Will We Learn From History?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Someone needs to write this book:

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

G. K. Chesterton nailed it:

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

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.

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.

Willful Ignorance: Never a Safe Space

Nice to know that neither Obama nor Biden will make an appearance at Castro’s memorial. I don’t think that’s because they wouldn’t like to do so, but the backlash just might be greater than they wish to handle.

Most people, outside of the press, aren’t exactly in mourning that the dictator is dead. Some have very good reasons not to feel particularly sad about it.

in-mourning

The Castro legacy is not hard to discover:

castro-skulls

As I said in a previous post, I don’t believe Castro went to meet His maker. Rather, he went to meet his lifelong mentor:

hell-o

Meanwhile, on American university campuses throughout the nation, ignorance about communist atrocities in history continues apace:

taking-a-selfie

We’ve allowed those hallowed halls of higher education to become state nurseries:

bubble-u

Willful ignorance is never a safe space.

Chambers, McCarthy, & Trump

An interesting question was posed to me yesterday by a former student, wanting to know what Whittaker Chambers might think of Donald Trump. I gave him my short answer but then decided it would be perhaps insightful to provide a fuller one here today.

For those of you unfamiliar with Chambers, here’s a short synopsis of his life.

Chambers at DeskWhittaker Chambers, in the 1920s, became a member of the Communist party because he saw it as the hope of a world filled with destruction after WWI. At one point, he was ushered into the communist underground movement where he helped place communists in government positions to influence policy; he also served as a liaison between those officials and underground leaders, to whom he passed on information stolen from the government.

He soured on communism in the late 1930s as he saw the fruit of Stalinism: the purges of faithful party members, in particular. He had to go into hiding to protect his family, emerging later as a writer for Time magazine, eventually becoming one of its senior editors.

After WWII, Chambers appeared before a congressional committee and told all he knew about the underground subversion taking place. One of the men he fingered in the underground was Alger Hiss, a top State Dept. official. When Hiss denied the accusation, it became front-page news.

To shorten the story considerably, all I’ll say is that Chambers was proven correct, Hiss went to prison, and Chambers then wrote a masterful autobiography entitled Witness, which came out in 1952. It is one of my all-time favorite books.

Joe McCarthy 2Sen. Joe McCarthy is infamous for trying to root out the communist conspiracy in the early 1950s. Nothing wrong with that, except McCarthy seems to have been motivated more by personal glory than principle. He also was not a man of towering intellect like Chambers. Neither did he have the inside knowledge Chambers did.

Naturally, McCarthy sought to have Chambers on his side publicly. Yet Chambers declined to join in his crusade. Why? It had to do with the character of the man.

In letters Chambers wrote to William F. Buckley, the dean of the modern conservative movement in America, he laid out his concerns—even fears—of what McCarthy might do inadvertently to undermine genuine anti-communism.

Odyssey of a FriendIn one of those letters, responding to Buckley’s queries as to why he wouldn’t come out in support of McCarthy, Chambers replied,

One way whereby I can most easily help Communism is to associate myself publicly with Senator McCarthy; to give the enemy even a minor pretext for confusing the Hiss Case with his activities, and rolling it all in a snarl with which to baffle, bedevil, and divide opinion.

That is why I told Senator McCarthy, when he asked me to keynote his last Wisconsin campaign, that we were fighting in the same war, but in wholly  different battles, and that the nature of the struggle at this time enjoins that we should not wage war together.

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.

While Chambers obviously wanted much of what McCarthy wanted—the exposure of the communist threat—he didn’t see McCarthy as the man to accomplish this.

In that same letter to Buckley, Chambers expressed his deepest fear:

All of us, to one degree or another, have slowly come to question his judgment and to fear acutely that his flair for the sensational, his inaccuracies and distortions, his tendency to sacrifice the greater objective for the momentary effect, will lead him and us 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.

Chambers was prophetic. That’s precisely what happened. McCarthy ultimately went too far with his accusations and fell from his lofty perch politically. Ever since then, anytime a conservative sounds a warning about socialism/communism, critics on the Left have been able to sound the alarm of “McCarthyism.” The senator dealt a deadly blow to intelligent concerns about subversion.

So what about Trump? What would Chambers think if he were here today? Of course, we are dealing with a hypothetical, but we do have Chambers’s own words and feelings about someone who could be disastrous to a good cause. That’s how I see Trump.

Looking again at Chambers’s comments, I can see Trump in many ways. Just as McCarthy was not a principled person, but rather someone out for his own notoriety, so is Trump, in my view. He has no solid principles; he is no conservative; he has little knowledge of constitutional government.

Then there are the tactics. Chambers criticized McCarthy for being merely a tactician, not a strategist, someone who went for the short-term advantage rather than having a long-term goal. Trump again.

Chambers questioned McCarthy’s judgment, his flair for the sensational, and the inaccuracies and distortions in his comments. I see Trump there as well.

Finally, there was Chambers’s biggest fear, that McCarthy would do more damage to the cause in the long run and discredit real anti-communism that knew what it was talking about. I believe Trump will cause great damage to conservatism in our day. People will associate him with that ideology, despite the fact that he is a man of no particular ideology himself. He is merely a narcissist looking for a way to advance himself.

If Trump doesn’t change (and that’s highly unlikely), and he wins the presidency, we may, in the future, hear the alarm of “Trumpism” just as readily as the Left has used “McCarthyism” for the last six decades.

If Chambers were alive today to see what’s transpiring, there is no way I believe he would be a Trump enthusiast. Rather, he would be on the front lines sounding a proper alarm, fearful that conservatism will be undermined by support for Trump.

As an addendum, Ronald Reagan’s son, Michael, has stated that he doesn’t believe his father would have jumped on the Trump train either. From everything I know about Ronald Reagan, I have to agree. Although Reagan called for unity in the Republican ranks, he always wanted that unity to be based on principles.

I find it kind of ironic that those who are excoriating Ted Cruz for not endorsing Trump forget that Reagan, who lost the nomination to Gerald Ford in 1976, spoke at that convention at Ford’s request. While delivering an impromptu speech about the need for Republican principles to win in the election, Reagan pointedly didn’t specifically endorse Ford in that speech. Neither did he campaign for him prior to the election. If that was acceptable for Reagan, why not for Cruz, who has even far more reason to decline a Trump endorsement?

Book Cover 1I have studied both Reagan and Chambers for many years. That’s why I came out with this book last year, The Witness and the President: Whittaker Chambers, Ronald Reagan, and the Future of Freedom.

If you want greater depth of understanding of both men, I heartily endorse this book (for some reason). As you dig into the thinking of both Reagan and Chambers, I hope you will come away with a greater appreciation of those who stand on principle.

I also hope you will also grasp why I have not been able to endorse Donald Trump. I want men (and women) of principle taking the lead. We have to look beyond the short-term “victory” of one election and concentrate instead on the long-term. Christian faith and conservative governance are my guidelines; I don’t want them to be denigrated by the unprincipled antics of politicians today.

Lewis & the Public Square (Part 3)

I’ve been sharing some of the paper I’m going to present at the upcoming C. S. Lewis Foundation summer conference. The theme of the conference is on how Christians can participate in the public square. The last section of my paper draws on Lewis’s insights on that matter.

In my previous excerpt, Lewis was writing about some of the pitfalls of democracy. He continues in that vein:

Lewis Letters Volume 3Lewis had an exchange on this issue with one of his regular American correspondents, Mary Van Deusen, who had raised the concern about communists infiltrating the government. Lewis responded that that raised the whole issue of one of the problems of a democracy.

A democratic form of government, he explained, rested on the will of the majority. What if, he queried, a majority should someday introduce communism, or even devil worship or human sacrifice? How should we respond in such situations? “When we said ‘Govt. by the people’ did we only mean ‘as long as we don’t disagree with the people too much’”?

He concluded, “Of course there is no question of its being our duty (the minority’s duty) to obey an anti-God govt. if the majority sets it up. We shall have to disobey and be martyred. Perhaps pure democracy is really a false ideal.”

To forestall that terrible scenario from becoming reality, Lewis encouraged Christian involvement in the public square. When Van Deusen wrote to him about some very good people getting positions in the American government, he was pleased. One of his greatest fears about America, he shared with her, was “that politics were not in the hands of your best types and that this, in the long run, might prove ruinous. A change in that, the beginning of what might be called a volunteer aristocracy, might have incalculable effects.”

In fact, Lewis, in another of his essays, comes out strongly in favor of specific political activity with regard to appealing to legislators. While rejecting the idea of setting up a Christian political party, he nonetheless proposed what he called an “interdenominational Christian Voters’ Society” that should operate as a kind of pressure group.

If a political party sought the support of this society, it would have to pledge first its support for the society’s goals for the nation. ‘“So all it comes down to is pestering M.P.’s with letters?’ Yes; just that. I think such pestering combines the dove and the serpent. I think it means a world where parties have to take care not to alienate Christians, instead of a world where Christians have to be ‘loyal’ to infidel parties.”

Lewis’s insight here has something to offer American Christians as we look toward our next presidential election. What matters most, loyalty to a party or to our Christian convictions?

I’ll share the final excerpt next Saturday.

Chambers: Higher Education & Despair

Book Cover 1What led Whittaker Chambers to become a communist? His university education was one source, not because it taught him communism per se, but because it offered nothing to believe in. Faced with a choice between nihilism and communism, he chose the latter. Here’s an excerpt from my new book that I hope you will find enlightening with respect to the decline of higher education.

Chambers chose to attend Columbia University, close enough to home that he could save money by staying there his freshman year. “When I entered,” he explained, “I was a conservative in my view of life and politics, and I was undergoing a religious experience. By the time I left, entirely by my own choice, I was no longer a conservative and I had no religion.”

It is a statement that begs for more. How did this happen, precisely? What exact role did Columbia play in this dramatic turnabout? Who and what were the influences on Chambers at this time in his life?

He entered Columbia in the fall of 1920. Already damaged from his upbringing, having viewed the less seemly aspects of life in D.C. and New Orleans, and contemplating the social and economic crises that resulted from the recent Great War, now known as World War I, Chambers was soon to be firmly convinced that the world was on the brink of catastrophe.

He referred to it later, when he could explain it better, as a fault line. As with a physical earthquake, so also society was cracking under pressures and stresses that would ultimately lead to a cataclysmic upheaval. The problem was that most people did not understand what was happening; therefore, neither did they have a solution. During his time at Columbia, he sought to figure out the nature of the crisis and to discover the solution. In the end, the university did not provide the answer.

In effect, I was asking: Please tell me what our civilization means in terms of God and man, for I cannot make head or tail of it.

It was very much as if I had gone to a madhouse and said, cap in hand: Please explain to me the principles of sanity and sane living. Again, this is entirely without any special animadversions upon Columbia University. Exactly the same thing would have been true, in one degree or another, if I had gone to any other of the top secular universities in the country. Nor would the colleges have been at fault. Their failure merely mirrored a much greater disaster which was the failure of Western civilization itself.

Columbia was, he declared, “a citadel of the mind swaying in the vertigo of a civilization changing (without admitting it) the basis of its faith from a two thousand-year-old Christian culture to the new secular and scientific culture.” Whereas the Christian culture “placed God at the center of man’s hope,” the new secular faith, which was “exclusively rational and scientific,” replaced God with Man.

This was not indoctrination into communism, at least not explicitly. “No member of the Columbia faculty ever consciously guided me toward Communism,” he stated. “Columbia did not teach me Communism. It taught me despair.” That despair opened the door for the communist solution.

Searching for meaning in life, Chambers found that his university education provided only despair. Only much later did he finally come to realize that true meaning is found only in God, to Whom he eventually surrendered his will.