Last week I asked whether American churches will choose Christ or Nero. Dutch Theologian and Pastor Herman Hoeksema chose Christ. This was back in 1918. Nationalist propaganda was heated as WWI was on its tail end. Often, the assumption is that the post-9/11 years are the peak of American Nationalistic propaganda. This is not true. It is indeed very high, but with every war in the 21st century, the nationalism heats up and then clams down at the end of the war. The only difference today is that we are seemingly involved in perpetual war. Perpetual war means that perpetual nationalism is a rising part of American society.
Hoeksema, who wrote one the of the best summaries of the so-called “Clark-Van Til Controversy,” met the outrage of the religious liberals when he refused to confuse the Church with the aims of the State. The religious liberals despised his refusal to have his church officially participate in patriotic efforts. Individual Christians were allowed to participate as their consciouses allowed, but the Church as an institution took a position of neutrality; it sought to remain completely distinct from the goals of the State.
James D. Bratt, in his book “Dutch Calvinism in Modern America,” writes:
The Grand Rapids News criticized the CRC’s [Christian Reformed Church] doctrinal conservatism as well as its “foreign philosophy.” Since it held up “the old, the discarded, the obsolete, the dead against the hope of the future,” …it was no wonder that the denomination contained [people] guilty of “high treason” and “sedition.” The foremost liberal pulpit in Grand Rapids linked orthodoxy not just to disloyalty but to ignorance in general. The Christian Reformed were “un-American,” “parochial,” and “behind the times” because of their adherence to biblical infallibility, Calvin’s bloody theology, and separate Christian schools.
Yes, it seems that the nationalists, the pro-war faction of the American Christians, back then were the religious liberals. Why was this? I think the best explantation is given in Gary North’s Crossed Fingers (free pdf here): the religious liberals were used by the crony financial elite, the corporate lobbyists, and the economic fascists (most prominently the Rockefeller family) to give rise to the Progressive movement. The Progressive Movement as a populous movement is a historical myth. Murray Rothbard once explained:
Orthodox historians have always treated the Progressive period (roughly 1900-1916) as a time when free-market capitalism was becoming increasingly “monopolistic”; in reaction to this reign of monopoly and big business, so the story runs, altruistic intellectuals and far-seeing politicians turned to intervention by the government to reform and regulate these evils. [T]he reality was almost precisely the opposite of this myth.
It was precisely in reaction to their impending defeat at the hands of the competitive storms of the market that [Big Business] turned, increasingly after the 1900′s, to the federal government for aid and protection. In short, the intervention by the federal government was designed, not to curb big business monopoly for the sake of the public weal, but to create monopolies that big business (as well as trade associations smaller business) had not been able to establish amidst the competitive gales of the free market.
Thus, beginning with Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism and culminating in Wilson’s New Freedom, in industry after industry, e.g., insurance, banking, meat, exports, and business generally, regulations that present-day Rightists think of as “socialistic” were not only uniformly hailed, but conceived and brought about by big businessmen. This was a conscious effort to fasten upon the economy a cement of subsidy, stabilization, and monopoly privilege.
James Bratt continues to explain the criticism faced by the Reformed Churches during this time:
Other critics focused on political allegiance alone. The most vociferous of these, the Michigan Tradesman, a Grand Rapids weekly…, complained that ‘the Christian Reformed churches harbor many preachers who are not loyal to the American flag….’ The Tradesman advocated mere imprisonment or deportation for the offending clerics but more severe measures for the rest. “The professors who are conceded to be anti-American should be stood up against a wall and shot. There is no proper place for them in this land of the free.”
The phrase “loyal to the American flag” is used, sadly, in the same way that it is often used today: endorsement of all the government’s actions. And apparently there were preachers, including Herman Hoeksema as we will see, who did not share this implicitly morally relativistic ethic of always endorsing the throne. For more on allegiance to the flag, consider Peter Gay’s piercing breakdown of the pledge of allegiance.
In any case, one wonders what definition of “free” is in operation by the religious liberals if dissenters must be shot.
Of course, the loyalty issue became most volatile when politics and religion crossed. This occurred most dramatically in February 1918, when Herman Hoeksema, the young minister of… an English speaking Christian Reformed church in Holland, Michigan… refused to allow the American flag in the sanctuary during worship.
One individual from among the critics of Hoeksema, named Gerrit J. Diekma, dismissed Hoeksema for refusing to allow his church to endorse the goodness of the State’s actions overseas. Diekma
“praised American soldiers as ‘the bravest and manliest boys the air, the earth, and the sea have ever seen’; and cast the war in sacred, apocalyptic terms. In this final conflict between freedom and tyranny, God was using the United States to “give birth to the universal brotherhood of man and… usher in the promised reign of the Prince of Peace.” Since “flag stands for all that is pure and noble and good,” and since the cause of Christ and country were the same, Diekema conlcuded Hoeksema’s act approximated treason.
Hoeksema, similar to J. Gresham Machen, considered this all as sheer government propaganda to garner mass acceptance of the State’s wars, and its efforts toward expansion. The State sought to become an Empire, to control the world; and it did so in terms of “freedom against tyranny.” It had a messianic characteristic, as it still does today as John Robbins importantly pointed out.
The religious liberals had a distorted view of postmillennial eschatology. It was inherently socialistic, inherently Marxist. And yet, to oppose the actions of the government overseas and domestically today is seen as equally treasonous by the establishmentarians and especially the neoconservatives among those political elites.
Another liberal minister characterized Hoeksema’s behavior as “positively criminal,” and suggested that support for the war effort constituted no less than the highest form of religious devotion.[…]Hoeksema responded by turning to Calvinism [and] the Constitution. Since [his critics] appeared to be incapable of sound thinking [their emotionally laden nationalism fogged their thinking], he declared, a constructive discussion was impossible; he would have to content himself with showing that “it is very well possible to be fully loyal and truly patriotic as those that make it their business to advertise their patriotism at every opportunity.”
It was Hoeksema’s position that
“the flag might stand in the church during non-ecclesiastical ceremonies but not during worship, for then God’s people acted as part of a universal institution and might not declare national loyalty. To put the church in service of a nation corrupted its essence and threatened civil and religious liberty. Moreover, it abetted the decline of spirituality that was killing the church all over America, not least in the RCA churches of Holland, Michigan.
Notice the two fold argument utilized by Hoeksema: the confusion between State and Church was a) bad for liberty and b) bad for the church. The church does not exist in service of a nation, it exists in service to Christ.
The response to Hoeksema’s “retaliation,” was to claim that “any preacher who barred the flag from his church was” a Bolshevik sympathizer and had “forfeited his right to exist among decent people and voluntarily made himself an object of disgust and suspicion.”
Such propaganda (“anyone who disagrees with us is to be identified with the enemy!”) and Orwellian logic (see the similarity to the modern and oft-used “nothing to hide argument“) exists in new forms today. It is all around. And unfortunately, America’s evangelical community is especially susceptible to it. We must not mistake our duty to our Lord and Savior Christ Jesus as duty to the earthly throne. If I, just a layperson, may be so bold as to address the Pastors: follow Herman Hoeksema’s example and keep the American flag out of “ecclesiastical ceremonies.”