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