Presbyterians have a particular reputation. We are a rather staid bunch, more comfortable in the environs of the country club than those of the chicken farm, more atuned to the hoity-toity, less to hoi polloi. We’re called the frozen chosen, more for accuracy’s sake than for endearment. We read old and dusty books about doctrines that have been washed away from the public consciousness by tire raging rapids of modernity. We are, depending on the level of grace with which you wish to conjugate the adjective, either smart, egg-headed, or pedantic.

Though we affirm with great vigor that his doctrine was Presbyterian, there is a reason John the Baptist was called “the Baptist.” No self-respecting Presbyterian would live in the wilderness, dine on locusts, or do anything but assure the local powers-that-be that God is on their side. If a Presbyterian wanted to let his hair down, the worst he might do is sneak behind the dog kennel and read a few pages of Chronicles. We do not rant. And, while we affirm with a pious zeal that God not only knows the future but that He ordained it, we likewise deny that we can know it. In short, we are short on being prophetic—at least, most of the time.

Early in the 20th century, God raised up a prophet among us. J. Gresham Machen was a walking paradox. He was a careful and meticulous scholar and a popular ideologue. He taught New Testament at Princeton and defended it in a series of popular radio broadcasts and in his bestselling book, Christianity and Liberalism. It was not, at least technically, his zeal for the historic faith that got him into hot water. Rather, it was his passion against the federal leviathan. Machen left Princeton Seminary in 1929 because it was more committed to liberalism (primarily of the theological variety and only secondarily political) than to Christianity. He then founded Westminster Theological Seminary, which remains to this day—though only God knows for how much longer—the flagship institution of orthodox Presbyterianism. Convinced that too many missionaries in the mainline United Presbyterian Church were crossing land and sea and making only more children of Hell, he started an independent mission board.

What really got under the skin of his superiors, however, was his refusal to toe the party line on Prohibition. Machen was a political libertarian before being a libertarian was cool. He reached his conclusions not through Enlightenment utopianism but through his profound grasp of the depravity of fallen man. He did not trust the state to determine what a man should drink, nor did he trust the state to determine what and how a child should learn. His desire to cage the leviathan was not motivated by a desire to get high without getting in trouble but by a desire to live freely, that he might better serve his Master.

When the idea of a federal department of education was first floated in 1926, the respective committees of the houses of Congress convened together to hear testimony on the issue. Machen began the hearing by testifying:

Mr. Chairman and gentlemen of the Committee, there are two reasons why a man may be opposed to a bill which is introduced in Congress. One reason is that he thinks it will not accomplish its purpose. The other reason is that he thinks that the purpose that it is intended to accomplish is an evil purpose. It is for the latter reason that I am opposed to the bill which forms the subject of this hearing.

Machen was follow ing in the footsteps of another prophetic pariah, Robert L. Dabney. Dabney’s distaste for the federal leviathan moved him not only to take up the prophetic mantle but to take up arms. He served faithfully in the Confederate army, as a staff officer under Stonewall Jackson. He was a masterful preacher, a thoughtful theologian. Never was he more effective, however, than when he took up the pen. His treatment of the war, A Defense of Virginia and the South, is a careful examination of the justice of the Southern cause.

The very conviction that forced Dabney into harm’s way in the War Between the States drove him to speak out against the intrusion of the state in education. In his essay, “On Secular Education,” he begins,

Who should control education, and what is the proper education? The two questions are interdependent. In history, two answers have been proposed to the first question—the state and the Church. In Europe, liberalism has insisted on the State, and seeks to secularize education. Through this it means to wrest education from the control of Catholicism. Liberals see clearly that under Catholic control there will be no true freedom of education. But, as they also insist on secularizing the State, their idea of free education is one devoid of religion. They separate mental from spiritual culture. Thus they conclude that education must be godless to be free.

Dabney is not merely throwing rocks at Rome while throwing rocks at Washington, D.C. Early on, he saw through the subterfuge that was used to sell the idea of government schools to the Christian world. Government schools exist in large part because of the deal the Church made with the Devil. Before the war, these United States, for all their geographic and cultural diversity, shared a certain Protestant outlook. The very freedom that such a foundation established, however, attracted people from all over Europe, including those nations that had historically been Roman Catholic. Our cultural inheritance was being diluted, and, like their modern counterparts, the Protestants beseeched their god to do something. The state offered its solution. If religion could be removed from the schools, then the government would see to it that those poor and dirty Catholics would at least act more like Protestants—that is, like those for whom religion was but a private matter of the heart.

Dabney, however, protested. Over a hundred years ago, he understood what some evangelical Christians are reluctantly admitting today—that all education is inherently religious. Get rid of the religion, and you have gotten rid of the education. Keep the education, and you will be sure to find a religion. “If the State in America,” he argued,

becomes the educator, education must be secularized totally. In theory, our State is the institution for accomplishing secular justice. It has absolutely severed itself from all religions equally. It has pledged itself that no man’s civil rights shall be modified, or equality diminished, because of his religion, or lack of one. It has forbidden the establishment of any religion by law, and the imposition of any burden, for religious reasons, on any.

But is this so bad? Dabney asks the question himself: “Why may not the State teach reading and writing without any religious bias? Why not do it as the mechanic teaches his apprentices filing, planning, or hammering?” He answers himself: “Because dexterity in an art is not an education. The latter nurtures the soul, the other only drills a sense-organ or muscle; the one has a mechanical end, the other a moral purpose.” Long before Dewey or Mann, long before the Nazis or the communists first used their schools to mold laborers for their factories, long before C.S. Lewis warned us of those men without chests who would bring us the abolition of man, long before Outcome-Based Education and School-To-Work, Dabney saw that “education” by the secular state would always lead to the creation of more cogs for our industrial wheels. If you will not feed the soul, he rightly understood, all you are left with is the body.

While Ted Kennedy and President Bush agree with William Spady and his bevy of social theorists that no child should be left behind, precious few understand that the train is headed toward a death camp. Dabney writes,

The State refuses to be understood this way. It claims to educate. This can be seen in the universal argument of the advocates of public education. It assumes that the State has the right and duty of providing that the young citizens shall be competent to their responsibility as citizens. But this responsibility is ethical in nature.

What would happen if the state gave up this claim? Here, perhaps, the great prophet nodded. It seems he couldn’t imagine how far down this hole the state would be willing to crawl.

Again, if the State professed to bestow mere dexterity, and not an education, equity would require the bestowal of more than an ability in letters. All other useful arts would have to be included. The children would have an equal right to be taught the other bread-winning arts, and the government would have embraced the wildest communism. No, the State cannot adopt this evasion. Unless she says that she educates, she can do nothing.

While 20 percent of evangelical parents today have removed their children from government schools, the majority of them have handed over the job to another institution—the Church.

God has immediately and authoritatively instituted three organisms for man on earth—the State, the visible church, and the Family. These are coordinate in their rights and mutual independence. The State or Church has no more right to invade the parental sphere than the parent to invade theirs.

Children, in short, are the responsibility of parents. We have no more business handing our children over to the Church or state than we do invading Iraq or determining the nature of the Trinity. Here, Dabney not only presaged Abraham Kuyper’s concept of sphere sovereignty but got the spheres right:

Is [education] not properly a domestic and parental function? First we read in the Scriptures that Cod ordained the family by the union of one woman to one man, in one flesh, for life, for the declared end of “seeking a godly seed.” Does this not imply that God looks to parents, in whom the family is founded, as the responsible agents of this result?


In the Fifth Commandment, He has connected the child, not with either presbyter or magistrate, but with the parents. This of course confers on them the adequate and the prior authority. This argument appears again in the very order of the historical genesis of the Family and State, as well as the visible Church. The Family was established first.

Parents at the outset were the only social heads existing. The right rearing of children by them was necessary for the right creation of the other two institutions. It therefore appears that parental authority over children could not have come by delegation by either the State or the visible Church, any more than the water in a fountain comes from its reservoir below.

Having made arguments from natural law and the Word of God, Dabney gives us what might be called his instinctive argument—that which today is changing the hearts of parents across the country:

The best argument here is the heart’s own instinct. No parent can fail to resent the intrusion of any authority between his conscience and convictions, and the soul of his child. If the father conscientiously believes that his own creed is true and righteous and obligatory before God, then he must intuitively regard the intrusion of any other power between him and his child, for the purpose of causing the rejection of that creed, as a usurpation. The freedom of mind of the child alone, when he is an adult, can justly interpose. If this usurpation is made by the visible church, it is in the direction of Catholicism. If done by the magistrate, it is in the direction of despotism.

The education wars are not ultimately about education. This curriculum or that, to bus or not to bus, condoms or no condoms—these are all distractions from the real issue. The question is not “What should be done for ‘our’ children?” but “What will I do for my children?”

“It is a maxim in political philosophy,” Dabney reminds us,

as in mechanics, that when an organism is applied to a function for which it was not designed, it is injured and the function is done poorly. Consider a farmer who has a mill designed and well fitted to grind his meal, fie resolves that it shall also thresh his sheaves. The result is wretched threshing, and a crippled mill.