Sunday, February 27, 2005

Machen v. Bennett and the "Christian Right"

Intellectual poverty and worldliness are pervasive in contemporary evangelicalism. Sure, we have an abundance of “Christian” books, periodicals, websites, etc. Heck, Joel Osteen’s Schulleresque musings are on the NY Times bestseller list as I write. Rick Warren’s “The Purpose-Driven Life” has sold over 20 million copies to date, and Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye have sold more than 62 million books from their apocalyptic ‘Left Behind’ series. Osteen, Warren, and LaHaye? I guess we aren’t exactly talking Calvin, Spurgeon, and Hodge!

Worse than the pulp fiction and theological greul being served up in mass quantities is the full-fledged embrace of pragmatism and desertion of Christian leaders from orthodoxy. In their zeal to prop up a Christ-professing president, evangelical leaders have become an appendage of the Republican Party, effectively sanctioning torture and ignoring centuries of Christian thought to endorse a war of dubious morality.

In such times, it is always comforting to be a Calvinist, with the understanding that God is in control and working His will to fruition. Ultimately, our concern must be obedience and faithfulness—always aware that ultimately we participate in Christ’s victory. Further, we have God’s Word, and He has graciously given us a remnant of faithful men to follow, and 2,000 years of church history as a reservoir from which to draw strength.

Of late, I have been spending time in the company, so to speak, of J. Gresham Machen. Machen was a prominent Presbyterian theologian of the last century whom H. L. Mencken praised for “his remarkable clarity and cogency as an apologist.”

Machen was a thoughtful opponent of contemporary public education, and in an age where religious conservatives are locked hand-and-glove with neoconservative statists, it will be helpful to consult a fully-orbed, hard-hitting Christian assessment of education.

Machen opposed federal funding of education and the creation of a federal department of education. He was concerned that uniformity in education would be a “calamity.” Machen said:

Let us return to the "educators" and their general demand either for a Federal department of education or for Federal aid to the states. Such demands are in the interests of uniformity in the sphere of education. There should be, it is said, a powerful coordinating agency in education, to set up standards and encourage the production of something like a system. But what shall we say of such an aim? I have no hesitation, for my part, in saying that I am dead opposed to it. Uniformity in education, it seems to me, is one of the worst calamities into which any people can fall.

How does Machen’s concern for centralization measure up with the new "conservative" view of education? Catholic neocon and former Democrat Bill Bennett sallied into Washington in the mid-80’s and rode roughshod over Reaganites who at least paid lip-service to eliminating Jimmy Carter’s Department of Education, which was a sop to the NEA. Fellow neocon educarat Chester Finn said that Bennett, “moved into the Education secretary's corner office and found it a bully pulpit for nudging, criticizing, surprising, and leading. People stopped talking about scrapping the agency and instead began asking whether all those federal programs were having the impact that they should and whether a bit more sunlight on the education system's results might not help.”

Bennett, who once said, "You cannot be cynical about government without becoming cynical about America," was described thusly by Catholic University professor Claes Ryn:

As is rather typical of neoconservatives, Bennett did not want to reduce federal power but use it for purposes he deemed salutary, such as inculcating virtue and American principles. Bennet actually sought a much-expanded federal role in education. In early 1988 he began pushing for a 21 billion-dollar budget for his department in the coming fiscal year, fully 50 percent more than the Reagan administration had requested for the current year. Bennett proposed the education plan that eventually became "America 2000" . . . . Bennett wanted to set national standards of education . . . . The program of nationalization, initiated by a putative "conservative," helped disarm conservatives who were opposed to the U.S. Department of Education and created an opening for additional federal education initiatives. Bennet's plan made it much easier for the Democrats to introduce . . . further nationalization of education.

President Bush has implemented Bennett’s statist education goals with the ‘No Child Left Behind Act,’ imposing national standards on local communities while increasing federal spending on education by 70%.

Bennett and his Christian sychophants also believe education can be reformed if students are simply allowed to pray and read their bibles in public settings, study religion in school as something integral to "civic virtue," or be inculcated with “character education.” Machen would beg to differ.

Here is Machen on bible reading in public schools:

What other solution, then, has the public school to offer for the problem which we are considering just now? Well, many people tell us that the reading of the Bible can be put into the public schools. Every educated man, we are told, ought to know something about the Bible; and no intelligent, broad-minded person, whether a Christian or not, ought to object to the bare reading of this great religious classic. So in many places we find the Bible being read in public schools. What shall we say about that?

For my part, I have no hesitation in saying that I am strongly opposed to it. 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.

On teaching “religion:”

As for any presentation of general principles of what is called "religion", supposed to be exemplified in various positive religions, including Christianity, it is quite unnecessary for me to say in this company that such presentation is opposed to the Christian religion at its very heart. The relation between the Christian way of salvation and other ways is not a relation between the adequate and the inadequate or between the perfect and the imperfect, but it is a relation between the true and the false. The minute a professing Christian admits that he can find neutral ground with non-Christians in the study of "religion" in general, he has given up the battle, and has really, if he knows what he is doing, made common cause with that syncretism which is today, as it was in the first century of our era, the deadliest enemy of the Christian Faith.

What, then, should the Christian do in communities where there are no Christian schools? What policy should be advocated for the public schools?

I think there is no harm in advocating the release of public-school children at convenient hours during the week for any religious instruction which their parents may provide. Even at this point, indeed, danger lurks at the door. If the State undertakes to exercise any control whatever over the use by the children of this time which is left vacant, even by way of barely requiring them to attend upon some kind of instruction in these hours, and still more clearly if it undertakes to give public-school credits for such religious instruction, then it violates fundamental principles and will inevitably in the long run seek to control the content of the instruction in the interests of the current syncretism. But if -- as is, it must be admitted, very difficult -- it can be kept free from these evils, then the arrangement of the public-school schedule in such manner that convenient hours shall be left free for such religious instruction as the parents, entirely at their individual discretion, shall provide, is, I think, unobjectionable, and it may under certain circumstances be productive of some relative good.

On “character education:”

we find proposed to us today what is called "character education" or "character-building". Character, we are told, is one thing about which men of all faiths are agreed. Let us, therefore, build character in common, as good citizens, and then welcome from the various religious faiths whatever additional aid they can severally bring. Let us first appeal to the children on a "civilization basis" -- to use what I believe is the most recent terminology -- and then let the various faiths appeal to whatever additional motives they may be able to adduce.

What surprises me about this program is not that its advocates propose it; for it is only too well in accord with the spirit of the age. But what really surprises me about it is that the advocates of it seem to think that a Christian can support it without ceasing at that point to be Christian.

In the first place, when this program of character-education is examined, it will be found, I think, to base character upon human experience; it will be found to represent maxims of conduct as being based upon the collective experience of the race. But how can they be based upon the collective experience of the race and at the same time, as the Christian must hold, be based upon the law of God? By this experiential morality the reverence for the law of God is being broken down. It cannot be said that the results -- even judged by "civilization" standards (if I may borrow the terminology of my opponents for a moment) -- is impressive. The raging tides of passion cannot successfully be kept back by the flimsy mud-embankments of an appeal to human experience. It is a feeble morality that can say nothing better for itself than that it works well.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Darrell,

Ah, yes, J. Gresham Machen. A founder of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and one of the original fundamentalists, I believe. I recall reading an account of a visit Machen once made to a dispensationalist bible conference, more than a little concerned at the time about the wayward drift of dispensationalism's theology but encouraged, nevertheless, by the enthusiasms of it's adherents.

While I've read a little of Machen, his apologetical work on the Virgin Birth, for example, I've never before come upon his views about education. And there is clearly a distinction to be made between his outlook and the view of modern "conservatives", many of whom are now awash in faith-based pork.

Obviously, Machen is most concerned with context when he makes the remarks that he does about bible reading in schools but, in places, this concern seems to overwhelm his argument. In saying as he does that the reading of Holy Scripture is difficult to separate from propaganda about Holy Scripture he would seem to imply that no reading of Scripture can be separated from such propaganda. He doesn't choose to make distinctions, unfortunately. While I would concede a place for Walter Heisenburg here, I would doubt that Machen had the uncertainty principle in mind when he made these statements. My earliest education was public, in the mid-to-late 1940s, and I can vividly recall Mr. Hoffelder, the school's principal, reading us the Old Testament Psalms at assemblies. Whether he knew it or not, Mr. Hoffelder left a profound impression on at least one of his listeners and it would be difficult for me to this day to forget the opening verses of Psalm 8 thanks to him. I can assure you that any effect of propaganda on me has gone utterly undiscovered.

Now, of course, there is going to be concern on the part of any Catholic with the statement:

"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"? "

One observes from the outset the contrast of a view that sees the Redemption as including all in Creation that does not specifically exclude itself with Machen's particularist perspective. Although one might agree with him about the propriety of Scripture reading in the setting under discussion, one hardly detects the requirement for theological precision in such circumstances. Machen's commitments nothwithstanding, one might be pardoned the mistake of identifying Ebenezer Scrooge as the author of this comment.

I would be disappointed if the above critique of J. Gresham Machen should be taken in any way as a defense of Bill Bennett, someone who long before writing instructional books on morality for children would have been wise to have identified and dealt with his own, personal weaknesses. One instinctively rejects instruction from a shlemiel.

John Lowell

8:53 PM  
Blogger Darrell said...

Just quickly, I think Machen would agree that redemption is not merely personal in nature, but has a cosmic scope.

I tend to agree that that Bible would be used propogandistically. In the temptation of Christ, for example, we see Satan using Scripture in his attempt to trip up our Lord, and of course most heresies are derived from an unbalanced view of God and often have a scriptural basis--wherein one part of scripture is emphasized to the exclusion of others.

I am too young to have the bible read in a public school setting, but in college, I did take a literature class where we read Matthew. The course was taught by an avowed atheist (he earned a Ph. D from Berkley, so what else would you expect?) and he clearly led the discussion in particular ways harmful to a true understanding of the Gospel.

Though the Holy Spirit can open the eyes and heart of man as He wills, I think I have to agree with Machen on this one.

2:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My complaint with Machen in this instance has little to do with the possibility that the public reading of Holy Scripture may result in its misuse, Darrell, that happens routinely. Rather it has to do with Machen's implying that of necessity it will. That is not to say that a compelling argument couldn't be brought to support such a notion. Heisenberg, and with justice, would see any act of reading as inseparable from the attitudes the reader, that in a way, even ontologically, they are one and the same thing. But I would very much doubt that Machen had Heisenberg in mind when writing this piece. Given their proximity in time, it is doubtful that Machen even knew of Heisenberg. Machen's argument, taken on its face, would require of him a candid admission that the public reading of Scripture is no less propagandistic in a school than in the setting of a church. He makes no distinctions and for that reason is hoist with his own petard.

John lowell

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