How Did it Become So Easy to Get Out of a United Church?

In the United States, we put “the union” in USA. We are as much a republic as France, though we are still in our first iteration (some say Lincoln started our second republic) and the French are up to five. But in a few weeks, POTUS will deliver not “The State of the Republic” but “The State of the Union.” Union matters in part because the Civil War was so traumatic (and deadly). To consider separating from the U.S. is tantamount to the sin of schism. And yet Scotland can hold a referendum on leaving the UK or Britain can do the same to vote on leaving the European UNION! and no one fights a war to protect such unions, maybe because no one like an Abraham Lincoln was around to call these political arrangements “perpetual.”

The effects of political union on Christianity in the United States has been huge. Soon after the Civil War the Old and New School Presbyterian churches in the north reunited, with a large part of the rationale coming from imitating the Union. That merger launched a wave of ecumenical affiliations and networks that resulted in the Federal Council of Churches (1908) and a proposal to unite all Protestant communions in one United Church of the United States (comparable to the United Church of Canada). “United” has been a common part of Protestant church names, Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, Presbyterian Church in the United States, United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, the United Churches of Christ, the United Reformed Churches, and the United Methodist Church.

Now comes word that the Methodists are about to break apart into two denominations, one traditionalist (at least about marriage and sex) and one progressive (at least about marriage and sex). All it takes these days is a vote. No theological battles, no warring pamphlets. No one has even mentioned the s-word of schism. Although, Episcopalians still do not look favorably on leaving the Anglican communion.

If J. Gresham Machen had tried that back in the 1920s, he would (and did) have faced charges of disloyalty, unfaithfulness, and disobedience. In fact, when he called for a separation of conservatives and liberals, it was as if he had suggested Social Security should be privatized:

whether or not liberals are Christians, it is at any rate perfectly clear that liberalism is not Christianity. And that being the case, it is highly undesirable that liberalism and Christianity should continue to be propagated within the bounds of the same organization. A separation between the two parties in the Church is the crying need of the hour.

Many indeed are seeking to avoid the separation. Why, they say, may not brethren dwell together in unity? The Church, we are told, has room both for liberals and for conservatives. The conservatives may be allowed to remain if they will keep trifling matters in the background and attend chiefly to “the weightier matters of the law.” And among the things thus designated as “trifling” is found the Cross of Christ, as a really vicarious atonement for sin.

Such obscuration of the issue attests a really astonishing narrowness on the part of the liberal preacher. (Christianity and Liberalism)

Something is changing out there. The old liberal internationalist order is breaking up. The election of Donald Trump was one sign, Brexit was another. The change also is having effects on the ecclesiastical world.

Sense and More Sense

This may explain the appeal of the English, especially when they can see through the bombast of American exceptionalism under the cover of religious zeal:

Much as we all admire the United States and have great affection for many of its citizens, I rather feel your post of July 4th. showed up one of the less attractive traits of Americans which is to assume that what happens in the USA has universal significance for the rest of mankind. You’re not of course alone in this on Ref21 (yes, I’m looking at you, Leon Brown!) but some of us become a touch peeved if you seem to be implying that the outcome of that little contretemps that thankfully subsided in 1783 is somehow to be celebrated by all Presbyterians. (I should point out (if I don’t, they surely will!!) that this also rather excludes Reformed Baptists such as our brother Jeremy Walker, but as he is too busy celebrating the release of the Logos 5 Puritan Felt Hat Platinum Edition, he has little time left to celebrate anything else).

For example, when you say the Declaration of Independence ‘declares the sovereignty of God’ do you mean that Thomas Jefferson and others thought the term ‘Creator’ referred to the God of the Bible? If the main intent was to declare the sovereignty of God, would you not actually just refer to Him as ‘God’? And if this is a clever terminological compromise to accommodate Jefferson, Paine etc. doesn’t that somewhat limit the concept of the sovereignty of God? Meanwhile, poor old George III was part of a coronation ceremony that talked of God explicitly, and culminated in the anointing of the sovereign. This ceremony was used again for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. It is said that her anointing by the Archbishop of Canterbury (not very Presbyterian, I grant you, but they still have the 39 Articles!) in Westminster was the most important aspect to her of the whole ceremony, and it could be argued is a symbol that much better demonstrates the sovereignty of God over the civil power than changing God’s name to ‘Creator’ in a document. I need hardly point out that God’s people in the Old Testament also considered it a sufficient assertion of God’s Sovereignty over the monarch.

When you say the declaration and the constitution were drawn up by covenant representatives, I don’t doubt you. However, when you go on to argue that the US system of government is therefore like the Presbyterian form of government I can only agree with you up to a point. You see, in one there is a King of whom the covenant representatives are representatives of, whom He appoints, albeit they are drawn from His people. In the other, there is no King, or perhaps a different King, the People from whom not only are the covenant representatives drawn but whom they also supposed to serve. Noticing the difference, I leave it to others to ponder the potential dangers such an imbalance might lead to but, if you live in the US, I suggest a good place to start might be today’s newspaper.

And while we’re on the subject of covenant representatives (and, for that matter, balance), ‘the need for strong local and state governments, along with strong families and churches, to protect the people for the tyranny of the national executive.’, is all well and good and most necessary. However, as Carl Truman has repeatedly pointed out, the issue of the day is not the ability to restrain the executive but the Supreme Court, which for Christians or anyone else, given the weaknesses of the US Constitution, will prove to be very hard to do.

Finally, speaking as one who counts himself spiritually and temperamentally in the line of the English Puritans, I would not be so quick to glory in Presbyterian rebellion. Just on a point of accuracy, it was Charles I who ‘launched’ the Civil War by raising his standard at Nottingham, not the Puritans in Parliament. (I know, I know they cut of his head in the end, but none of them really wanted to!). But it could be said that both the Covenanters and the Rebels of 1775 (as well as those involved in more recent troubles in Ulster) were far too quick to arms and far too slow to lay them down. This trait, and there is some link to the forms of Christian religion dominant in those countries, was seen again in the US 70 years or so later, still the only country to fight a murderous and divisive Civil War over the issue of the abolition of slavery. So when someone on July 4th. accuses the English of having ‘a particular allergy to a thoroughgoing Reformed Church’ (Sorry to bring up Liam’s post, but the injustice of it still rankles even after 12 months.) the ‘particular allergy’ we actually have is to a heap of corpses, and the bitterness and sectarianism that endures as a result.

In all fairness, the mention of U.S. newspapers’ contents was a cheap shot since the English dailies don’t exactly reveal a well ordered society in the U.K. while they do reveal a number of ladies showing their naughty bits. Still, the call to humility away for chauvinism is well taken (especially when it remains humble).

If the South Had Called a Referendum

Instead of firing on Fort Sumter, would the Confederate States have had a better chance of declaring their independence (like Jefferson did in 1776) if they had followed the lead of the Scots and simply voted. I understand that elections are not always decisive as the imbroglio between Russia and Ukraine attests. But a peaceful vote to leave a union may have worked. After all, if the Scots can do it after over three centuries of being governed by London, why couldn’t the South have departed after a mere seven decades of “more perfect” union?

I write this from Edinburgh in a postage stamp of a hotel room that is smack dab in the middle of a city that is amazingly beautiful (and even boasts a statue of Thomas Chalmers). If Scotland secedes, will Edinburgh become less beautiful? And what will happen to all the royal bits of Edinburgh? You can’t walk fifty meters (however long that is) and not see something that was opened by British royalty or land owned or granted by a prince, queen or king. I hear that if Scotland secedes, the Prince of Wales will become the King of Scotland. That sounds like a put down for the Scots, as if a mere prince among the Welsh is the equivalent of a monarch in Scotland. Then again, if it means that the Stuarts don’t return to the thrown, I am for Prince Charles.

David Robertson, a Free Church of Scotland pastor, thinks that ministers — in good 2k fashion — should not preach about secession, nor should the church adopt a stance:

. . . the Free Church does not ,and will not take a stance either for or against independence. Why? Because the Bible says nothing about it and we are here to teach the bible. In applying Gods word to our current society there is nothing in it that would tell us we should vote yes or we should vote no. Each has to be persuaded in their own mind. The Church should not make pronouncements on issues for which it has no scriptural warrant. These are my personal opinions and I hope I would never proclaim them from the pulpit as though they had the authority of Gods Word.

That’s an encouraging word from a man normally inclined to follow Tim Keller on holy urbanism. It shows how sensible 2k is. The church only says that the Bible says — and even then, you need to read the entire Bible in the entire perspective of God’s plan of redemption. So while monarchy was (not so) great for the Israelites and while emperors were honorable for (even while torturing) the apostles, the rest of Christian history leaves believers to make it up as they go.

But after jumping out with such a promising start, Pastor Robertson can’t help himself. He believes — seriously — that nationalism can be redeemed:

I am somewhat bemused by people who warn about the evils of nationalism when it is Scottish, but seem to think it is ok when it is British. As the Mangalwadi quote at the start of this article states, nationalism when yoked to the reforming power of the Bible, can become a powerful redemptive force. At the end of the day – that is what I will work for, whether in an independent Scotland or a dependent Britain.

It is hard to know where to begin or end with this opinion. But for the sake of blogging’s brevity, I’ll keep it short. First, what does Pastor Robertson make of all the nationalism in twentieth-century Europe and the wars of global proportions it unleashed? It’s one thing to be patriotic (a form of loyalty to the land of one’s fathers), but another to wrap up a people’s identity along national lines. What would become of non-Scots in an independent Scotland? That is not an impolite question given Europe’s history.

Second, why does adding the Bible or salvation to something that has such a dubious record — nationalism, urbanism, theater, mathematics (plumbing is fine) — make it better? The record of mixing religion and nationalism is a narrative of the gross excesses of civil religion. And civil religion is a betrayal of the gospel because Jesus did not rise again to save the members of the Church of England or the Church of Scotland or even the Free Church of Scotland. Churches having to negotiate national boundaries is part of the business of Christian ministry in this age. But turning national boundaries and jurisdictions into redemptive purposes is an example of every-square-inch naivete.

Rebellions, Good and Bad

While Rush Hannivine (a conglomeration of Rush, Sean, and Mark) bemoan the federal government’s shut down of war memorials (and closing them to veterans), John Judis likens the Shutdown to one of the worst crises in American history. Since (all about) I am in the middle of a course on the Civil War and how Americans remember it and conjure its meaning, I was taken aback by any comparison of the current dysfunction in Washington (though it is constitutional dysfunction since the Constitution was designed with built-in dysfunction) to a war that took 640,000 lives and that forever underscores the dysfunctions of the founding (as in states vs. federal prerogatives or the legality of slavery). For all of the memorials that Americans have funded, built, and maintained, they don’t seem to be very adept at remembering arguably the bleakest part of U.S. history.

But Judis sticks to his comparison:

There is no simple explanation for why this is happening now, but there are precedents in American history for the kind of assault on government that the Republicans are mounting. First, there is the South of John Calhoun, which Sam Tannenhaus wrote about in The New Republic. Calhoun developed the doctrine of nullification—that states, claiming a higher Constitutional authority, could refuse to obey federal laws—in order to justify South Carolina’s opposition to tariffs adopted in 1828 and 1832. Calhoun’s doctrine became the basis of the state’s rights argument against attempts by the federal government to limit the expansion of slavery and a century later to enforce racial desegregation.

Secondly, there is the rise in 1937 of a conservative coalition of conservative Southern Democrats and rural Midwestern Republicans to block and repeal the New Deal through parliamentary maneuvers and investigations, which I wrote about two years ago. Calhounist nullification anticipates the anti-federal tactics of today’s Republican right. The conservative coalition of the late 1930s anticipates the composition of today’s Republican coalition and its grievance: the expansion of the federal safety net. Both of these older movements cited the United States Constitution as their authority for attempting to defy or dismantle the federal government. Like today’s Republican rightists, both older movements claimed to represent tradition and morality against a decadent modernity. They looked backwards. They were reactionary rather than conservative movements.

What happened to these movements gives some indication of what could happen to today’s Republican intransigents. The Calhounists precipitated a civil war, in which over 600,000 Americans died. The conservative coalition, on the other hand, faded temporarily from view and only reemerged in the last decades. That was because in 1941 Americans went to war against Nazi Germany and Japan. World War II unified Americans. In modern wars, the national government has to call upon all its citizens to do their part and to submerge their differences. Business made peace with labor; blacks served alongside whites. And that spirit of national unification lasted for 15 years after the war. It helped to give rise—although not without conflict—to a social compact between business and labor, an end to racial segregation and the preservation and expansion of New Deal programs like social security. If World War II had not intervened, it’s very likely that the conservative coalition would have grown stronger, and would have been able to stop the expansion of, if not undermine, social security.

Dismissing these rebellious Americans as reactionary is one way to make sense of U.S. history, but it stumbles and breaks its neck when U.S. administration after U.S. administration supports rebel groups in places like Syria and Egypt. Had a U.S. administration in 1861, say, opted for a two-state solution to the U.S. — which is what many Americans support in Israel — the South may have had the U.S.’s blessing in secession. In other words, Americans on both the left and the right are remarkably selective in how they celebrate freedom fighters, independence, and resistance to tyranny. What is still lacking is some kind of metric that says Muslim rebels are better than Christian southern rebels who are both inferior to deist Tea Party (original) rebels. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no advocate of rebellion at all times and in all places. But I do tire of making the South the whipping boy for defenders of the federal government when America has a long tradition of resisting the consolidation of power in the hands of centralized (national) authorities. If folks like Judis can seen the problem with Hitler or Assad, how about the NSA under Bush and Obama?

The other annoying part of Judis’ comparison is to suggest that the Shutdown may turn the U.S. into the Weimar Republic.

The civil war, as Marx once wrote, was a revolutionary clash that pitted one mode of production against another. Nothing so momentous is at stake today. It also pitted one region against another, and it was fought with rifles and men on horseback. The largest effect is likely to be continued dysfunction in Washington, which if it continues over a decade or so, will threaten economic growth and America’s standing in the world, undermine social programs like the Affordable Care Act, and probably encourage more radical movements on the right and the left. Think of Italy, Greece, or Weimar Germany. Or think about what the United States would have been like if World War II had not occurred, and if Europe, the United States, and Japan had failed to pull themselves out of the Great Depression.

This is the Chamber-of-Commerce take on the Shutdown — it’s bad for business and all those programs that the economy funds through taxation and regulation. What Judis seems to forget (again) is that if you want economic growth, at least the kind we now “enjoy” with a stock market that rises seemingly independent of employment rates, property values, manufacturing, or agricultural output, a civil war may be what the Chamber ordered. Here is a reminder from Allen Guelzo:

Northern financiers benefited in even more remarkable ways [from the Civil War]. The seven Democratic administrations that straddled the first six decades of the nineteenth century gave little if any encouragement to the development of American finance by holding the government’s role in the economy strictly to exchanges of specie. A good deal of the capitalization of American industry in the 1820s and 1830s had to be imported from abroad. But the war and the Republicans changed that: First, the threat of the civil war drove foreign investors off the American securities market, drove down demand, and allowed American investors to step into the vacuum; then, the Republicans dismissed the Democrats’ abiding suspicion of the financial markets and took the nation off the gold standard; finally, the immense amounts of money needed to carry on the war crated a new class of financiers — bankers, insurers and brokers such as Jay Cooke — who dealt in unprecedented volumes of cash and securities. The creation of the national banking system in 1863, and the subsequent disappearance of state bank currencies from Northern circulation, helped to further shift massive new amounts of financial power in the hands of financiers.

But there was a downside, one that may still be fresh in our memory:

Northern finance quickly outstripped the capacity of the Federal government to oversee and regulate it, and the financial community soon found itself agitating for a return to the gold standard, to to restrain the freewheeling dealings of the financial markets, but to slow down currency inflation and attach the markets to a standard independent of federal control. This meant, in effect, returning the United States to its dependence on the international flow of specie, especially through the hands of British financiers, and when the British financial markets failed in 1873, they carried Jay Cooke and other American financiers down with them.

Guelzo continues:

The most important change in the shape of the postwar American economy was organizational rather than industrial or agricultural; . . . Before the Civil War, only about 7 percent of American manufacturing was organized in corporations. . . . By 1900 corporations accounted for 69 percent of all manufacturing. . . “Now,” warned James A. Garfield in 1874, “a class of corporations unknown to the early law writers has arisen, and to them have been committed the vast powers of the railroad and the telegraph, the great instruments by which modern communities live, move, and have their being.” (Fateful Lightning, 519-21)

The lesson very could well be that original notion of too big to fail came with a refusal to allow the South to secede and thereby reduce the size of the U.S. By insisting on perpetual union and continuing to mock those who dissent from the federal government’s demands for uniformity and standardization, the U.S. has become the sort of imperial power against which its founders rebelled.