Principled Conservatism

I teach a course on Ronald Reagan and modern American conservatism. I begin the course with definitions of those terms.

Conservatism: a predisposition to maintain existing institutions and practices.

American: a particular brand of conservatism unique to American institutions and practices.

Modern: the distinct development of a conservative philosophy since WWII.

I then explain the three strands of thought that have been weaved together to create modern American conservatism:

  • Economic individualism: limited government; free enterprise; the inviolability of property
  • Social traditionalism: primary concern for the spiritual and moral values of society
  • Anti-communism: even with the fall of the USSR, the communist mentality continues to dominate; a collectivist philosophy remains strong in our politics

While there are some differences in the emphases these three strands of thought bring to the coalition, there are enough similarities that a coherent modern American conservatism has been able to have an impact on our society. Common beliefs can be summarized in this way:

  • There are absolute moral standards
  • The individual is more important than the state
  • Suspicion of centralized government power

biblical-worldviewMy Christian faith is foundational to everything I believe. I discovered, as I learned about modern American conservatism, that this brand of conservatism accurately reflected the truths of my faith. As a result, I’ve attempted to mesh my Christianity with political conservatism.

The connection has worked well. The absolute moral standards of Christianity are essential for our society. The Biblical principle that we are all made in the image of God is consistent with the conservative belief that the individual is more important than the state/government. Centralized government power has often been used to tear down Christian faith and influence people into accepting the government as their provider, thereby setting up a false god, making the state into an idol.

These bedrock concepts are what I have always hoped would guide Christians, in particular, in their decisions when voting and advocating public policies. In this recent election, I’ve had my hopes shaken somewhat. I’m concerned about how grounded we are in principle. Are we allowing emotion to guide us now? Are we perhaps thinking that the state can create the type of society we want?

Where is our faith? In God or in politics?

I want us to be a principled people. I hope we won’t awake one day to discover we have placed our faith where it does not belong.

My pledge: I will pray for this nation, as God instructs me to do. I will pray for its political leaders even when I disagree with them, both in their personal morality and in their public policy.

Yet I know, in my heart, that the only real hope is a diffusion of a vibrant Christian faith throughout our society. Government is not our savior; it will always disappoint in some way.

We have only one Savior.

Preserving Freedom: Lexington & Concord

Among the innumerable examples of bravery in American history, the events surrounding the first battle of the American Revolution are prominent. Massachusetts was under martial law; Boston was ruled by a British general. A shadow government of sorts had been set up by those who were opposed to how the Mother Country was tightening her screws of control.

The two leaders of the resistance, Samuel Adams and John Hancock, were in the small village of Lexington, planning their passage to Philadelphia to be part of the Continental Congress. On the night of 19 April 1775, British regulars were dispatched from Boston with two purposes: capture Adams and Hancock for trial (and execution) in Britain; remove all the colony’s store of guns and ammunition in Concord.

Neither objective was achieved.

paul-reveres-rideRiders went out from Boston to alert the countryside. The best-known one, of course, was Paul Revere. No, he didn’t shout “The British are coming!” That would have been a redundancy—they were all still British. His message was that the “regulars” were coming out, which was a fearful matter. These were highly disciplined troops.

What did the colonists have to stand against them? Only farmers and shopkeepers, the local militia that had recently taken the name of Minutemen, since they had to be ready at a minute’s notice should an attack come.

Stand Your GroundAdams and Hancock escaped from Lexington just in time. The 700 regulars arrived to face a small contingent of Minutemen on Lexington green. There was never an intent on either side to have a pitched battle. Seventy townsmen facing 700 regulars would have been folly. They were simply making a statement. When ordered to leave the field, they were in the process of doing so.

Then a shot rang out. Accounts differ as to the source of that shot. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in a poem, later referred to it as “The Shot Heard Round the World.”

Eight Lexington men were killed. And the troops marched on to Concord.

minuteman-statueConcord was ready. All the stores of munitions were removed to safety before the troops arrived. Nervous Concord Minutemen stood by a bridge outside of town. When they saw smoke coming up from the town, they feared the troops were setting fire to their homes. That brought on a battle on the bridge.

Seeing that their goals were not achieved, the regular troops were ordered back to Boston, but now the entire countryside was up in arms—literally. That march back to Boston turned into a rout, as colonists, fighting in Indian manner, would shoot at them from behind hedges, trees, and fences, then run ahead to do the same again when the troops reached them in their new location.

Once the troops were back in Boston, 15,000 Massachusetts militia formed a ring around the city, to ensure they would not be attacked again.

Lexington and Concord signaled the opening of the war for independence.

john-adamsJohn Adams, writing to wife Abigail about what had occurred, penned some memorable words:

Posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present Generation to preserve your Freedom! I hope you will make a good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven that I ever took half the pains to preserve it.

What of Adams’s words today? Have we done a good job of preserving what he and others of that Founding generation did to deliver freedom to us? Time will tell.

Remember That Lewis Book?

Just a reminder that my book is out there waiting for you. Walter Hooper concluded his endorsement with these words: “I can honestly say I understand Lewis so much better having read this book.”

cover-on-ws-page

The Latest Fake Lewis Quote

I saw it on Facebook, so it must be true! And if it is in all caps with lots of exclamation points afterward, I can rely on its authenticity.

I trust those statements don’t reflect your perspective.

Why focus on that today? There’s a supposed C. S. Lewis quote floating around that people are sharing incessantly because it seems so apropos to our current political situation. We are told it comes from his classic work, The Screwtape Letters, and goes like this:

My dear Wormwood,

Be sure that the patient remains firmly fixated on politics. Arguments, political gossip, and obsessing on the faults of people they have never met serves as an excellent distraction from advancing in personal virtue, character, and the things the patient can control.

Make sure to keep the patient in a constant state of angst, frustration, and general disdain towards the rest of the human race in order to avoid any kind of charity or inner peace from further developing.

Ensure the patient continues to believe that the problem is “out there” in the “broken system” rather than recognizing there is a problem with himself.

Keep up the good work,

Uncle Screwtape

Then, to make it real official, it says it comes directly from Lewis’s book. It even gives a 1942 date. That should make you believe it for sure.

Now, I’m not saying there isn’t some truth in that “quote,” but I have major problems with anyone making something up and then attributing it to a famous author who said nothing of the sort.

What kind of person does that? The goal may be laudable, but the method is disgraceful. Ever heard of the ends justify the means? That’s never acceptable.

We should all keep in mind this cautionary word from Abraham Lincoln:

lincoln-quotes-on-internet

The Election: Positives & Negatives

We avoided one national disaster last night, but we may have created another one. Yes, I know that will sound like sour grapes to some of you, but while I am glad for one result, please forgive me for not being elated with the other. Let me explain.

The Positives

Positive #1

clintonsThe long national nightmare known as the Clintons may now have ended for good. No one who puts Biblical principles and constitutional government at the foundation of life in America can be unhappy about that.

Having endured eight years of Bill, another eight with Hillary at the helm would have been practically unendurable. Everything I hold dear would have been attacked from the highest office in the land, so seeing her come crashing down is extremely gratifying.

The only thing that would make this picture complete is to now see an indictment for all she has done to undermine national security. If that should ever appear imminent, though, as long as Barack Obama is in office, she will probably receive a preemptive pardon. You see, he would be implicated as well.

So, yes, I am relieved that we can now dismiss that artificial family from national politics.

Positive #2

obama-arrogant-lookThe result was a repudiation of the Obama years. Americans fed up with his goal of “transforming” the nation into his own image said a loud “stop!”

The damage of the last eight years will not be undone easily. The culture continues to decline overall. Only a fresh infusion of a vibrant Christian witness can make the difference and reverse some of what has transpired. It remains to be seen if the Christian community any longer has that vibrancy or whether it has sold out to politics.

Positive #3

senate-chamberRepublicans maintained control of both houses of Congress. While this doesn’t guarantee that Obamacare is doomed or that the Supreme Court will now be in the hands of constitutionalists, it at least offers a reprieve from progressive activism—if they know how to use their majority. That’s always the big question.

Having a numerical majority is one thing; using it wisely is another entirely. The track record is decidedly mixed. The one excuse they won’t have anymore is that they don’t have the White House.

Positive #4

Republicans continued to dominate in the state-level elections. From what I’ve learned thus far, they increased their control in a number of states. This, and the control of Congress, was what I was hoping for. We still have a federal system, so not everything is supposed to emanate from Washington, DC. Republican control in a majority of the states offers hope.

The Negatives

Negative #1

Donald Trump Addresses GOP Lincoln Day Event In MichiganDonald Trump is now the president-elect. Winning the election last night doesn’t change who he is. I voted third-party and don’t repent of that vote. I continue to believe that he is unfit for the office that he now will occupy.

My concerns won’t go away. He is the supreme egotist who can’t handle any perceived insult. Will he now conduct a purge of anyone who wasn’t solidly in his camp?

He is blatantly immoral. Christians who think he has changed are going to be disappointed. All this talk about his being a “baby Christian” who only needs to grow in the faith is naive. In order to grow in the faith, one must have the faith first. There is no indication that he does.

constitutional-marriageAs I’ve said countless times, don’t depend on him to advance any agenda that puts pro-life or traditional marriage as a priority. He won’t fight for Supreme Court nominees of that ilk and he already has a propensity for letting everyone decide what they want to do with sex/gender issues.

Put not your trust in his promises.

His knowledge of issues is narrow and superficial. We need to hope that those who surround him have a better grasp of reality than he does.

Trump’s vision (such as it is) of America is not at all grounded in an understanding of constitutional limitations on the executive power. Will he decide to use his own executive orders to accomplish what he wants?

He is no conservative. He has no real understanding of the intellectual basis of conservatism and why it is essential for how governing should proceed.

I still consider him to be borderline emotionally unstable; who knows how that will manifest itself in his administration? Anyone who promotes crazy conspiracy theories, as he has done countless times, is not to be trusted.

Negative #2

Many who voted for Trump did so out of anger and frustration. It’s interesting that many who voted for him don’t really like him. Exit polls reveal that. They just couldn’t stand the prospect of a Hillary presidency. He enters the presidency as one of the most unliked and/or despised winners in American history.

While there is a proper place for anger and frustration, neither makes for a positive vision of the future. The national mood is dark, the culture is still on a downward spiral, and Donald Trump is not the solution.

Negative #3

christians-politicsMany sincere Christians have so thrown their lot in with Trump that it will be hard to disentangle themselves from him when he goes off the reservation. I continue to be deeply concerned that the Christian witness has suffered and will suffer more by our connection with him. Only time will tell how great that damage may be.

Too many Christians have followed the siren song of self-appointed prophets who have declared Trump to be God’s anointed. Be careful. While I do believe God can use the Nebuchadnezzars of this world for His purposes, I’m not going to rush into some silly confidence that Trump’s election is God-ordained.

People made this choice, not God. He may use the choice, and I pray He will, but don’t saddle Him with whatever Trump may do; that will only stain God’s reputation in the eyes of an unbelieving world when he disappoints—as surely he will.

So where does that leave me? Relieved that Hillary Clinton won’t be the president. Concerned that Donald Trump will be. We must remain vigilant and not go off into some fantasyland about how wonderful things will be from now on.

The battle is ongoing.

Samuel, Daniel, & Character in Public Office

On this election day, a few thoughts from Scripture.

samuelSamuel, the prophet and judge in Israel, upon his retirement from his post, did what most politicians today would call an uncharacteristic—and politically dangerous—thing. He gathered the leaders of the people together and made this announcement:

“Here I stand. Testify against me in the presence of the Lord and his anointed. Whose ox have I taken? Whose donkey have I taken? Whom have I cheated? Whom have I oppressed? From whose hand have I accepted a bribe to make me shut my eyes? If I have done any of these, I will make it right.”

What a dangerous proposition, asking everyone if they could point out anything in his life that was dishonest during his entire time in public service. Can you imagine anyone doing that now? The accusations, true or false, would fly. Yet here is how the people responded:

“You have not cheated or oppressed us,” they replied. “You have not taken anything from anyone’s hand.”

Samuel said to them, “The Lord is witness against you, and also His anointed is witness this day, that you have not found anything in my hand.” “He is witness,” they said.

How wonderful to come to the end of a high position in society and be able to walk away with a clear conscience, to have lived a life that testifies to integrity in all matters. How wonderful . . . and how rare.

The prophet Daniel lived in exile in Babylon and in the Persian kingdom after Babylon fell. He gained high government positions through his talent and integrity. The new Persian king recognized what a treasure he had in Daniel. The book that bears his name records,

Now Daniel so distinguished himself among the administrators and the satraps by his exceptional qualities that the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom.

At this, the administrators and the satraps tried to find grounds for charges against Daniel in his conduct of government affairs, but they were unable to do so. They could find no corruption in him, because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent.

His integrity so angered them that they had to set a trap and find him guilty of continuing to worship the Lord after they tricked the king into making a law that no one was to petition any god but the king for thirty days.

The penalty for breaking that law was to be thrown into the lions’ den.

daniel-in-lions-den

We all know the end of that story, as God protected Daniel and brought judgment on his persecutors instead.

The examples of Samuel and Daniel show us what it can be like when people are devoted to God and won’t allow their integrity to be compromised. There can be such people in public office. Our task is to put those kind there as much as humanly possible.

These examples tell us that character does matter in government and that it should matter to those of us who choose government officials at all levels.

That’s all I have to say about that. I think that is sufficient on this election day.

Lewis: We Need Knowledge of the Past

We’ve been in a political season for about a year and a half now. In one sense, the political season never ends. This is especially true for someone like me since I am a professor of American history. I’m naturally drawn to political news and analysis.

There is a temptation, though, to be so immersed in politics that one sees it as all-consuming. C. S. Lewis recognized that temptation. In his day, WWII was one of those potentially all-consuming events. Some people, at that time, were saying that all other activities, including Lewis’s own profession as a professor, should be set aside so that all thought and energy would be concentrated on the war.

NPG x45075,Clive Staples ('C.S.') Lewis,by Walter StonemanLewis said no to that. One of his most enlightening essays, “Learning in War-Time,” addressed the complaint that some had about allowing normal day-to-day activities to continue uninterrupted.

Lewis wanted to be sure he was not misunderstood: the war was a righteous one and every citizen had a duty to support it. “Every duty is a religious duty,” he believed, “and our obligation to perform every duty is therefore absolute.”

Rescuing a drowning man is a duty, he continued, and if we happened to live on a coast, perhaps we should be well prepared as lifesavers. But even such a laudatory effort as lifesaving needs to be seen as only part of one’s overall duties.

If anyone devoted himself to lifesaving in the sense of giving it his total attention—so that he thought and spoke of nothing else and demanded the cessation of all other human activities until everyone had learned to swim—he would be a monomaniac.

The rescue of drowning men is, then, a duty worth dying for, but not worth living for.

Lewis then opined that all political duties were like that. Politics is not the sum total of life. Seeking to put the right people in political office is a worthy endeavor, but it should never consume one’s life.

He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God: himself.

For Lewis personally, God had charted a course for his life that pointed to intellectual activity, something that was not to cease simply because a war was going on. One of his most famous quotes comes from this essay: “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”

He then offers me, as a historian, this encouraging word:

keep-calm-learn-historyMost 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.

There continues to be a “great cataract of nonsense” in our day. The America of 2016 suffers from a type of myopia, forgetting what has gone before, never learning from the past. History offers us tremendous lessons if we are willing to learn from them.

The reason I am so focused, at times, on the current political situation, is that I am disturbed by our ignorance of the past and our apparent unwillingness to correct what we have done wrong previously. We think we are charting a new course that will lead us to some type of utopia when, in fact, we are simply following some of the same old ruts that have caused misery before.

Lewis concludes his essay with what WWII should teach his generation. His conclusion applies to our generation as well if we think political programs will be our savior:

If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.

We must never forget that we are pilgrims on this earth, and that the pilgrimage goes on regardless of what happens in politics and government.