Religion & Liberty Online

Christianity and Liberalism: The Spirituality of the Church in a Politicized World

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It’s the 100th anniversary of J. Gresham Machen’s classic work. It didn’t change American Presbyterianism but should have. Was he just ahead of his time?

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J. Gresham Machen’s book Christianity and Liberalism, published 100 years ago, was a curious mix of theology and politics. Readers and commentators commonly miss the political part if only because Machen, a Southern Presbyterian who labored in exile among Northern Presbyterians (the two communions were divided from the Civil War to 1983), was a proponent of the spirituality of the church, a hallmark doctrine of the Southern denomination. How was it that Machen could hold to a doctrine that said the church should stay out of politics, all the while affirming a political order he thought compatible with conservative doctrine? Was he blind to the way politics informed his own view of the church? These tensions may explain why some trace the Christian right of the 1980s to Machen. According to Austin Lee Steelman, Machen’s blend of biblical literalism and constitutional originalism influenced Protestant conservatives in a manner that ultimately blossomed in support for Donald Trump. An inerrant Bible and an originalist Constitution became “the rallying cry” behind the desire to “Make America Great Again,” whether expressed in “the Reagan Revolution, Tea Party rallies, [or] the red hats worn by supporters of the 45th president.”

The rush to conflate politics and theology, whether in Machen or his liberal Protestant foes, ignores questions about the appropriate work of the church within the kaleidoscope of institutions that operate and overlap in a liberal democracy. Christianity and Liberalism’s defense of historic Christian doctrines did not inherently favor Democrats or Republicans. But its author did assume a civil order that protected the freedoms not just of citizens but also of families, schools, civic associations, municipal and state governments, and even churches. If Machen opposed redeeming American society through Progressive reforms (i.e., the social gospel), he did so not simply because liberal Protestantism misunderstood the Christian message but also because the Christian America favored by liberal Protestants disturbed the delicate balance of institutions upon which American society depended.

The Man and His Book

Born in 1881 to a prominent Baltimore family (father an accomplished attorney, mother a daughter of a Georgia businessman and local politician), Machen rubbed shoulders with the Progressive Era’s elites both at his local Presbyterian congregation and at Johns Hopkins University, where he majored in the Classics and completed an M.A. Among the figures who attended church (or were officers) and who studied at Johns Hopkins were Woodrow Wilson and Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve, a first-rate classicist who was a mentor to the young Machen. The Machen family also summered in Seal Harbor, Maine, and so rubbed shoulders with influential members of the so-called Protestant establishment (which included Machen at least by birth but also through a variety of networks). After studying at Johns Hopkins, Machen attended Princeton Seminary partly because he was uncertain about a career. When he saw a link between the study of the ancient world and the New Testament, Machen decided to become a biblical scholar. He did a year of advanced study in Germany before becoming, in 1906, an instructor at Princeton Seminary (assistant professor in 1914). Some frustration with an ivory tower existence prompted him to volunteer as a YMCA secretary during World War I, where he ran a canteen and led Bible studies among troops on the front in France. Although Machen was skeptical about the Anglophilia that informed the nation’s foreign policy, the war’s brutality contributed to his skepticism about the idealism that dominated American affairs in general. He did not, however, become disillusioned the way modernist writers did after the war. But Machen’s loyalty to Christianity came with significant reservations about Western civilization’s capacity to make the world a better place.

Soon after returning from the war and writing a book on the apostle Paul, Machen attended his first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUSA) and witnessed a denomination caught up in the exuberance of progressive democracy. Specifically, Machen heard a proposal for a union of America’s largest Protestant denominations designed to create a single American Protestant Church (similar to what Protestant ecumenists accomplished five years later with the formation of the United Church of Canada). The hope was to bring Protestants together to serve the nation and the world in creating a Christian social order. The plan drew upon 50 years of Protestant ecumenism and social gospel exhortation, the purpose of which was to save Christian culture amid the tumult of industrialization, economic inequality, and mass immigration. Machen objected to such ecumenism because it meant abandoning core Presbyterian convictions. He was also skeptical about the implications of Protestant unity for civil liberty and cultural pluralism in the United States. Indeed, Machen’s theology and politics ran against the grain of American Progressives’ moralistic policies.

Christianity and Liberalism emerged in this setting. Although its explicit purpose was to defend Christian doctrine, its subtext was a complaint against the increasing standardization and centralization of American life. What may have surprised readers then and now was that his lament took the side not of WASP elites but of immigrants and cultural outsiders. In the book’s introduction, when he explained why readers outside the churches might find the fundamentalist controversy important, Machen devoted several pages to state laws that banned the study of foreign languages in public schools before the eighth grade or that required students to attend public (instead of parochial or private) schools. These laws were signs of a “drab utilitarianism in which all higher aspirations are … lost.” Later in the book when arguing against a utilitarian view of religion with the church as an agent of civic improvement, Machen again invoked the experience of immigrants. To illustrate the pragmatic approach to Christianity, Machen adopted the voice of the Progressive do-gooder: “There is the problem of the immigrants, great populations have found a place in our country; they do not speak our language or know our customs.” This problem of assimilation led reformers to use religion in a peculiar way: “We are inclined to proceed against the immigrants now with a Bible in one hand and a club in the other offering them the blessings of liberty.” This was an odd way, he observed, to achieve “Christian Americanization.”

Behind these reforms, Machen argued, was a “materialistic paternalism” that discouraged all “spiritual adventure.” He feared this outlook was turning America into “one huge ‘Main Street’” in which democracy had become little more than reducing all people to “the proportions of the narrowest and least gifted of the citizens.” Although modernization had yielded great improvements in material conditions, those advances had come at the expense of “spiritual decline.” This was Machen’s one shot at enlisting cultural traditionalists on the side of conservative Christianity. Perhaps people who read and studied the ancients or the great works of Western literature and philosophy could sympathize with those Protestants, like Machen, who wanted to defend and maintain the historic Christian teachings on sin and grace. If Plato’s dialogues or Cicero’s moral reflections were part of Western civilization’s spiritual “adventure,” then, Machen hoped, cultural conservatives might find room for the apostle Paul’s epistles or King David’s psalms.

However plausible that analogy, the politics that framed Christianity and Liberalism pushed back on what Walter Lippmann called “the dominant dogma of the age,” the idea that government could solve most human problems. Contrary to that ambitious view of government, Machen insisted that only the church, in its spiritual capacity through the ministry of word and sacrament, had the remedy for humankind’s alienation from God and adversarial social relations. He concluded the book with an example of the church’s spiritual character: “Weary with the conflicts of the world,” Machen wrote, “one goes into the Church to see refreshment for the soul.” Too often the world-weary Christian heard sermons “with human opinions about the social problems of the hour or easy solutions of the vast problem of sin.” Machen pleaded for a space “where two or three can gather in Jesus’ name, to forget for the moment all those things that divide nation from nation and race from race, to … forget the passions of war, to forget the puzzling problems of industrial strife, and to unite in overflowing gratitude at the foot of the Cross.” If such a place existed, he concluded, “then that is the house of God … the gate of heaven.”

The Book and the Man’s Reception

Machen’s plea sounded reasonable to journalists like Lippmann and H. L. Mencken, who complimented the Princeton professor for an intelligent case for traditional Protestantism. But within the PCUSA, Machen’s arguments threatened a denominational bureaucracy that supported both Protestant unity and Progressive reform. A number of episodes in the fundamentalist controversy within the Presbyterian Church turned Machen into a pariah—first as a source of misinformation about those who did not share his views, then as an uncooperative colleague at Princeton Seminary, and finally as a Presbyterian rebel who would resort to starting a new foreign missions agency to protest the infiltration of liberal theology overseas. Arguably the most vivid example of Machen’s misfit status came in 1926, when he was up for promotion at Princeton Seminary.

Prohibition was a success story for Progressives, and it received support not just from fundamentalists but also from mainline Protestants. At the spring 1926 meeting of the Presbytery of New Brunswick (where Machen was a member), members deliberated a motion to support the Eighteenth Amendment and Volstead Act. Machen voted no by voice. His reason, as he later explained in a statement not published until 2004, was that the Bible did not condemn alcohol; neither did Scripture prescribe a government policy for regulating alcohol’s sale and distribution. This was a direct application of the spirituality of the church, which as the Westminster Confession had it, “Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition” (31.4). But at the 1926 General Assembly, where delegates heard a recommendation to promote Machen to professor of apologetics and ethics (Princeton Seminary is an agency of the General Assembly), the denomination postponed the matter after hearing reports that called into question the professor’s character. How could anyone who did not support Prohibition, some wondered, teach Christian ethics responsibly? Rumors about Machen’s questionable temperament were rife for the next two years during an inquiry into controversies at Princeton Seminary between conservatives and moderates. To end that conflict, the investigating committee recommended an administrative restructuring that actually turned the conservative majority (faculty and directors) into a minority. Machen emerged from the Presbyterian controversy not simply the chief voice of conservatives but a mean-spirited and unreliable one now teaching at a start-up seminary (Westminster, founded in 1929).

The Church and Civil Society

As much as Machen gained a reputation as a foursquare Calvinist thanks to books like Christianity and Liberalism, he also emerged as the odd man out in mainline Protestantism. The reason for his peculiarity owed as much to doctrine as it did to his understanding of the church’s place in a liberal society. Unlike most Anglo-American Protestants who for almost 100 years regarded Protestantism as the bulwark of a free and civilized society, Machen saw the church as merely one agency among a wide array of mediating institutions that gave society coherence and stability. By 1920, when mainline Protestants had embraced Progressive ideas about achieving social harmony through government regulations and academic expertise, Machen persisted with an older understanding of American politics that recognized government’s proper functions but also insisted that the state stay in its lane. For him, the same principle applied to the church. Simply having the truths of Scripture or being agents of God’s kingdom was no basis for Christian nationalism. The spirituality of the church went hand in hand with limited government, constitutionalism, and federalism—at least it did for Machen and a strand of conservative Protestants like him.

The political theorist Jacob Levy, in Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom (2015), argues that within liberalism is a basic tension between pluralism and rationalism. For pluralists, freedom applies especially to “persons as they are, living lives that they already lead, lives that are embedded in particular communities … shaped by particular cultural and religious traditions.” For rationalists, in contrast, freedom ideally emerges from “persons’ ability to transform or transcend” attachments to local communities and intermediate associations. Pluralists in turn are skeptical of the state when it disrupts local and parochial forms of belonging, while rationalists see the state as an important agent in liberating individuals from those specific memberships. Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism clearly reflected a political outlook that fell on the pluralist side of liberalism. Although his critics could not imagine that strictness over theology and church government could ever be liberal, Machen’s own politics assumed a place for strong and binding associations within a free society.

That liberal outlook was the subtext of Machen’s highly regarded book. Beneath his credible and forceful defense of Reformed theology was a conception of society in which the church was a healthy and vigorous institution with limited responsibilities. He assumed that a free society consisted of a range of nongovernmental and associative agencies that performed a variety of necessary functions for citizens and residents. Christians needed the church for spiritual sustenance but also depended on a variety of organizations and institutions for other aspects of their lives. At a time when many evangelicals have become enamored of the notion that a theologian or pastor can be fully orthodox and fully modern, Machen was an example of that trend well before it became fashionable.

D. G. Hart

D.G. Hart teaches history at Hillsdale College and is the author most recently of Benjamin Franklin: Cultural Protestant (Oxford, 2021).