Christianism and Liberalism

In 1929 John Gresham Machen dropped his professorship at Princeton Theological Seminary to establish Westminster Theological Seminary. Machen fought the Theological Liberalism in the seminary and in his denomination (PCUSA) for many years, until he gave up and decided to form a new seminary and eventually a new denomination as well (the Orthodox Presbyterian Church).

Machen’s attitude of abandoning his seminary and his denomination might seem harsh. After all, can’t we all just get along? Theologically he was considered a fundamentalist. His followers are called to this day “Machen’s Warrior Children,” people who are theologically unwilling to compromise.

People have all the right to disagree, but for Machen, some things were not negotiable. That is why he wrote Christianity and Liberalism (1923), a book in which he unapologetically calls Theological Liberalism “another religion,” separated from historical Christianism.

Interestingly, the same Machen who so fiercely opposed theological liberalism was not a conservative regarding politics, because he was suspicious of mixing religion and politics. He found attempts to establish a Christian culture by political means insensitive to minorities. In practical terms, he opposed school prayer and Bible reading in public school. He also opposed Prohibition, something very costly considering that at that time abstinence was common ground among Protestants. In sum, Machen was, politically, a libertarian.

In Road to Serfdom, Hayek observes that Liberal Christians, who don’t believe in the supernatural aspects of the Bible, tend to embrace Social Gospel and tear down the wall of separation between church and state. Machen, on the other hand, was a living proof that a fundamentalist Christian can want nothing but a distance from the government.

Cultural marxism and the Overton window

According to all accounts, Karl Marx was not an easy person. Basically, he had the habit of making the life of all around him miserable. However, as Joseph Schumpeter (himself far from being a Marxist) loved to point out, he was extremely well read. This allowed him to build a complex economic theory focused on factory workers, without ever (or almost ever, at least) stepping into a factory. Life for a factory worker in 19th century Britain was not easy, and Marx was very able in pointing that out. His economic theory, however, was a complete failure, as Ludwig von Mises aptly pointed out.

Marxism should have died in the mid-20th century when it became clear that all socialist countries are poor and oppressive. However, it survived as cultural Marxism. People like Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and everybody in the Frankfurt School were not interested in economics. Instead, they wanted to study culture. The oppressed were not the factory workers anymore, but the social minorities. Libertarians and Conservatives should sympathize with that. It is true that women, non-whites, and homosexuals suffered a great deal in the masculine, white, heterosexual West. To point out that they suffer even more outside the West is not particularly helpful. We don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. However, as with much of original Marxism, cultural Marxism is only good at pointing the problems, not at offering solutions. Modern civilization, as Sigmund Freud very well observed, is full of discontents. This is an old argument. Rousseau points out how modern civilization is cruel. Voltaire answers that, as cruel as it might be, it is still better than the alternative.

Our problem today is that cultural Marxism was successful in pushing the Overton window in their favor. That was precisely Gramsci’s objective: to fight “bourgeois” cultural hegemony with Marxist cultural hegemony. To a great degree, he succeeded. We need to fight the cultural war. As much as modern life can be bittersweet, I still haven’t heard a better alternative. Besides, as a Christian, I have to say with Saint Augustine that men have a “God-shaped hole” that no civilization – Modern, pre-modern or postmodern – can fill. But still, I enjoy the things that capitalism, capitalism that originated from the Protestant ethic, has to offer.

Is Fundamentalism a problem?

Today when a terrorist attack happens, the press too often avoids naming the perpetrators and instead seeks to be uncompromised by phrases like “car hits people.” But not long ago, the press usually blamed fundamentalists for terrorist attacks.

The name fundamentalist originated, interestingly enough, in Protestant circles in the US. Only much later was it used to describe other religions, and then mostly to Muslims. Among Protestants, the name fundamentalist was used to designate people against theological liberalism. I explain. With the Enlightenment, an understanding grew in theological circles that modern man could not believe in supernatural aspects of the Bible anymore. The answer was theological liberalism, a theology that tried to maintain the “historical Jesus,” but striping him from anything science couldn’t explain. Fundamentalism was an answer to this. Fundamentalists believed that some things are, well… fundamental! You can’t have Jesus without the virgin birth, the many miracles, the resurrection, and the ascension. That would be not Jesus at all! In other words, it is a matter of Principia: either science comes first and faith must submit, or faith comes before science.

The great observation made by fundamentalist theologian Cornelius Van Til is that fundamentalist Protestants are not the only fundamentalists! Everybody has fundamentals. Everybody has basic principles that are themselves not negotiable. If you start asking people “why” eventually they will answer “because it is so.”

If everybody has starting points that are themselves not open to further explanation, that means that our problem (and the problem with terrorism) is not fundamentalism per se. Everybody has fundamentals. The question is what kind of fundamentals do you have. Fundamentals that tell you about the holiness of human life, or fundamentals that tell you that somehow assassinating people is ok or even commendable?

Worth a gander

  1. good update on the mayhem in the Middle East
  2. as good as that update is, though: Iraq, Saudi Arabia to reopen border crossings after 27 years
  3. great read on Russia’s Far East and Russia’s travel writing genre
  4. in Russia, Lutheranism (Protestantism) is considered a “traditional” religion (h/t NEO)
  5. how social is reason?

Lunchtime Links

  1. Globalization and Political Structure [pdf] | what’s a monopolis?
  2. Protestantism and the Rise of Industrial Capitalism in Nineteenth Century Europe [pdf] | who was James Cooley Fletcher?
  3. Primed against primacy: the restraint constituency and US foreign policy | polystate, book 2
  4. Nation-building, nationalism, and wars [pdf] | against libertarian populism

The Old Deluder Satan Act: Literacy, Religion, and Prosperity

So, my brother (Keith Kallmes, graduate of the University of Minnesota in economics and history) and I have decided to start podcasting some of our ideas. The topics we hope to discuss range from ancient coinage to modern medical ethics, but with a general background of economic history. I have posted here our first episode, the Old Deluder Satan Act. This early American legislation, passed by the Massachusetts Bay Colonists, displays some of the key values that we posit as causes of New England’s principal role in the Industrial Revolution. The episode: 

We hope you enjoy this 20-minute discussion of the history of literacy, religion, and prosperity, and we are also happy to get feedback, episode suggestions, and further discussion in the comments below. Lastly, we have included links to some of the sources cited in the podcast.


Sources:

The Legacy of Literacy: Continuity and Contradictions in Western Culture, by Harvey Graff

Roman literacy evidence based on inscriptions discussed by Dennis Kehoe and Benjamin Kelly

Mark Koyama’s argument

European literacy rates

The Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution: England, 1500-1912, by Gregory Clark

Abstract of Becker and Woessman’s “Was Weber Wrong?”

New England literacy rates

(Also worth a quick look: the history of English Protestantism, the Puritans, the Green Revolution, and Weber’s influence, as well as an alternative argument for the cause of increased literacy)