Even though his religious identity as a champion of strict confessionals and Presbyterian procedures had become clearer during the missions controversy of the 1930s, Machen still held considerable appeal for a broad range of fundamentalists who otherwise would have been repelled by his Presbyterian particularism. Despite the fact that Machen himself was not drawn into the fray over evolution, the high view of the Bible’s truthfulness that was implicit in his defense of Christian supernaturalism appealed powerfully to anti-evolutionists who believed that modern science denied divine intervention into the natural order. His insistence that Christianity was first and foremost a message to the individual soul won support from many who suspected that the older denominations had abandoned evangelicalism for social reform. And, in a movement that thrived on controversy, Machen’s willingness to challenge church officials pleased fundamentalists who rarely let denominational loyalty hamper the cause of evangelicalism.
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”: Continue reading “The Fundamentalist Political Vacuum of the Mid-20th Century”→
[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.
Mencken was not at all inclined to Machen’s religious views, saying that he stood “much more chance of being converted to spiritualism, to Christian Science or even to the New Deal than to Calvinism, which occupies a place, in my cabinet of private horrors, but little removed from that of cannibalism.” Yet Mencken admired Machen’s courageous and intelligent struggle against modernism in seminaries and churches. Mencken rejected Christianity, but despised the efforts of ecclesiastical modernists to dispense with the substance of Christianity while retaining its nomenclature, ceremony, and semblance of piety. “It is one thing,” Mencken wrote, “to reject religion altogether, and quite another thing to try to save it by pumping out of it all its essential substance, leaving it in the equivocal position of a sort of pseudo-science.”
Mencken also commented favorably upon Machen’s stance against Prohibitionism in the Church. The anti-alcohol movement had become quite the rage in churches of Machen’s era (indeed, it has had an inexcusably long legacy), and Mencken suggests that Machen’s opposition to it may have had something to do with Machen’s break with mainstream Presbyterians.
Mencken clearly took pleasure in observing Machen’s thorough routing of modernists. “Dr. Machen argued them quite out of court,” Mencken exulted, “and sent them scurrying back to their literary and sociological Kaffeeklatsche.”
Unfortunately, Machen’s battles ended in retreat. Crossed Fingers discusses those battles and the liberal strategy that led to their victory.