“I think it’s too costly to refight the Civil War. We have paid too great a price in trying to bring people together… I personally feel that we made a mistake in fighting over the Confederate flag here in Georgia. Or that that was an answer to the problem of the death of nine people – to take down the Confederate flag in South Carolina.”
Specifically, Young was speaking of Gov. Roy Barnes’ decision to pull down the 1956 state flag that prominently featured the Confederate battle emblem. The move was a primary reason he lost his bid for re-election, split the state Democratic party, and ushered in the current season of Republican rule. Said Young:
“It cost us $14.9 billion and 70,000 jobs that would have gone with the Affordable Care Act – which we probably would have had if we hadn’t been fighting over a flag… It cost of us the health of our city because we were prepared to build a Northern Arc, 65 miles away from the center of the city of Atlanta – an outer perimeter that would have been up and running now, if we had not been fighting over the flag.
“I am always interested in substance over symbols. If the truth be known, we’ve had as much agony – but also glory, under the United States flag. That flew over segregated America. It flew over slavery….”
Young also had some advice for the “antifa” movement. Boiled down: If you haven’t seen Nazis and Klansmen in the streets before, perhaps it’s because you haven’t been paying attention. We’ve been here before. Said Young:
“I grew up in New Orleans, La., 50 yards from the headquarters of the Nazi party. Before I went to kindergarten, I was having to look in the window on Saturdays, and watch all these folks [shout] “Heil, Hitler!”
“And my daddy said, those are sick people. They’re white supremacists, and white supremacy is a sickness. You don’t get mad, you get smart. You never get angry with sick people, because you’ll catch their sickness. That’s what I worry about with our young people. Anger and this emotional militancy will give you ulcers, give you heart attacks.
“Don’t get mad, get smart. Your brain is the most important thing you have.”
Confrontation doesn’t change mind. Engagement does, Young said. During the press conference, Mitchell had said much the same thing:
“As a community, as a society, we’ve got to speak up and stand against racism, and bigotry, discrimination and oppression in any form, coming from anybody.
“With that being said, we’ve got to find a pathway to reconciliation.”
Afterwards, I approached Mitchell about the petition that had been presented to Mayor Kasim Reed, demanding the renaming of Confederate Avenue in the Grant Park neighborhood of Atlanta. Said Mitchell:
“It’s going to be a community conversation among people who live and own property on that street, and I’m willing to entertain that. I would just caution us, as a city – you can‘t replace an angry, evil mob with what we believe is a righteous mob.
“We have a complicated history as a country, in the South and certainly in Atlanta. There’s so much good and bad intertwined and tangled together. We need to be able to untangle the good and the bad, get rid of the bad, and make it part of the past.”
What if bigotry were as hard to discern and remedy as same-sex attraction and concupiscence?
Think about the categories used in the PCA report on Human Sexuality:
Second, according to the system of the Westminster Confession of Faith, we should not be surprised, but rather expect that concupiscence in general, and specific instances like
homosexual attractionbigotry, would continue in the life of a believer. The Confession is clear; corruption remains “in every part” (13.2). We would never say to a new believer who has a history of destructive anger, “Now that you are a Christian, you will never again feel a rush of anger rise up within you at the wrong time, for a selfish reason, out of proportion to the situation, or in any other way that contradicts God’s law.” Neither should we communicate to a believer with a history of homosexual attractionbigotry the expectation that this will simply disappear.
“…according to the doctrinal system of the Westminster Confession of Faith, we should not rule out, but rather expect that
concupiscence in generalantipathy to others, and specific instances like homosexual attractionbigotry, would be areas in which the believer would see some progress toward truly righteous feelings and actions. Our previous point had to do with the danger of creating the expectation that our experience of corruption will entirely disappear in this life if we are regenerate. This point addresses what might be considered an error on the other end of the spectrum, the error of asserting that change is not possible or not to be sought. But just as the Confession is clear that corruption remains in every part, it is also clear that the sanctifying work of the Spirit is felt in the “whole man.” Someone with homosexual attractionwho hates other groups ought not close himself or herself off to the pursuit of, and hope of, real change in those attractionsinclinations, even if that change is incomplete and mixed. …
Finally, we can discern a very practical value to the distinction between the sin that is constituted by our “corruption of nature…and all the motions thereof” and the “actual transgressions” that proceed from it. Even where original sin is manifested in the form of sinfully disordered
desires or feelingsinclinations, including homosexual attractionbigotry, there is significant moral difference between that initial “motion” of corruption and the decision to cultivate or act on it. To feel a sinfully disordered sexual attractionhatred (of any kind) is properly to be called sin—and all sin, “both original and actual” earns God’s wrath (WCF 6.6)—but it is significantly less heinous (using the language of the WLC 151) than any level of acting upon it in thought or deed. The point here is not to encourage those with homosexual attractionwho are bigoted to become comfortable with or accepting of it. Rather, it is to counter the undue heaping of shame upon them as if the presence of homosexual attractionbigotry itself makes them the most heinous of sinners. On the contrary, their experience is representative of the present life of all Christians. John Owen has said, “…yet sin doth so remain, so act and work in the best of believers, whilst they live in this world, that the constant daily mortification of it is all their days incumbent upon them.” Our brothers and sisters who resist and repent of enduring feelings of same-sex attractionbigotry are powerful examples to us all of what this “daily mortification” looks like in “the best of believers.” We should be encouraged and challenged by their example and eager to join in fellowship with them for the mutual strengthening of our faith, hope, and love.
Is it possible to think about tribalism, bigotry, undue attachment to groups, or racial supremacy the way the PCA instructs officers and members to think about same sex attraction? Both are disordered inclinations. But when people condemn bigotry between racial groups, they tend not to see it as something that lurks in a fallen human being, even in a regenerate soul:
Racism should be denounced by religious and civic leaders in no uncertain terms. Equivocal talk about racist groups gives those groups sanction, something no politician or pastor should ever do. As Christian scholars, we affirm the reality that all humans are created in the image of God and should be treated with respect and dignity. There is no good moral, biblical, or theological reason to denigrate others on the basis of race or ethnicity, to exalt one race over others, or to countenance those who do.
Would the authors and signers of this statement ever add, “there go I but for the grace of God”? Or is such a condemnation an indication to others that you do not approve of racism in those who are. As such, a statement is mainly a way to avoid confusion. By signing or issuing a statement, I too show that I am not a racist and detest those who are.
Wait. What about hate the sin, love the sinner?
Even more difficult – what if the sins of the sixth and seventh commandments — heck the whole darned Decalogue — reside in each and every Christian’s heart? That might produce statements that are less finger wagging, and more understanding like the PCA’s report.
It might also indicate that human beings are not Pelagian when it comes to racial bigotry. That is, the soul does not have a racist switch that you flick on after coming into the world loving and kind, and then flick off when you repent and condemn racism in yourself and others.
In fact, if sin can be systemic, no better place to look than not in bureaucracy but in the human heart.
I keep scratching my head. For the last two weeks plus, I have read various cultural authorities on how evil racism is. At the same time, none of those condemnations of racism at mainstream and elite institutions count as evidence against the United States’ deep and abiding racism. Here is one example of the barrage of assertions that both condemn and apologize for racism:
Over the last few days, I have received numerous emails from institutions and organizations feeling compelled to issue statements on the George Floyd killing and the ongoing protests. I have an email from Strava, an app that tracks personal athletic endeavors, titled “we must do better, and we will” and stating that “we know our practices have bias because we haven’t designed them to make sure they don’t.” The Institute for Policy Integrity and NYU Law School declares: “[W]e stand with the Black community in the face of unconscionable racially motivated violence, [and] we understand that such violence is aggravated by retrograde, prejudiced policies.” The Tufts University Alumni Association says the protests “are the result of deep-seated racism and injustice that exists within our society.” Rachel Kyte, dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy calls “for an end to the illegal measures taken to prevent people from gathering and protesting peacefully and to the police aggression that targets Black citizens rather than protect them.” The executive council of Lewis & Clark College, from which I am retired, declares that mere expressions of support for the protests “runs the risk of removing responsibility from the majority and requiring the work be done by communities of color.” Society, not the cop, is responsible.
I have also heard from Cape Eleuthera Island School, the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, The Explorers Club, Northeastern University president Joseph E. Aoun, the Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Foundation, the Oregon Historical Society, and American Bar Association president Judy Perry Martinez, all declaring that they must do better.
If this had been the reaction to the Montgomery Bus Boycott that featured Rosa Parks (1955-1956), the nation would not have had to wait roughly ten years for the Civil Rights Act to pass Congress. Heck, if the sentiments today of opposition to bigotry and white supremacy had been around in 1955, Rosa Parks could have sat wherever she darned well pleased.
The simultaneous condemnation of racism and insistence that the United States is a racist as Virginia was in 1619 is akin to evangelicals such as Francis Schaeffer lamenting the immorality and unbelief of the nation even as a born-again Protestant occupied the White House. Remember what Schaeffer argued at a time well before Monica Lewinski, Stormy Daniels, and Obergefell v. Hodges:
“People have presuppositions, and they will live more consistently on the basis of those presuppositions than even they themselves may realize,” Schaeffer wrote, and he was talking this way when most evangelicals were unaware of the storm of worldviews that was coming. He perceived the presuppositions of the looming humanistic and secular worldview as showing up first in art and high culture. He was right. While most evangelicals were watching Gunsmoke and taking their kids to the newly opened Walt Disney World, Schaeffer was listening and watching as a new worldview was taking hold of the larger culture.
Americans’ outlook may well have lacked the tools to defend standards of decency and good government, but to complain about a culture that celebrated the rule of law in western towns and family-friendly cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse, as if that culture is producing Lena Dunham’s Girls or Tacoma FD, is a bit like saying silence is violence.
Of course, the difference between the discussions today about racism and Schaeffer’s complaints then about cultural decadence are that no one at the New Yorker, Harvard University, the San Diego Mayor’s office, or Spotify was issuing statements in support of evangelicals’ morality, nor were they producing reading lists about the Ten Commandments and sanctification.
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)
Posted at Juicy Ecumenism today and then not:
Calvin vs. Wesley: A Review of the Presbyterian Church in America’s Report on Human Sexuality, Part One
The Rev. Karen Booth is a graduate of Drew Theological School and an ordained elder in the Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. She is the author of “Forgetting How to Blush: United Methodism’s Compromise with the Sexual Revolution.”
Disclaimer: Please bear in mind that my views are based on my background as a seminary trained, local church pastor who has had some additional experience working with ministries of sexual sanctification. I am not a professional theologian, nor do I have access to specific archival material that would have been relevant. I do thank Dr. David Watson and Dr. Scott Kisker of United Theological Seminary for helping me think through some of the Wesleyan theology.
In June 2019, the conservative Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) faced a General Assembly that included more legislative petitions about LGBT issues than any other subject. The concerns stemmed from a provocative conference called Revoice, which was co-sponsored by the denomination’s Covenant Seminary and hosted by a local PCA church in St. Louis.
Though there are nuances, Revoice (the conference and movement that followed) generally affirms a traditional Christian sexual ethic while tolerating, accepting or even celebrating homosexual orientation and/or LGBT identity as long as there is a concurrent commitment to celibacy. This stance is sometimes referred to as “Side B,” with “Side A” being LGBT-identified persons who do not consider same-sex intimacy to be essentially immoral. There is also a “Side C” for those who are unsure and a “Side X” for those who believe that BOTH desire and behavior can be transformed through the power of Jesus Christ.
Though one writer suggested that the PCA controversy was mostly about “language” and “terms,” another recognized that there were serious underlying theological and pastoral issues at stake: “another way of describing the debate is whether homosexual orientation/desire is sinful and therefore must be mortified or if it is a natural inclination that can just be kept in check through celibacy.”
Fearful that endorsing Revoice could ultimately lead to more progressive positions on sex and marriage, delegates sought further clarity. As a result, the General Assembly voted to affirm the more traditional Nashville Statement, a document developed by the complementarian Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and to establish a study commission.
The seven-member Ad Interim Study Committee on Human Sexuality (hereinafter “Committee”) included pastors, theologians, Christian educators, and professional counselors who had diverse opinions about Revoice. This caused even more controversy, raising doubt that they would ever be able to reach biblically faithful consensus.
Nonetheless, the Committee completed its work within a year and officially released its Report on May 28. After wide distribution and study, the Report will be perfected and then accepted or rejected at the rescheduled General Assembly in June 2021.
The Report primarily consists of Twelve Statements that summarize the Committee’s findings, with longer essays explaining the underlying theological and doctrinal foundations. There are also suggestions for pastoral care and apologetics, an annotated resource list, and an exhortation to maintain unity amidst the diverse legislative proposals that will surely follow.
The first two Statements deal with marriage (the monogamous union of one man and one woman) and the binary nature of male/female creation (a unique expression of God’s image and His perfect will). Neither issue is currently up for debate; the former is explicitly addressed in both the Westminster Confession and the PCA Book of Church Order and the latter is implied. Both are referred to multiple times to defend other portions of the report.
The remaining material concentrates on four sets of related topics:
The moral nature of same-sex attraction, desire and temptation,
The compatibility (or not) of the concepts of homosexual orientation and gay Christian identity with Scripture and doctrine,
The significance of redemption, sanctification, Christian community and pastoral care for same-sex attracted persons, and
An apologetics strategy for sharing God’s truth and grace about human sexuality with an unbelieving world.
The Study Committee recognized that the first topic was key to all else that followed:
What do we believe the Bible teaches us about our condition as fallen human beings? What does it mean to be saved from this state?
How does regeneration affect our experience of fallenness?
How we answer these questions will determine how we answer the more specific questions about our experience of sexuality.” (Report, Page 14, lines 17-41)
So, the Calvinistic theological reasoning (Statements 3-6 and essay #1) goes something like this:
Original sin is a comprehensive (total) depravity and corruption that humans have inherited as a result of the Fall and for which they are held culpable/guilty. This essential corruption remains to some degree even after justification and regeneration. The outworking of this original corruption results in ACTUAL sin, which includes not only evil/immoral behavior but also impulses, feelings, desires and internal temptations, even those that are not agreed to by a conscious act of will (concupiscence). Both original and actual sin must be repented, grieved and hated.
Bottom line: “the experience of same-sex attraction is not morally neutral; (it) is an expression of original or indwelling sin that must be repented of and put to death.” And “these desires within us are not mere weaknesses or inclinations to sin but are themselves idolatrous and sinful.” (Report, page 8, lines 6-8, 20-21)
The second claim was the Committee’s unambiguous answer to Revoice leaders who argued that same-sex attraction is not in-and-of-itself sinful, but rather a sort of “disability” or “handicap.” As already noted, this understanding of the sinfulness of same-sex attraction will shape the Committee’s conclusions on sexual orientation/identity, Christian life from unbelief to sanctification, discipleship and community, pastoral care and apologetics.
Obviously, this theological understanding is quite different from the official stance of The United Methodist Church (UMC). The denomination morally prohibits same-sex behavior, by stating that the “practice of homosexuality” is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” But it doesn’t even mention, let alone condemn, the experience of same-sex attraction.
This policy was initially adopted into our Social Principles at the 1972 General Conference almost by accident. (See here and here.) It was reaffirmed after our first official study (“Committee to Study Homosexuality,” 1989-92) and endorsed yet again in more recent legislation and proposals regarding amicable separation. After almost fifty years of squabbling over sex and marriage, it’s pretty much become “conventional wisdom” in the UMC.
But is this conventional wisdom rooted in Wesleyan thinking? Providentially, yes.
Though it wasn’t originally conceived by Albert Outler or Georgia Harkness or any of the other “heavy hitters” that drafted proposals for our post-merger Social Principles, it nonetheless accurately reflects our Wesleyan heritage. As John Trinklein noted in his dissertation, Wesley’s discussion with his pastors at the 1759 Conference
clarified that there was a difference between sin “properly so-called” and sin “improperly so-called”. In his understanding, only that which is a “voluntary transgression of a known law” is truly a ‘sin’; any “involuntary transgression of a divine law, known or unknown” is “naturally consequent on the ignorance and mistakes inseparable from mortality”—and therefore not a ‘sin’ … Total corruption and the irresistible inclination to sin have indeed been passed on to us, but only our own voluntary (“proper”) sins can damn us. (pages 123-126)
Although humans are not damned for Adam’s transgression, Wesley nonetheless believed that the corruption of original sin left them stained, broken and hopeless – categorically unable to escape their inherited sin nature or do anything good on their own. (See here, here and here.) The hope, for Wesley and his followers, would be found in his manifold understandings of God’s grace.
This will be explored more fully in Part Two of the blog post. For now, here are a few of my personal observations.
Even though I disagree with its Calvinist underpinnings, I think the major strength of the PCA Report is its solid grounding in theology and doctrine. Once it is approved, the denomination will have not only a brilliant tool for teaching, but a firm foundation to fall back on if its traditional sexual ethic is ever challenged in the future. When the UMC decided (even if by default) to deal with sexuality issues from a “social concerns” perspective, it set the stage for almost constant struggle over terms and definitions. How I wish we had begun with something like this PCA document. How I yearn for something like it in the future.
I have not yet studied the entire PCA document, but I hope that their initial finding – that same-sex attraction itself is sinful – will be somewhat mitigated later on. Because, unless it is presented, taught and preached with great compassion and sensitivity, it can be soul crushing to those who struggle against SSA. If it only adds to their already heightened sense of personal shame, they will be less inclined to seek any kind of help from the church. I think we’ll discover in Part Two that the Wesleyan way of grace offers a more hopeful and potentially more transformative approach.
Here are the ten most popular songs among Christians during COVID-19:
1. IT IS WELL WITH MY SOUL
It should come as no surprise that the classic hymn, written during a time of personal crisis, continues to encourage Christians to find comfort in Christ. Despite its enduring status, it grew even more popular, with a 68% jump in usage from February to the months of the coronavirus.
2. GREAT IS THY FAITHFULNESS
Another classic hymn became even more special to churches in recent months. Use of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” grew 64%.
3. NO LONGER SLAVES
The 2015 worship song grew in usage by 23% during the pandemic.
4. RAISE A HALLELUJAH
Released in 2019, “Raise a Hallelujah” brought comfort to churches and grew by 15%.
5. SEE A VICTORY
Another 2019 song that grew in 2020, “See a Victory” jumped 30%.
6. SOLID ROCK (MY HOPE IS BUILT ON NOTHING LESS)
Many churches have been turning to old truths contained in timeless hymns like this one, which grew in usage by 49%.
7. YOU NEVER LET GO
Matt Redmon’s 2006 worship song saw a 102% jump in popularity during the pandemic.
8. YES I WILL
The 2018 song from Vertical Worship grew in popularity by 21%.
Hillsong’s 2012 song builds on the classic hymn already on the list, “Solid Rock,” and grew 11% in popularity.
10. HE WILL HOLD ME FAST
The modern hymn released by Keith and Kristyn Getty in 2016 saw a 46% jump in usage in recent months.
Here’s one that pairs well with both pandemic and protest, a metrical version of Psalm 17:
1Lord, hear my plea, attend my cry; unto my prayer give heed.
My righteous plea does not from false, deceitful lips proceed.
2Let vindication of my cause proceed, O Lord, from You;
Your eyes see what is right, so give my vindication due.
3Though You may probe my heart at night, or test me deep within;
You will find nothing, for I vowed my mouth would never sin.
4As for men’s deeds, I’ve kept myself from all their violent ways;
It’s by the word of Your own lips I’ve stayed within Your ways.
5My steps have held fast to Your path; I’ve walked within Your way;
And my feet have not slipped, for on Your path I vowed to stay.
6I call on You, and trust, O God, that You will answer me;
Give ear to me and hear my prayer, incline Your ear to me.
7Show me Your wondrous steadfast love: You save by Your right hand
all those who take refuge in You from foes that ’gainst them stand.
8Keep me as safe as You would keep the apple of Your eye;
And in the shadow of Your wings, allow me safe to hide,
9From wicked ones who trouble me, who do my soul surround,
From all my mortal enemies who compass me around.
10They close their callous hearts, and speak with arrogance profound;
11They track me down with eyes alert, to throw me to the ground.
12They’re like a lion prowling ‘round, and hungry for his prey—
A lion who lies crouching under cover all the day.
13Rise up and come confront my foes, and bring them down, O Lord,
Come rescue me from wicked ones by power of Your sword.
14Stretch out Your hand to save me from such worldly ones, O Lord,
Who only in this present life do gather their reward.
You still the hunger of the ones You cherish, and provide
so they’ll not want; their children with great wealth will be supplied.
15But as for me, in righteousness, Your face I know I’ll see;
When I awake, Your likeness will be fullest joy to me.
Imagine that, a feisty song from the Bible, of all places.
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)
From the July 2000 Nicotine Theological Journal:
The prefix “post” has any number of proper usages. And most of those – postscript, postlude, posterior – clearly fix its meaning. Whatever is “post” comes after the main thing, such as after the letter, after the liturgy, or after the rest of the body.
The usage of this prefix in such words as postmodernism and postliberalism, however, is more ambiguous. Postmodernism suggests a period and intellectual sensibility that has moved beyond the age and mentality of being modern, though some argue that the intellectual and cultural fads going under the name, “postmodern,” are actually a heightened form of modernity. Postliberalism is even harder to explain. And part of the reason stems from whether those advocating postliberalism have actually moved beyond liberalism into a theology that is clearly “after” the sort of teaching that has characterized twentieth-century mainline Protestantism.
JAMES GUSTAFSON, FOR MANY years a professor of ethics at Emory University, raised questions about postliberalism for the mainliners who read the Christian Century (March 24-31, 1999). Gustafson himself may not be the best inquirer since his survey of the theological landscape is about as nuanced as the famous New Yorker poster of the world where everything west of the Hudson River dissolves into Walmart and Disneyland. For instance, Gustafson wonders if there is any difference between postliberal affirmations of “divine personhood and activity” and “the virtually magical expectations of divine interventions that one hears proclaimed by television evangelists.” In Gustafson’s universe, Karl Barth is next to Jerry Falwell. (And we thought liberals were supposed to be the rocket-science party in American Protestantism.)
Notwithstanding Gustafson’s fundamentalist-like version of liberalism, his article does help to expose the limitations of postliberalism. In many ways, Gustafson’s piece has a stale smell to it. If he is any indication, liberals are still spooked by world religions and natural science, and so adjust the claims of Christianity in order to avoid giving offense either religiously, culturally or intellectually. But the big question, and one that he acknowledges comes from Ernst Troeltsch, concerns Christian particularism. Did God “choose to reveal Godself in a unique and exclusive way in a single historical event, Jesus Christ?” If postliberals answer “no” to that question, then they are really liberals, according to Gustafson. And so after 150 years of theological development in the United States, liberalism still boils down to being uncomfortable with Jesus only. (Could it be that the origins of not keeping score in Little League baseball games may reside in liberal Protestant timidity – wouldn’t want those little tikes scarred by the exclusive brands of “winner” and “loser”? Mind you, losing in baseball is a lot less painful than losing eternal life. But the good news of the gospel is that Christ made his exclusive salvation available to all people through the ministry of the church – something liberals gave up when they replaced the gospel with culture, and the church with institutions of cultural transformation.)
WILLIAM PLACHER, WHO teaches theology at Wabash College, was the only suspect the editors at the Century could round up to respond to Gustafson’s questions (April 7, 1999). And we must give him credit for answering Troeltsch’s big question pithily and Christianly. “Do postliberals claim that God chose to reveal Godself in a unique and exclusive way in a single historical event, Jesus Christ?” Placher’s unequivocal response is “yes.” To be sure, Jesus Christ’s ministry involved more than one event as the various stages of his humiliation and exaltation indicate. Still, Placher deserves credit for not blinking.
HE ALSO MADE SOME interesting observations along the way which suggest just how hard it is to move beyond liberalism. For instance, when Placher was in grad school in the early 1970s, Schubert Ogden, Gordon Kaufman and David Tracy were at the center of American mainline academic theology. He adds that Barth tended to be dismissed “out of hand.” Which raises an interesting question – what kind of mark did neo-orthodoxy make in the United States? Placher’s recollections, along with other impressions, suggests that the brothers Niebuhr, Tillich and Barth were far more of a fad that allowed the mainline denominations to absorb an existentialist form of Christianity than any kind of movement that righted the ship of American Protestantism.
Placher’s own positive comments about the gospel imply as much, and suggest that postliberalism may reach a similar outcome. As much as he is willing to affirm the particularity of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, his affirmation carries all the baggage of liberal Protestant timidity and turns Christ into a strange brew of abstract particularity. “Jesus Christ reveals and anticipates,” Placher writes, “the culmination of God’s will for creation, and in that sense Christianity is uniquely right about what is most important in the ultimate purpose of things.” How’s that? The real question isn’t just whether Christ is unique but whether what he did makes him unique. Did he die, rise from the dead, and ascend into heaven for sins, and will he one day return to judge the world? To be sure, that is a whole lot more exclusive than anything Gustafson is prepared to accept. But it also makes the uniqueness of Christ much more lively (and efficacious) than the neo-orthodox-inspired maneuvers Placher executes.
In the end, the Gustafson-Placher exchange is eerily reminiscent of an essay Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote also for the Century, sixty-five years ago when the theological grenade-thrower took back some of what he had said in his inflammatory sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Fosdick’s topic was “Beyond Modernism” (Dec 4, 1935), and the reasons he gave for being a postliberal stemmed from liberalisms’ over-intellectualizing of the faith, sentimental belief in progress, and watered down theology. But the worst feature of modernism, according to Fosdick, was its loss of nerve. “We cannot harmonize Christ himself with modern culture,” he declared. “What Christ does to modern culture” is not accommodate but “challenge it.”
THIS MAY BE WHY IT IS impossible to go beyond modernism. If liberals and postliberals can’t figure out that Christ’s work of redeeming and judging sinners is more challenging than simply being the moral compass of the culture, then both groups, whether followers of Troeltsch or Barth, miss the point. Christianity is not about culture, whether cheerleading for it or self-righteously condemning it. It’s about sin, grace, and preparing for the world to come. For that reason, the only way we will be convinced that significant theological developments are afoot in the mainline churches and seminaries is when the prefix “pre” comes into vogue, as in preliberalism.
Henry M. Lewis
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
From the January 2000 issue of the Nicotine Theological Journal:
On June 24, 1936, the Christian Century reported that with the founding of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, J. Gresham Machen had finally come “very close to the place where he will find peace in no church except one of his own making.” Among the reasons for the Century’s condescension was the fact that the OPC had been formed because of modernism in the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.’s Board of Foreign Missions. According to the Century, anyone who could possibly detect apostasy in the “operations of a missions board administered by such men as Robert E. Speer [and] John Mackay” should finally have done with the PCUSA. The point being that the likes of Speer and Mackay were so honorable and men of such character that they could never countenance the apostate views that Machen deemed modernist.
Surprisingly, the verdict of modern day conservative Presbyterians is similar to that of the Century two generations ago. Of course, today’s conservatives, if they know who Speer and Mackay were, would not judge them to be as good and decent as the editors of the Chicago religious weekly. But they do evaluate liberals in remarkably similar terms: if someone is a moral and decent Christian he can’t be a liberal or apostate. This line of reasoning is especially evident when contemporary Reformed believers conclude that a liberal must have a character on the degenerate order of William Jefferson Clinton because any decent person (who doesn’t beat his wife, gives to the poor, picks up trash) must be a conservative. In other words – to put it succinctly in the parlance of rabid Presbyterianism – liberals are scoundrels. (Which is the flip side of the modernist argument against conservatives – fundamentalists are un-American. Talk about ad hominem.)
THEN HOW DO WE EXPLAIN THE pro-family, love-thy-neighbor tone of the liberals who suspended Machen from ministering in the PCUSA? The very same report in the Century that summarized the proceedings of the General Assembly were Machen was suspended (June 17, 1936) also carried word that with the conclusion of the fundamentalist controversy the Presbyterian Church could turn to more pressing issues of social welfare. Among the items on the PCUSA’s agenda were the “evils” of Hollywood and alcohol. The church’s standing committee on social welfare was particularly alarmed that the movie industry “seems to have joined hands with the liquor traffic in portraying drinking scenes which tend to give young people the impression that these practices have general social approval.” The church also reaffirmed its commitment to “abstinence from the use of alcoholic beverages as the Christian ideal” and to “the progressive control and eventual elimination of the liquor traffic.”
BUT WHILE THE POWER OF liquor interests was “brazen” and “unparalleled,” at least the Century could find a few good words about Hollywood, which it supplied regularly in its weekly column, “The New Films,” which rated the latest movies and made recommendations for family viewing. For instance, here’s the capsule summary of “Border Flight,” a 1936 thriller, starring John Howard and Frances Farmer: “Crudely portrays coast guard’s heroic airplane fights against smugglers. Much thrill, mediocre acting, absurd character values. Villain, completely obnoxious throughout, becomes heroic suicide and wins what sympathy is left.” For “intelligent adults,” the Century’s reviewer deemed it “crude. For ages 15 to 20, “Poor.” And for children under 15, “Poor.” Later in the column the author recommended for family viewing “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “Show Boat,” and “Dancing Pirate.” Villains must not be so bad if their nimble on their feet.
To change the old adage, with liberals like this, who needs friends? So ingrained is the habit of thinking defective theology and loose morals go together that many contemporary conservative Presbyterians would be shocked to see how family-friendly institutions the Century and PCUSA were and still are. That’s because some conservatives have never thought carefully about the relationship between theology and practice. Instead, they have assumed that right practices automatically follow from orthodoxy and hence that anyone with questionable doctrine is invariably wicked. Which is only another way of saying that conservative Presbyterians fundamentally misunderstand liberalism. Hence the need for some remedial instruction.
THE BEST BOOK ON LIBERALISM in the United States is still William R. Hutchison’s Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (1976). And Hutchison gives a handy definition that should be particularly useful for conservative Presbyterian types. Simply put, liberalism is any modification of received orthodoxy. Typically, the doctrinal changes advocated by liberals run along the lines of divine sovereignty, human depravity, and Christian exclusiveness. But in America, liberalism made its biggest splash when Unitarians denied the deity of Christ. This is why Hutchison begins his study of modernism with a chapter on Unitarianism.
But for Hutchison liberalism does not equal modernism, and here is where this introductory course becomes tricky. Modernists advocated the self-conscious adaptation of Christianity to modern society by appealing to the doctrine of God’s immanence and by locating God’s presence in the unfolding of western civilization, which for them was the kingdom of God. Though modernism and liberalism clearly overlap, one need not believe in adapting Christianity to culture to be a liberal. Some liberals, Hutchison points out, were deeply suspicious about developments in modern society. Modernism, then, is a subset of liberalism. And as Hutchison also shows, the sorts of liberals that J. Gresham Machen was battling in the 1920s were actually modernists. They were not doctrinaire liberals. Instead, they were intent on being all things to all people (well, at least all WASPs ) for the sake of maintaining a Christian culture.
JUST AS SUBTLE AS THE distinction between modernism and liberalism is the apologetical nature of liberalism. Typically conservatives think that a liberal is someone who has denied the faith and that such denials are easy to spot. Having grown up in a fundamentalist home, I can well remember visiting preachers haranguing liberals for denying the deity of Christ, the virgin birth – the list goes on – the way that Hell’s Angels did. Liberals came across as scary people, sort of like witches or Democrats, folks who not only could not be trusted but were vicious, mean and calculating. But the classic work on liberalism, Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, assumes the best, not the worst, about the Protestant left. Modern science, technology, and culture had all made historic Christian teaching implausible. And so liberals, seeking to save Christianity, rescued “certain general principles of religion,” the so-called “essence of Christianity.” This was the same verdict of H. L. Mencken who wrote, modernists, “no doubt with the best of intentions,” have “tried to get rid of all the logical difficulties of religion and yet, preserve a pious cast of mind.” The Baltimore sage thought it a “vain enterprise.” But it was still an attempt to defend Christianity against its culture despisers.
AND IT IS THIS APOLOGETICAL side of liberalism that confounds so many conservatives. If liberalism is pernicious – which it is ultimately – how can it be credited with doing anything honorable? The answer to that question is fairly obvious when you keep in mind that there is another option available – it is to reject Christianity outright and become an atheist or pagan. But typically conservatives treat all non-conservatives as if they are atheists or pagans, forgetting that there is a middle ground, no matter how flawed, inconsistent or dishonest it is. Which is just to say that there is a huge difference whether you have a member of a Satanic cult, a member of the Dallas Cowboys, or a member of the Episcopal church living next door. Eternally all three persons may be heading for the same place, but here and now the Episcopalian would be more likely to take in the mail when you’re out of town, let the gas meter reader in without stealing the high fi, or feed the cat without strangling her. So the question, “how can people deny orthodoxy with good intentions?” invites the obvious answer, “well, duh.” Everyday when we cross intersections, balance check books, or buy bread, we assume that other drivers, bank clerks, and bakers, who may not hold orthodox views of the atonement or the inscripturation of God’s word, will not try to destroy us, our property or our reputations. Why would liberals be any different?
The decent and honorable intentions of liberals also helps to explain why liberalism is hard to spot. In his book on the Presbyterian controversy of the early twentieth century, Presbyterian Pluralism (1997), the sociologist William Weston claims that the PCUSA contained no full-blown modernists. Instead, the church only had the milder sort, evangelical liberals. And this was the same conclusion that the Special Commission of 1925, appointed to study the cause of the fundamentalist controversy. No one in the church was denying Christianity outright. But whoever said that liberals did that? It’s as if Madeline Murray O’Hair defines liberalism and since Harry Emerson Fosdick was not an atheist he must have been evangelical, though a little light in the divinity-of-Christ loafers. Liberalism, like life, is a lot subtler than that. Liberals try to have it both ways – being Christian without being orthodox. But they don’t want to abandon Christianity.
OF COURSE, THE HARD PART IS determining whether they have left the faith. This is hard because a liberal affirmation of the faith usually employs evasive language. But ethical considerations will not yield any greater clarity because liberals are generally such upright people, the kind who see villainy everywhere, from tobacco to racism.
J. Gresham Machen had no trouble recognizing the high ethical standards of liberal Protestantism. In fact, that is how he explained their inability to account for the apostle Paul’s invective against the Judaizers. “What a splendid cleaning up of the Gentile cities it would have been,” Machen could hear a run of the mill liberal saying, “if the Judaizers had succeeded in extending to those cities the observance of the Mosaic law, even including the unfortunate ceremonial observances.” But this excessive interest in making people moral is also what prompted Machen’s devastating critique. Instead of taking comfort in the Golden Rule or the Sermon on the Mount as liberals were wont to do, as if successful Christian living hinged on determining what Jesus would do, Machen thought Christ’s ethical teaching only produced despair. “In reality, if the requirements for entrance into the Kingdom of God are what Jesus declares them to be,” Machen wrote, “we are all undone; we have not even attained to the external righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.” The problem with liberals, then, wasn’t their disregard for Christian morality. It was that their high regard of human nature.
BUT IF MACHEN WAS HARD ON liberals for denying historic Christian teaching about sin and grace, he did not stoop to calling them villains. He believed it a Christian duty to sympathize with anyone who had lost their “confidence in the strange message of the cross.” What is more, despite their deep and abiding differences, he thought conservatives still shared “many ties – ties of blood, ties of citizenship, of ethical aims of humanitarian endeavor” with those who had abandoned the gospel. Believers even had a good deal to learn from non-believers and should treat those who differed from them with respect. Socrates and Goethe were not Christians but still towered “immeasurably above the common run of men.” And the reason for this respect was the gospel. “If he that is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than [non-believers], he is certainly greater not by any inherent superiority, but by the virtue of an undeserved privilege which ought to make him humble rather than contemptuous.”
So instead of piling on liberals and attributing all manner of wickedness to their theological equivocation, a basic lesson is in order: to paraphrase Neuhaus’ Law, Where Orthodoxy Is Optional, Righteousness Will Sooner Or Later Be Proscribed.