The Steel Trap of the Liberal Presbyterian Mind

Henry Sloane Coffin was a leading liberal minister in the Presbyterian Church USA during the 1920s. When the General Assembly of 1925 was ready once again to affirm the virgin birth as an essential doctrine of Christianity, Coffin threatened to lead an exodus of liberals (mainly from New York) outside the denomination. This vote was so threatening because the Presbytery of New York City had ordained two ministers (one of them Henry Pit Van Dusen, president of Union Theological Seminary during the Niebuhr era) who could not affirm the virgin birth.

A separation was what J. Gresham Machen had wanted because liberals and conservatives were in such conflict:

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. (Christianity and Liberalism)

But Coffin’s reply was to stand upon “the constitution of the Church,” not the provisions that included an affirmation of the virgin birth in the Confession and Catechisms, but that part that prevented General Assemblies from changing or adding “to the conditions” for ordination.

Coffin, after all, was an liberal evangelical:

We are first and foremost evangelicals . . . to the core of our spiritual beings. Any attempt to belittle Jesus, to reduce Him to a mere Teacher, a sage superior to other sages, but one among many, not the unique Saviour of the world; to substitute any other standard for the Bible as the authoritative express of God’s life with men. . . is to depreciate the Christian religion and to rob it of its vital force. (quoted in Longfield, Presbyterian Controversy, 88)

That evangelicalism came with a catch. According to Longfield:

In the Presbyterian conflict Coffin would fight for doctrinal liberty in the church, for the freedom to rethink Christian convictions in present-day categories. This was essential if the church was to survive in the modern world. But beyond that, Coffin was fighting to preserve the hope of a social and economic order redeemed through the people of God. The church existed “to embody and create the world-wide community of God,” “to conquer all the kingdoms of this world — art, science, industry, education, politics — for God and for His Christ. . . . The attacks of fundamentalist like Machen and Macartney on liberal evangelicals therefore threatened both the freedom of Christians and the future of the world. Only a universal church, a “re-united world-wide Church of Christ, supernational,” could marshal the power to remake the world according to Christ’s mind. (Longfield, 99)

Twenty-five years later, William F. Buckley, Jr. ran up against that sort of progressive (and still evangelical?) Christianity when he published God and Man at Yale, a book that blew the whistle on the lack of Christianity and friendliness to collective economics in the instruction at the school from which Buckley had just graduated. The book created a great controversy and was arguably the first installment of the conservative movement that would soon make a dent on the Republican Party.

Yale appointed a committee (like the way Charles Erdman appointed the Special Commission of 1925 to investigate the Presbyterian conflict) and the chairman of the commission was Henry Sloane Coffin. In a letter to a Yale alumnus, a copy of which went to Buckley, Coffin wrote that the book’s author was “distorted by his Roman Catholic point of view.” Buckley should have known that Yale was a “Puritan and Protestant institution by its heritage.” He also should have “attended Fordham or some similar institution.”

So in 1925 Coffin rejected a separation in the Presbyterian Church. But for Yale, he had no problem thinking that Roman Catholics should take their endeavors elsewhere. The separation of the church? No. The separation of the university? No problem.

Machen may have been able to warn Buckley had he lived beyond 1937:

Such obscuration of the issue attests a really astonishing narrowness on the part of the liberal preacher. Narrowness does not consist in definite devotion to certain convictions or in definite rejection of others. But the narrow man is the man who rejects the other man’s convictions without first endeavoring to understand them, the man who makes no effort to look at things from the other man’s point of view. For example, it is not narrow to reject the Roman Catholic doctrine that there is no salvation outside the Church. It is not narrow to try to convince Roman Catholics that that doctrine is wrong. But it would be very narrow to say to a Roman Catholic: “You may go on holding your doctrine about the Church and I shall hold mine, but let us unite in our Christian work, since despite such trifling differences we are agreed about the matters that concern the welfare of the soul.” For of course such an utterance would simply beg the question; the Roman Catholic could not possibly both hold his doctrine of the Church and at the same time reject it, as would be required by the program of Church unity just suggested. A Protestant who would speak in that way would be narrow, because quite independent of the question whether he or the Roman Catholic is right about the Church he would show plainly that e had not made the slightest effort to understand the Roman Catholic point of view.

The case is similar with the liberal program for unity in the Church. It could never be advocated by anyone who had made the slightest effort to understand the point of view of his opponent in the controversy. (Christianity and Liberalism)

The lesson could very well be, beware the tranformationalists.

From Goldwater to Trump

John Fea found an old LBJ ad that shows moderate Republican discomfort over ideological conservatives like Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential nominee. If Don Draper had worked for the Democrats, this is how it would have looked:

Drawing parallels between Trump and Goldwater are somewhat overdone since the Arizona Senator had a distinguished record of public service and even vowed to support Nixon in 1960 to the dismay of political conservatives. But the parallels do contain an element of truth in the sense that since the 1950s conservatives (and I count myself as one) have stressed ideological purity over political pragmatism. Maybe it’s the effect of turning 39, or maybe it’s the Trump phenomenon, but compromise for the sake of not blowing things up looks a lot more appealing these days than fidelity to “the movement.”

And here’s the kicker for Roman Catholics reading, some of the most articulate and intellectually rigorous supporters of Goldwater were Roman Catholics like Brent Bozell and William F. Buckley, Jr. (the latter of whom during the 1964 campaign had to distance himself from Robert Welch, the leader of the John Birch Society). In fact, Brent Bozell was the man who put Barry Goldwater’s political convictions into words — The Conscience of a Conservative (as I understand it, the book was entirely Bozell’s effort — see below).

All of this to say, Trump may be much more the fruit of the conservative movement and its anti-establishment ways than conservatives are wont to admit.

Postscript: a little background on Goldwater, Bozell and the conservative conscience:

Goldwater and Bozell were incongruous collaborators: The easygoing Westerner and the intense Midwesterner; the college dropout and the Yale law graduate; the Jewish Episcopalian and the Roman Catholic convert; the principled politician and the activist intellectual (Bozell had run for public office in Mary-land). But they shared a Jeffersonian conviction that that government is best which governs least. They looked to the Constitution as their political North Star. And they were agreed that communism was a clear and present danger.

Goldwater gave his final approval of the manuscript in late December, and Clarence B. Manion, the moderator of a highly popular weekly radio program “The Manion Forum” and the former dean of the Notre Dame Law School, undertook the publication and promotion of a book he was convinced would “cause a sensation.” Indeed it did. Before The Conscience of a Conservative appeared, Barry Goldwater was an attractive but controversial senator from a small Western state who was at best a long-shot vice presidential possibility. After the publication of The Conscience of a Conservative, Goldwater became the political heir to Robert Taft, the hope of disgruntled Republicans, partyless Independents, and despairing Democrats, and the spokesman of a new national political movement—conservatism.

What had Goldwater—and Bozell—wrought? The Conscience of a Conservative was an original work of politics and philosophy, a vision of the nation and the world as it should be, not a compromise with the world as it was. It was a fusion of the three major strains of conservatism in 1960—traditional conservatism, classical liberalism or libertarianism, and anti-communism. It was a book by a conservative for conservatives at a time when conservatives were beginning to realize the potential of their political power.

Trump is What Conservatives Do (or have done since 1950)

Maybe Trump’s 45 minutes of fame (he certainly has more than the rest of us) are coming to an end. But I continue to be surprised by the woe-is-me-conservatism that accompanies his candidacy and appeal (and I am not going to vote for him — there). He is an insurgent, he is a populist, he is undignified, he’s a threat to the GOP establishment.

So was William F. Buckley, Jr. (and he was a traditionalist Roman Catholic).

First Rod Dreher’s hand-wringing:

What Trump has shown, and is showing every day, is how out of touch Conservatism, Inc., is with the people for whom it purports to speak. They haven’t had a chance to vote for someone like him in a long, long time because, as I’ve said, the GOP and Conservatism, Inc., gatekeepers kept them down. The conservative Christians who have gone to Washington and gotten invited to be in the inner Republican power circles? You think those professional Christians really speak for the people back home anymore?

Me, I’m in a weird and extremely unrepresentative place, politically and ideologically. I am mostly a cosmopolitan in my tastes, but I live by choice in deep Red America, and am a traditionalist by conviction. What Sean Trende says about the Republican and conservative elites living inside a cosmopolitan bubble is true — and the people who give money to the GOP and to the think-tank archipelago are Business Conservatives who, as we now know post-Indiana RFRA, regard we traditionalists are the problem.

Second, Michael Brendan Dougherty on the problem with the editors of National Review repudiating Donald Trump:

You could call it a freak out on the right.

National Review, the flagship journal of the conservative movement, published a surprisingly defensive symposium, asserting the continued relevance of conservative ideas against an election-year populist challenger, who promised to fight for American jobs and sovereignty. “The old guard threw everything they had at him, and their diminished power is now exposed,” wrote David Brooks. This crude challenger to the party’s status quo had to be stopped.

That was eight years ago. And it was Mike Huckabee, whose advisor Ed Rollins declared the Reagan coalition dead. The challenge was sufficiently contained, then. But it was the first time that I noticed that the anti-establishment kick reflex that the conservative movement had installed in its Frankenstein-coalition of voters had turned around and began kicking them.

Donald Trump and his coalition of voters kick a lot harder than Mike Huckabee. And so we have another symposium, now exclusively anti-Trump. But this time around, even movement-bred stalwarts are wondering if Ed Rollins had a point. Maybe the coalition is dead.

There’s something faintly comical about everyone in the Republican party shouting, “I’m not the establishment. That guy is.” The conservative movement long ago defeated the East Coast establishment of the party. It was a total rout; the last semi-moderate New England Republicans were defeated a decade ago. And yet, conservatives still insist that they are fighting some powerful establishment within the Republican Party.

The irony is that National Review’s founding editor, Buckley, had a lot to do with defeating the East Coast Establishment GOP. Garry Wills knows the score:

Joe Scarborough, in a recent book, The Right Path: From Ike to Reagan, How Republicans Once Mastered Politics—and Can Again, claims that moderate conservatism is the real Republican orthodoxy, interrupted at times by “extremists” like Goldwater or the Tea Party.3 He suggests Dwight Eisenhower as the best model for Republicans to imitate. Yet Scarborough is also an admirer of Buckley, and his thesis does not explain—as Dionne’s thesis does—why Buckley despised Eisenhower. Eisenhower, as the first Republican elected president after the New Deal era of Roosevelt and Truman, was obliged in Buckley’s eyes to dismantle the New Deal programs, or at least to begin the dismantling. Buckley resembled the people today who think the first task of a Republican president succeeding Obama will be to repeal or take apart the Affordable Care Act.

Eisenhower, instead, adhered to the “Modern Republicanism” expounded by the law professor Arthur Larson, which accepted the New Deal as a part of American life. Eisenhower said, “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history.” It was to oppose that form of Republicanism that Buckley founded National Review in 1955, with a program statement that declared: “Middle-of-the-Road, qua Middle-of-the-Road is politically, intellectually, and morally repugnant.”

Buckley hated Eisenhower’s foreign policy as much as his domestic one. He said, “Eisenhower was above all a man unguided and hence unhampered by principle. Eisenhower undermines the Western resolution to stand up and defend what is ours.” When Russia put down the 1956 uprising in Hungary and Eisenhower did not intervene, National Review called for people to sign the Hungary Pledge—to have no dealings with iron curtain products or exchanges (Buckley’s wife had to give up Russian caviar).

Admittedly, Buckley did not, like Robert Welch (founder of the John Birch Society), think Eisenhower was a secret Communist (as many Republicans now think Obama is a secret Muslim). Buckley thought that Eisenhower had no greater purpose than his own success: “It has been the dominating ambition of Eisenhower’s Modern Republicanism to govern in such a fashion as to more or less please more or less everybody.”

The sense of betrayal by one’s own is a continuing theme in the Republican Party (a Fox News poll in September 2015 found that 62 percent of Republicans feel “betrayed” by their own party’s officeholders). The charges against Eisenhower were repeated against Nixon, who brought Kissingerian “détente” into his dealing with Russia and renewed diplomatic ties to China. On the domestic front, he imposed wage and price controls and sponsored the welfare schemes of Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Buckley joined the effort to “primary” Nixon in 1972 by running John Ashbrook against him. Buckley campaigned for Ashbrook in New Hampshire, but he succumbed to pleas from Spiro Agnew (before his disgrace) and Henry Kissinger (a new friend of his) that he endorse Nixon for the general election.

Any American with conservative instincts should in the presence of Donald Trump act like we’ve been here before.

R2K

An excerpt from William F. Buckley, Jr.’s interview with himself on the 1965 New York City mayoral race. Notice how little attention this observant Roman Catholic pays to religion in his outlook or to the “heresy” of radical individualism:

Q. What is it that distinguishes you from these other candidates? Why should only great big brave you consent to run on a program that would really liberate New York, while the other candidates do not?
A. Because the other candidates feel they cannot cope with the legacy of New York politics. That legacy requires the satisfaction of voting blocs, with special attention given to the voting bloc or blocs most fractious at any given election period. But to satisfy voting blocs increasingly requires dissatisfying the constituent members of those same voting blocs in their private capacities. However, since it is more dangerous to dissatisfy organized blocs of voters than individual voters—even if they happen to be members of voting blocs—political candidates in New York address their appeals to the bloc rather than to the individual.

Q. Would you mind being specific?
A. As far as New York politicians are concerned, a New Yorker is an Irishman, an Italian, or a Negro; he is a union member or a white collar worker; a welfare recipient or a city employee; a Catholic or a Protestant or a Jew; a taxi driver or a taxi owner; a merchant or a policeman. The problem is to weigh the voting strength of all the categories and formulate a program that least dissatisfies the least crowded and least powerful categories: and the victory is supposed to go to the most successful bloc Benthamite in the race.

Q. What’s the matter with that?
A. What is the matter with it is that New York is reaching the point where it faces the marginal disutility of bloc satisfaction. The race to satisfy the bloc finally ends in dissatisfying even the individual members of that same bloc. If, for instance, you give taxi owners the right to limit the number of taxis available in the city, people who need taxis to get from where they are to where they want to go can’t find taxis when they most want them. If you allow truck drivers to double-park because it is convenient to them and to the merchants whose goods they are unloading, traffic is snarled and taxi drivers can’t move fast enough to make a decent living. When the traffic is snarled, people stay away from the city and the merchants lose money. If the merchants lose money they want to automate in order to save costs. If the unions don’t let them automate they leave the city. When they leave the city there are fewer people to pay taxes to city officials and to the unemployed. (The unemployed aren’t allowed to drive taxis because the taxi owners share a monopoly.) Taxes have to go up because there are fewer people to pay taxes. The unemployed grow restless, and breed children and crime. The children drop out of school because there isn’t anyone at home to tell them to go to school. Some of the children who go to school make school life intolerable for other children in school, and they leave and go to private schools. The teachers are told they mustn’t discourage the schoolchildren or they will leave the schools and commit crime and unemployment. The unions don’t want the unemployed hired because they will work for less money, or because they are Negroes and Puerto Ricans and obviously can’t lay bricks or wire buildings like white people can, so they are supposed to go off somewhere and just live, and stay out of the way. But they can’t live except in houses, and houses are built by plumbers and electricians who get eight, ten, twelve dollars an hour, which means that people can’t afford to buy houses, or rent apartments, at rates the city can afford to pay its unemployed, so the federal government has to build housing projects. But there aren’t enough housing projects, so there is overcrowding, and family life disintegrates. Some people turn to crime, others to ideology. You can’t walk from one end of New York to another without standing a good chance of losing your wallet, your maidenhead, or your life; or without being told that white people are bigoted, that Negroes are shiftless, that free enterprise is the enemy of the working class, that Norman Thomas has betrayed socialism, and that the only thing that will save New York is for the whole of the United States to become like New York.

Q. What would you do, if you became Mayor of New York?
A. I would treat people as individuals. By depriving the voting blocs of their corporate advantages, I would liberate individual members of those voting blocs.

Imagine that. Treating people as individuals, not as if their identity is bound up with a religion, race, gender, or sex bloc.

Was Buckley the conservative channeling John F. Kennedy, Jr., the first Roman Catholic president, who said that as a public official he would not be beholden to his faith?

In But Not of America (part four)

During the Americanist controversy for Roman Catholics — Protestants had their own version with the Second Pretty Good Awakening — the question was how to bring U.S. bishops who promoted American patriotism and nationalism in ways the Vatican regarded as harmful into line with the papacy. What is remarkable about recent post-Vatican II history in the U.S. is that this question has shifted from the bishops to the laity (though only a few are raising the question). Jason and the Callers may want us to think that papal authority is just what overly opinionated Protestants ordered, but they don’t notice or try to account how their theory squares with the seemingly infinite variety of lay Roman Catholics who speak for the church in ways that used to be well above their pay, pray, and obey grade. In other words, the problem isn’t renegade bishops. It is laity who think they actually understand and can explain what a hierarchical church confesses, worships, and teaches.

Michael Sean Winters reminded me of this when he posted an excerpt from William F. Buckley, Jr.’s reaction to John Paul II’s encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis.

This Tweedledum-Tweedledee view of the crystallized division between the visions of Marx, Lenin, Mao Tse-tung, and Pol Pot over against those of Locke, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Churchill makes Christian blood boil with the kind of indignation that fueled the spirit of the Christian martyrs who have died by the millions since 1917 imploring God to relieve mankind of the curse of what at the hands of the Pope in this encyclical becomes merely one of ‘two systems’ grown ‘suspicious and fearful’ of the other’s domination. Obviously, in the 102 pages one can find the ritual Christian affirmations. But they are swamped by a theological version of the kind of historical revisionism generally associated with modern nihilists. One prays that the Holy Father will move quickly to correct an encyclical heart-tearingly misbegotten.