that he did press for the kinds of living and learning arrangements that are represented today in Princeton’s residential colleges; and that as a strong proponent of education for use, he believed Princeton should prepare its students for lives in the nation’s service. These were the reasons Wilson’s name was associated with the school, the college, and the award.

The question that immediately comes to mind is how do the people who punted on Wilson in 2016 get to keep their jobs and positions? They looked at the evidence, and even heard from scholars who were decidedly negative in their estimates of Wilson, such as this one from the University of Richmond’s Eric S. Yellin:

Far from being merely ignorant “men of their times,” Wilson and his administration sought to do something new when they delegitimized public objections to segregation by marking any protest as both insubordinate and fallacious. African Americans and some allies never accepted this argument, of course, but the vast majority of white Americans did not question it. In this way, federal discrimination, including administrators’ explanations of it, played its part in the national institutionalization of white supremacy in the United States in the early twentieth century.

Again, for the record, Princeton’s president and board of trustees read these words and decided to keep Wilson’s name. Why don’t they too need to vacate Princeton the way Wilson has? Could you have a better indication of racism according to 2020 standards?

By the way, it was a curious group of advisors to Princeton who commissioned reactions from historians and issued a report that kept Wilson’s name. It had nary an academic on it except for a retired president of Brown University. Otherwise, the ten member committee, chaired by an African-American attorney, Brent L. Henry, consisted of executives, financiers, lawyers, leaders of non-profits, and one writer (five men, five women — cisgender I presume; five whites, five non-white). Anyone of a social justicey inclination might well wonder whether these people too need to be cancelled.

Princeton’s administration did see in 2016 the ripple effects of Wilson’s reputation. In 1948, when the school of government took Wilson’s name, Harold Willis Dodds was president (a Grove City alum). Instead of removing Wilson’s name in 2017, the University decided to move Dodds’ name within the Robertson Hall (the modernist building from 1961 designed by the same architect behind New York City’s World Trade Center. What the University did was to rename Dodds Auditorium in Robertson as the Arthur Lewis Auditorium. Dodds’ name was downsized to Robertson Hall’s Atrium.

Relatives of Dodds were not happy. John A. Dodds, a nephew of the former president, and member of the class of 1952, wrote to the alumni magazine:

it appears to me that my uncle has been inadvertently affected by some of the fallout over Woodrow Wilson 1879. This change was planned to go into effect as of July 1.

Now it appears that Princeton is even more interested in fulfilling its mission of amplifying diversity and political correctness than honoring a man who served longer as president of Princeton University (1933–57) than any other Princeton president in the 19th or 20th century. He brought the University through some difficult times during World War II, and his longevity as president attests to his inherent skills.

What next, a potted plant with his name on it?

These odd details amplify what Ross Douthat wrote about the name change as being more ephemeral than substantive:

the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs wasn’t named for Wilson to honor him for being a segregationist. It was named for him because he helped create precisely the institutions that the school exists to staff — our domestic administrative state and our global foreign policy apparatus — and because he was the presidential progenitor of the idealistic, interventionist worldview that has animated that foreign policy community ever since.

Which means, in turn, that the school will remain his school, whatever name gets slapped upon it, so long as it pursues the projects of enlightened progressive administration and global superpowerdom. Obviously there are people, right and left, who would prefer that one or both of those projects be abandoned. But they aren’t likely to be running the renamed school. Instead, it will continue to be run by 21st-century Wilsonians — who will now act as if their worldview sprang from nowhere, that its progenitor did not exist, effectively repudiating their benefactor while accepting his inheritance.

Like Nike’s turning Colin Kaepernick into an emblem of social justice while also turning a profit, so Princeton maintains its standing among the nation’s elite institutions, in a Vanna White way, by changing a few letters.

That’s systemic.

Will the PCA Repent of Homophobia?

I have not read the PCA report on sexuality, but from reading and listening to comments about it, I am inclined to think that leadership in the PCA thinks about racism differently from same-sex attraction, that one is something the church needs to condemn vigorously, the other is a condition around which the church needs to tread delicately.

Consider the following expressions of repentance:

As an organization, we need to more deeply self-examine and change. While there have been some strides over the last eighteen months, we haven’t been sufficiently aggressive in pursuing, supporting and developing Black and Latino leadership in the US. We repent. Though we have aspired to be a trans-denominational ministry, our training materials and events in the US have lacked the rich presence and leadership of Black and Latino theologians and are still largely distilled through a majority culture theological lens and ministry practices. We repent. A significant portion of our time, expertise and resources in the ministry have been focused on educated white leaders in center cities, and we could have done more as it relates to the historic and systemic segregation in the American church. We repent.

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); …

In humility, we repent of our ongoing racial sins. We repent of past silence in the face of racial injustice. We repent of a negligent and willful failure to account for our unearned privilege or to surface the unconscious biases that move us to protect our comfort rather than risk speaking against racial injustice. We repent of hearts that are dull to the suffering of others.

If, as the Confession of Faith has it, sanctification is “imperfect in this life” and part of “a continual and irreconcilable war” (13.2), these repeated expressions of repentance make sense. Less plausible is how they fit with the idea of private confession of sin, as in, “he that scandalizeth his brother, or the church of Christ, ought to be willing, by a private or public confession, and sorrow for his sin, to declare his repentance to those that are offended, who are thereupon to be reconciled to him, and in love to receive him.” (15.6)

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 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