Jan 10, 2013

J. Gresham Machen's signs of the times

What will be the end of that European civilization, of which I had a survey from my mountain vantage ground—of that European civilization and its daughter in America? What does the future hold in store? Will Luther prove to have lived in vain? Will all the dreams of liberty issue into some vast industrial machine? Will even nature be reduced to standard, as in our country the sweetness of the woods and hills is being destroyed, as I have seen them destroyed in Maine, by the uniformities and artificialities and officialdom of our national parks? Will the so-called 'Child Labor Amendment' and other similar measures be adopted, to the destruction of all the decencies and privacies of the home? Will some dreadful second law of thermodynamics apply in the spiritual as in the material realm? Will all things in church and state be reduced to one dead level, coming at last to an equilibrium in which all liberty and all high aspirations will be gone? Will that be the end of all humanity's hopes? I can see no escape from that conclusion in the signs of the times; too inexorable seems to me to be the march of events. No, I can see only one alternative. The alternative is that there is a God -- a God who in His own good time will bring forward great men again to do His will, great men to resist the tyranny of experts and lead humanity out again into the realms of light and freedom, great men, above all, who will be messengers of His grace. There is, far above any earthly mountain peak of vision, a God high and lifted up who, though He is infinitely exalted, yet cares for His children among men.
-- J. Gresham Machen, Mountains and Why We Love Them, 1933.

The "signs of the times" really do dramatically change. Even though what the signs say is always the same, regardless of whether the specific sign is a new national park or gays openly serving in the military, regulation of child labor or employee health care.

Machen -- a Reformed theologian at the forefront of opposition to Modernism and Christian liberalism -- climbed the Swiss Alps in 1913 and 1932, in both cases ascending a peak on the eve of a world war. He believed Modernism, especially in the form of the "higher criticism" taught by German theologians, had significantly weakened Christianity, undermined it, and was threatening the faith and also civilization, leading directly to the destruction and devestation of World War I and World War II.

He was a significant influence on Francis Schaeffer, and can be thought of as the grandfather of today's religious right, though many reformed Christians, such as Machen biographer and religious-right-critic D.G. Hart, would argue that politically-oriented American Christians have strayed too far from Machen's ideals. I.e., that they are not conservative enough to be Machen's true heirs.

Those who are direct spiritual and intellectual descendants of this leader of Christian fundamentalism have famously been called "Machen's warrior children," emphasizing a Machenian attitude that's praised by some as a willingness -- a boldness in being willing -- to defend truth.

Machen, it's important to say, accepted the name "fundamentalist." He thought there was a better word for it, though: orthodox.

What's perhaps most notable about this quote, if one is looking for historical precedent for contemporary conservative Christians, is the sense that it's "experts" who are the problem. "Experts" who, through an exercise in "tyranny," have lead humanity away from both light and freedom. There's a deep strain of anti-intellectualism in American history, of course, and that's been of significant aspect of religious experience throughout the history. Machen states it so succinctly, here, and puts experts up as the most basic problem.

Notable, also, are the two politically issues Machen highlights. These are the "signs" he sees in America in the 1930s. In the piece, he mentions the international situation, decrying Mussolini by name and Hitler by reference. Domestically, however, Machen sees the end of civilization and betrayal of Reformed Christian truths in a) national parks, and b) federal child labor laws.

Two peculiar issues, if ever there were.

This was, after all, the beginning of Franklin D. Roosevelt's first term, the depth of the Great Depression and the beginning of the New Deal.

Overall, Machen wasn't particularly interested in politics. Certain less than his "warrior children." Here, though, in 1933, he does for a moment speak politically, and chooses out of all the issues of the day to take a stand against national parks and child labor laws. There's probably an explanation for why these could have seemed so pressing from a particular cultural position. To first sight, though, the choice of issues highlights certain characteristics of this worldview, and goes to show how strange many political fights seem from a distance.

The only National Park in Maine in 1933, as far as I can tell, was Arcadia National Park, the first National Park east of the Mississippi. A system of carriage trails through the park were then being built by John D. Rockefeller Jr., and that seems to have particularly offended Machen. In one of his books he wrote,
When I first went there it was about the sweetest and most beautiful lake and mountain region that could possibly be imagined. It really seemed as though no human being would have the heart to destroy the delicate charm of those woods. But then came Mr. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and the Lafayette (later Acadia) National Park, and all was changed. Huge roads now scar practically every mountainside and skirt the shores of practically every lake. The woods near the roads have been ruthlessly ‘cleaned up.’ The natural beauty of the region has been systematically destroyed. When I go into that National Park, with its dreary regularity and its officialdom, I almost feel as though I were in some kind of penal institution .... Certain it is at any rate that the best way to destroy true recreation is for government to go into the business of promoting it.
I don't know how it looked in '33, but today, to be sure, Machen's assessment that "the sweetness of the woods and hills is being destroyed" seems strange.

I can imagine other reasons he might have had for opposing the park -- libertarian principle, perhaps, or just privileged annoyance that what one enjoys is now widely available -- but the argument he makes is somewhat bizarre.

The constitutional amendment that Machen references as the other "sign of the times" was ratified by 13 states in 1933, but never acheived the necessary 2/3 majority. The Child Labor Amendment is technically still pending approval. The amendment reads: "The Congress shall have power to limit, regulate, and prohibit the labor of persons under eighteen years of age." The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 -- a key piece of New Deal lesgislation -- succeeded where the ammendment failed.

Machen seems to have opposed the amendment specifically for being too general, and not specifying what sort of child labor congress might be interested in prohibiting or limiting. He said, in another piece on the topic, that the amendment was "the most sinister attack upon American institutions and the sanctity of the American home that has been made for half a century."

Further, he made the sort of limited government, anti-government argument that's standard on the right:
[The amendement] would take by far the most important part of human life out of the hands of state legislatures in touch with local conditions, and put it into the hands of the army of government agents, which any exercise of the powers to be conferred by the amendment would require. There could scarcely be a more disastrous blow at the very foundations of American freedom.
Though few conservative Christians in America would, today, make an argument against child labor laws, the logic Machen employs about the privacy and the sanctity of families, that "the family" constitutes a seperate sphere that ought to be autonomous, the federal government represents a kind of hideous, alien aberration of the normal order of things, is quite common.

That's the way it seems to work: the signs of the times change; the interpretations of said signs are consistent, though, across time.