Machen was indeed concerned about the dangers that “cultural modernism” posed to traditional faith. But he was even more worried about the “modernism” of American Protestantism and the cultural outlook upon which Protestantism reconstructions rested. For Machen, the moves by Protestants to “modernize” the faith—and not the efforts of “cultural modernists” to move beyond Christianity—comprised the greatest danger to Christianity. For by refashioning Christianity mainline Protestants hoped to maintain the churches’ role as cultural guardian. But in the process, Machen believed, they had confused influence with faithfulness. In fact, he held that theological integrity and cultural authority were inversely related: a theology eager for public influence invariably compromised the Christian faith, while a principled theology could at best benefit society indirectly.
Machen’s cultural concerns, thus, made him in the 1920s a reluctant ally of secular intellectuals but in the 1930s would cost him the support of the fundamentalists. Like Machen, though for different reasons, cultural modernists also bristled under mainstream Protestantism’s moral code, rejected its cheery estimate of human nature and the universe, and opposed its bid to Christianize American society. The subtext of Machen’s theological critique of Protestant modernism—that the churches had no business meddling in society—was good news to the secularists who thought that America’s Protestant ethos impeded intellectual and cultural life. Fundamentalists, in contrast, were virtually deaf to Machen’s ideas about the relationship between Christianity and culture. To most conservatives throughout the 1920s, Machen was a champion of orthodoxy who had reestablished the theological foundations for Christian civilization in America. By the 1930s, however, his understanding of the church’s limited role in public life began to alienate fundamentalists. When Machen’s efforts to reform the Presbyterian Church were finally thwarted and he withdrew in 1936 to form a new denomination, his new church attracted few fundamentalists. They stayed away at least in part because they, unlike Machen, shared with modernizing Protestants the belief that Christian values constituted the bedrock of American society.
In other words, while natural religion is important to make the world go ‘round, Christianity serves another, more counter-intuitive purpose, namely the reconciliation of sinners to God. Arguably, this really was the supreme contribution Machen made: true religion has no obvious implication for or direct bearing on the cares of this world; it is irrelevant to the traditions of men no matter how he conceives of them and no matter how important they may be to this present life; it does not make bad people (or their cultures) good or good people (or their cultures) better; while it certainly has one resident within it, Christianity is certainly not a way of life.
Not everyone seems convinced that Machen was onto something though. Contra Machen, the suggestion here is that Christianity creates culture and that good culture is dependent upon an unadulterated Christianity.
If this isn’t an example of “alienated fundamentalism” I’m hard-pressed to know what is.