(’76 Contributor) All the recent talk about the need to build the GOP up into a permanent philosophical “Big Tent” to accommodate both liberals and conservatives in the wake of the Congressional election in District 23 in New York State earlier this month reminded me of the reasoning put forward by John Gresham Machen in Christianity and Liberalism about the injudiciousness of allowing liberal and conservative preachers to co-exist within evangelical churches.
In his book, published in 1923, the influential American Presbyterian theologian deplored what he described as the “obvious weakness” of churches doctrinally rooted in the authority of the Bible and faith in “the redeeming work of Christ”. Far from blaming such weakness on steadfast adherence to early Christian creedal principles, Machen ascribed it instead to “the admission of great companies of persons who have never made any really adequate confession of faith at all and whose entire attitude toward the gospel is the very reverse of the Christian attitude.”
Machen dismissed accusations of “narrowness” at the core of his thinking by emphasizing the notion that “the Christian brotherhood is open without distinction to all” and that “the Christian man seeks to bring all men in” as befits the evangelical mission of the Church based on loyalty to Christ. However, fully aware of the risks involved in too much doctrinal open-mindedness for the sake of artificially filling pews, Machen warned that “nothing engenders strife so much as a forced unity, within the same organization, of those who disagree fundamentally in aim.”
Parallels with the strategic, philosophical, and political quandary in which the GOP finds itself right now are easy to draw. As Deirdre Scozzafava’s decision to endorse her former Democrat opponent, Bill Owens, at the expense of conservative and Republican interests in District 23 illustrates to some extent, differences between liberals and conservatives within the GOP appear to be irreconcilable on many counts and hold America hostage to Democrat ill-fated policies.
Again, where conservatism is concerned, the solution leads back to Ronald Reagan. In his address to CPAC on March 1st, 1975, Reagan explained that “a political party cannot be all things to all people.” Echoing J. Gresham Machen’s insight, Reagan went on to insist on the idea that a party “must represent certain beliefs which must not be compromised to political expediency or simply to swell its numbers.” To be sure, Reagan believed in the “Big Tent” principle but to him, the concept was valid only so long as those who came in had first converted to conservatism. The voters who actually did so in 1980 and 1984, albeit transiently and mainly in response to Reagan’s charisma, are known today as “Reagan Democrats” and they are still looking for a permanent philosophical and political home.
The time has come for American conservative leaders to follow in J. Gresham Machen’s and Ronald Reagan’s strategic footsteps and start thinking creatively about how best to meet the demand of growing numbers of American voters for more conservative orthodoxy. Glenn Beck may well be giving them a few clues as to what to do next.