Archive for the ‘ The Historical Muse ’ Category

Dover Castle & a Historic Moment

I’ve just returned from two weeks in the UK—only England, specifically (except for one short dash into Scotland for supper)—helping lead a study abroad trip with SEU students. This was only my second time in England, the previous excursion being twenty years ago. So I was looking forward to this, of course, and my expectations were met.

I drove a Jaguar (yes, you read that correctly) all over the land, from Dover by the White Cliffs on the southern coast to Hadrian’s Wall in the far north. By the mercy of God, we all survived those one-lane country roads where you never knew if a car was coming from the other direction just around the next bend.

Sorry, but I forgot to take a photo with my Jaguar.

Our first stop was Dover, a medieval castle with underground tunnels that were used extensively during WWII to ensure that a Nazi invasion wouldn’t take place.

Winston Churchill, as prime minister at that time, visited Dover as he shored up Britain’s defenses. One iconic photo has him emerging from the underground tunnels, showing his usual firm, confident visage:

We were able to explore those tunnels and learn how significant they were to the war effort.

The entrance is the exact spot pictured above, so I did my best to be Churchillian as we awaited our tour.

No photographs were allowed inside the tunnels, so I can’t show you exactly what we viewed, but the key moment for this strategic spot occurred from May to June 1940, as the trapped British forces in Dunkirk, France, had to be evacuated while under heavy fire from the Nazis.

At the time, pessimism reigned, with British authorities figuring that if they could save even a small portion of the army, they would have to be satisfied with that.

That’s when the miracle at Dunkirk, as many termed it, happened. Small boats from all over England undertook numerous and hazardous cross-channel trips to rescue the trapped soldiers. Far exceeding all expectations, more than 330,000 troops were evacuated and able to continue resistance against Nazi Germany.

We also were able to tour the castle and put ourselves back into the medieval world it represented. Observe this banquet room, for instance:

Or how about this throne with a rather imposing figure reigning temporarily?

We concluded our Dover experience with a visit to the White Cliffs, where I stayed conveniently back from the edge.

The Dover visit was accomplished on almost no sleep on the flight over, followed by driving there from Gatwick Airport in London. Yet it was a great start to a fulfilling tour of the island that provides America with a lot of its lineage, both politically and culturally.

I’ll continue to offer highlights from this trip in the coming days: cathedrals, historic sites, and a visit to C. S. Lewis’s home, the Kilns, in Oxford.

Bombs Away? A Reagan-Trump Comparison

President Trump has stirred the criticism pot with his military actions: striking an air base in Syria and using the largest bomb in the US arsenal to destroy terrorists’ caves in Afghanistan. It has led some to question exactly what authority a president has to use the military without first consulting Congress.

That’s an important question because the Constitution gives Congress the authority to declare war, not any president unilaterally. Of course, Congress hasn’t passed an actual war declaration since WWII. All of our actions militarily since then have either been in conjunction with the UN (Korea, Persian Gulf War) or with tacit approval of Congress to defend American lives (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq). The latter were with congressional resolutions that fall short of true declarations.

Yet are there times when a president cannot wait for Congress to debate a matter because surprise is essential? Can the use of the military for one specific action be taken by presidential authority without a full declaration of war?

Let’s look at the Reagan years for a couple of examples.

In 1983, a militant pro-Castro faction overthrew the government of Maurice Bishop, a moderate Marxist, on the island of Grenada. Reagan immediately understood the implications of the coup: if the new government survived, a third Cuba (Marxist Nicaragua was viewed as the second Cuba in Reagan’s mind) would have come into existence during his watch. Grenada would become another Soviet client-state in the Western hemisphere.

The new Grenadian administration brought in 600 Cubans to construct an airstrip that could accommodate large military planes. This worried not only the US but other island-nations in the region. Prime Minister Eugenia Charles of Dominica came to the White House to share her concerns with Reagan and ask for help.

Another factor Reagan had to take under consideration was several hundred Americans who were attending a medical school on the island. He wanted to ensure their safety, but knew that if word got out that action was being contemplated, those Americans could easily become hostages. The threat of another Iranian-type hostage situation loomed.

So, for national security reasons and fear for the safety of American lives, Reagan chose to act swiftly and as quietly as possible. He did bring in congressional leadership, both Republican and Democrat, before taking action, informing them of the situation. He got the go-ahead from them to proceed.

On October 25, Reagan sent 10,000 U.S. marines and army airborne troops to invade the island. All resistance was eliminated after three days of fighting. At first, some members of Congress were outraged, but public support for the invasion soared as TV coverage featured interviews with the grateful American students.

Then there was Libya in 1986.

This radical Islamic state ruled by strongman Muammar Qaddafi had used its oil revenues to bankroll terrorists in Europe and the Middle East. On April 15, 1986, having concluded that Libya had supported and financed the bombing of a nightclub in Berlin frequented by American military personnel, Reagan ordered the bombing of five targets in Libya, including the presidential palace.

Reagan wanted to send a message to Qaddafi that he needed to back off his financial support for terrorism, and that he should think twice before aiding and abetting attacks that might kill and injure US soldiers.

Again, Reagan felt that giving advance warning for this punitive action would allow Libya to prepare for it and minimize the damage. He had already publicly proclaimed the US perspective on Libya and other nations directly involved with terrorism when he said in a speech that Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Libya were “outlaw states run by the strangest collection of misfits, loony-tunes and squalid criminals since the advent of the Third Reich.” Of Qaddafi, he said, “He’s not only a barbarian, he’s flaky.”

In both of these instances, Reagan took into consideration national security and saving the lives of American citizens. Both actions were short-term, not full-fledged wars, and required secrecy for their success.

Trump’s decisions have to be evaluated in that same light. I have no problem with the Afghanistan bombing, as it is part of an ongoing effort to eliminate terrorism aimed at America. It would be nice, though, for Congress to go the whole way for a declaration of war and make it more constitutional. Yet I realize that it is difficult in this situation because terrorism is not confined to one nation; it is a continuing problem that pops up everywhere.

As for Syria, I have mixed feelings. Trump apparently decided to go ahead with that bombing because of the use of chemical weapons on Syrian citizens. He saw pictures of the results and was horrified. Who wouldn’t be?

But was there a direct danger to American citizens over Syria’s use of chemical weapons? Was our national security threatened by this terrible action? We are a compassionate people who want to stop atrocities, but can we do that everywhere in the world? Aren’t atrocities occurring in many nations? Where do we strike and where do we not?

Decisions need to be made on the basis of national security and saving American lives first and foremost. Other reasons may enter in as well, but there needs to be a compelling need to act; we can’t merely make emotional decisions.

My concern is that Trump often makes decisions based on emotion. He has little understanding of constitutional authority and limitations; neither does he care to learn.

While I can inwardly cheer that the bombing in Syria sends a message, I can wonder about the wisdom of that decision and whether it really accomplished its purposes.

My concerns about how Trump makes decisions and whether he has any bedrock principles have never gone away. I’m also concerned that too many Americans don’t care about those principles. Yet without a proper understanding of the rule of law, we are in trouble.

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.

Will We Learn From History?

As a historian, I have this faith that people might actually learn something from history. What a quaint notion.

The first requisite, of course, is that people know some history. Those kinds of people are becoming a rare commodity.

Please excuse the seeming air of resignation in this post. It’s just that some lessons from history are so easy to find that it boggles the mind that mankind continues to repeat all the old errors.

Take socialism/communism, for instance. It’s never worked anywhere, yet it continues to beguile and beckon with its siren song of equality, fairness, and brotherhood.

You know, like in the Soviet Union where, under Stalin, everyone was so friendly.

It was such a wonderful success that they continued to promote those Five-Year Plans for 70 years. Don’t ask if they ever worked. Well, you could ask all those nations that adopted socialist economies; I’m sure they have a story to tell. Come along with me to one such country.

Britain went all agog for socialism after WWII. Rationing continued for years after the war, ensuring “equality.” Here’s how Winston Churchill described what he witnessed:

Yet the current generation is being wooed once again by this false philosophy. Take Bernie Sanders and his minions, openly advocating the policy. In fact, most Democrats are on this bandwagon; they just are more discreet by not calling it what it is. They couch it in the language of “caring.” And voters lap it up because they are rather ignorant:

Someone needs to write this book:

But would anyone read it who actually needs to read it?

G. K. Chesterton nailed it:

Forgive my cynicism today. If not for my steadfast faith that this world ultimately is not my home, cynicism would prevail. However, I can see past the blindness; I know where Truth resides. I want to live in that Truth today and continue to do what God has called me to do. I will be faithful and leave results up to Him.

Lewis’s Apologetic for Historical Knowledge

Many readers of Lewis are familiar with a comment he made in his “Learning in War-Time” essay with respect to the importance of knowing history. As a historian, it truly resonates with me, and I was reminded of it again when I assigned the essay to my students last week. Lewis wrote,

Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.

A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.

In other words, we need perspective—historical perspective—to properly understand our own time and to, as he says, make us somewhat immune to the “cataract of nonsense” that emanates from our media. In Lewis’s day, that was mostly via magazines and radio; what would he say about the vast social media networks that exist now?

I have The Quotable Lewis, a very useful volume edited by Wayne Martindale and Jerry Root, in front of me right now, and under the category of “Prejudice,” I discover that Lewis said something very similar in his Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature in a chapter on the poet Edmund Spenser. Here’s how he described the same concept in somewhat different language:

There is a great difference between rejecting something you have known from the inside and rejecting something (as uneducated people tend to do) simply because it happens to be out of fashion in your own time.

It is like the difference between a mature and travelled man’s love for his own country and the cocksure conviction of an ignorant adolescent that his own village (which is the only one he knows) is the hub of the universe and does everything in the Only Right Way.

For our own age, with all its accepted ideas, stands to the vast extent of historical time much as one village stands to the whole world.

A key message I always want to communicate to my students is that just because we are farther along the historical timeline, that doesn’t automatically mean we are smarter. Sometimes, the things we believe and the actions we take are more foolish than the beliefs and actions of those who came before us, and that it might be wisdom on our part to study them and find out what they have to offer us.

We are an arrogant age, thinking we know so much better than our ancestors, yet we are also a historically ignorant age. We have much to learn.

The Quest for Christian Unity

Christian unity. What does it mean? Is it even possible? What can we learn about it historically? Nothing is so potentially wonderful yet so often downright disturbing as the quest for this elusive goal.

Even back in New Testament times, we don’t see complete unity. The apostle Paul had some choice words for the Corinthian church as it broke into factions, each of which claimed to be following the true spiritual guide. He even chastised the faction that said it was the real one following Christ.

Yet Paul and the other New Testament writers, and Jesus in the Gospels, spoke often of the unity that should exist among those who have been brought out of the darkness of sin and into His marvelous light.

What’s wrong with us?

Martin Luther broke with the Catholic Church, thereby starting the Protestant Reformation. He pointed to how the church had introduced man-made practices and how, in his opinion, it had altered the message of salvation. Thus began a century and a half of battle, both theological and on literal battlefields, between Catholic and Protestant, both claiming to have the correct interpretation of Scripture.

Among the Protestants, unity was often strained or broken completely. Luther couldn’t agree with Zwingli on the nature of Communion/The Lord’s Supper/The Eucharist (take your pick of terminology) and their fellowship was severed.

Groups like the Anabaptists were persecuted by both Catholics and other Protestants simply because they believed baptism should wait until the person understood the Gospel and made a decision to be a Christian. Their insistence that the only true baptism was by immersion outraged those who should have been their Christian brothers; many Anabaptists were executed for that belief.

Anglicans and Puritans fought a civil war in England in the 1640s. Both were Protestant but with different emphases in belief. Most early Americans were Protestant and maintained grave suspicions of the intent of Catholic immigrants. The first Catholic presidential candidate didn’t appear until 1928; the first and only Catholic elected president occurred in 1960.

In my own experience during my lifetime, I’ve witnessed some Christian denominations consign Pentecostal/Charismatic believers to a special region of hell because they believe the gifts of the Holy Spirit were not discontinued after the apostles died.

What’s wrong with us?

Here’s the truth: heaven is going to be populated with vast numbers of individuals who once called themselves Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Presbyterian, Congregational, Baptist, Methodist, Nazarene, Wesleyan, Pentecostal, non-denominational, etc., etc., etc.

We are so quick to declare someone else heretical just because of a difference of belief over issues like baptism, Communion, gifts of the Spirit, and countless other secondary matters.

Here’s another truth: all who have come to the recognition of their sinful state, who have grieved over their sin, and have come to the Cross of Christ seeking forgiveness have found that forgiveness and newness of life. They have been washed clean and are part of the family of God.

The apostle Paul stated it this way:

Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers not swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

And that is what some of you were.

But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

Denominational ties ultimately mean nothing. I will never be a Catholic because I disagree with some Catholic teachings. Yet I acknowledge many Catholic brothers and sisters with whom I will spend eternity. I will never be of the Reformed persuasion because I disagree with some of the doctrines promulgated under that designation. Yet I know many of that persuasion who are genuine Christians with whom I will stand in the presence of God and rejoice forever.

Jesus, in His prayer before going to the Cross, said this:

My prayer is not for them alone [His disciples]. I pray also for those who will believe in Me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in Me and I am in You.

May they also be in us so that the world may believe that You have sent Me. I have given them the glory that You gave Me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and You in Me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that You sent Me and have loved them even as You have loved Me.

Unity isn’t just for the Christians’ sake alone. It’s through that unity that the rest of the world will see the truth. We are called to be one in Christ. May His prayer be answered in our day.

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.