Who is J. Gresham Machen and why should we care what he said about imperialism, militarism, and conscription?
John Gresham Machen (1881—1937) was a conservative Presbyterian New Testament scholar who taught at Princeton Theological Seminary from 1906—1929. Because he believed that the seminary had left its historic theological position, Machen left Princeton in 1929 and founded Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, teaching there until his untimely death in 1937.
Machen was widely recognized in his day as one of the most scholarly and zealous defenders of conservative Protestantism. His most enduring works are The Origin of Paul’s Religion (1921), The Virgin Birth of Christ (1930), Christianity and Liberalism (1923), and New Testament Greek for Beginners (1923), all of which are still in print today.
Machen was not a pacifist, and neither was he connected in any way with one of the historic peace churches. He was the epitome of an orthodox, conservative Christian. And that is why we should care about what he said about imperialism, militarism, and conscription. Too many Christians today believe that a conservative Christian should identify politically with the conservative movement, which today generally supports war, militarism, and an aggressive U.S. foreign policy — at least when a Republican president is in charge.
The latest poll by The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that voters are almost evenly divided between Barack Obama and John McCain. Among white evangelical Protestant voters, however, McCain leads Obama 68 to 24 percent. This is disturbing. And not because I think Christians should support Obama (they shouldn’t) or the Democratic Party (they shouldn’t). Like under George Bush, there will be no restraint on the abuse of the military under a commander in chief like John McCain. But a vote for McCain is not just a vote for four more years of George Bush. McCain is even worse on foreign policy than Bush. And unlike Bush, who merely gave the order for mass murder, McCain actually helped carry out mass murder, from the safety of his cockpit, of course.
But aside from being a flaming neoconservative interventionist with a foreign policy that often sounds more bellicose and more reckless than Bush, CFR member McCain has taken positions for abortion, gun control, the UN, amnesty for illegals, the North American Union, and global warming legislation and against free speech, tax cuts, and limited government and liberty in general. And we are supposed to believe that he is the lesser of two evils?
Some conservative Christians are already starting to hold their nose to block out the stench of McCain’s “conservatism” as they prepare to vote for him in the November election because he is a Republican and not one of those evil Democrats. It’s just too bad that they are not holding their nose because of McCain’s dangerous view of what U.S. foreign policy should be. Even James “Focus on the Family” Dobson, who once said that he would never support McCain, is now entertaining the thought of doing so.
Given McCain’s views on the military and foreign policy, and without even taking into account his positions on other issues, if Machen were alive today, would he be even a reluctant McCain supporter? I think not.
After the United States entered World War I, Machen went to France with the YMCA in early 1918 to perform relief work, occasionally having to shelter during bombardments. He was not, however, a partisan for the Allied Powers.
In reviewing a book in 1915 by a noted pro-English author, Machen remarked that the book was “a glorification of imperialism.” The author “glorified war” and ridiculed “efforts at the production of mutual respect and confidence among equal nations.”
Machen was not interested in the world being “made safe for democracy”:
The alliance of Great Britain with Russia and Japan seems to me still an unholy thing — an unscrupulous effort to crush the life out of a progressive commercial rival. Gradually a coalition had to be gotten together against Germany, and the purpose of it was only too plain. An alleged war in the interest of democracy the chief result of which will be to place a splendid people at the mercy of Russia does not appeal to me.
This talk about British democracy arouses my ire as much as anything. Great Britain seems to me the least democratic of all the civilized nations of the world — with a land-system that makes great masses of the people practically serfs, and a miserable social system that is more tyrannical in the really important, emotional side of life than all the political oppression that ever was practiced. And then if there is such a thing as British democracy it has no place for any rival on the face of the earth. The British attitude towards Germany’s just effort at a place in ocean trade seems to me one of the great underlying causes of the war.
He reserved his harshest words for imperialism:
Imperialism, to my mind, is satanic, whether it is German or English.
I am opposed to all imperial ambitions, wherever they may be cherished and with whatever veneer of benevolent assimilation they may be disguised.
A few months after the war began, Machen wrote that “the enormous lists of casualties” impressed him, “as nothing else has, with the destructiveness of the war.”
There have been renewed calls of late for young people to perform some kind of national service. I have even heard pastors who ought to know better say that every young man should serve for two years in the military after high school. The most egregious form of national service is involuntary servitude, prohibited by the Thirteenth Amendment, but permitted if called conscription. Machen was a strong opponent of conscription:
Even temporary conscription goes against the grain with me, unless it is resorted to to repel actual invasion, but my fundamental objection is directed against compulsory service in time of peace.
The country seems to be rushing into two things to which I am more strongly opposed than anything else in the world — a permanent alliance with Great Britain, which will inevitably mean a continuance of the present vassalage, and a permanent policy of compulsory military service with all the brutal interference of the state in individual and family life which that entails, and which has caused the misery of Germany and France.
On April 2, 1917, Machen wrote about conscription to the members of Congress that represented his home state of New Jersey:
After a residence in Europe I came to cherish America all the more as a refuge from the servitude of conscription. That servitude prevails whether the enforced service be required by a vote of the majority or by an absolute government. Compulsory military service does not merely bring a danger of militarism; it is militarism. To adopt it in this country would mean that no matter how this war results we are conquered already; the hope of peace and a better day would no longer be present to sustain us in the present struggle, but there would be only the miserable prospect of the continuance of the evils of war even into peace times.
In short Americanism is in danger — American liberty and the whole American ideal of life. Is it to be abandoned without consideration, under the unnatural stress of an emergency with which the proposed change in policy has absolutely noting to do? Just when other nations are hoping that the present war will result in the diminution of armaments and the broadening of liberty, is America to be the first to take a radical step in exactly the opposite direction? I am not arguing against preparedness. I believe, in particular, that we should have a much more adequate navy. What I am arguing against is compulsion, which I believe to be brutal and un-American in itself, and productive of a host of subsidiary evils.
If Machen were alive today, he would be accused of being un-American or anti-American for statements like these:
The gospel of Christ is a blessed relief from that sinful state of affairs commonly known as hundred per-cent Americanism. And fortunately some of us were able to learn of the gospel in a freer, more spiritual time, before the state had begun to lay its grip upon the education of the young.
Princeton is a hot-bed of patriotic enthusiasm and military ardor, which makes me feel like a man without a country.
On the Sunday before the Fourth of July this year, many churches held patriotic services. I saw the following on a church sign near my house: “The American soldier and Jesus Christ. One gives his life for your freedom. The other for your soul.” I can’t think of anything more blasphemous than mentioning Jesus Christ — the Lord, the Son of God, the Prince of Peace — in the same breath as a U.S. soldier who bombs, maims, kills, and then dies for a lie. I think Machen would agree.
into the noble company of those who have sacrificed themselves in a righteous cause. But such condescension is as far removed as possible from the Christian attitude. People used to say, “There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin.” They say so no longer. On the contrary, any man, if only he goes bravely over the top, is now regarded as plenty good enough to pay the price of sin. Obviously this modern attitude is possible only because men have lost sight of the majesty of Jesus’ person. It is because they regard him as a being altogether like themselves that they can compare their sacrifice with his. It never seems to dawn upon them that this was no sinful man, but the Lord of glory who died on Calvary. If it did dawn upon them, they would gladly confess, as men used to confess, that one drop of the precious blood of Jesus is worth more, as a ground for the hope of the world, than all the rivers of blood which have flowed upon the battlefields of France.
Conservative Christians have no business supporting, defending, or excusing the current military adventures of the United States. J. Gresham Machen is a shining example that even the most conservative of Christians can look to.
All quotations from J. Gresham Machen are taken from Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir (3rd ed., The Banner of Truth Trust).