Crushing the Freedom of Thought

Freedom of thought in the middle ages was combated by the Inquisition, but the modern method is far more effective. Place the lives of children in their formative years, despite the convictions of their parents, under the intimate control of experts appointed by the state, force them then to attend schools where the higher aspirations of humanity are crushed out, and where the mind is filled with the materialism of the day, and it is difficult to see how even the remnants of liberty can subsist. Such a tyranny, supported as it is by a perverse technique used as the instrument in destroying human souls, is certainly far more dangerous than the crude tyrannies of the past, which despite their weapons of fire and sword permitted thought at least to be free.

–J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, Eerdmans, 1923, p. 14.

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.

Machen’s Objections to Federal Aid in Education

On February 25, 1926, J. Gresham Machen appeared before the Senate Committee on Education and Labor, and the House Committee on Education, to express his opposition to the bill establishing a federal Department of Education. An excerpt of comments from his opening statements follows.

“The department of education… is to promote uniformity in education. That uniformity in education under central control it seems to me is the worst fate into which any country can fall. That purpose I think is implicit also in the other form of the bill, and it is because that is the very purpose of the bill that I am opposed to it.

“This bill, I think, cannot be understood unless it is taken in connection with certain other measures of similar kind which have been proposed in the last few years; in the first place, of course, the so-called child-labor amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which I think was one of the most cruel and heartless measures that have ever been proposed in the name of philanthropy, which is saying a good deal. Another similar measure, of course, is the bill which has now been introduced, I believe, and which has appeared a number of times during the last few years, establishing in a very radical way a system of Federal aid to the States, with conditions on which this aid is to be received. It is perfectly clear of course, that if any such principle of Federal aid in education is established, the individual liberty of the States is gone, because I think we can lay it down as a general rule, with which everyone who has examined the course of education recently will agree, that money given for education, no matter what people say, always has a string tied to it. That appears in gifts of money by private foundations, and it appears far more, of course, when the gift comes from the Federal Government, which has already been encroaching to such an extent upon the powers of the States. But this bill establishing a Federal department of education, which has in it the principle of Federal aid, is a step and a very decisive step in exactly the same direction, and it is for that reason that we think it is to be opposed.”

The complete transcript of his testimony can be found here, at ReformationINK.

Machen on Education for Personal Fulfillment

“I think the man who above all others should be pitied is the man who has never learned how to amuse himself without mechanical assistance when he is alone. Even babies are sometimes taught to amuse themselves. I remember when I was at Princeton I used to watch the baby of one of the professors on the Seminary campus. That self-reliant little mite of humanity would spend the entire morning in the middle of that great green expanse, all by himself, and yet in the most complete contentment and in the most perfect safety. He was early learning the great lesson how to use his leisure time. He did not need to have anybody else rattle his rattle for him. Thank you, if he needed a rattle at all he could rattle his own rattle for himself. He was getting a good preparation for life. A person who can rattle his own rattle when he is a baby is very apt to be able to paddle his own canoe when he becomes a man.

“The average American, however, remains a baby all his life. He is unable even to rattle his own rattle. He has to have somebody else amuse him all the time. Leave him alone for five minutes, and he has to turn on his radio. It seems to make very little difference to him what the radio gives forth. All he wants is that some kind of physical impact shall be made on his eardrums—and incidentally on everybody else’s eardrums—just to keep him from having one moment to himself. Turn off his radio even for a moment and the appalling emptiness of his life is at once revealed.

“What is the explanation of this emptiness of American life? The explanation is that the average American is not educated. An uneducated man shrinks from quiet. An educated man longs for it. Leave an educated man alone, and he has, for one thing, the never-failing resource of reading. He has that resource in his home; he may even carry it around in his pocket. Mr. Loeb has done more for the cause of true education with his pocket editions of the classics than have the founders of many universities. Even more truly educated is the man who does not need even the prop of pocket editions, but can draw at any moment, in meditation, upon the resources of a well-stocked mind.”

— J. Gresham Machen, from Education, Christianity, and the State, excerpt reprinted in “Men versus Machines,” The Freeman, Sept. 1992.

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.

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.

Machen on Uniformity in Education

“Uniformity in education, it seems to me, is one of the worst calamities into which any people can fall. There are, it is true, some spheres in which uniformity is a good thing. It is a good thing, for example, in the making of Ford cars. … But what is good for a Ford car is not always good for a human being, for the simple reason that a Ford car is a machine while a human being is a person. Our modern pedagogic experts seem to deny the distinction, and that is one place where our quarrel with them comes in. When you are dealing with human beings, standardization is the last thing you ought to seek.”

J. Gresham Machen, “The Necessity of the Christian School”

Machen on Bible Reading in Government Schools

“I think I am just about as strongly opposed to the reading of the Bible in state-controlled schools as any atheist could be.

“For one thing, the reading of the Bible is very difficult to separate from propaganda about the Bible. I remember, for example, a book of selections from the Bible for school reading, which was placed in my hands some time ago. Whether it is used now I do not know, but it is typical of what will inevitably occur if the Bible is read in public schools. Under the guise of being a book of selections for Bible-reading, it really presupposed the current naturalistic view of the Old Testament Scriptures.

“But even where such errors are avoided, even where the Bible itself is read, and not in one of the mistranslations but in the Authorized Version, the Bible still may be so read as to obscure and even contradict its true message. When, for example, the great and glorious promises of the Bible to the redeemed children of God are read as though they belonged of right to man as man, have we not an attack upon the very heart and core of the Bible’s teaching? What could be more terrible, for example, from the Christian point of view, than the reading of the Lord’s Prayer to non-Christian children, as though they could use it without becoming Christians, as though persons who have never been purchased by the blood of Christ could possibly say to God, ‘Our Father, which art in Heaven’? The truth is that a garbled Bible may be a falsified Bible; and when any hope is held out to lost humanity from the so-called ethical portions of the Bible apart from its great redemptive core, then the Bible is represented as saying the direct opposite of what it really says.

J. Gresham Machen, in “The Necessity of the Christian School”

Also worthwhile from Machen on this topic: Education, Christianity and the State

Machen on the Importance of Academic Debate

“What is today a matter of academic speculation begins tomorrow to move armies and pull down empires. In that second stage, it has gone too far to be combatted; the time to stop it was when it was still a matter of impassionate debate.”

J. Gresham Machen, “Christianity and Culture.”