A Century of Totalitarianism & Terror

This year commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. I use the word “commemorate,” not “celebrate.” There is nothing to celebrate in the establishment of the first Marxist communist state; that state, and all the progeny to which it has given birth, embodied the greatest scourge of the 20th century—and its pernicious beliefs and system continue to plague us today.

Russia was ripe for revolution while enmeshed in WWI. I won’t go into all the historical background; suffice to say there were genuine grievances. Yet, all too often, the chosen solution for grievances can be just as bad, or worse, than the original grievance.

The Bolsheviks came to power in late 1917, led by Vladimir Lenin, a man with no pity for anyone, who judged all people by whether they agreed with him on every point, and who introduced the modern concept of genocide, as he evaluated people not by individual guilt or innocence, but by their association with whatever group he deemed unfit to live.

Lenin became the model for all 20th-century revolutionaries. He devoted himself to developing professional revolutionaries who believed in total revolution, without any compromise.

He exploited the people’s war weariness and promised peace and bread for everyone. He controlled the Russian parliament by armed threats and intimidation. The press became a tool of propaganda; no dissenting voices were allowed. And he set up a secret police to inspire terror to any who might try to object to his goals. The czarist secret police were babes in terrorism compared to Lenin’s.

His method for total control can be outlined in this way:

  • Destroy all opposition outside the Party
  • Place all power in Party hands
  • Destroy all opposition within the Party
  • Concentrate all power in the Party in himself and his handpicked subordinates

The irony is that Lenin finally was undone by his own decree that the Party would oversee the health of its leaders. When Lenin had a stroke, his eventual successor, Josef Stalin, pushed Lenin out of power and grabbed the reins himself.

What is there to say about Stalin that most don’t know now? While we choose to highlight the obvious horror of Adolf Hitler (and rightly so), Stalin was conducting his own holocaust within his nation. He starved 7 million Ukrainians in the winter of 1932-1933; he held fake trials of Party officials, always leading to their execution (an estimated one million from 1936-1938), and signed a pact with Hitler in 1939 that allowed the latter to begin that awful world war.

Once that war ended, Stalin then proceeded to take over as many Eastern European countries as he could, giving rise to the Cold War. His long reign of 30 years led to the state murder of approximately 30 million of his own citizens.

From this horrific beginning, the communist vision of coerced utopia gave rise to a bevy of totalitarian states operating from that vision: China, North Korea, Cuba, etc.

No, I don’t celebrate the centennial of communism. My task is to educate others on its nature, based as it is on the rejection of Christian faith and the exaltation of man in all his depravity.

I’m also called to point out that it has never worked as advertised in any place it has been tried. A book needs to be written that neatly summarizes that reality. Perhaps this would be a good title:

Despite the hard facts about this ideology, some still say it is a wonderful vision of what man can be if only it’s tried the right way. I beg to differ. This “wonderful vision” is a vision of man without God and is, as Whittaker Chambers so eloquently explained when he broke from communism and found Christian faith,

What I had been fell from me like dirty rags. The rags that fell from me were not only Communism. What fell was the whole web of the materialist modern mind—the luminous shroud which it has spun about the spirit of man, paralyzing in the name of rationalism the instinct of his soul for God.

Yet far too many never face up to the obvious: this is totalitarianism, plain and simple.

This false ideology, this attempt to make man into a god and annihilate genuine Christianity, doesn’t deserve a second chance.

A Dual Spiritual Biography

I spent parts of ten years researching the links between Ronald Reagan and Whittaker Chambers. Those years also were spent documenting the difference in outlook between the two conservative icons: Chambers the brooding intellectual who doubted the wisdom of men and their commitment to truth; Reagan the optimist who always saw a bright future ahead.

Yet despite that basic disparity in outlook, Reagan was deeply appreciative of what Chambers had taught him, primarily through his autobiography, Witness. Pearls from Chambers’s depth of personal struggle found a prominent place in Reagan’s utterances as president.

Chambers’s depiction of the communist mentality stayed with Reagan throughout his life. He referred to Chambers a number of times in his speeches. Like all presidents, Reagan had a corps of speechwriters, but he contributed valuable edits to his speeches, adding and deleting lines, passages, and even full pages.

Whenever he included Chambers in a speech, he did not just mention him in passing, but often used direct quotes from Witness. At other times, the author of Witness went unmentioned, yet the words Reagan used sounded familiar to those who knew and appreciated Chambers’s writings.

For instance, at a Fourth of July speech in Decatur, Alabama, in 1984, the president, comparing the totalitarian world of communism with America, said that man was created to be free. “That’s why,” he opined, “it’s been said that democracy is just a political reading of the Bible.” Chambers’s exact words had been, “Political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible,” but the source for Reagan’s comment is unmistakable. It was a phrase from Witness that found a home in his memory.

Speaking before friendly audiences—those with whom he could share more personally in an ideological sense—the president invoked Chambers regularly. Just two months into his presidency, he addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference Dinner.

In a tone reminiscent of the language used in Witness, he proclaimed, “We’ve heard in our century far too much of the sounds of anguish from those who live under totalitarian rule. We’ve seen too many monuments made not out of marble or stone but out of barbed wire and terror.” He then spoke of “witnesses to the triumph of the human spirit over the mystique of state power,” and declared that “evil is powerless if the good are unafraid,” as if channeling Chambers’s decision to cross over the bridge on his witness and not turn back.

Marxism, he said, is a “vision of man without God” that must be exposed “as an empty and a false faith … first proclaimed in the Garden of Eden with whispered words of temptation: ‘Ye shall be as gods.’” Where were all these ideas coming from?

The crisis of the Western world, Whittaker Chambers reminded us, exists to the degree in which it is indifferent to God. “The Western world does not know it,” he said about our struggle, “but it already possesses the answer to this problem— but only provided that its faith in God and the freedom He enjoins is as great as communism’s faith in man.”

The real task, Reagan concluded, was a spiritual one: “to reassert our commitment as a nation to a law higher than our own, to renew our spiritual strength.” Only by having this kind of commitment could America’s heritage be preserved. The emphasis on spiritual strength, while also part of Reagan’s core beliefs, certainly was consistent with Chambers’s foundational message.

Near the end of his presidency, in December 1988, addressing his own administration officials, Reagan thought it important to remind them of what Chambers had said. He recalled the sad state of the nation when he took over the reins of the presidency, and how the people had been accused by former president Carter of suffering from the disease of malaise. Everyone at the time, it seemed, had bought into the lie that “there wasn’t much we could do because great historic forces were at work, the problems were all too complicated for solution, fate and history were against us, and America was slipping into an inevitable decline.”

A quote from Chambers seemed appropriate here: “Well, Whittaker Chambers once wrote that, in his words, ‘Human societies, like human beings, live by faith and die when faith dies.’” America, Reagan reminded his audience, possesses “a special faith that has, from our earliest days, guided this sweet and blessed land. It was proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and enshrined in the Constitution.” It was faith in what a free people could accomplish. “And in saying that America has entered an inevitable decline, our leaders of just a decade ago were confessing that, in them, this faith had died.”

This particular use of Chambers is instructive: it shows how Reagan almost always took a quote from him and turned it into something positive, no matter how negative the quote was in context. Reagan’s optimism enveloped Chambers’s pessimism and made it encouraging and upbeat instead.

These excerpts from my book are only a small sampling of what awaits the reader who cares to delve into this dual spiritual biography. And a spiritual biography it is, as both men based their beliefs on their grasp of Christian faith.

The History of a Book

Why did I write a book comparing Ronald Reagan and Whittaker Chambers? May I provide some history on that?

I came of age politically in the 1980s. After suffering through Richard Nixon’s Watergate, Gerald Ford’s caretaker presidency, and Jimmy Carter’s near-total ineptitude, I looked upon Reagan’s inauguration as a fresh start for America. Even Time magazine, in its cover story, seemed to agree with that assessment.

I followed political developments closely. This corresponded with working on my master’s degree and then my doctorate in history.

As a strong conservative, I rejoiced in what Reagan accomplished, while sometimes fearing he was becoming too squishy in his dealings with the USSR. Hindsight shows I was wrong to fear that. He knew what he was doing in helping bring down the Evil Empire.

At the same time, as I proceeded through my higher education, I read for the first time a book that had been recommended to me time and again: Witness by Whittaker Chambers.

I was mesmerized by the masterful writing, the poignant life story laid out within, and the message of the Christian response to the evils of communism.

So impressed was I by what Chambers had written that I began to include Witness in courses I taught. Further, I learned of the link between Chambers and Reagan, how reading Witness showed Reagan the reason why communism became attractive to people.

Chambers’s hard life, both in and out of communism, impacted Reagan to the point that he could quote portions of Witness from memory. When I went to the Reagan Library, I saw in the speechwriting files Reagan’s own handwritten annotations for inserting quotes from Chambers in his speeches.

During his presidency, Reagan also awarded Chambers, posthumously, the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his contribution to the advancement of American liberty.

In his remarks on Chambers, Reagan noted,

“At a critical moment in our Nation’s history, Whittaker Chambers stood alone against the brooding terrors of our age. Consummate intellectual, writer of moving, majestic prose, and witness to the truth, he became the focus of a momentous controversy in American history that symbolized our century’s epic struggle between freedom and totalitarianism, a controversy in which the solitary figure of Whittaker Chambers personified the mystery of human redemption in the face of evil and suffering.

As long as humanity speaks of virtue and dreams of freedom, the life and writings of Whittaker Chambers will ennoble and inspire. The words of Arthur Koestler are his epitaph: ‘The witness is gone; the testimony will stand.’”

I also became aware of the key difference between Reagan and Chambers: the former was a supreme optimist with respect to the future of freedom, while the latter despaired that Western civilization would ever learn its lesson and freedom would be eclipsed.

The question then arose in my mind: who was closer to the truth? Is freedom/liberty the inevitable outworking of God’s design for man, or will man’s sinfulness inevitably lead to the collapse of freedom?

Was Reagan correct when he said that Marxism contained the seeds of its own destruction? Was Chambers right when he told his wife, upon leaving communism, that they were now joining the losing side?

Overall, was communism the real problem or was it something deeper—namely, the exaltation of man over God? Was communism perhaps only one manifestation of that deeper problem? Even if communism were to fall, would that really signal a brighter future for freedom?

All of those issues are what led me to research and write The Witness and the President. My research for this book was extensive. I’ve read everything Chambers wrote—all of his essays, his posthumous book Cold Friday, and letters to friends.

For Reagan, I read every speech he gave as president, as well as nearly every book on the market dealing with his life, both his background and his beliefs.

Both Reagan and Chambers based their beliefs about the future of freedom on their Christian faith, so the book is replete with an examination of their faith as well as how that played out in their outlook.

The book is endorsed by some excellent and renowned Reagan and Chambers scholars. Dr. Paul Kengor, a prolific author himself and expert on Reagan, wrote the foreword. Dr. George Nash, the preeminent scholar of America conservatism, also gave it an enthusiastic review. Richard Reinsch, author of a study of Chambers’s philosophy, and Dr. Luke Nichter, co-editor of volumes on the Nixon tapes, add their positive commentary as well.

All that to say, I believe I’ve offered in this book a unique comparative biography that will shed light on these two conservative icons. I’m hopeful that this short history of how this book came into being will inspire you to purchase a copy yourself. You can do that by going to this Amazon page.

You can also view my Facebook page dealing with the book and see what I’ve posted there. My sincere desire is to get the message out, a message that will challenge you perhaps, and that will make you think more deeply about the nature of man and the future of our civilization.

Who Was Harry Freeman? And Why Should You Care?

Harry Freeman is not a household name; most Americans have no idea who he was. Why should anyone care? Well, Harry Freeman was an example of just how devoted someone can be to a political party regardless of the drastic changes that might occur.

Whittaker Chambers knew Harry Freeman. When Chambers joined the open Communist Party in America in the late 1920’s, he worked alongside Freeman at the party’s newspaper, The Daily Worker.

Allow me to draw from what I’ve written in my book on Chambers and Reagan:

Freeman was the perfect communist in his responses to the party line. As Chambers relates, “No matter how favorable his opinion had been to an individual or his political role, if that person fell from grace in the Communist Party, Harry Freeman changed his opinion about him instantly.”

Others in the party also shifted their viewpoints to match the leadership, but Freeman was unique because he would do it “without any effort or embarrassment. There seemed to vanish from his mind any recollection that he had ever held any opinion other than the approved one. . . . More adroitly and more completely than any other Communist I knew, Harry Freeman possessed the conviction that the party line is always right.”

Freeman, after he left the Daily Worker, went on to become the managing editor of the American Bureau of Tass, the Soviet news agency. In 1976, two years before his death, he received a special award from the Soviet leadership—the Order of Peoples Friendship. His achievement, according to the Soviet government, was his devotion to strengthening cooperation between the peoples of the Soviet Union and the United States. Freeman’s commitment to the communist cause was total.

Chambers, for all his devotion to communism, could never be a Harry Freeman. He could not stomach the politics within the party, and when Stalin initiated a purge of the American leadership, Chambers saw it for what it was—a power struggle unrelated to whether or not a person was a genuine communist.

“It seemed to me,” Chambers wrote years later, “that the party, of which it had been said in Lenin’s time that it peopled the jails of Europe with philosophers, had simply gone insane. … I thought: ‘The pigmies have taken over.'” He refused to play along with this political game and dropped out of the party for a time. This made him a pariah, someone not to be trusted.

How many Harry Freemans, I wonder, exist in America today? The Harry Freemans of today are those who hold to the party line, regardless of which party, no matter how that party may shift and bend itself out of shape.

The Democrat Party in our day is not the Democrat Party of yesteryear when it had a strong anti-communist center. It never dallied with changing basic morality with respect to the right to life and marriage.

The Republican Party of 2017 has morphed also. It’s no longer the party led by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Its purported leader has little in common with Reagan’s sunny disposition, his devotion to constitutionalism, and his thorough knowledge of the conservative philosophy.

I’m concerned because I see Harry Freemans popping up all over the place. I see supposed conservatives, for instance, jettisoning basic conservative/Biblical principles for pure pragmatism.

My goal in this post is simple: it’s a warning—don’t be a Harry Freeman. Stay faithful to what you know is true and don’t bend yourself out of shape to keep up with whatever the “party” wants you to do. Maintain your integrity.

Open & Closed Minds

I teach at a Christian university. A concern I’ve expressed before in this blog is that sometimes Christian academics have a tendency to think they are lesser scholars than those in the more prestigious centers of higher education. Then they make the mistake of trying to become respected by secular academia by minimizing their faith publicly.

I’m not saying that’s the norm for Christian academics, but it is a temptation for some. There sometimes is a haughtiness emanating from the confines of Ivy League and other “top” schools that tells us we don’t really match up.

However, God disagrees. We’re told in Proverbs, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” and “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” That last verse goes on to say, “And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”

When we jettison that first step—reverence for God—we set out on a path that leads to foolishness, not genuine knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.

It’s as C. S. Lewis noted in Mere Christianity:

There is a difficulty about disagreeing with God. He is the source from which all your reasoning power comes: you could not be right and He wrong any more than a stream can rise higher than its own source.

When you are arguing against Him you are arguing against the very power that makes you able to argue at all: it is like cutting off the branch you are sitting on.

All the talk in circles of higher education of having an open mind sounds nice. Sometimes, those of us who teach at a university that has a basic statement of beliefs are considered close-minded. Yet as Lewis reminds us in his The Abolition of Man,

An open mind, in questions that are not ultimate, is useful. But an open mind about ultimate foundations either of Theoretical or Practical Reason is idiocy. If a man’s mind is open on these things, let his mouth at least be shut.

I’m reminded also of an incident related by Whittaker Chambers in his autobiography, Witness. As a child, he once said something to his mother about God creating the world. His mother, decidedly nonreligious, told him that he had to think for himself, to have an open mind. He was not to accept other people’s opinions, she declared. Then she followed that with this statement: “The world was formed by gases cooling in space.”

Chambers continued,

I thought about this many times. But it was not the gaseous theory of creation that impressed me. . . . What impressed me was that it was an opinion, too, since other people believed something else. Then, why had my mother told me what to think? Clearly, if the open mind was open . . . truth was simply a question of which opening you preferred.

In effect, the open mind was always closed at one end.

I have no problem saying I begin my understanding of history (which is what I teach) with the knowledge of God. After all, history came into being by His creation. Why would I ever omit Him from an analysis of history?

My mind is open when it comes to the facts of history and whether I need to change my perspective on particular events. My mind is blessedly closed, though, on matters of ultimate significance. Neither do I suffer from feelings of inferiority for saying that. Staying faithful to God’s truth leads to proper understanding and wisdom.

Saving Christian Conservatism’s Soul

Above all else, my identity is as a Christian—a follower of Jesus Christ in which I consistently acknowledge His lordship over all of life. I take seriously the admonition that our time on earth is temporary and that we are pilgrims on a spiritual journey. Our primary focus in not anything in this world.

However, I also take seriously the call for Christians to be salt and light in every situation in this world to help guide others into the truth. We don’t live in a corner somewhere, ignoring the world.

That’s why I’ve always been very involved in teaching Christians how to understand politics and government. Yes, those are transitory as well, but they have a tremendous impact on everyone’s daily existence. Government is a realm where Christians should make a difference.

At this point, allow me to recount my bona fides as a political conservative, especially as what I will say later may dismay some readers.

I have been a conservative in principle most of my adult life. I was conservative before many of you reading these words were even born. In the 1980s, I wrote for the Heritage Foundation and the American Conservative Union. In the 1990s, I chaired a county chapter of the Christian Coalition.

As a history professor, I’ve tried to communicate Christian conservatism to my students now for twenty-eight years. My book on Whittaker Chambers and Ronald Reagan grew out of what I have researched and taught for all those years.

I teach a course on Chambers specifically (who is considered practically the godfather of modern American conservatism) and another one on Reagan and the varieties of cultural and political conservatism that have developed since WWII.

My goal always has been to show students that, as Christians, our political beliefs should be grounded in Biblical principles, and that we should never be led astray into some kind of secular salvationism or put anyone on a pedestal, especially any political leader whose life doesn’t reflect Biblical principles.

I’ve attempted to instruct them on the distinction between a principled compromise and a compromised principle.

Have I made my point yet?

All during the presidential primary season last year, I wrote about and admonished my fellow conservatives, and Christian conservatives in particular, to be focused on principle and not simply jump on some kind of nationalistic bandwagon offered by any candidate. I also questioned quite pointedly the character of Donald Trump, issuing warning after warning that he was not a conservative and that his character (as revealed in the manner by which he campaigned) would do great harm long-term to conservatism as a political force.

When he became president, despite his many flaws, I made it clear that I would support him whenever he did something that aligned with sound policy, but that I would not be a cheerleader for him whenever his policies departed from principle or whenever his character undermined the office to which he had been elected.

Frankly, I don’t see how a Christian conservative can maintain integrity without that dual commitment.

I won’t go through a laundry list today of all the problems I see with Trump and his administration. It is sufficient to say that he continues to be his own worst enemy.

I know. His most ardent devotees will cry “fake news” about everything negative in the media. Is there a lot of fake news out there? Of course. Again, I will point to the fact that I’ve critiqued the media continually in this blog for the past nine years that I’ve written it.

Is there a double standard toward Republicans in general and toward conservatives specifically? No question about it. A political cartoon that came out back in 2007 makes a case that can still be made today.

Yet those who are defending President Trump, no matter what he does, are relying far too much on what some commentators have called “whataboutism.” Every time Trump does anything questionable, crass, or unprincipled, they cry, “Well, what about the Democrats? Remember what they did?”

While this might soothe some consciences, it doesn’t soothe mine. Wrong is wrong regardless, and if we want to be true disciples of our Lord, we cannot dismiss wrongdoing because the one involved in the wrongdoing is “on our side.”

I’m trying to be charitable here, and I hope you see it in that light. This is not a diatribe against those who are outraged at the obvious double standard and hypocrisy all around us.

But it is a caution, especially for all of us who call ourselves Christian conservatives. In the understandable desire to have a voice in the current political climate, we must not violate the trust God has given us to be His spokesmen. We must not sell our souls for transitory and ephemeral political clout. We must remember these exact words from the One we say we love and obey:

What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world yet loses his own soul?

Let’s not sell our souls and our birthright as children of the King for that which doesn’t truly advance His Kingdom. Be a voice of integrity in the midst of party spirit, acrimony, dishonesty, and unprincipled behavior.

By doing so, we save the Christian conservative soul and become the type of witnesses we are called to be.

The Witness & the President

Would you like a story comparing two conservative icons? How about a narrative that reveals how both of those conservatives based their convictions on Christian faith yet had differing predictions about the future of freedom in America and Western civilization overall?

I have that story for you.

Yes, I’m talking about my book on Whittaker Chambers and Ronald Reagan, The Witness and the President.

Why am I highlighting it today?

I want to be sure you all know that it is now being published via Amazon and has a new Amazon page. You can see it here.

I spent a number of years researching and writing this book while maintaining a fulltime teaching position. Not only have I read anything and everything by and about Chambers, but I read every speech Reagan ever gave as president and went to the Reagan Library for more sources. I enjoyed every minute of that research.

I’m particularly humbled by the endorsements I’ve received: Paul Kengor, Reagan scholar; George Nash, the premier historian of the conservative movement; Richard Reinsch, Chambers scholar; Luke Nichter, editor of the Nixon tapes; and Patrick Swan, editor of a volume that deals with the public’s reaction to Chambers’s autobiography Witness.

This is a scholarly book, but it’s written for a lay audience. I trust you will find it an enjoyable read, while simultaneously learning things you never knew before. If you are on Facebook, you also might want to look at my special page for the book; give it a “like” if you think it’s worthwhile.

So that’s my “pitch” for today. I hope some of you will now decide to check it out, then let me know if I have offered you an accurate picture of what you would find.

Try it. I hope you will be pleased by what you read.