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.

Chambers: Why the Christians Are Right & the Heathen Are Wrong

Here’s the scenario: the culture is in decline due to a loss of Biblical principles; beliefs based on those principles that used to hold the society together are attacked as bigoted, narrow, and intolerant; the government is increasingly dysfunctional and policies, despite the best efforts of honest and caring representatives, move further away from Biblical norms.

What’s someone to do about this, especially when one feels called by God (to some, that’s a rather presumptive and/or arrogant statement right there) to warn of the decline and the loss of a proper perspective on life?

One can choose to rail against this decline. After all, it is Biblical to warn sinners of the error of their ways. Purely on the governmental side, one can continually point out the false ideologies, hypocrisies, and evil deeds of our generation.

Pointing out the problems is something that must be done. However, there is a limit; after a while, if all one does is constantly harp on the negatives, one runs the risk of being a Johnny-one-note that people begin to ignore.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve started to notice the down side of some conservative commentary. While the commentary is most often true, depicting accurately the perfidy, the dishonesty, and the radical agenda of progressivism, one gets tired of hearing nothing but angst.

I’ve also noticed that some of those commentators are far more shallow in their thinking than I at first realized. They have certain talking points they repeat, and that’s all the farther they go. The repetitive nature of that approach makes it easy to tune them out.

As regular readers of my blog know, I’ve gained a lot of understanding through the words of Whittaker Chambers in his wonderful/tragic autobiography Witness.

Once Chambers left the communist underground and got a position writing for Time magazine, he eagerly used his position to try to point out the communist threat he knew from personal experience. He was so committed to warning about it that people got tired of hearing his warnings. He was kept from writing anything on the subject.

That seemed like a defeat. As Chambers relates,

My tacit exclusion from writing Communist news at first exasperated me, for I saw no one around me (except the Communists, of course) who knew anything at all about the subject.

He could have protested this treatment. He could have cause a ruckus and further divided the staff over his actions. But he kept calm and came to a new realization about tactics:

But gradually I welcomed the ban. I began to see that the kind of sniping that I had been doing was shallow and largely profitless; anybody could do that.

That last sentence is all too true. Anyone with an axe to grind or an ability to channel anger can do that. There are multitudes of those kinds of people. Chambers tried a new approach, one that more fully reflected the Christian spirit he was developing at that time in his life:

It seemed to me that I had a more important task to do, one that was peculiarly mine. It was not to attack Communism frontally. It was to clarify on the basis of the news, the religious and moral position that made Communism evil.

I had been trying to make a negative point. Now I had to state the positive position, and it was a much more formidable task than attack.

It’s deceptively easy to mount attacks. What Chambers now understood was that he had to do the harder job: help readers grasp the underlying Christian viewpoint of what constituted “good” and contrast that with the evil in communism.

It meant explaining simply and readably for millions the reasons why the great secular faith of this age is wrong and the religious faith of the ages is right; why, in the words of the Song of Roland, the Christians are right and the heathen are wrong.

This affected Chambers’s character in a positive way as well:

This change in my mood and my work reflected a deepening within myself.

The challenge before those of us who might take on the mantle of cultural warrior is perhaps to learn how to conduct the battle in a different manner. We need to leave the tactic of shallow anger and dull repetition and move on to deeper reflections on the nature of God, man, and His principles, and thereby help others gain a greater understanding of the battlefield.

That has always been my intent in this blog—hence its title, Pondering Principles: Reflections on God . . . Man . . . Life. My commitment to that goal is refreshed today.

Principles, Courage, & the Budget

A budget vote is coming. I’ve done my best to read both sides of the debate on what the Republican Congress has come up with this time. Yesterday, VP Pence was on the Rush Limbaugh program proclaiming it’s a win for the president, primarily because it increases defense spending.

Well, I’m glad it does that, given the various global crises we face: ISIS, Iran, North Korea, just to name the most prominent.

But what about the rest of this $1 trillion bill?

It continues to fund Planned Parenthood, that vile organization that has created a modern holocaust.

It continues to send money to sanctuary cities that are thumbing their noses at any type of curtailment of illegal immigration. Why should they be rewarded?

Some extra money is in it for border security, yet there is no mention of anything even remotely connected to Trump’s promise of a wall (not that I think he ever really believed in that long of a wall in the first place).

We’re told we must support this budget to keep the government running until September, then the Republicans in Congress will finally get down to business on what they said they would do.

The main reason why they don’t seem prepared to fight for anything substantive at this point is fear that they will be blamed for a government shutdown. That’s always the fear, and fear appears to drive their decisionmaking.

As a historian, I do understand that you can’t always get everything you want in legislation. Yes, there are compromises to be made. But how about compromises that don’t sacrifice basic principles such as the inherent value of human life? Allowing the funding of Planned Parenthood is a participation in murder. When will Republicans draw a line that cannot be crossed?

The litany of excuses grows:

  • We only have one house of Congress; how can you expect us to get anything passed?
  • We have Congress, but not the presidency, so anything we send to the White House will only get vetoed
  • We have Congress and the presidency, but we don’t have a 60-vote majority in the Senate to get what we want

If they were ever to get that 60-vote majority in the Senate, I’m almost convinced the argument will be that they don’t want to be portrayed in the media as heartless, so they will have to bow to what the Democrats want in order to be liked.

Whatever happened to principles? Why has spinelessness become the Republican fallback position?

In that interview that Pence did with Limbaugh, the host’s frustration came to the forefront in these words:

Okay, but why then is the president now suggesting a budget shutdown in September or October? If it’s no good now, why is it good then?

You guys were sent there to drain the swamp. There’s a clear Trump agenda that just isn’t seeable. It’s not visible in this budget, and some people are getting concerned that there’s more concern for bipartisanship and crossing the aisle, working with Democrats, than there is in draining the swamp and actually peeling away all of the roughage that is preventing actually moving forward here on so many of these issues that affect people domestically.

I’ve been a critic of Limbaugh ever since he jumped on the Trump Train with apparently no reservations, but he’s voicing a very important concern here, and he’s right to do so.

I’m reminded of this quote from Whittaker Chambers in Witness:

Men have never been so educated, but wisdom, even as an idea, has conspicuously vanished from the world.

I would add that principles and courage have dissipated along with wisdom.

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.

Lewis: The Few & the Many

A very pleasant task I’ve set for myself is to read C. S. Lewis works that I’ve not yet taken the opportunity to examine. In this journey, I’ve taken on The Discarded Image, The Allegory of Love (tough read for me; not done yet), and now An Experiment in Criticism.

Since I’m a historian and not a literary critic per se, I admit I was hesitant to tackle this one, figuring it might be too dense for my taste, too pedantic perhaps.

That prejudgment was completely wrong.

What an unanticipated joy it has been to follow Lewis’s thinking in this little book. I even discovered, in the first chapter, some quotes I’ve appreciated before when he distinguishes between what he refers to as “the few and the many” when it comes to the types of readers.

“In the first place, the majority never read anything twice,” he opines. “The sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers ‘I’ve read it already’ to be a conclusive argument against reading a work.” Great works, though, he argues, should be read multiple times over the course of one’s life.

A second difference, Lewis notes, is that “the many” turn to reading only if there’s nothing else that pops up that they would rather do. “It is kept for railway journeys, illnesses, odd moments of enforced solitude, or for the process called ‘reading oneself to sleep.'” Whereas the devoted readers—the few—“feel impoverished” if they are denied “attentive and undisturbed reading even for a few days.”

A third distinction is that the literary are so drawn into what they read that they often have an experience “so momentous that only experiences of love, religion, or bereavement can furnish a standard of comparison. Their whole consciousness is changed. They have become what they were not before.”

His final distinguishing characteristic?

As a natural result of their different behaviour in reading, what they have read is constantly and prominently present to the mind of the few, but not to that of the many. The former mouth over their favourite lines and stanzas in solitude. . . . They talk to one another about books, often and at length. The latter seldom think or talk of their reading.

While Lewis is focusing on novels and poetry in his comments, I’d add that, for me, it isn’t limited to those genres. Really good nonfiction writing also can qualify. For instance, there’s Lewis’s own works such as Mere Christianity or his autobiography, Surprised By Joy. I repeat lines from those in my mind regularly.

I’ve had this experience with other books also. Whittaker Chambers’s Witness is awash with such memorable lines, phrases, and meaningful paragraphs that I have taught it constantly to students for thirty years. I highly recommend it to all who love excellent, striking prose.

Near the end of chapter one in An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis sums up nicely the reaction “the many” have toward “the few.”

It is pretty clear that the majority, if they spoke without passion and were fully articulate, would not accuse us of liking the wrong books, but of making such a fuss about any books at all. We treat as a main ingredient in our well-being something which to them is marginal.

So is Lewis intimating that “the few” are somehow superior humans who should look down on those who don’t have the same perspective on reading? Not at all. Those who are familiar with Lewis’s humility would never accuse him of that. In fact, he addresses that very issue in chapter two.

But that’s for next Saturday’s post.

Making Our Witness: The Chambers Model

What startled many readers of Whittaker Chambers’s Witness when it first was published in 1952 (and became a bestseller) was its deeply spiritual tone, its message of returning to faith in God, not only for the sake of individual salvation but also for the hope of salvaging Western civilization.

Chambers had been a avowed atheist, an ideological stance influenced by his dysfunctional family upbringing, the nihilism communicated to him by his university education, and his commitment to changing the world through communism.

One of his most famous lines about religious belief prior to his conversion shows not only his attitude but his ability to convey that attitude in memorable phrases:

I associated God with ill-ventilated vestries and ill-ventilated minds.

That attitude crumbled when he finally faced the truth of the Christian faith. There is one passage in Witness that best describes what happened to him when the Spirit of God touched his life, and that passage is even more memorable than the one noted above:

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, denying in the name of knowledge the reality of the soul and its birthright in that mystery on which mere knowledge falters and shatters at every step.

It was that touch from the hand of God that led Chambers to his decision to make his witness before the world—not just a testimony about what he knew of the workings of the communist underground and its designs to overthrow the American government—but a witness to the grace of God in men’s lives.

Yet it was that very witness that most intellectuals rejected. They didn’t understand how Chambers could embrace the “old” faith that so many of them now despised. This is why Chambers, near the end of Witness, wrote this:

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.

What’s interesting is that Chambers saw a clear demarcation between those intellectuals and the majority of the population:

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.

For it frees them from the trap of irreversible Fate at the point at 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.

Why did Chambers believe that weakness could become strength, that corruption could be transformed into incorruption, that good could be squeezed out of evil, and that falsehoods could nevertheless lead men to see the truth?

He could believe all of that because it happened in his life. He responded to the Christian message, he acknowledged that he was individually responsible to God, and he took the necessary steps to assert that responsibility by proclaiming the witness God had given him through his own personal experience.

The message hasn’t changed. God hasn’t changed. All of us need to respond as Chambers did. We need to make our individual witnesses to the world. We are all individually responsible to God and need to take whatever steps are necessary to make our witness.

Higher Education’s Sad Spectacle

I’ve been following events on our nation’s campuses where higher learning is supposed to take place. From one perspective, one could say the faculty and students have performed a great service for making the nation laugh again, what with their “safe spaces” and tears over the last election.

However, my desire for higher learning to be appreciated makes the spectacle more a reason for sadness than laughter. Denying conservative speakers the right to be heard is a type of fascism, which is ironic because the deniers claim to be combating fascism. Their totalitarianism is fascistic; the speakers hold to limited government and the right for every position on the issues to be aired publicly.

The fascists are the student protesters; those who value liberty, decency, and civil discussion are the conservatives who are being shouted at and slandered.

I sit in a fairly “safe space” of my own since I teach on a Christian evangelical campus. I have yet to witness a riot on my campus, and people are allowed to speak without being shouted down. Each year, I bring a speaker for Constitution Day who extols the virtues of our form of government and the Christian basis for understanding government.

If you want to find where higher education is occurring, may I suggest a campus like mine? I invite all potential history majors to come and study under me and others who grasp the importance of Christian faith to education.

I have experienced other campus scenarios, however. Both my master’s and doctoral degrees were earned at typical secular universities. Some of what I received was excellent; some was biased. I learned to tell the difference.

For a few years, I even taught as an adjunct history professor at a large, well-known university in Virginia. I brought my Christian perspective into the classroom, along with my conservative political interpretation of American history. Course evaluations from my students were an affirmation that they believed I was a good professor.

Then I had a class in which one student, a radical feminist, complained to the department chair about my teaching. That led to a phone call from the chair (I never met her in person). She asked about how I teach and I told her. She seemed very civil and even noted that every professor teaches from his/her own perspective. I thought the conversation went very well.

I was never invited back.

The open mind is always closed at one end. That’s what Whittaker Chambers said about his mother when he asked her once about when God created the universe. She froze, he related, and in an icy voice, informed him that someone must have told him that, and that he was to keep an open mind. She then lectured him that the universe was created out of gases, not by God.

He learned a lot at that moment; that’s when he realized that those who proclaim to be so open are often the most close-minded.

That’s what we see at this moment on our campuses, and it’s a sad reality. Of course, I know this is not new. I was on a campus myself as a student during the Vietnam War. That era was ripe with protest, potential anarchy, and violence.

As has often been noted, the radicals of the 1960s-1970s are now teaching the current generation. The cycle continues. Back in my college days, the mantra was not to trust anyone over thirty. Only the younger generation really knew what to believe.

The more time passes, the less things change. That arrogance is still the cornerstone of radical protest today. They walk in blindness. The Christian mission on campuses is to shed light on that blindness and lead them into true Truth.