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J. Gresham Machen Was Right About the Gulf Crisis

When evangelicals such as Dean Curry (A World Without Tyranny) encourage us simply to absorb a Reagan/Bush-style foreign policy as properly Biblical, the heroic defender of Protestant orthodoxy, J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) highlights our sad captivity to the foreign policy status quo.

Machen is not only known for his passionate and principled defense of Biblical orthodoxy against Protestant apostasy but also for his intense concern for the public issues of his day.

Machen openly interacted with questions regarding state education, freedom of expression, and social progress. He spoke out against the "alarming bureaucratization of the United States" and Christianity's opposition to "soul-killing collectivism." He stridently opposed the proposed Child Labor Amendment -- "a heartless cruelty masquerading under the guise of philanthropy" -- and even testified before Congressional committees against the effort to establish a Federal Department of Education.

Given his strong commitment to individual rights ("Jeffersonian liberalism" as one biographer describes it), Machen also spoke incisively about the war which shook his time -- World War I.

Though President Woodrow Wilson was a family friend of the Machens, J. Gresham disdained Wilson's use of war for idealist aims -- to make the world safe for democracy (or, as in the current crisis, for corrupt monarchies and cheap oil). In a letter to his mother, Machen declared that, "An alleged war in the interest of democracy...does not appeal to me....This talk about British democracy arouses my ire as much as anything." After the war, he concluded that, "The war for humanity, so far as its result is concerned, looks distressingly like an old-fashioned land-grab."

Contrary to the utopian political rhetoric of his time, Machen clearly understood the more realistic motivations for war: "I am opposed to all imperial ambitions, wherever they may be cherished and with whatever veneer of benevolent assimilation they may be disguised." Machen lashed out at a popular book defending British internationalism:

It is a glorification of imperialism....A very immoral purpose indeed!...Imperialism, to my mind, is satanic, whether it is German or English. The author glorifies war and ridicules efforts at the production of mutual respect and confidence among equal nations....[The book] makes me feel anew the need for Christianity,...what a need for the gospel!

Machen also despised the militarism and idolatrous patriotism which permeated his era: "Princeton is a hot-bed of patriotic enthusiasm and military ardor, which makes me feel like a man without a country."

He was horrified by the consequences of his nation's militarism:

The country seems to be rushing into the two things to which I am more strongly opposed than anything else in the world -- a permanent alliance with Britain,...and a permanent policy of compulsory military service with all the brutal interference of the state in individual and family life it entails.

Four days prior to the U.S. declaration of war, Machen wrote to the New Jersey Representatives in the U.S. Congress:

In urging the defeat of measures involving a permanent policy of compulsory military service, I am not writing in the interests of "pacifism"....Compulsory military service does not merely bring a danger of militarism; it is militarism.

Despite Machen's outspoken opposition to the war and especially the draft, he ultimately volunteered for non-combat duties by serving as a Y.M.C.A. secretary -- in his words, "a grocery clerk and nothing else." (He was reluctant to serve with the Y.M.C.A. fearing that they might require of its workers duties entailing, "desecration of the Sabbath in the name of Christianity and the like.")

While serving in this capacity he found, "opportunities of preaching the gospel when there are so few to do this work." This appears to have been his overriding motivation for participating in the war effort. He even remained in Europe after the war ended and ministered vigorously in numerous camps.

Upon returning to the U.S., Machen like so many other observers saw that many of the provisions of, "the Treaty of Versailles constituted an attack upon international and interracial peace....[W]ar will follow upon war in a wearisome progression."

As he had warned prior to the war, his own country faced, "the miserable prospect of the continuance of the evils of war even into peace times." Like so many other "temporary" government agencies in U.S. history, the war bureaucracies continued to grow, centralize, and strangle American culture. The effects were far reaching. Machen even mourned that when he turned from this collectivism for refuge in Christ's church,

I find there exactly the same evils that are rampant in the world -- centralized education programs, the subservience of the church to the state, contempt for the rights of minorities, standardization of everything, suppression of intellectual adventure....I see more clearly than ever before that unless the gospel is true and there is another world, our souls are in prison. The gospel of Christ is a blessed relief from that sinful state of affairs commonly known as hundred per-cent Americanism.

Given his stated principles, Machen wouldn't have had much patience for our intervention in the Gulf. Wilsonian internationalism still reigns. President Wilson promoted the New Freedom and President Bush promotes the New World Order. What would keep Machen from still feeling, "like a man without a country"?


Copyright © by Covenant Community Church of Orange County 1991

1-17-96 tew
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