Machen on the Religious Basis of Morality
At the end of J. Gresham Machen’s testimony before Congress in February 1926, Senator Ferris asked Dr. Machen about the connections between religion and morality. This was in a discussion about the advisability of the creation of a federal department of education. Machen was objecting to the intrusion of the federal government into education, and was deeply concerned that teaching morality in government schools would, in practice, be moral teaching that was opposed to the orthodox understanding of the Bible. Earlier on this blog is a post about Machen’s opposition to the teaching of the Bible in public schools. Machen’s careful response to the senator emphasized the inseparability of religion and morality. (In Education, Christianity, and the State, Machen makes this far clearer.) Note too, at the end, a hint of eschatological optimism–in free conflict with other views, Machen had confidence that the Christian view would win out.
SENATOR FERRIS: I am just wondering whether there is any such thing as moral conduct in the United States Congress or among the citizens of the United States apart from a distinctively religious basis. I am just wondering whether the public schools have any function in the way of teaching morality which is not distinctively religious in its basic idea.
DR. MACHEN: I think that the solution lies not in a theoretic teaching in the public schools as to the basis of morality, because I do not think you can keep that free from religious questions; but I do hold that a teacher who himself or herself is imbued with the absolute distinction between right and wrong can maintain the moral standing, the moral temper of a public school.
SENATOR FERRIS: Is the ethical culturist ruled out from the consideration of morality in his views and conduct?
DR. MACHEN: I am not ruling out anybody at all, sir — the ethical culturist or anyone else.
SENATOR FERRIS: No; but if religion is the basic element in all morality, then can we have a morality that is not founded on a religious idea?
DR. MACHEN: I myself do not believe that you can have such a morality permanently, and that is exactly what I am interested in trying to get other people to believe; but I am not at all interested in trying to proclaim that view of mine by any measures that involve compulsion, and I am not interested in making the public school an agency for the proclamation of such a view; but I am interested in diminishing rather than increasing the function of the public school, in order to leave room for the opportunity of a propagation of the view that I hold in free conflict with all other views which may be held, in order that in that way the truth finally may prevail.
SENATOR PHIPPS: Thank you, Doctor. [Applause.]
Thanks to Shane Rosenthal at ReformationINK for the valuable archive of Machen’s writings.