Archive for the ‘ American Character ’ Category

Reclaiming Booker T. Washington

What occupies professors when they are on summer vacation? I imagine some may think we do nothing. Those would not be the professors I know; we stay busy.

For instance, I’ve been working diligently on a new upper-level history course for the fall semester: American history from 1877-1917. For me, though, that’s hardly “work”—it’s an enjoyable experience putting my thoughts together and giving them life through my PowerPoint presentations.

I’m the type of historian who concentrates quite a bit on the people of an era, less so on statistics, graphs, etc. My primary interest is character and how that affects the cause-and-effect flow of history.

I also have a tendency to provide alternative views on those people, views that don’t fit into the prevailing interpretations. Take Booker T. Washington as an example. One of the books I’m using in the course is Washington’s autobiography Up From Slavery. It’s a heartfelt account of one man who overcame tremendous disadvantages and made a positive impact on many lives through the establishment of the Tuskegee Institute.

Today, Washington is often criticized as an “Uncle Tom.” First of all, that’s a slam on the fictional Uncle Tom as presented by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic novel. Tom was a Christ-like man to be admired.

Washington also should be admired for his tenacity, his desire to help ex-slaves, and his Christian character.

I like to include key quotes from significant historical figures. Washington is very quotable.

Here’s one that can be applied to him personally:

Washington’s selflessness shines in these two comments:

Washington knew, from personal experience, what it meant to be discriminated against, but he also received tremendous support from many in the white community throughout his life. He lived by this motto:

That’s the perspective we need in our cultural and political wars today. It came from Washington’s Christian faith.

Here’s a very short quote, but it says a lot:

It’s amazing how just three words can communicate a vital truth.

Booker T. Washington’s life is a testimony to character, and it should be an inspiration for the current generation.

I like teaching history; it has a lot to offer us if one approaches it with a right attitude, and not with the proverbial chip on the shoulder.

History should never be used to advance a preconceived agenda, but it can be used to remind us of the significance of individuals and the impact they can make. Booker T. Washington is one such individual.

Tweeterdumb

One of my main objections to the Trump nomination during the primaries last year was his character. I feared that as president he wouldn’t be able to control himself because he had never manifested self-control in his life. Whatever Trump wanted to do, Trump did, regardless of the consequences.

I was told by many not to worry about that since he would be surrounded by people who could rein him in. So how’s that going?

My fears have been realized over and over again. Trump’s thin skin gives his emotions dominance over his behavior. While there are many instances of this in his actions, the way he gets into trouble most often is through his tweets.

His Twitter account, which many have urged him to shut down (to no avail) is his way of getting back at anyone who crosses him. He claims it’s his way of getting his message out to the public, frustrating the mainstream media. Yet there’s very little substance in most of his tweets; the majority are varying levels of personal invective toward individuals or groups that either oppose him or are not fully on the Trump Train.

And they sometimes fan the fires of a controversy that would have died off if only he could let things go. That’s not wise; it’s an exercise in foolishness that undermines any good he might presume to do.

By the way, the political cartoons I’m using are not from the fevered brains of progressives; these cartoonists are conservatives who see the damage he is doing to the conservative brand.

Sometimes, Trump is just dead wrong on the facts. The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, after the recent terrorist attacks, told the people that they were going to see more police and military on the streets, but not to be alarmed by that since they were there for protection.

What did Trump do? He tweeted the following: “At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is ‘no reason to be alarmed!'”

That comment ignored the context of the statement completely. Yet when it was pointed out to Trump that the “no reason to be alarmed” wording was related to the increase of security, he doubled down on his misinformed earlier tweet by sending out another one: “Pathetic excuse by London Mayor Sadiq Khan who had to think fast on his ‘no reason to be alarmed’ statement. MSM is working hard to sell it!”

I hope to be very clear here. I’m no fan of this Muslim mayor of London who has shown himself at odds with common sense in combating terrorism. Neither am I a fan of the mainstream media that seeks to destroy the Trump presidency. But in this case, Trump was obviously wrong.

And he refuses to acknowledge he was wrong, making matters even worse.

Again, this comes back to character, or the lack thereof. It also makes one wonder whether he is competent to handle the office he’s been given.

There have been other times when his surrogates have explained him to the public, only to have him tweet something that contradicts what they have said. Being on the communications team for this president must be one of the hardest jobs in Washington.

There is a growing sense that this administration has few accomplishments it can point to. Of course, the rest of the Republican party has played a part in that as well, but that’s for another post. Besides Neil Gorsuch (who has yet to be tested) and a few Obama executive orders being axed, what has this administration done compared to what Trump promised?

If you’ve taken the time to analyze Trump’s tweets, you will find they follow a clear pattern. Someone came up with a handy aid for how Trump tweets. I thought I would share it with you.

You’re welcome.

Lest I be misunderstood, I don’t want Trump to fail on the matters that concern me most: religious liberty, abortion, and government regulations. If he fulfills his promises on those issues, I will be pleased. Yet he is his own worst enemy, and his lack of emotional control may well be his undoing.

It’s well past time to get his act together. I’m simply not confident that he can do so.

Chambers: The Meaning of Witness

Every couple of years, I’m privileged to teach my course on Whittaker Chambers. As this semester nears its end, students are also getting near the end of Chambers’s masterful autobiography entitled Witness.

Why that title? Chambers, as he shared what he knew about the communist underground of which he had been a part for many years, was a witness. Another word for a witness is a martyr—one who is willing to lay down his life for what he knows to be true.

Chambers took a great chance in providing information; he might have been the one indicted for his past activities. Yet he came forward regardless because integrity demanded it; he sought to help Western civilization understand the threat it faced, not just from an outward manifestation called communism, but from an inner loss of spirit due to its increasing denial of Christian faith.

Chambers made a distinction between making a witness and simply giving a testimony. “The testimony and the witness must not be confused,” he wrote. “They were not the same.” He explained further,

The testimony fixed specific, relevant crimes. The witness fixed the effort of the soul to rise above sin and crime, and not for its own sake first, but because of others’ need, that the witness to sin and crime might be turned against both.

Chambers, in confessing his sins and crimes, was hoping to help the world understand the deeper truths. Yet he was concerned “that the world would see only the shocking facts of the testimony and not the meaning of the witness.”

He expressed his concern in words that reverberate down to our day—elegant words, words wrought out of the depth of his soul:

To those for whom the intellect alone has force, such a witness has little or no force. It bewilders and exasperates them. It challenges them to suppose that there is something greater about man than his ability to add and subtract.

It submits that that something is the soul.

Plain men understood the witness easily. It speaks directly to their condition. For it is peculiarly the Christian witness. They still hear it, whenever it truly reaches their ears, the ring of those glad tidings that once stirred mankind with an immense hope.

What does the Christian hope offer to men? I love how Chambers ends this short soliloquy:

For it frees them from the trap of irreversible Fate at the point of which it whispers to them that each soul is individually responsible to God, that it has only to assert that responsibility, and out of man’s weakness will come strength, out of his corruption incorruption, out of his evil good, and out of what is false invulnerable truth.

Chambers’s words remind me of chapter 4 of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. . . .

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Be a witness today, even if you feel weak. God uses whatever we offer Him for His glory.

America’s Best Presidents

There was no Presidents Day in my younger years. Instead, February stood out as the month we celebrated, separately, the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

I have no problem with a day that seeks to honor all those who have served as president, but there are some who certainly don’t deserve as much honor as others (I won’t name names) and the fusion of all presidents into one day has diminished the special occasions of Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays, so that, in my view, is another downside to the change.

As a historian who comes at politics and government from a Biblical and conservative perspective, some presidents rise above others in my admiration. Four, in particular, rise to the top for me. Let me identify them and explain why I esteem them above all the others.

George Washington

This is the man who was indispensable to the Founding of the nation. I don’t use the word “indispensable” lightly. Washington’s roles as head of the military during the American Revolution and as the first president were the glue that held us together. No one else during that era commanded the same respect as he did.

The Constitutional Convention was given greater legitimacy through his attendance as president of the convention, and the expectation that he would take on the responsibilities of the presidency calmed the country as it sought stability.

Washington’s character was his hallmark; he demanded integrity from himself as much as from others. He suffered through those long years of war, holding a ragtag army together when the Congress couldn’t figure out how to supply and pay the soldiers.

When, at the end of that war, Congress faced a potential mutiny of the officers, it was Washington who defused the mutiny with the force of his character. Respect for their commander who had shared their sufferings kept the nation from starting out with a military coup.

When the war ended, he resigned his commission and went home, confounding King George III, who couldn’t conceive of anyone voluntarily setting aside the kind of power and authority Washington had attained. He rebuked those of his followers who urged him to proclaim himself king of America.

He also stepped down from the presidency after two terms, even though the Constitution at that time didn’t require it, thus setting a precedent for all who followed after.

So, yes, I believe George Washington deserves special honor on this day.

Abraham Lincoln

There are still people today who grate at the name of Lincoln, believing he was a tyrant during the Civil War. Research into his character and actions overall, though, put the lie to that perception.

Lincoln was devoted to the Constitution and was a keen student of American history and government. All one has to do is read his Cooper Institute speech prior to his presidency to see how he amassed a ton of information on the views of the Founding Fathers as the basis for his political positions. And no one can escape his devotion to the Declaration of Independence.

Lincoln was one of the greatest of presidential wordsmiths; he crafted his speeches carefully in the hope of showcasing the principles that lay at the foundation of the nation. His Gettysburg Address and his inaugurals, particularly the Second Inaugural, are testaments to the heart of the man, as he wove Biblical charity and forgiveness into the texts for all to remember.

The Civil War was the greatest crisis the nation has ever faced, and Lincoln had to deal with issues no president before or since has had to handle. If this was the ultimate on-the-job training, he came through magnificently.

The tragedy of his death is that he was only beginning to embark on the path of a peaceful, forgiving reconstruction of the country. Without him, that path became much rockier.

Through the loss of two sons to early deaths and the burdens of a great war, Lincoln was compelled to draw closer to God. I believe, in the end, he rediscovered his Christian faith. He richly deserves the honor so many have bestowed upon him.

Calvin Coolidge

Some will be surprised by the inclusion of Coolidge in my list of most honorable presidents. Liberal historians disparage the man they say did nothing in his presidency. They promote the idea that because he was a man of few words that he was insignificant. Well, wordy people are not always the significant ones; those who use caution in what they say may be far wiser.

Coolidge, as vice president, found himself thrust into the presidency by the death of Warren Harding in 1923. It was not an easy task to ascend to the office at that point because scandals in the Harding administration were just beginning to bubble to the surface.

Upon hearing of Harding’s death, the first thing Coolidge did was to take his wife’s hand and kneel with her by the bed to pray for guidance and the wisdom to take up the challenges set before him.

Coolidge, because of his basic integrity, made sure all investigations of those scandals proceeded accordingly. People who had been in the Harding administration went to prison. He offered no favors to them, no pardons.

The 1920s were a boom time economically for the country. Coolidge’s low-tax and reduced-regulation policies helped spur innovation and prosperity. He was in no way to blame for the later Great Depression. The prosperity of the 1920s was genuine.

He won election in his own right in 1924, and undoubtedly would have won again in 1928, but he voluntarily relinquished the power of the presidency in the same spirit as Washington. In his memoir, Coolidge explained why he chose to step down, and I find it one of the wisest statements ever made by a president:

It is difficult for men in high office to avoid the malady of self-delusion. They are always surrounded by worshipers. They are constantly, and for the most part sincerely, assured of their greatness. They live in an artificial atmosphere of adulation and exultation which sooner or later impairs their judgment. They are in grave danger of becoming careless and arrogant.

Character meant more to Coolidge than power. For that reason alone, he deserves our respect and honor.

Ronald Reagan

Reagan as one of my top presidents should surprise no one. After all, I’ve written a book about him. He won the presidency at one of the lowest points in the history of that office. Post-Vietnam, posts-Watergate, post-Carter, the nation was in the doldrums. Reagan, with his sunny disposition, helped restore optimism. And his policies—tax cuts, deregulation, and the rebuilding of the military—inspired new confidence in the nation’s future.

Couple all of that with his solid defense of liberty and firm belief that communism was destined for the ash heap of history, and we witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, and new hope for freedom.

Reagan’s Christian faith was real; I interviewed his former pastor and left that interview with confirmation of that fact. Reagan believed God had a purpose for America and that this country, despite some of its missteps over time, remained the beacon for freedom in the world.

Reagan’s humility stands out above all else in his character. He never took credit for the economic upsurge in the 1980s; he said it was the result of the hard work and faith of the people. When he received the Alzheimer’s diagnosis, he wrote one final address to the American people. The last paragraph states,

In closing let me thank you, the American people for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your President. When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be I will face it with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future.

I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.

Even in that address, it wasn’t really about him—it was about America. His humility was his strength. Ronald Reagan deserves our gratitude and should be honored for what he brought to the Oval Office.

There are other presidents who served admirably, but, in my view, Washington, Lincoln, Coolidge, and Reagan are the four best in American history. Let’s remember them today.

The Coolidge Legacy

Yesterday was the anniversary of Calvin Coolidge’s death in 1933. It passed by most people. In fact, if you were to ask a random one hundred people who Coolidge was, I’m afraid only a very few would be able to give an informed answer.

Calvin Coolidge, president of the United States from 1923-1929, brought character to the forefront of American politics. Vice president under Warren Harding, he had the presidency thrust upon him when Harding died suddenly. Upon first hearing the news, Coolidge and his wife immediately knelt by their bed and prayed. He was then sworn into the office by his own father in his boyhood home in Vermont where he was visiting.

Harding’s administration was in the throes of a number of scandals at the time, with the most infamous being Teapot Dome. Coolidge made sure the various investigations went forward and that the guilty were punished. He restored confidence in the government.

His entire tenure in office was a period of prosperity for the nation. Part of the reason for that was his philosophy of limited government and economic liberty. He acted on principle and did his best to keep the federal government under control.

Coolidge won election in his own right in 1924, and since he only completed a year and a half of Harding’s term, nearly everyone expected him to run again in 1928 and win without any trouble. Yet Coolidge declined to do so. He explained more fully in his post-presidential memoir why he made that decision, and his explanation reveals the heart of the man.

It is difficult for men in high office to avoid the malady of self-delusion. They are always surrounded by worshipers. They are constantly, and for the most part sincerely, assured of their greatness. They live in an artificial atmosphere of adulation and exultation which sooner or later impairs their judgment. They are in grave danger of becoming careless and arrogant.

If only more politicians had that perspective, we would be in better shape as a nation.

Although Coolidge gained the reputation of being a man of few words, whenever he did speak, he was eloquent.

One Excuse I Forgot

In yesterday’s post, I attempted to catalogue the main excuses and rationalizations I’ve been reading and hearing to absolve Donald Trump of his many sins. This morning, I realized I omitted one very prominent excuse. Let me make amends for that.

The video was from 2005–it’s old news, he’s changed

Probably the only people who can believe that whopper are those who haven’t watched Trump in action for the last year and a half. Changed? Really?

Well, he apologized for what he said in the video. Did you pay attention to that “apology”? It was the typical sorry-I-got-caught non-apology that has become the hallmark of politicians of both parties. What I saw was a defiant Trump trying to deflect from his own sins by pointing to the sins of others and promising to highlight the sins of the Clintons.

King David sinned horribly and God continued to use him, we’re told. Yes, David did sin horribly: adultery compounded by placing the woman’s husband in the line of fire in a battle, thus ensuring his death.

David, though, was then confronted by the prophet Nathan who pointed the finger of accusation at him for his sins. Scripture then records that David repented from the heart. Consequences from his sins followed, but he didn’t blame anyone else nor God. He understood that consequences follow our sins.

david-nathan

He then put his repentance into a psalm that has come down to us as #51:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.

Is that really the attitude we currently see in Donald Trump?

David continued,

Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

Does Trump truly have a desire for a pure heart? Who are you to judge his heart, I can already hear some saying. It’s out of the heart that a man’s actions spring. I’m looking at his actions, which are a showcase into the heart.

God uses sinful people to do His will, we’re told. If He has to, sure. But do you vote for a blatantly unrepentant person for that reason? If so, keep in mind that admonition also applies to the other side. Hillary Clinton is a blatantly unrepentant person as well. Maybe God wants to use her.

Faced with two blatantly unrepentant persons who have no heart for the moral standards in God’s Word, I will vote for neither and trust God either to judge the nation for its sins or to show mercy, which we hardly deserve because we are a people steeped in our own rebellion against Him.

There are consequences for our collective sins as well.

The Cruz Reversal

ted-cruzSo now Ted Cruz has said he will vote for Donald Trump. He didn’t go so far as to say, when asked pointedly, that Trump is fit to be president; in fact, he deflected that specific question and went in a different direction in his answer. In his heart, I think he still knows Trump is unqualified for the office.

I had hoped the day wouldn’t come when Cruz would bow the knee to a con man. I remember all so clearly Cruz’s comments on May 3, the day Trump secured the nomination and the Republican party threw away its heritage.

On that day, after Trump incredibly floated the absurd idea that Cruz’s father was somehow implicated in the JFK assassination, Cruz said this (and I will quote at length):

This man is a pathological liar. He doesn’t know the difference between truth and lies. He lies practically every word that comes out of his mouth. And, in a pattern that I think is straight out of a psychology textbook, his response is to accuse everybody else of lying. . . .

The man cannot tell the truth, but he combines it with being a narcissist. A narcissist at a level – I don’t think this country’s ever seen. Donald Trump is such a narcissist that Barack Obama looks at him and goes, “Dude, what’s your problem?” Everything in Donald’s world is about Donald. . . .

I say pathological because I actually think Donald, if you hooked him up to a lie detector test, he could say one thing in the morning, one thing at noon, and one thing in the evening, all contradictory, and he’d pass the lie detector test each time. Whatever lie he’s telling at that minute, he believes it. . . .

The man is utterly amoral. Morality does not exist for him. . . .

donald-trump-3Donald is a bully. . . . Bullies don’t come from strength, bullies come from weakness. Bullies come from a deep, yawning cavern of insecurity. There is a reason Donald builds giant buildings and puts his name on them everywhere he goes. . . .

Donald will betray his supporters on every issue. If you care about immigration, Donald is laughing at you. And he’s telling the moneyed elites that he doesn’t believe what he’s saying, he’s not gonna build a wall – that’s what he told the New York Times, he will betray you on every issue across the board.

I couldn’t agree more with Cruz’s words on that day. So what has changed?

Cruz says he has forgiven Trump for the insults and innuendoes about his wife and father. As a Christian, I certainly appreciate that Cruz has chosen not to allow bitterness to dominate. However, it is instructive to note that Trump has never acknowledged doing anything wrong, has not even uttered one word of regret for his lies, and acts as if Cruz owes him an endorsement, despite Trump’s despicable actions.

Trump now heaps praise on Cruz for having been a formidable challenger. In his mind, are they now best buddies? Hardly. If Cruz were to say something critical tomorrow, Trump would respond with his typical “loser” designation and say that he will find someone to run against Cruz in his next Senate race.

So why did Cruz make this endorsement? Theories abound. He himself says it’s because Hillary must be stopped and this is a binary election. In other words, the same old tired reasons given by every Republican who has capitulated to the Trump nomination. At least he’s not Hillary.

Never mind the future of the Republican brand; it has now morphed into the Trump brand.

So, I ask: Has Cruz really changed his mind about Trump’s acceptability as the nominee? Or did he not really mean the things he said back in May? Or is he more concerned about his own political future?

From what I’ve read from more than one source, Texas Republicans have been putting on the pressure and major donors have threatened not to support Cruz in his Senate reelection bid.

If that’s the real reason, I am simply sad because it will mean that another man has succumbed to the desire to maintain political office at the expense of principle.

Cruz has undermined his biggest supporters with this Trump endorsement. When he talks about principle and constitutionalism from now on, many will take it with that proverbial grain of salt.

I won’t judge Cruz too harshly at this point. One bad decision does not override everything good a man has done. But neither will I immediately respond to a call to arms for a 2020 presidential bid. He will have to earn my support all over again.