Voices > Soul Food

A different tradition

Dabney, Machen warned of government entanglement

Issue: "The persecuted church," Nov. 1, 1997

"That I should be taxed to pay for the preaching of doctrines which I do not believe or approve, is of the nature of an oppression." Who wrote these words? Thomas Jefferson? Ira Glasser of the ACLU? No, this statement comes from Robert Dabney, who, in addition to a stint as Stonewall Jackson's chief of staff during the Civil War, was one of the greatest evangelical theologians in American history.

Dabney's opposition to state sponsorship of religious doctrine was not as unusual as it may seem. As some evangelicals today call for federal funding of religious organizations (charities, schools, and even churches) and seek passage of a school prayer amendment, an often-overlooked part of the evangelical tradition has special relevance.

"Be careful" evangelicals were not anti-government (some even served in government), but they had an enormous concern for what turn-of-the-century Dutch theologian/statesman Abraham Kuyper called "sphere sovereignty." The family, the church, and the government all had important callings. They couldn't fulfill these duties if others were trying to take them on-if their "spheres" were being invaded.

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Dabney, for instance, worried that government support for religion would lead to government control of religion. This wasn't nefarious on the part of government: "The magistrate owes it to his constituents to see that the public money is well spent in teaching what shall be for the public good." But such reasonable oversight would give the church a dual loyalty. "Responsibility must bind back to the source whence the office comes," Dabney wrote. "But now where is this minister's allegiance to Christ?"

The very character of the clergy was at risk, too. Dabney looked at history and saw that with only a few exceptions "the leaden weight of state patronage has in every case, brought down the endowed clergy to the basest depths of mercenary character, and most utter inefficiency for all good." And Dabney opposed the idea, now quite popular, that government should pay to support religion in general without singling out any particular sect, "because this would enlist the State in the diffusion of error and truth alike; a thing wicked; and it gives to the worst forms of nominal Christianity a strength they would not otherwise have."

In late 19th-century America, he asserted, "notwithstanding our heterogeneous people, and immense growth, we have more gospel, in proportion to our wants, than any except Scotland." And even there, he maintained, the spread of the gospel had come mainly from dissenters and voluntaryists. "Our success is the grand argument against State Churches."

J. Gresham Machen is another leading light in the separationist tradition. Machen, a New Testament professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, was the most prominent conservative scholar in the fight against theological liberalism during the 1920s and 1930s. When Princeton devolved into liberalism, Machen helped found Westminster Theological Seminary, which to this day upholds the conservative Reformed faith.

Machen, as usual, was direct about his views on religion in public schools: "I think I am just about as strongly opposed to the reading of the Bible in state-controlled schools as any atheist could be." Machen contended that religion in the hands of unbelieving public-school officials would almost always be distorted, with the Bible "represented as saying the direct opposite of what it really says."

"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?" he asked. "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 and as though persons who have never been purchased by the blood of Christ could possibly say to God, 'Our Father, which art in Heaven'?"

Machen was also vehemently opposed to any federal funding of public or private schools. "Federal aid in education inevitably means federal control," which would lead to a "soul-killing uniformity" in education and "the death of everything that might make this country great." Current school voucher proposals probably would have concerned him, although a tax-credit approach, in which the government doesn't get its hands on the money, could neutralize the threat of federal intrusion.

The goal today should be separation of school and state, so that parents, not government officials-even those we may like-decide what is taught.

Timothy Lamer is director of the Free Market Project at the Media Research Center in Alexandria, Virginia.

Timothy Lamer
Timothy Lamer

Tim is managing editor of WORLD magazine.

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