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.

The Alt-Right Isn’t Right

I would like to gently—okay, forcefully—make a point today about a mischaracterization being promulgated in the media. It’s also prevalent in academia. It has to do with how the political spectrum is explained.

We all know, since the Charlottesville episode, that the so-called Alt-Right has come under greater scrutiny. This is a group that, although it claims not to be Neo-Nazi or part of the KKK, nevertheless finds ideological companions in those detestable movements. In reality, the Alt-Right is just as much an extremist, fringe group as those, and let’s not forget one of their counterparts on the Left.

What I object to is the term itself, somehow aligning the Alt-Right with genuine conservatism. This is an error that shows up constantly, and it didn’t begin with this Alt-Right fiasco. The typical way the political spectrum is displayed by liberals is something like this:

Notice in this diagram how conservatism is positioned on the spectrum as a step toward the Nazis and other political parties considered by liberals to be “right-wing” fanatics. And what do we find in the center of this line as the “perfect” place to be? Why, liberal Democrats, of course, who apparently have no real connection to socialism/communism.

How one draws a line like this is dependent on the assumptions one starts with.

From my own assumptions, I would redraw the line this way:

Why do I consider this more accurate? First, the spectrum is based on how much control government has over the lives of its citizens, which I believe is a better way of approaching an explanation of beliefs.

As you can see, on the extreme Left of the spectrum one finds not only socialism/communism, where they truly belong as totalitarian systems, but also the Nazis. Historical fact bears this out. We’re so used to using Nazi as a shortcut for the full name that some may not be aware that it was the National Socialist German Workers Party.

Why, then, some may ask, did they oust the communists in Germany if they were so close in beliefs? That’s easily explained. First, Hitler saw the communists as competitors politically; they had to be excised so he could achieve complete authority. Second, communist ranks were filled with Jews, and Hitler’s socialist movement was centered on racial purity—no Jews allowed.

What liberals love to do is associate conservatism with the desire to control other people’s lives through government. Nothing could be further from the truth, at least in American conservatism.

I’ve been a political conservative all my adult life. I teach a course on the development of modern American conservatism and have examined all aspects of it. Even though there are different types of American conservatives, there are threads of belief that all hold in common:

  • Limited government control over the lives of citizens—personal liberty to be safeguarded by government.
  • Deep respect for the rule of law—not only are everyday citizens held to the law (legislated by their own chosen representatives) but government officials are as well, thereby guaranteeing that government doesn’t trample on anyone.
  • Individual rights that come from God, not government—in America, that’s why we have a Bill of Rights in the Constitution.
  • Freedom of political speech, so that no one can be prosecuted for disagreeing with the government’s policies.
  • Religious liberty, because it’s not the government’s job to tell us what to believe; we all must answer to God directly for that.
  • Free market capitalism based on principles of right conduct toward others, which leads to economic prosperity.
  • Abhorrence of all forms of totalitarian government because such governments violate everything I’ve detailed above.

Genuine American conservatives have nothing in common with the Alt-Right digression from reality. To lump that group in with conservatism is a gross deception gleefully promoted by those on the Left. It serves their purpose nicely: undermine the credibility of conservatism by linking it to racism.

That’s dishonest. It’s a distortion of what conservatives actually believe. It needs to be called out for its dishonesty.

The only real remedy for extremism in all forms is a society based on Biblical principles and an attachment to constitutional concepts that flow from that Biblical basis.

Don’t be misled by those who have an ideological ax to grind. True conservatism in America is the bedrock of liberty.

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.

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 caused 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.

Discernment in the Trump Era

Feelings run high on Donald Trump . . . on both sides. What I’m seeing on the Left and on some parts of the Right is practically an unthinking response to anything Trump does.

The “Resist” movement won’t rest until Trump is impeached or, as in the case of New York City’s “Shakespeare in the Park” program, possibly assassinated. The group put on a modern version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar with “Julius” looking suspiciously like the current president. It was so blatant that big corporate sponsors have pulled out.

Certain media outlets have made Trump their focus with a constant barrage of stories, documented or not, that always put him in a bad light. Here’s looking at you, CNN, with a dishonorable mention to MSNBC.

Real journalism doesn’t rely on anonymous sources before airing “news” stories. Real journalism finds the facts first. Real journalism wants to inform, not promote an ideological agenda. But unthinking ideology is where we are today.

Bottom line: the Left, which usually is unhinged anyway, has gone off the deep end.

The antidote, for me, used to be certain talk radio hosts and Fox News, which were willing to give the other side. They provided the balance so that progressive brainwashing wouldn’t have complete sway over people’s minds.

I no longer listen to Rush Limbaugh because I believe he has allowed his principles, which he used to enunciate so clearly, to drift downstream.

Let me be clear (how often do I say that?) that I still appreciate the straight news offered by Fox. Bret Baier’s Special Report, for instance, is one program I continue to watch because I trust his journalistic integrity. Chris Wallace is another who doesn’t let an agenda drive his interviews. Neil Cavuto is willing to tell the truth no matter whom his target may be.

But I’ve been greatly disappointed with some of the other Fox programs. I stopped watching Sean Hannity long before the last campaign. Intellectual depth was in short supply. Now he’s basically a shill for Trump regardless of what Trump does.

Then there’s the Fox and Friends morning show. It was always a favorite of mine because the hosts are very likeable and Christian views have been respected on the program. Those two factors remain. Yet I can hardly stand to watch it now because it’s one long commercial for how grand and glorious Donald Trump is.

I hope you’re getting my point—I disagree with blind loyalty no matter which side of the political spectrum.

Here’s the difference, though: I’ve come to expect ideological blindness from the Left; it’s how they naturally operate. What’s new, ever since the Trump Bandwagon has appeared, is the same type of blindness on the Right. And that is deeply disturbing.

An essay on the Red State site yesterday laid out the problem very well. Responding to someone who tweeted that principles are only a means to an end, the writer countered,

Principles are not a means to an end. Principles are those things you believe to be fundamentally true. If you can easily set them aside in order to attain a goal, they weren’t principles so much as they were postures. If your moral compass is only something you use to gauge what you can probably get away with, it’s not really a moral compass.

Those of us who have tried to maintain balance on the person and actions of Donald Trump, praising him when he does something right and drawing attention to those things he does that are damaging, are now being accused of disloyalty. I see it differently, and the writer of that essay does as well:

I do think that for people who once claimed to be outraged by the immoral antics and low character of certain Democrats, the morally superior choice is to apply the same standard to your own party.

It’s the only rational choice, unless you’re someone who really doesn’t know the difference between postures and  principles or who thinks political expedience is more important than telling the truth.

If you don’t think Trump is his own worst enemy, you may not be paying close attention:

And if you haven’t noticed the near-chaos within his administration—constant rumors of Trump’s disapproval of his people, threats of firing, general incompetence in running the executive branch—it’s time to remedy that inattention.

While I’m concerned about what has happened to conservatism in the Trump Era, I’m even more distressed about what I see in the evangelical community. I’m witnessing far too many Christians who are willing to turn a blind eye to Trump’s faults and automatically rush to his defense no matter how foolish he has been.

God calls us to discernment.

We are not to be tribal loyalists who willfully shield our consciences from unpleasant truths about our president.

We are called instead to be the conscience of the nation. We abandon that calling when we refuse to call out sin and/or incompetence on our “side.”

My goal ever since Trump won the election has been to support him whenever I can and to critique him honestly when he goes astray from a principled foundation.

Trump needs us to critique him because we are not the ideologically driven Left. He needs to hear from those who want him to succeed. Our honesty and integrity is crucial for the future of our nation.

Evangelicals, please heed this call.

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.

Debating My Conservatism

I’m going to begin this blog today with what some might consider an audacious comparison, but I hope you won’t misunderstand. In the current political climate, I find myself feeling kind of like how the apostle Paul must have felt when his apostleship was questioned. He had to provide a list of his bona fides to the Corinthians to show that he was the genuine article.

That is strange to Christians today because we take Paul’s word as authoritative. Yet in his lifetime he had to defend himself from accusations of being inauthentic.

No, I’m not like the apostle Paul in my ministry, neither in my effectiveness nor in the type of direct experiences he had with Christ. So let’s lay aside any thought that I am trying to say that.

However, I, like Paul, practically feel constrained to prove my bona fides now that I am opposed to Donald Trump’s candidacy. To some critics of my position, I appear as a pseudo-conservative, perhaps even a closet supporter of Hillary Clinton.

Perish that thought immediately, please!

I have been a conservative long before many of you took your first breath. From the first vote I ever made (I won’t give the year—it will come across as ancient history to some readers) I have always supported the Republican candidates, not only at the national level, but in all state and local elections as well.

I was defending conservatism in the liberal atmosphere of my master’s and doctoral programs at very liberal institutions.

I wrote a book on the Bill Clinton impeachment that gives the House Managers’ side of the story when I realized that the media had no desire to give them any credibility. My concern over media bias is longstanding.

book-cover-1My academic research has focused on conservatism and how it plays out in society. For evidence, I give you my book published last year on Ronald Reagan and Whittaker Chambers.

Further, I teach a course on Chambers and another on Reagan and the development of modern American conservatism. I do that in order to educate students in that history so they can have a degree of balance in their intellectual life, knowing that if they proceed into graduate studies, they need a firm foundation as they tackle the worldview they will be given there.

So I take a back seat to no one with respect to my foundational conservative beliefs.

This is all background for what I want to say about the first presidential debate, and I trust this will be my final comment on that.

While I had little desire to watch this debate, I’m glad I did. It only magnified what I already think and feel about the options offered us this year.

growing-ulcer

Trump’s advocates were hoping he would be such a change agent in this kind of format that he would take Hillary off her game. That didn’t happen, primarily due to his juvenile behavior.

trump-rattles-hillary

What I’m beginning to see now on social media and from pro-Trump commentators is a resort to conspiracy theories as to why he didn’t perform well. Hillary got the debate questions ahead of time. Her people sneaked a folder filled with who-knows-what to Lester Holt. She gave Holt little signals so he would know it’s time to help her out.

What a bunch of baloney (you may use that academic term anytime you need it). Hillary didn’t need any conspiracy to help her; she had Trump.

He lost this round big time. His advisors implicitly admit it. They are openly talking about how they have to change strategy for debate #2. You know, things like “prepare for the debate.”

Don’t succumb to the conspiracies. Face the facts.

champ

What distresses me most about this election cycle is the loss of intellectual integrity and the reactionary mood emanating from what I had hoped was a well-grounded, principled conservatism. Anger, fear, and personal attacks on those who continue to oppose the descent into constitutional nihilism has saddened me.

I’ve been accused of self-righteousness because I won’t board this Trump Train. I’ve been told I’m supporting Hillary simply because I find both candidates abhorrent. Am I really pro-life? Am I even a Christian if I can’t find the wherewithal to be on Trump’s side?

I’ve done my best not to accuse fellow believers who are planning to vote for Trump of not being Christian. Yes, I’ve laid out my reasons for why I think that’s a bad move, based on the Biblical principles I’ve taught for many years. But I do not question their faith nor will I ever castigate them for their vote. It’s not personal. I hope they will continue to be my friends.

After this first debate, what is the mood of the country?

dead-heat

Trump might win, although I think that less likely than a Hillary victory. If he does win, I will pray earnestly that he will turn out better than I thought. Be prepared, though, to be bitterly disappointed.