The Fundamentalist Political Vacuum of the Mid-20th Century

J. Gresham Machen’s contest against theological liberals was not a contest against political involvement per se, though political action among professing Christians had become almost synonymous with “social gospel” liberalism. Machen was also opposed to the pietistic retreat of fundamentalists from political affairs. Though Machen was not a fundamentalist in the pietistic sense, his commitment to the inerrancy of the Bible and confessional orthodoxy put him in that category as far as the theological liberals were concerned. He had therefore become the de facto intellectual leader of conservative fundamentalists by the time of his death in 1937. Gary North explains the political vacuum existing among fundamentalists in the mid 20th century in this selection from the essay “The Intellectual Schizophrenia of the New Christian Right”:

The contrast between the present New Testament age of the Spirit and the previous Old Testament age of law did involve a shift toward a more “private” view of Christianity. The Holy Spirit worked in the hearts of individuals and was known primarily through personal experience. Social action, still an important concern, was more in the province of private agencies. The kingdom was no longer viewed as a kingdom of laws; hence civil law would not help its advance. The transition from postmillennial to premillennial views was the most explicit expression of this change. Politics became much less important.

Few premillennial-holiness evangelists, however, carried the implications of their position to the conclusion — more often found in the Anabaptist tradition — that since Satan ruled this age and its governments, Christians should avoid all political action, even voting. Far more characteristic was a position – typical of the pietist tradition – that saw governments as ordained by God to restrain evil, so that politics in this respect was a means to do good. What they gave up – at least in theory – was the Calvinist-Puritan Old Testament covenantal view of the identity of the people of God with the advance of a religious-political kingdom. Even this idea was not abandoned totally or consistently. Sabbath legislation – despite its Old Testament origins and intention to promote both Christianity and human welfare – continued to be an interest of many. Likewise, prohibition, which was both an attack on a demonic vice and a progressive reform for improving civic life, received support from almost all evangelical quarters.[15]

The prohibitionist movement was the “last hurrah” in politics for American fundamentalists. The backlash against prohibition, coupled with the backlash of the intellectuals against the Scopes trial in 1925, buried the fundamentalists for half a century. The chief spokesman for Bible inerrancy in the period of modernism’s victory (1923-36) was J. Gresham Machen [MAYchen], a Calvinist and a Presbyterian who was personally opposed to prohibition. He was not a fundamentalist.[16] At his death in January of 1937, the fundamentalist world was left without an intellectually respected spokesman. Furthermore, the Calvinists were left without a politically concerned, outspoken opponent to the expansion of Federal power. Machen was a nineteenth-century liberal in his political and economic views. His successors at Westminster Seminary were either silent on political issues (the political conservatives on the faculty, most notably Cornelius Van Til and John Murray) or not adherents of Machen’s economic views (most notably Paul Wooley and, later on, the seminary’s president, E. P. Clowney). It was only with the publications written by R. J. Rushdoony, beginning in the early 1960s, that any theologian began to make a serious, systematic, exegetical attempt to link the Bible to the principles of limited civil government and free-market economics. It must also be understood that Rushdoony was not able to get his historical and social books reviewed in the Westminster Theological Journal throughout the 1960s and the 1970s (with the exception of Institutes of Biblical Law, a review which was virtually forced into print by a faculty member, John Frame).[17] He became a “nonperson,” despite the fact that the Journal was filled with lengthy reviews of every liberal and obscure European theologian imaginable. Only one word fairly describes this book reviewing policy: blackout.

Thus, the fundamentalists have had no intellectual leadership throughout the twentieth century. Only with the revival of interest in creationism, which was made possible by Rushdoony’s support and Presbyterian and Reformed’s initial investment for The Genesis Flood, did the fundamentalist movement begin to get involved in arguments outside theology narrowly defined. When a more systematic fusion of theology and conservative social and political concerns finally became available — a revival of Machen’s outlook — Machen’s spiritual and institutional heirs ran for cover, hoping that the embarrassment would soon go away, in much the same way that fundamentalists ran from Jimmy Carter in 1980.

From “The Intellectual Schizophrenia of the New Christian Right,” by Gary North, in James B. Jordan and Gary North, eds., Christianity and Civilization, No. 1, Symposium on the Failure of the American Baptist Culture, Spring 1982. Tyler, Tex: Geneva Divinity School.

[15] Marsden, Fundamentalism, pp. 87-88. Note: he contrasts Anabaptism with Calvinism-Puritanism.

[16] Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir (Philadelphia: Westminster Theological Seminary, [1954] 1977). Machen’s book, Christianity and Liberalism (1923), was a kind of testament for anti-modernism. (Reprinted by Eerdmans.)

[17] Frame, Westminster Theological Journal, Vol. 38 (Winter, 1976).


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