Archive for the ‘ The Historical Muse ’ Category

Chambers, McCarthy, & the Real Thing

Whittaker Chambers brought credibility to the concerns Americans had after WWII that communism in general, and the Soviet Union in particular, were infiltrating American society. Chambers, as many regular readers of this blog know, had worked as a communist in the underground in the 1930s. He had labored to help the USSR place people in positions of authority in the American government, and he had served as a liaison with the USSR, sending US government secrets to that nation.

So when Chambers came forth with his witness to what he knew, he was believed ultimately, and Alger Hiss, one of the highest-placed communist agents in the government, went to prison for perjury.

Then along came Sen. Joe McCarthy with his anti-communist crusade. McCarthy had no inside knowledge. My own research into his activities has convinced me he hardly knew what he was doing, and he probably was more interested in personal political advancement than anything else.

As McCarthy rose in prominence, Chambers’s support of his career was sporadic and cautious, perhaps welcoming at first, since he was enlisted on the same side, but as time wore on, Chambers disassociated himself from what McCarthy became.

In early 1954, in a letter to his friend Ralph de Toledano, Chambers summarized McCarthy’s approach in this way: “Senator McCarthy’s notion of tactics is to break the rules, saturate the enemy with poison gas, and then charge through the contaminated area, shouting Comanche war cries.”

In letters to William F. Buckley, founder of National Review and the leader of the modern conservative movement, Chambers shared even more of his concerns. He thought McCarthy could easily become a national bore:

With time, the repeated dull thud of the low blow may prove to be the real factor in his undoing. Not necessarily because the blow is low, or because he lacks heart and purpose, but because he lacks variety, and, in the end, simply puts the audience to sleep. …

… 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.

“One way whereby I can most easily help Communism is to associate myself publicly with Senator McCarthy,” he wrote to Buckley. It would lead to a confusion with the Hiss Case and roll it all “into a snarl with which to baffle, bedevil and divide opinion.” He had told McCarthy that even though they “were fighting in the same war,” they were engaged “in wholly different battles” and that they “should not wage war together.”

Chambers concluded, “I do not think that the Senator really grasps this necessity. For 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.”

McCarthy was a potential problem for the anticommunist movement, Chambers believed. Everyone was trying hard to overlook his errors and give the benefit of the doubt, but his judgment was increasingly suspect, and his tendency to go for the sensational over the substantive might lead them all 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.”

Consider those final words. Even when someone is on the same side, whether we are talking about the Christian faith or conservative politics, there is the danger of undermining the whole effort due to foolishness, lack of genuineness, or a combination of the two.

Great truths and great causes need spokespeople who are committed to those truths and causes and who know how to communicate them to others. Whenever we follow a false teacher (in the faith) or a false politician who is primarily out for himself and doesn’t really believe what he says, we may see everything we stand for being diminished through their falseness.

Always hold out for the real thing—the people of solid character who can be trusted and who believe in their cause with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.

The Dismal State of American History Knowledge

Recently, I was asked to speak at a Lakeland Kiwanis meeting. The subject I was given was how much the younger generation knows about American history. The concern over reports of ignorance of America’s past was the impetus for this invitation.

I’ll give the gist of what I said.

I began with an anecdote from a teacher that appeared in Education Week a couple of years ago. She tutors in a poor section of Brooklyn and noted that of all the subjects her students have to pass to receive their high-school diploma, the one they fail most regularly is the American history exam.

A student she calls Tony is typical:

When we first started to study together, Tony, like all my students, had no sense of U.S. presidents, the sequence of wars in which the United States has been involved, the U.S. Constitution and the structure of government, and the central issues over which our democracy has struggled since we separated from England more than two centuries ago.

He knew the name Abraham Lincoln, but drew a blank when I asked him which war Lincoln was associated with. He was unfamiliar with Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust. Segregation and civil rights were not concepts he could articulate.

Tony didn’t know how a person becomes the president, he was unaware of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision on abortion (he found it abhorrent, by the way), and didn’t know how the government spends its money.

Well, a lot of us are puzzled by that last one.

Another article, in the liberal Huffington Post, no less, highlighted the dismal history scores in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report. The NAEP regularly assesses knowledge in a number of subject areas; history always does poorly.

Former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch summarized the history findings:

It’s worth noting that of the seven school subjects tested by NAEP, history has the smallest proportion of students who score Proficient or above in the most recent assessment available. The results of this assessment tell us that we as a nation must pay more attention to the teaching of U.S. history.

Last year the American Council of Trustees and Alumni studied the top 25 liberal arts colleges, the top 25 national universities, and the top 25 public institutions to see what is required by those higher education establishments with respect to learning American history. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Top 25 Liberal Arts Colleges: 7 require U.S. history
  • Top 25 National Universities: 4 require U.S. History
  • Top 25 Public Institutions: 14 require U.S. history
  • Of the 23 programs that do list a requirement for United States history, 11 allow courses so narrow in scope—such as “History of Sexualities” or “History of the FBI”—that it takes a leap of the imagination to see these as an adequate fulfillment of an undergraduate history requirement.

How’s that for dismal?

One example is George Washington University in Washington, DC, which now has decided that history majors are no longer required to take American history. That’s history majors, not just the run-of-the-mill students in other majors.

Even at my own institution, one that does value American history, most students are only required to take one history course overall, and it can be Western Civilization rather than American. It’s a trend nationwide.

One of our history professors decided to conduct a pre-test of his students’ knowledge of American history before taking his survey courses. What do they already know coming into the university?

Here are the results.

Pre-test results for American History I:

# of Students: 40

# of Passing Scores: 5 (60% or above)

Average Score: 37%

Pre-test results for American History II:

# of Students: 32

# of Passing Scores: 0 (60% or above)

Average Score: 25%

What surprised me most was the lower score for more recent American history. One would think that they would be more attuned to what has happened since the Civil War.

Some of the answers given to specific questions about basic American history facts were rather interesting.

Did you know that Great Britain was our ally in the American Revolution?

Or that the city that became the largest immigration center in the world was either Canada, Mexico, or Alabama?

How about the general whom Lincoln finally found to help end the Civil War? Who knew that was James Madison? I certainly didn’t.

I ended the talk by letting the attendees know they can send their children to me and the other history professors at Southeastern. We will be glad to get them up to speed.

The Bible & Race

This is Martin Luther King Day, so our thoughts ought to go to the way we treat one another in the one race that is grounded in Biblical truth: the human race. Scripture offers confirmation of that perspective.

After the Great Flood in Noah’s day (yes, I’m one of those who see that event as history, not legend or myth), we have a genealogical chapter in Genesis that shows where all of Noah’s descendants dispersed. At the end of that accounting, we are told the following:

These are the families of the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, by their nations; and out of these the nations were separated on the earth after the flood.

All physical distinctions among mankind developed from this one family. We all have a common ancestor (and I don’t mean what an evolutionist would mean by that). Consequently, any ideology that claims the superiority of one branch of humanity or the inferiority of another is profoundly unbiblical.

In the New Testament book of Acts, we see the apostle Paul speaking on Mars Hill in Athens to a gathering of philosophers (and would-be philosophers). In the midst of his address to them, he makes this comment:

He Himself [God] gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth . . . that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist.

First, this is a confirmation of the Genesis account as to the origin of mankind. Second, it is a clear affirmation of the doctrine that God wants all men, of whatever ethnic background and no matter what external differences one group may have with another, to be brought into His kingdom.

In his letters, Paul reiterates this doctrine, as in Galatians when he writes,

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.

Some people might be confused by Paul’s words here. Yes, there is a distinction still between Jews and Gentiles, between those living a life in slavery and those who are free, between men and women. What he’s getting at is simply that all of those distinctions make no difference to God when it comes to our standing before Him. When we come to Christ, we are equally part of His family no matter the external differences.

Paul returns to that theme in the book of Colossians:

Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him—a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.

What’s more important than what we see on the outside of people is what’s going on inside. Our hearts are being changed through Christ; we are being transformed into His image. And our “race” doesn’t matter.

In our nation, we look back on a history of slavery and segregation that never should have occurred. We do need a sense of proportion, though: slavery has existed throughout human history.

As a nation, we have taken steps to try to erase that blight in our treatment of our fellow humans. In my opinion, great progress has been made over the years. Others don’t see it that way at all. Unfortunately, some are more interested in hanging on to grievances and fomenting racial animosity—and that occurs on both sides of the divide.

Martin Luther King wanted a complete integration of man’s artificial racial classifications into the one race that has Biblical backing, the race that Jesus Christ died for, the race that includes all men and women regardless of those external differences so many want to emphasize.

We need to advance the Biblical perspective on the human race: we are all the descendants of one family, and we are all made in the image of God. It’s time to begin treating each other accordingly.

America’s Declaration for Taking Up Arms

After the Battle of Lexington and Concord, which began the fighting in the American Revolution on 19 April 1775, the Continental Congress convened and had to deal with this new situation. One of the first actions was to appoint George Washington as commander-in-chief of the fledgling Continental Army that had surrounded the British troops in Boston.

Washington’s name was put forward not only because he had some experience in the French and Indian War, but also because he was a Virginian. The delegates at the Congress didn’t want this military conflict to appear to be solely a Massachusetts issue; they wanted all the colonies to band together. By choosing Washington, they made a conscious effort to create colony-wide unity.

Then the Congress went to work on a document that sought to explain why the situation had devolved into armed resistance. That document was called a Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms. While not as well known as the later Declaration of Independence, it was an elegantly written piece that clearly outlined the colonial position. Here are the main points spelled out in that document:

  • God never intended one part of humanity to hold unbounded power over another.
  • Parliament exceeded the bounds of the British constitution.
  • The colonies were founded by men who sought civil and religious liberty.
  • Parliament has taken arbitrary control of the colonists’ property and lives.
  • Peaceful reconciliation has not worked.
  • The colonists would rather die as free men than to live as slaves.
  • They had no desire for disunion.
  • They felt assured of God’s protection in this endeavor.

Along with this document, the Congress composed another one that was called the Olive Branch Petition, which was softer in language and appealed to the king to hear their pleas.

Both documents were sent to England but King George III paid no attention to them, issuing instead his official Proclamation of Rebellion on 23 August 1775. That proclamation stated that anyone in the colonies who was part of what he termed a “rebellion” was disloyal to the crown and out of his protection. Participants in this rebellion were to be put down by loyal subjects. When a king says that a subject is out of his protection, that, in effect, is a declaration of war against such subjects.

This proclamation, alongside what the colonists perceived to be a hostile attack upon peaceful citizens in Lexington and Concord, made it clear to many that the breach was now irreparable, but full recognition of that reality would not come until the middle of 1776.

Although I have been using the term “American Revolution” for this overall event, I really don’t think that is an appropriate designation. The colonists were simply trying to assert the rights and privileges they had had all along. They were defensive, not offensive. That’s why, as I hope many of my students will recall, I refer to this as the American War for Continued Self-Government, which, in my view, is a more accurate assessment.

Self-government, the right to make our own decisions without some overweening authority imposing everything, continues to be a concern in America today. We need to keep asserting the principle of self-government, particularly in a time when the federal government has taken on many of the attributes against which our forefathers fought.

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.

Assessing the Battle of Bunker Hill

Sometimes, a victory is more of a defeat and a loss is more of a victory. That’s the story of the Battle of Bunker Hill during the American Revolution.

To be as historically accurate as possible, most of the fighting actually took place on Breed’s Hill, but that’s not what’s important here. The chief significance of this battle is that an untrained, makeshift militia took on the disciplined British army and came away with greater confidence.

After the skirmish at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, Massachusetts militia surrounded Boston, intent on never allowing the British troops out again to ravage the countryside. British General Howe was just as determined to break the siege. Thus, on 17 June, Howe finally made repeated attempts to dislodge the colonial militia from the aforementioned hills.

Every time the British troops charged up the hill, they were met with a strong volley from those militia; they would retreat and charge again.

One of the weaknesses on the colonial side was a shortage of ammunition. The story handed down (hard to document) is that militia colonel William Prescott gave the following command in order to conserve ammunition: “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” That command has become legendary, so much so that Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson gave us this classic, one that I like to use in my course on the American Revolution:

I love historical humor.

Due to the lack of ammunition, the British eventually took both hills, but the battle was a significant morale-booster for the inexperienced Americans. They continued to maintain the siege of Boston despite the loss.

Overall, in this battle, the British suffered 200 deaths and another 800 soldiers wounded; the colonists lost only 100, with 300 wounded. It was a Pyrrhic victory for the British, a type named after a Greek general who experienced “disastrous successes.” Gen. Howe lamented that his victory had been “too dearly bought.” Conversely, Nathaniel Greene, who would become one of the American heroes of the war, wished that his side could “sell them another hill at the same price.”

Today, there is a monument on Breed’s Hill that commemorates the battle. I’ve climbed to the top. In front of it is a statue of Joseph Warren, an ardent patriot leader who died in that battle.

It was shortly after the Battle of Bunker Hill that George Washington arrived to take over command of what he hoped would develop into the Continental Army. But that’s a post for another day.

Focusing on the Eternal

Last year’s political season was probably the most divisive in modern American history. The nature of the presidential race was such that I felt compelled to concentrate on it in this blog. However, I always sought to provide thoughts on other topics as well. After all, this blog is not about politics and government only; it’s about life overall.

I have a daily routine of online sites I check for current events and commentary, but I don’t limit my reading to those. That would be unbalanced. I am a voracious reader. It’s not just my profession as a history professor that mandates it; I thrive on reading.

My foundational reading for life is always going to be Scripture. I just completed reading the Bible through again. Whenever I do that, I use a different version to keep the message fresh.

My newest Bible-reading project will be long-term, as I’ve begun to delve into a study Bible that will keep me occupied for at least a couple of years. I’m not going to rush through it. I’ll take my time while I meditate not only on the verses themselves but the commentary within.

As a corollary to Scripture reading, I also have a daily e-mail from Christian History that not only offers a short devotional but also information about various people and movements in the history of the church.

A lot of my reading does have to do with the courses I teach, as I want to stay current with scholarship in my field. Yet that type of reading is not a duty; rather, it’s a joy.

For instance, I am teaching my C. S. Lewis course this spring. In my reading of a book about Lewis over Christmas break, I realized I hadn’t yet read some of his essays on literature. So I got a collection of those and found some I have now incorporated into the course.

Reading Lewis is one of my favorite things, as most of you probably know, since I published a book about him a few months ago. I find endless fascination in his thoughts and in the way he expresses them. He helps keep me balanced.

I’m reading other books now as well (I usually have three or four going at the same time). For my American Revolution course, which I will probably teach again in the fall, I’m previewing a book with an intriguing title: Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers. The author is a man I know personally, Daniel Dreisbach, who is an excellent scholar. Reading a book like that is a perfect combination of faith and history.

A course I’ve not yet taught, American history from 1877 to 1917, is another one I may teach in the fall, so I’m focusing right now on a key period in that history, trying to find just the right book to fill in the gap.

I’ve found a very readable book on the pivotal 1912 election that may be the one. It’s an interesting character study of the four candidates in that key campaign: Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Eugene Debs. I can say I’ve learned quite a bit; it has deepened my knowledge of the era, which is something I always seek to do with any historical period.

I also read fiction, mostly from evangelical authors who know how to tell a good story. Some of my staples in that area are Ted Dekker, Stephen Lawhead, and Joel Rosenberg, but I broaden my search all the time, wanting to find others who know how to combine fine storytelling with the faith.

I’m also working my way slowly through Paradise Lost, which is going to take a while, to be sure. Catching up on some of the classics that I’ve never read is another goal.

So, you can see I’m not just narrowly focused on politics. My life is so much more than just a matter of who won the last election. In fact, with an election like the one that has just occurred, I am truly grateful that life is bigger than that.

Memes created from one of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride, can sometimes capture how I feel:

I hope we can all keep our sense of humor in times like these. Faith in God and a sense of humor should go together to remind us that current events are just that—current, not eternal.

That reminds me of another of my favorite Scripture passages, found in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18:

Therefore we do not lost heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.

For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen.

For the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.

May our focus always be on the eternal.