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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Three kinds of evangelicals.

DG Hart, in his biography of J. Gresham Machen, does a masterful job of describing the various factions that Machen had to deal with in his attempts to reform the northern USA presbyterian denomination at the time (20's and 30's). His position is obscured by two mistaken but widely held perceptions. One is that at the time the contest was perceived to be between Fundamentalists and Liberals. This tended to obscure the great differences between Machen and others lumped in the fundamentalist camp. Machen was not a political puritan and did not support reforms like the temperance movement, nor did he endorse things like dispensationalism. After Machen was booted out of the church and after he died, the fundamentalists in his coalition split apart under the leadership of Carl MacIntyre. Another perception is that Machen represented ll the evangelicals withing the liberal denomination. But their was another faction of conservative evangelicals within the denomination that not only did not support Machen but enabled the forces against him to succeed. These forces were led in part by biblical commentator and churchman Charles Erdman -- the evangelical version of William Barclay. To Machen, Erdman represented a form evangelicalism which was anti-intellectual and sentimentalistic. Erdman's betrayal of Machen was striking.

As Hart indicates, for Machen it was always a terrible struggle. In his eyes for a long time it seemed to him that he could not stay in the church of his youth. It seemed that the only possibilities were (a) be an intellectual liberal with no real claim to the historic Christian Faith, (b) be part of the excluded anti-intellectual literalistic Fundamentalist party, (c) be part of the anti-intellectual, sentimentalistic, evangelical party, or (d) forget about Christianity all together as an intellectually acceptable option. Machen's salvation came with his discovery between his years as a student at Princeton Seminary along with his years studying in liberal institutions in Europe; there was an intellectually engaged tradition in defense of the historic supernatural faith in his churches heritage, namely the so-called Old Princeton Tradition of Hodge and Warfield. It represented a third form of conservative evangelicalism unlike the previous two with which he was acquainted.

Cut from JG Machen to Frank Schaeffer and his new book "Crazy for God". In it, Frank Schaeffer gives his mea culpa for "starting the Christian Right". This book goes a long way towards restoring and rehabilitating the life and ministry of his late father, Francis Schaeffer. The great mystery to be explained is how Francis Schaeffer, after successfully weaning himself away from the MacIntyre wing of the presbyterian factions and as one who fully identified himself in his early writings with the ministry of JG Machen, became so entangled with the likes of MacIntyre type Fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson. Frank says its mainly his fault that he encouraged his father to translate his picture of the development of western society and his defense of the dignity of human nature into film. But like any film production, this required lots of money and thus needed sponsors. And the sponsors who could raise the cash and leave most of the material intact were the Pat Robertson types. Frank discloses the reality of "tell them anything" fund raising and how he had to accommodate to various demands of his sponsors, such as negotiating when they could and could not show Michaelangelo's David and the notorious "Virgin and Child" painting. He reveals his father's actual disdain for the politics and practices of these organizations. But because of this his father came to be identified with a group that he himself did not want much to do with.

This book helps save Francis Schaeffer's attachment to the Machen group of evangelicals in spite of his association with something like the MacIntyre group of evangelicals. It should be clear that even though I have anchored my presentation of these groups in the history of the presbyterian church, I think that this classification is trans-denominational (and possibly trans religious). It also seems clear that when critics refer to the "Christian Right", their guiding paradigms for that classification are Falwell and Robertson, not Machen (or Carl Henry or EJ Carnell or James Sire etc.)

I also think that they are persistent. The 80's were dominated by the rise of Falwell, Robertson, and Dobson and their brand of political activism and moralism. But in the new century we see the rise of s different kind of evangelical politician in Mike Huckabee and his defense of "Heroic/Compassionate Conservativism". In George W. Bush, we saw a clatch of certain policies - Henrietta Myers, Katrina Relief, Immigration Reform but they were mixed in with a substantial set of traditional Reagan era policy making. What came to characterize these policies were descriptors such as "compassionate", "evangelical", and "failure". Bush made it seem that his administration was at its worst when it was at its most deliberate attempt to appeal to its evangelical constituency. A special case was his attempt to promote government co-operation with so-called "faith-based" ministries. While this seemed to be a compassionate conservative idea, it was never truly understood by most evangelicals or most politicians that though the charities to be supported by religious patrons, they were necessarily mandated to be non-sectarian and non-proclamatory -- they were to be religious in the most abstract sense only. This does not make the idea bad or anti-evangelical but does make it unidentifiable with evangelicalism.

But if Bush is a mixed case, it seems Huckabee is a pure case. Its clear that Huckabee parts ways with Bush's commitment to conservative economic policies and national security policies. And while Huckabee identifies himself with the pro-life movement his social policy seems to be more dominated by issues like federally mandated smoking bans, the argument for which would lead logically to massive government interference. It is not really conservative social policy and would eliminate the "little platoons". Yet his approach to politics is identified with evangelicalism and his successes are attributed to martialing the evangelical vote. This means, if true, that evangelicals are willing to break up the coalition between them and national security and economic conservatives within the Republican Party.

These evangelicals are not the same breed as the ones that supported Reagan. It is clear that that generation of evangelicalism is passing away as an influential voting bloc and that a new younger generation is growing up and taking responsibility. This new group conceives the evangelical's role in politics differently than the former Falwell and Robertson group. The thinking of the new evangelical voter seems to be similar to what is now being called as the "emergent church" phenomena. This phenomena has been effective in exploiting the idiom of "post-modernism" as a way of revising its articulation of evangelical themes and also to move away from the meaningfulness of the idea of orthodoxy and the embracing of popular positions on things like global warming, social reform activism, and so on. It also is a movement away from the traditional evangelical insistence on truth. Huckabee seems to resonate with precisely this vibe even though he does not seem to refer to himself as an emergentist. However, his background places him with the "moderate" faction in the Southern Baptist Convention. Baptists who lead the way in preventing the SBC from losing its commitment to inerrancy, all remember Huckabee as their opponent, an evangelical who enabled the liberal faction of the party against the faction commited to the historic Baptist faith, a Baptist version of Charles Erdman. And some of the leaders conspicously refuse to support his canidacy for president.

In conclusion, I think that the Emergent Church/Huckabee nexus represents a return to prominance of the Erdman type of evangelicalism and that we are seeing something like a shift from the fundamentalist moralism of the "Fascist Christian Right" to the meddling nannyism of the "evangelicals for Huckabee". This is just a shift from the MacIntyre type of evangelicalism to the Erdman type. In other words, what our children have learned is to keep the political activism but alternate the substance of it. It is important to keep in mind that there is another type of evangelicalism, namely traditional moderate scholastic ecclesial Protestantism which has always rejected the idea of political activism in its name and has emphasized the idea of "the spirituality (seperateness) of the church (from the state)". This evangelicalism is represented by folks like Machen, Francis Schaeffer, and DG Hart, who recently published a whole book ("A Secular Faith") devoted to arguing that historic evangelicalism entails the doctrine of the independence of the state from religion.