Home > Economics, Education, State > Machen’s Political and Economic Views (and W. J. Bryan’s)

Machen’s Political and Economic Views (and W. J. Bryan’s)

[Machen] was also a nineteenth-century Whig liberal in his political and economic views, something not understood by some of those Calvinist Presbyterians who have claimed him as their spiritual father. Like Robert Dabney, the Southern Presbyterian theologian and social philosopher, Machen was a believer in limited civil government, non-intervention in foreign policy (one view he shared with Bryan), and private charities rather than tax-financed institutions of coercive wealth redistribution. He opposed Prohibition as an unwarranted incursion into people’s freedom of action by the civil government. He testified before a joint Congressional committee in 1926 against the proposed U.S. Department of Education. He opposed the proposed amendment to the Constitution, the child labor amendment of 1935. He opposed military conscription. He opposed the New Deal’s Social Security legislation and its anti-gold standard monetary policy, which, he said, undermined contracts. He opposed Bible reading or the teaching of morality in public schools, since he recognized that the teachers were predominantly atheistic, deistic, or liberal in their theological opinions. Presumably, he would have opposed prayer in public school classrooms. This was a departure from the opinion held by A.A. Hodge in the 1880s. Hodge could still claim that the United States was a Christian nation, and that its public schools should reflect this fact. By Machen’s day, such a claim was less believable. But he did not publicly reject tax-financed public education. His Scottish common sense rationalism did allow for some degree of common ground in education, which alone might legitimize tax-funded schools.

Compare his views with [William Jennings] Bryan’s. Bryan was a Populist, a believer in Big Government to help the Little People. At the 1923 General Assembly, he had challenged a modernist critic who had dismissed him as being wrong… again. Bryan knew this was an attack on his political career. He responded by an appeal to his political record: “Did you do more than I did to put across women’s suffrage? Did you do more than I did to put across the election of Senators by direct vote of the people? Did you do more than I did to levy an income tax so that those who had the wealth would have to pay for it? There has not been a reform for twenty-five years that I did not support and I am now engaged in the biggest reform of my life. I am trying to save the Christian Church from those who are trying to destroy her faith.” He had lobbied successfully to get Wilson’s Federal Reserve Act passed by Congress. He went so far as to call it “the most remarkable currency measure we ever made.” He later concluded that this noble institution “has been captured by Wall Street,” but he called only for its restructuring into an agency for the public interest, not for its abolition. Predictably, he was a strong supporter of Prohibition; many pages of Koenig’s biography of Bryan are devoted to this subject.

From Gary North’s Crossed Fingers: How the Liberals Captured the Presbyterian Church, ch. 8.

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  1. April 21, 2011 at 11:12 PM

    Dear Tim, Just saw your new site dedicated to Machen and really enjoyed it. Many good resources AND a focus on dimensions of Machen often overlooked by those only interested in his theology (without their ramifications for the rest of life). Don’t know your co-conspirator Shawn Ritenour, but I did notice the sartorial splendor beneath his chin. An aesthete of the 1st magnitude! 🙂 Take care and keep up the good work. Especially enjoyed your feature of Machen vs. William Jennings Bryan. So much to learn (in a negative way) from Bryan’s lack of biblical insight (and therefore OPENESS to the non-Christian political culture). Charley Dennison, past OPC Historian, always highlighted Machen’s COUNTER CULTURAL GENIUS. I have appreciated that more and more with age, know the difficulties (and costs) of standing against the things everyone else took (or takes) for granted! — Dick

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