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Volume 13, Issue 3: Historia

Machen Against Fundamentalism

Chris Schlect

Historians are tempted to characterize J. Gresham Machen as a fundamentalist. But Machen was a sharp critic of fundamentalism at several points. A man of principle through and through, he opposed the oughta-be-a-law-against-ISM that pervaded both fundamentalist and modernist assumptions about society.

Because fundamentalists rightly saw the breakdown of the family as an evil in society, many advocated strict laws against divorce. But Machen refused to argue beyond the Scriptures and pointed out that the Bible allows for divorce in certain situations. Indeed, Machen could not support a strategy in the fight against family breakdown that was political in nature. Why turn to Washington for solutions that must come from the family hearth?
Thus Machen also challenged legislation that regulated child labor. In 1924, Congress submitted to the states for ratification a proposed twenty-second amendment that forbade child labor, and Machen weighed in.
"The amendment gives to any officials whom Congress may choose to appoint power to enter into the homes of the people and to regulate or prevent altogether those home activities of children and youth without which there can be no normal development of family life." Sure, there are parents who raise their kids poorly. But family-intruding bureaucrats are a prescription worse than the disease. It takes parents, not a village.
Prohibition was another pet cause of the fundamentalists. Here Machen stood practically alone among his fellow churchmen. At a 1926 meeting of the New Brunswick presbytery, a resolution was introduced endorsing the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act. Machen's "no" vote was recorded. Not surprisingly, slanderous allegations followed: Machen had loose morals and financial ties to a distillery—patent lies. For his stand, Machen earned the admiration of H.L. Mencken, an unbeliever who praised him for rising above fundamentalism's hypocrisy on this point. "When the prohibition imbecility fell upon the country," Mencken wrote in 1937, "and a multitude of theological quacks, including not a few eminent Presbyterians, sought to read support for it into the New Testament, [Machen] attacked them with great vigor, and routed them easily. He not only proved that there was nothing in the teachings of Jesus to support so monstrous a folly; he proved abundantly that the teachings of Jesus were unalterably against it. And having set forth that proof, he refused, as a convinced and honest Christian, to have anything to do with the dry jihad."
Machen also opposed the formation of a Federal Department of Education. He even testified before a joint congressional committee in 1926, beginning this way: "Mr. Chairman and gentlemen of the Committee, there are two reasons why a man may be opposed to a bill which is introduced in Congress. One reason is that he thinks it will not accomplish its purpose. The other reason is that he thinks that the purpose that it is intended to accomplish is an evil purpose. It is for the latter reason that I am opposed to the bill which forms the subject of this hearing." The committee's follow-up questions exemplify the sloppy thinking that pervades the very institutions they were in the process of creating.
Fundamentalists and modernists alike thought educational institutions would reform society. Fundamentalists promoted public schools as places where values could be taught. To this Machen was decidedly opposed, even to prayer and Bible reading in government schools. "I think I am just as strongly opposed to the reading of the Bible in state-controlled schools as any atheist would be," he wrote. Why? "The reading of the Bible is very difficult to separate from the propaganda of the Bible," and "the reading, in public schools, of selected passages from the Bible, in which Jews and Catholics and Protestants and others can presumably agree, should not be encouraged, and still less be required by law. . . . Even the best of books, if it is presented in garbled form, may be made to say the exact opposite of what it wants." He attacked school prayer for similar reasons, "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? . . . 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 redemptive core, then the Bible is represented as saying the direct opposite of what it really says."
Against the fundamentalists, Dr. Machen opposed the propagation of vanilla values in state schools. He observed that such programs are based on the "pagan notion of human brotherhood," rather than the "Christian notion of a brotherhood to be established by bringing men into a common union with Christ," and also a pragmatic collective experience, which is subjective and arbitrary, rather than the transcendent moral law of God. The only real answer to educational problems, of course, is to privatize the operation and instill sectarian values through private schools. Machen was clear on this as well.
J. Gresham Machen was too biblical to be a fundamentalist.

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