Archive for the ‘ The Historical Muse ’ Category

Here’s What Concerns Me

It’s a very easy thing to loathe politics; it can be a very loathsome thing, exposing as it does the basest of human interactions: petty jealousies, outsized egos; personal insults; the precedence of expediency over principle.

I do understand why people want to avoid it.

All along the political spectrum there are people who operate at the lowest level of morality and who seem to delight in tearing down those with whom they disagree. Some of those people do so purely for their own personal gain—it’s primarily just a selfish thing.

But there are others—true believers in a cause—who all too often get so wrapped up in their cause (and it can be a righteous cause) that they cast caution aside and act in ways that are actually detrimental to what they hope to achieve.

Frankly, I’m distressed over the turn politics has taken on the conservative side. Wait a minute, what about those liberals and their unsavory tactics? Are you ignoring them? Only someone who has never read this blog over the past nine years could think that. Yes, the liberal/progressive approach has almost always been loathsome.

What concerns me is that some conservatives now think they have to copy that loathsomeness in response. Whenever we do that, we lose—our principles, our character, and our long-term influence.

Need I say that it is also unchristian to act in that way?

I find history to be a guide. When the communist threat was very real back in the late 1940s, Whittaker Chambers sacrificed his great job, high salary, and reputation to expose what he knew from his time in the underground. He was actuated by the need to tell the truth, but he did so, as he noted, with pity and remorse. He didn’t hate anyone on the other side; he simply wanted to make sure the nation knew what was happening, so that the nation might respond appropriately and survive.

Then along came a man by the name of Joe McCarthy, a senator from Wisconsin. He jumped into this fight with communism, but not with the Chambers attitude. While Chambers certainly fought with all he had against the evil of communism, he did so with the goal of restoration. McCarthy merely wanted to bring down the other side (and burnish his image in the process, of course).

We have, in letters Chambers wrote to William F. Buckley, a commentary on McCarthy’s approach to the communist threat. He felt McCarthy would ultimately fail. Why? Here are some excerpts:

As the picture unfolds, the awful sense begins to invade you, like a wave of fatigue, that the Senator is a bore. . . .

[McCarthy’s approach] is repetitious and unartful, and, with time, the repeated dull thud of the low blow may prove to be the real factor in his undoing. . . . He lacks variety, and, in the end, simply puts the audience to sleep.

I used to listen to and watch a number of conservative programs because it was refreshing to hear someone who believed what I believe—fresh voices in a media dominated by liberalism. After a while, though, I saw what Chambers saw in McCarthy, which is a tendency toward laborious repetition that numbs the soul. I don’t pay much attention to those programs anymore.

Chambers continued,

He is at bottom a naive and simple-hearted man. . . . I said long since that the crucial question about Senator McCarthy was not whether his aims are ultimately good or bad, but whether his intelligence is equal to his energy.

There are many conservatives who are simple-hearted (that part is good) with admirable aims, but I also wonder if their intelligence is equal to the task.

Chambers’s analysis of McCarthy included this gem:

It is more and more my reluctant opinion that he is a tactician, rather than a strategist: that he continually, by reflex rather than calculation, sacrifices the long view for the short pull.

Certain tactics may get you a short-term win, but at what price? Does anyone see a current example of this?

Finally, there was this warning that Chambers sounded, a warning that became prophetic because it went just the way he warned:

All of us, to one degree or another, have slowly come to question his judgment and to fear acutely that his flair for the sensational, his inaccuracies and distortions, his tendency to sacrifice the greater objective for the momentary effect, will lead him and us into trouble.

In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that we live in terror that Senator McCarthy will one day make some irreparable blunder which will play directly into the hands of our common enemy and discredit the whole anti-Communist effort for a long while to come.

That’s exactly what happened, and the term “McCarthyism” has never left our political vocabulary; it’s always whipped out to taint conservatives whenever we try to point out the evil nature of socialism/communism or any other threat to the nation.

Why do I write this at this time in our history?

I have the same fear that Chambers expressed in those letters. I see conservatives (and Christian conservatives as well) throwing away principles and embracing expediency, going for the short-term gain while blinded to the long-term loss of using those tactics, and eventually discrediting all efforts to return the nation to its basic Biblical morality and constitutionally conservative concepts.

We are not to be like the other side. We are to be the calm, reasoned voices, calling people back to the only truths that will sustain a culture.

Will we fulfill that calling or succumb to the temptation of typical politics? Frankly, I don’t know the answer to that. All I can say is that I’m seriously disappointed in the trend I now see.

May God have mercy on us.

When We Subordinate Righteousness to Political Expediency

For twenty-eight years I’ve taught history at the university level, with some of those years being in a master’s program of public policy/government. Consistently, I’ve tried to communicate the message that Christians ought to be involved in the political sphere.

One of the first books I wrote, If the Foundations Are Destroyed: Biblical Principles and Civil Government, was an attempt to lay out basic Biblical concepts that should undergird all of life, including government.

In that book, I pointed out that Christians can’t expect society to trend toward godliness if we sit on the sidelines, which, sadly, many Christians did for much of the middle of the twentieth century. We are to be salt and light for our nation.

As I studied Biblical principles, I concluded that America’s early history demonstrated a fidelity to many of those principles. Then, as I surveyed the current political landscape, I realized that what we call conservativsm (in the American context) had a close affinity with a Biblical worldview.

Consequently, I have argued for the strong connection between orthodox Christian faith and the conservatism that was allied primarily with the Republican brand. This connection received strong support from my reading in American history—the ultimate source, for me, being the masterful explication of that truth through Whittaker Chambers’s thoughtful and admirably written autobiography Witness.

In that volume, Chambers traced his rescue from the false god of communism, which sought to place Man on a pedestal—man’s mind substituting itself for the God of all creation (even man’s mind).

I read Witness in the 1980s at the same time as I was living through the years of the Reagan administration. All of the reading I had done previously in the conservative magazine National Review came to fruition in the person of Reagan. The 1980s decade was crucial to the development of my worldview, especially when I returned wholeheartedly to my Christian roots after a period of spiritual wandering.

Another book I read at that time was George Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945. It provided all the background I needed to dissect not only the history of American conservatism, but also the various branches of it and how it all came together to place Reagan in the Oval Office.

Nash’s book, along with Reagan’s autobiography, An American Life, form the foundation now for a course I teach called “Ronald Reagan and Modern American Conservatism.”

Why am I spending so much time telling you about why I came to believe what I do? I want you to see that my beliefs are not based merely on transitory feelings nor an outgrowth of some kind of anger or resentment about the direction of America’s culture.

I don’t respond to the political world out of a motive of hitting back at those who are destroying what America should be. Rather, I come at this from a well-developed philosophy that rests, first and foremost, on my Christian faith and its application to government and, secondly, from a prolonged and intense study of what conservatism is and how it should be manifested in policy.

As a result, I’ve always promoted Christian involvement in government and politics and hoped that this involvement would make things better. Mind you, I’ve never adopted the fanciful idea that humans will create heaven on earth—the sinfulness of mankind prohibits that. But is better too much to expect if Christians live up to their responsibility?

Yet, I must admit, as many of you know from reading my blog over the past year and a half, that my confidence in the efficacy of Christian involvement has been shaken. Previously, I had an assurance that Christians would use their influence to help the nation become more righteous, and that we would lend our support only to those who were worthy of that support.

What I have witnessed instead is something else. I was shocked, frankly, by the rush (by conservatives in general and Christian conservatives in particular) to praise and vote for a presidential candidate who was an unrepentant serial adulterer, who came across as a crass, rude egotist, and who proved himself to be a consummate liar throughout the primaries.

Now, I know there are some distinctions to be made: some Christians only reluctantly cast their vote for that man after the primaries when it came down to a choice between two reprobates. How many times did I hear the refrain: “We need to vote for the lesser of two evils”?

Although I couldn’t, in conscience, follow that path, I understood why some chose it.

What I have never come to grips with, or have any sense of peace about, is the chorus of those who claim the Lordship of Christ, but nevertheless have become a cheering section for the president no matter what he does or says, regardless of how petty, egotistical, or outrageous his actions and words may be.

Where in Christendom, Whittaker Chambers once asked, is the Christian?

When we subordinate righteousness to political expediency, we become our own worst enemies and deface the true Gospel message. We destroy the Christian witness to the world; bearing that witness is our highest God-ordained task.

Lately, I’ve seen this erupt again with the Alabama senatorial race. Despite accusations against the Republican candidate that have credibility (especially coming from so many people who don’t know each other), I’ve seen Christians reflexively defend the candidate by accepting rather unbelievable conspiracy theories. If you are going to defend him, find more solid ground to do so and don’t shut your eyes and ears to evidence that goes against what you want to be the truth.

Is this what we’ve come to?

So what about me? Do I change my message and tell Christians to abandon the field and let politics run its course without us? As tempting as that may be, I cannot succumb to the temptation. What I can do, though, is make sure that my priorities are correct so that the purity of the Gospel is not stained by political expediency.

I also will continue to call Christians back to that top priority. I hope some will heed the call. Government will never be our savior. Jesus Christ is the only Messiah, and our lives must be a reflection of His righteousness.

Man-Made Utopias: A Lewisian Assessment

The Almighty Mind of Man can do anything, we’re often promised. Every age has its share of utopians who believe that societal perfection lies at the other end of that proverbial rainbow (if only we could ever find the location of the “end”).

Karl Marx was positive that his scheme would usher in the perfect society where there would be no more government, no more religion, no more philosophy, and no more family.

The Age of Aquarius, that illusion of the generation in which I grew up, is no closer to reality now than it was when the Fifth Dimension sang about it so enthusiastically.

Dreams of a man-made utopia have always been with us, and I feel sorry for those who put their faith in those wisps of smoke. A more sober assessment, one based on Scripture, needs to take root. C. S. Lewis, in his superb essay, “Is Progress Possible: Willing Slaves of the Welfare State,” offers such an assessment:

[By] the advance, and increasing application, of science . . . we shall grow able to cure, and produce, more diseases—bacterial war, not bombs, might ring down the curtain—to alleviate, and to inflict, more pains, to husband, or to waste, the resources of the planet more extensively.

We can become either more beneficent or more mischievous. My guess is we shall do both; mending one thing and marring another, removing old miseries and producing new ones, safeguarding ourselves here and endangering ourselves there.

The Christian message is clear and forthright: all have sinned; sin destroys; mankind will never save itself; there will be no human utopia; salvation comes through One only; the genuine utopia is a place called Heaven, which will be established by God, not man.

While we work to make our existence on this small planet better, we must never lose sight of those Biblical truths. There are limits to what will be achieved, and we must understand those limits.

Each emerging generation seems to think it can achieve what no other generation has achieved, yet the message of the book of Ecclesiastes still rings true: there is nothing new under the sun.

Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.

Defusing the Newburgh Conspiracy

The American Revolution was essentially over. British General Cornwallis had surrendered at Yorktown in October 1781. Yet George Washington still had to keep his army together until a peace treaty was concluded. That didn’t happen until 1783.

Many of his officers were angry with Congress. They hadn’t been paid for a long time and were contemplating open mutiny, even to the point of marching on Congress, guns in hand.

They knew Washington wouldn’t approve their potential plans, so they turned to Gen. Horatio Gates, the supposed hero of Saratoga. He really wasn’t the hero (that honor actually belonged to Benedict Arnold, prior to his turning traitor), but public perception is sometimes everything.

Gates had humiliated himself at the Battle of Camden in South Carolina, not only losing the battle, but being in the forefront of the hasty retreat. Yet there were some who still clung to the false idea that he was a leader, so they looked to him to “lead” in this mutiny.

The army was encamped in Newburgh, New York, in March 1783, and that’s why this episode is called the Newburgh Conspiracy. The mutineers called a meeting to discuss how to proceed with their plans. Gates was in charge.

Then, unexpectedly, Washington appeared at this meeting. He knew what they were plotting, totally disapproved of the movement, and hoped to soothe their anger over how they had been treated.

Washington had not only led the army all those long years of the war, but he had carried on another “war,” so to speak, the entire time—trying to get Congress to follow through on promises made. He was in constant communication with the Congress and came into this meeting to let the officers know about the latest exchange with the political leaders.

Some have called what he did next “political theater,” but to me, it seems genuine enough. One account describes what happened this way:

With a sigh, he removed from his pocket a letter and announced it was from a member of Congress, and that he now wished to read it to them. He produced the letter, gazed upon it, manipulated it without speaking. What was wrong, some of the men wondered. Why did he delay?

Washington now reached into a pocket and brought out a pair of new reading glasses. Only those nearest to him knew he lately required them, and he had never worn them in public. Then he spoke: “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”

This simple act and statement by their venerated commander, coupled with remembrances of battles and privations shared together with him, and their sense of shame at their present approach to the threshold of treason, was more effective than the most eloquent oratory.

As he read the letter, many were in tears from the recollections and emotions which flooded their memories. As Maj. Samuel Shaw, who was present, put it in his journal, “There was something so natural, so unaffected in this appeal as rendered it superior to the most studied oratory. It forced its way to the heart, and you might see sensibility moisten every eye.”

Finishing, Washington carefully and deliberately folded the letter, took off his glasses, and exited briskly from the hall.

Immediately, Henry Knox and others faithful to Washington offered resolutions affirming their appreciation for their commander in chief, and pledging their patriotism and loyalty to the Congress, deploring and regretting those threats and actions which had been uttered and suggested. What support Gates and his group may have enjoyed at the outset of the meeting now completely disintegrated, and the Newburgh Conspiracy collapsed.

I share this story for two reasons: first, I want to showcase again the character George Washington brought to his public duties; second, I want emphasize that history sometimes turns on the actions of one individual.

Let’s never forget that our actions do have consequences. By being obedient to what we know is right in God’s eyes, we can truly make a difference in this world.

God’s Peace in a Nuclear Age: Wisdom from Lewis

I grew up with the nuclear threat; it’s always been there. C. S. Lewis didn’t. He was 46 when those bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending WWII. So one might expect a different reaction from someone in his generation. As he surveyed the response to this new weapon, he saw that many were nearly beside themselves with fear; yet he continued to offer clear thinking on this subject (as he did on all subjects).

Three years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he authored an essay called “On Living in an Atomic Age.” “In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb,” he argued. Many were asking, “How are we to live in an atomic age?”

I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

We should not “begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation,” he counseled. We need to keep in mind that all people “were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented,” and in case we are living in a fantasy, he added, “and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways.”

“Death itself,” Lewis reminds us, has never been “a chance at all, but a certainty.”

Then he gives this sound advice:

If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (any microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

I find Lewis’s perspective to be in accord with Scripture. Here are a few samples:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. –Philippians 4:6-7

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. –I Peter 5:6-7

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. –Psalm 23:4

“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. –Matthew 6:34

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. –John 14:27

May the peace of God be with us all this day.

A Speech Etched into America’s Memory

Yesterday, November 19, was the 154th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, one of the most significant and poignant speeches in American history—and also one of the shortest.

The battle at Gettysburg had occurred in July of 1863, three days of some of the most awful warfare the nation has ever endured. It was particularly awful because those who died were all Americans, fighting one another. It took from July to November to clean up the battlefield of all the dead. The carnage practically defied description.

Abraham Lincoln went to Gettysburg to commemorate the victory by Union forces. He wasn’t even advertised as the primary speaker that day—the renowned orator Edward Everett had top billing. Yet no one recalls Everett’s words now. Lincoln’s concise two-minute address has come down to us as one of the most eloquent ever delivered. It doesn’t take long to read, so I offer it to you here:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

The photographer at the event figured he had time to make the changes necessary to the camera and still catch images of Lincoln’s speech, but he wasn’t prepared for one that short. The only photograph we have of that special occasion is one of Lincoln sitting down right after delivering his comments.

Lincoln’s only error in the speech was in saying that the world would not remember what was said there. At the time, newspapers mocked the president’s address, calling it embarrassing. Speakers were supposed to go on forever, thrilling their audiences with decorative flourishes of oratory. Lincoln instead opted for directness, simplicity, and heartfelt gratitude for those who died.

Most people don’t know that Lincoln was feeling ill at the time. It turned out he had contracted smallpox, although not a virulent strain. When I was last at the museum in Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC, I noticed this plaque that I thought was a splendid example of Lincoln’s sense of humor:

The Civil War was a constant strain on Lincoln, yet he learned how to handle the heavy burden placed on him. Evidence is strong that the trials he suffered led him back to Christian faith. The Gettysburg Address and his subsequent Second Inaugural Address give testimony to that faith.

Socialism/Limited Government Forum

In October I presented at a forum held at Southeastern University. The topic under debate was whether the Biblical worldview promotes a more limited government perspective or the socialist view. Incorporated into that was also the difference between socialism and free-market capitalism.

It was an opportunity for me to express my Biblical basis for what I believe about these issues.

Another SEU professor, Jason Old, took the viewpoint opposite to mine. I think we held a civil discussion even while disagreeing nearly 100% on everything. On how many college campuses does that happen anymore?

We called the forum “God, Man, and the State: Socialism or Limited Government?”

The video for that forum is now available, and you can go to it right here.

Prof. Old begins with a 20-minute presentation; I follow with my 20 minutes. After that, we both get another 5 minutes to respond to what the other presented, then it’s opened up to the audience for questions.

The room was packed—not only the 125 seats were filled, but people were standing in the back and sitting on the steps.

While I encourage you to watch it all (it’s just over an hour), if you would like to jump ahead to my comments, I begin at the 23:45 mark.

I hope this forum/discussion will be edifying for you.