Taking up Machen’s Torch: An Archetype for Christian Libertarians

Libertarians have often fumbled over where we stand on the so-called political spectrum. We tend to have a sense of feeling “liberal among conservatives,” and “conservative among liberals.” Even among libertarians, you can sometimes find a form of left/right paradigm, and a similar type of binary paradigm exists in the church as well. Liberal Protestants and fundamentalist evangelicals have been at odds for well over a century and now discussions are cropping up about nationalism and creeping Marxism – even into the Reformed community. So what’s going on and how do Christian libertarians respond? The answer may be found, in part, with one of the first Christian libertarians, J. Gresham Machen.

J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937), withstood this paradigm in both spheres of civil governance and church, as he battled against both liberalism and fundamentalism. Machen observed the parallel between liberal theology and the political left, and fundamentalist theology and the political right. On both sides, religious beliefs were fueling political ideologies unfriendly to liberty, particularly religious freedom. Machen staunchly opposed ideas that jeopardized the proper roles of Christian faith and civil governance and so opposed these two movements in both realms of church and state. Here‘s how he did it.

Machen Against Liberalism

Separate from his politics, Machen is actually best known for helping found Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929 and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1936. He vocally opposed many attempts to grow the state by both the left and the right and found that corresponding theology drove those attempts. Liberal theology, which in part called into question the inspiration of Scripture, also changed the understanding of the relationship between church and society. It aimed to leverage the institution of the state to resolve problems Christians are called to, like caring for the poor, healing the sick, and so on.

And by questioning the inspiration of Scripture, liberal theology entertained a theological tolerance that moved doctrine away from protestant confessional standards that were accepted at one time by multiple breakaways from the original Lutheran movement, which included Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and others. Liberal theology resulted in a social gospel, that looked friendly to what we know of socialism today, and Machen believed this social gospel would destroy a free society.

Machen was a family friend of Woodrow Wilson but opposed Wilson‘s war-mongering patriotism which sanctimoniously likened the sacrifice of Christ’s blood on the cross to the soldier’s shed blood on the battlefield. (And you thought that was a conservative thing that started with 9/11.)

“It never seems to dawn upon them that this was no sinful man, but the Lord of glory who died on Calvary. If it did dawn upon them, they could gladly confess, as men used to confess, that one drop of the precious blood of Jesus is worth more, as a ground for the hope of the world, than all the rivers of blood which have flowed upon the battlefields of France.” (J. Gresham Machen: Select Shorter Writings, P&R, 2004, 378)

In a biography of Woodrow Wilson written by Barry Hankins, a history professor at Baylor University, Hankins explains, “When [Wilson] said Christ had come to ‘save the world,’ he meant it in the social and collective sense. And democracy was the means for this social salvation.”

Politically, Machen actively opposed the creation of a federal department of education and child labor laws for the threat such government overreach posed to the family. And while he refused to testify on the side of fundamentalists in the famous Scopes Trial (teaching Darwinian evolution in schools), he opposed scientific endeavors that were used to increase state power and function. He also opposed the use of large-scale institutions, like the state, to construct a Christian society whether based on the social gospel of the left, or the legalism of the right.

Machen’s opposition to Protestant liberalism stayed true both intellectually and religiously. As OPC historian D. G. Hart points out, Machen “debunked American moralism and idealism on theological grounds; a feat that intellectuals unconvinced by Protestant orthodoxy could not attempt and that fundamentalists devoted to a Christian America were incapable of performing.” Theologically, Machen upheld both intellectualism and the historicity of the narrative of Scripture.

Machen Against Fundamentalism

Theologically, Machen distanced himself from fundamentalism’s political, eschatological, and revivalist tendencies. Against the right, he opposed prohibition, protestant character education and Bible reading and prayer in public schools. Machen recognized that Bible reading in schools would strip Christianity of its doctrine and therefore should not be done in schools at all. Stripping doctrine would result in diluting doctrinal issues. This would inevitably arise through the standardization of education. Machen knew state control of education was bad enough, but to “put God in the schools” was to sterilize the Gospel.

For Machen, education on doctrine and the Bible is the responsibility of the church and Christian parents, not the responsibility of government and in a society where the state can show no favoritism toward one religion over another, it would either have to allow all religions to be taught in schools, thus opening a Pandora’s Box of new esoteric ideas to children, or there should be no religion taught in schools at all, thus maintaining the integrity of the spheres of family, church, education, and civil governance.

Against the right, he also voted against Herbert Hoover and the elimination of foreign language instruction from public schools. He criticized military conscription as a greater threat to liberty than World War I Germany and opposed registering immigrants and fingerprinting suspected racketeers because of its connection to the police state. And Machen even considered jaywalking laws as de facto discrimination against the poor (walkers) who had to stay out of the way of the rich (drivers).

Machen’s Orthodoxy: A Model of LCI’s First Core Value

Christian Political Philosophy Should be Informed by a Holistic View of Scripture, Reason, and Historical Theology.

For Machen, it was as much his Calvinism that was a major driving force in his libertarian perspective as it was his social and economic interests. In fact, his resistance to the false choice paradigm of liberalism vs fundamentalism, left vs right, has deeply embedded roots in the Protestant Reformation which could be seen in the grand scheme as resisting both the fundamentalist legalism of the Roman Catholic Church and the resulting pendulum swing of universalism from the 17th-century Arminian controversy (often termed the Quinquarticular Controversy).

Machen’s point was that neither theological liberalism nor fundamentalism was properly Reformed, both broadly in the sense of the reformation and narrowly as it pertained to Calvinism and the confessions of the above-mentioned denominations. Clearly, there are differences between Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, etc, but their confessions were largely congruous with Luther and Calvin. Machen saw both liberalism and fundamentalism as a deviation from the ideals of the Reformation and, therefore, as something Christians needed to reject for both political and theological reasons.

For Machen, there was a real danger in abusing the gospel for both social and political ends which was (and still is) ultimately at the root of liberalism and fundamentalism in the American church today. Theologically, both pose a threat to a robust culture and intellectual life. Politically, both pose a threat to God-given rights and liberty. While Christian libertarians who know of Machen love to point to him as one of the early examples of a Christian libertarian, few realize and appreciate the parallels of resisting the left/right paradigm in both politics and the church.

Not that Machen had everything right; he certainly didn’t. But Christian libertarians can learn from Machen that the false left/right paradigm in politics is actually an outpouring of religious convictions from the very same false paradigm in the church. To be consistent in our philosophy, we need to be consistent in our theology because it’s ultimately our religious beliefs which inform our other beliefs about how the world works. Machen exemplified the necessity of a proper understanding of Christian political philosophy and so fits as a model for LCI’s first core value.

Taking up Machen’s Torch

The propensity of American Christians to incorporate various philosophical ideologies into their theology requires careful examination of these ideas against the historic teachings of the church. Unfortunately, the tendency today is to embrace ideologies without really vetting them. This is dangerous, and Machen knew this. Christian libertarians have a two-fold opportunity: first, to come to an understanding of the relationship between Christianity and libertarianism and second, to carry on Machen‘s efforts of resisting those ideologies which compromise true Christian faith and the proper role of civil governance.

Recommended Reading

When Is a Fundamentalist a Modernist? J. Gresham Machen, Cultural Modernism, and Conservative Protestantism by D. G. Hart

Machen’s Warrior Children, Christ the Center; Reformed Forum Podcast

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B.A. Philosophy, Arizona State University. My writing focuses on libertarian philosophy and reformed theology and aimed at the educated layperson. I am a confessionally Reformed Christian orthodox Presbyterian in the tradition of J. Gresham Machen (1881 – 1937)
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