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

April 11, 2011 1 comment

[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.

Machen on Government Education

“The reason I am opposed to the Federal Department of Education is that it represents a very ancient principle in the field of education, which, it seems to me, has been one of the chief enemies of human liberty for several thousand years—the principle, namely, that education is an affair essentially of the State, that education must be standardized for the welfare of the whole people and put under the control of government, that personal idiosyncrasies should be avoided. This principle of course, was enunciated in classic form in ancient Greece. It is the theory, for example, that underlies the Republic of Plato. But the principle was not only enunciated in theory, it was also, in some of the Greek states, put into practice. It is a very ancient thing—this notion that the 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. But that principle, I think you will find if you examine human history, is inimical at every step to liberty.”

—J. Gresham Machen, Education, Christianity and the State, excerpt reprinted in The Freeman, Dec. 1993

Shawn Ritenour also has this article on “No Child Left Behind” referencing Machen.

Categories: Education, State
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