A Historian’s Perspective on Bad Times in American History

I don’t think there’s really any disagreement about how pessimistic the majority of Americans are about the future. Currently, all the polls reveal that pessimism.  As I survey the scene—the spiritual/moral, political, and cultural aspects [what does that leave?]—I have grave concerns as well. I’d like to offer a historian’s perspective.

Since I teach American history, I have a more in-depth knowledge of what has transpired previously. I can imagine myself transported back into earlier eras and think about how I might have felt about current events at those times. Bad moral climates, disunity, and devastating government policies have cropped up throughout our history.

If my life had spanned the late colonial and revolutionary era, for instance, I would probably have been quite distressed over the state of affairs. The colonies had declared independence, and it was a thrilling prospect, but the progress of the war was anything but thrilling.

George Washington was often near despair over the inability of the Congress to pay his troops or provide for their needs. Thousands deserted during events such as Valley Forge. There was talk of meekly bowing to the British because all hopes for the future now appeared to be delusional. Even after achieving independence, the new states didn’t seem to want to work together; the entire national governmental structure was on the verge of collapse.

If I had experienced the 1790s, I would have been shocked by the vitriol that spewed forth daily in some of the newspapers, particularly those that accused Washington of wanting to set himself up as king. The French Revolution, which took place at that time, was one of the bloodiest episodes in all of history, and many in America were hailing it as a magnificent development. I would begin to question the wisdom of the electorate and wonder if this fledgling country could survive its first decade after the Constitution.

Later, during the War of 1812, our military defenses were so disorganized that the British actually burned Washington, DC, including the president’s house and the Capitol. Their troops were ravaging the countryside, destroying everything in their path without any effective countermeasures. What a low point for a nation.

Then there’s the Civil War and the decade that led to it. Passions were so heated in Congress that representatives started bringing their weapons with them into the House and Senate for protection. Slavery, by this time, had become entrenched. The Founding Fathers had hoped to eliminate it, but now the South was proclaiming it to be a positive good from God.

The nation split; more than 620,000 died in the war that followed, the highest tally for any American war. Bitterness remained for years afterward [you can still see its remnants today].

The Progressive Movement, after the turn of the twentieth century, introduced more government involvement in people’s lives and decided that the Constitution was an outdated document that had to be reinterpreted. Woodrow Wilson, a racist and a eugenicist, took the presidency. The eugenics movement sought to limit who could have children; only the “best” should reproduce. This movement formed the cornerstone of Nazi policies in Germany later.

Wilson moved the country down the path that led to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s—the fulfillment of progressive dreams as the government took charge of getting the nation out of the Great Depression. FDR’s policies were so dismally foolish that the Depression continued until WWII. If I had lived during those decades, I would have mourned the loss of Biblical principles and constitutional limitations. The reigning ideology tossed out the concept of the rule of law. Now, anything could happen.

I did live during the 1960s and 1970s. It was not pleasant. First was LBJ’s Great Society, which could be described as the New Deal on steroids, followed by the rancor of the Vietnam War, then Nixon’s Watergate fiasco, and finally, the debilitated presidencies of Ford and Carter. The economy was in the tank, the worst since the Great Depression. Along the way, we also concluded that innocent children in the womb could be murdered.

I say all of this to make this point: there have always been bad times. Quite often, those who believe in Biblical morality and constitutionalism have come to the edge of despair. Yet we are still here. There is still hope to turn things around. We survived the disunity of the Revolution and the Civil War. We overcame the disgrace of the burning of the nation’s capital. Calvin Coolidge reversed Woodrow Wilson’s policies and Jimmy Carter brought forth Ronald Reagan.

Will the disaster that is the Obama administration become a footnote in our history that will bring forth another resurgence of sanity, or have we turned a corner and lost our way forever? That page in our history has yet to be written. We are the ones who will write it. If we take our responsibility seriously, hope remains.

Sabbatical Update: Texas

Periodically, I’ve been providing updates on my sabbatical year. Those of you who have kept up with this know I’m working on more than one project. One, though, has kept me moving across the country to different presidential libraries as I examine documents related to spiritual advisers to presidents.

I’ve already gone to Wheaton College–back in August–and researched in the archives of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, since he is the premier spiritual adviser for a number of presidents since WWII. Then I traveled to California and spent time at both the Reagan and Nixon libraries.

This past week I’ve been in Texas, continuing my research at the LBJ and George H. W. Bush libraries. Both of these presidents were close to Graham, and LBJ also had a couple other spiritual advisers I looked into as well.

Let me just give you a few impressions.

The LBJ Library, in Austin, is on the campus of the University of Texas. It is nothing like the Reagan Library (which remains my favorite, not only because of the president himself but also because of the beauty of the place and the immensity and quality of the museum). My first view of it was this:

LBJ Library

I certainly don’t wish to be overly critical. One could say it is majestic, I guess, but to me it appeared like a big block of concrete—massive, forbidding, almost like a fortress. Well, that may be just me. You can come to your own conclusions.

The museum portion had its highlights, but nothing as grand, in my view, as what I experienced at the Reagan Library. There was one “grand” view, however, that was worth noting:

Stacks-Front

They decided to showcase some of the archives behind the scenes. Going up this staircase, one can get some idea of the enormity of the collection. This is only a portion of it.

While in Austin, I also took in the Texas State History Museum.

TX State History Museum

I’ve heard that everything in Texas is big, or at least purports to be. This museum fits the stereotype, from its three-level staircase in the lobby to its nearly breathtaking view from the top level.

TX Museum-Interior 2

TX Museum-Interior 1

I want to pause here and offer a word of gratitude to the Texas State Trooper who decided to have a little talk with me after I went the wrong way on a one-way street. I didn’t see the sign, told him I was a newcomer (never been in Austin before), and was there to do presidential research. He asked what I was researching and seemed interested when I mentioned Billy Graham. He let me off with a warning. Yes, I am grateful (and will be more alert to one-way street signs in downtown areas in the future).

My next stop was College Station, and the campus of Texas A&M, where the George H. W. Bush Library is located.

Bush Library-Front

This library looked much more inviting. I also didn’t have any encounters with one-way streets. I like College Station.

The lobby was pretty grand.

Bush Library Lobby 2

The exhibits were excellent throughout and catch one’s attention right away.

Bush Portrait

Quotes from Bush are liberally scattered throughout. There were some I particularly liked, such as this one after he went down in the Pacific during WWII:

Bush-God Quote

While there, I decided to get a little work done, so I looked around for a desk I could use. I found one:

Bush Oval Office 3

Please don’t tell anybody.

That’s the travelogue side. Most of my time, of course, was spent poring through papers. I found a lot of fine documents that should help my colleague and me put together what we want to say about these presidents. I came away with a little more grudging admiration for LBJ, not in policy matters (where I disagree with his entire Great Society program), but simply for what he had to go through in a turbulent time. I’m not convinced, however, that his faith was genuine. One’s life must match one’s talk.

As for Bush, my appreciation for him was strengthened. I’ve always considered him to be a decent man, but I’m more convinced than ever that his Christian faith was the real thing. I have policy disagreements with what he did as well, but I want to give some leeway and offer praise for his strong family ethic, which can be seen in the way his sons honor him today.

Bush is now in his nineties and his health is declining. When he passes, the nation will have lost a true Christian gentleman.

I’m not yet sure when and where my next trip will take place, but when it does, another update will be coming your way.

The Productive Year Ahead

Colonial Williamsburg--CapitolLater this week, I’ll begin showing students around some of Virginia’s best historic sites. I’ll be staying in Williamsburg, one of my favorite places on the planet. The historic colonial area always attracts me.

We’ll also tour Jamestown’s original site, the re-created Jamestown settlement, Yorktown, Monticello (Jefferson’s home), Mt. Vernon (Washington’s home), and sites in Richmond (Virginia capitol, John Marshall’s house, St. John’s church, where Patrick Henry delivered his “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” oration).

That’s just the beginning of a year of travel for my sabbatical. I’ll be at Wheaton College in August to examine the Billy Graham papers. If I can, I also hope to squeeze in some time to at least begin looking at the papers of C. S. Lewis, also housed at Wheaton. Then I hope my collaborative colleague and I can make a trip to North Carolina in September to interview some of Graham’s family and associates.

October is the target date for the Reagan and Nixon libraries in California. On that trip, I may also have the opportunity to interview Michael Reagan and visit Reagan’s ranch. I’ve been to the Reagan library three times before, but all prior to the erection of the massive building that houses Air Force One, and also before the renovation of the museum. It will be like seeing all things new.

Air Force One

November provides a change of pace, as I’ve been invited to return to Puerto Rico to teach at a Youth with a Mission base. That’s always a highlight for me. Then I’m aiming for a Texas excursion in December. I have three presidential libraries to visit there: both Bushes’ and Lyndon Johnson’s. That will leave the Eisenhower library and any others I might be able to add (if the funding holds out) for 2015. Everywhere I go, I’m hoping to reconnect with friends and former students.

The goal for all these trips is to provide enough research to write a series of books on spiritual advisers to presidents. In addition to that, I’m collaborating with another faculty colleague on a book that showcases prominent individuals who switched from being political liberals to political conservatives.

This will be a full year, and a very productive one. I simply thank the Lord for this great opportunity.

The Sabbatical Year

I received a tremendous blessing recently: Southeastern University awarded me a sabbatical for the upcoming academic year. Once the current spring semester ends in May, I will have until the beginning of the fall semester in August 2015 to research and write. In tandem with a colleague in the college of religion, I will have the opportunity to delve into the subject of spiritual advisers to presidents. Our goal is to begin with a couple of articles on the topic, then, hopefully, into the authorship of a series of books, each one dealing with a specific president.

My task, as the historian, is to gather as much evidence as possible on those who had the ear of presidents and offered them spiritual advice. We will try to answer questions such as “How much influence did these individuals have on the presidents?” “Were they primarily pastoral in their dealings or did they in any way interact on policy issues?” “What is the proper role of a spiritual adviser?” “What are the pitfalls of being so close to political power?” “Did these spiritual advisers remain true to their calling or become too political?” “Were they respected advisers or merely being used by politicians?”

We can’t do all presidents, at least not for the moment. We’ve decided to concentrate on presidents after WWII. That seems a propitious place to begin for a couple of reasons: the public is more familiar with them; we have one huge example of a spiritual adviser during this era who touched the lives of every president—Billy Graham.

Reagan LibraryThe research cannot all be done via books, articles, and internet searches. Personal papers are essential to get to the heart of the matter; therefore, I will need to travel to a number of presidential libraries. My favorite, naturally, will be the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California. I’ve been there twice before for research and rejoice at the opportunity to return. I’m also going to look into the possibility of visiting the Reagan Ranch while I’m out that way. I know this is supposed to be academic research, but I trust I’ll be forgiven for actually enjoying what I do.

While I’m in California, I’ll also need to go to the Nixon Library, which is not too far from Reagan’s. Other presidential libraries on the itinerary for the year are Eisenhower’s in Kansas and three in Texas: Lyndon Johnson’s, George H. W. Bush’s and George W. Bush’s. We’ve chosen to start with those particular presidents because Graham was closest to them.

Billy GrahamIt would be difficult to exaggerate the role Billy Graham played in the lives of those presidents. As I’ve begun my reading on his ministry and influence, I’ve been amazed at the access he had to them. So I’ll also need to examine Graham’s personal papers, which are housed at Wheaton College in Illinois. My colleague and I also entertain the hope of interviewing some of Graham’s children and associates in North Carolina.

This may sound like books just on Billy Graham’s relationship to the various presidents, but it won’t be. He’s merely a fine starting point. There are other spiritual advisers who will need our close attention as well. By the time we’re finished, we hope to have a well-rounded portrait for each of the presidents listed above. If all goes well with those, who knows, perhaps we can continue the series with others. I can overcome my own personal feelings about such men as Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy to continue this valuable research with them also. Personally, I’d eventually like to delve further back and deal with Abraham Lincoln and others who have evidence of Christian faith in their lives.

The next step is to get the funding to accomplish all the travel necessary to complete the research. We are in the process of applying for a grant, having identified a number of private foundations that typically fund research of this type. Prayer for success on this front is always appreciated. I pledge to keep regular readers up to date with progress reports from time to time.

How do I adequately express my excitement over the prospect of being able to devote my life over the next year to this project? Well, maybe I’ve already done that with this blog today. Thanks be to God for His many blessings.

The Selfie President

I’ve written more than once about my belief that President Obama is a confirmed narcissist. Every time there is a special commemoration of some kind, his White House releases a picture of him, as if he is “the” participant in a historic event. It has happened with Rosa Parks, Pearl Harbor, and numerous other occasions. This fascination with himself has gone well beyond such photos. Shortly after taking office, he sent a gift to Queen Elizabeth—audio of his speeches. Before he was president, he penned two memoirs, as if he were already a historic figure. Well, actually, there’s some controversy over how much of those memoirs came from his furrowed brow. The Bill Ayers-ghostwriter rumor has new legs now.

In the past week, he did it again by posing for a “selfie” at the Mandela commemoration. Sure, he did it with two other world leaders, but that’s no excuse. Now, some may say all this is harmless, but I beg to differ. It’s revealing of his character, one that is about as egocentric as any president’s since LBJ. In fact, I have to give him a higher rating for egocentrism than even LBJ. This type of character in the White House has consequences for the entire nation. A couple of political cartoons have captured the danger rather well:

The Selfie

Another Selfie

Three more years of this. Courage.

On Clowns, Presidents, & the First Amendment

I always prefer to write about truly significant events or great insights offered by the wisest people. Then there are days that simply dictate what needs to be written, whether significant or not. This is one of those days.

I have a difficult time believing I have to comment on what a rodeo clown did last week, but the story refuses to die. You probably already know what happened, but for the few who live in a monastery somewhere carefully crafting illuminated manuscripts, let me get you up to speed. The gist of it: a rodeo clown wore an Obama mask; the announcer said something about how real clowns know they are clowns but Obama doesn’t realize his status as a clown; then a comment was made about the bull possibly running over the clown, who was there of course to distract the bull away from a thrown rider.

That’s the entire story. Well, it should have been. But now all the perpetually outraged amongst us are at it again. It’s okay, in their view, to ridicule the King of Kings who reigns forever, but one must never do so to The One who now reigns temporarily in one country, and who will be retired to the realm of private citizen after the next election. It’s just fine to take the name of the Lord of Lords in vain, but no one may dare mock a mere human who himself shows disdain for that Lord of Lords. The outrage is disproportional, but it does clarify the worldview of those so outraged:

Blasphemy

Before I go any further, let me assure everyone that I think the rodeo’s attempt at humor was rather tawdry, and that it never should have happened. Yet, in our society, at our current stage of devolution, even a stupid action leads to calls for “justice.” The clown involved has been banned from future Missouri rodeos, all the clowns are now subject to sensitivity training, and the NAACP, convinced that racism is behind this action [well, the NAACP is convinced racism is behind nearly everything], is demanding that both the Secret Service and the DOJ carry out further investigations. Such actions should not permitted in America without severe penalties, they seem to think:

Hate Crime Division

Let’s just reflect for a moment on how previous presidents have been treated. During the Vietnam War, LBJ and Nixon were castigated in public in every protest and demonstration. Protesters wore masks with the presidents’ faces on them, and many screamed for their heads, quite literally. While I don’t condone language that might set someone off and lead to violence, if the government had decided at that time to jail every protester and fill the courts with trials, the legal system would have ground to a halt. Some actions are sinful, but not unlawful. Some actions are distasteful and ugly, but not necessarily subject to legal redress.

The same could be said of how protesters treated Ronald Reagan during his presidency. Reagan masks were everywhere, depicting the president as an evil, cruel warmonger. No one was indicted for doing so. And then there’s George W. Bush. Anyone remember this image of him that was going around?

Bushitler

Should someone be prosecuted for that? Apparently Bush didn’t think so. The Justice Department wasn’t unleashed on those who promoted the image. Here’s an apt comparison:

 Let Me Be Clear

How has Barack Obama responded to his followers’ calls for justice? He’s silent, as usual, when it comes to soothing the outrage. Peggy Noonan made an astute observations the other day that is worth quoting. She said,

Let me suggest a classy Obama move that might go over well. From his Vineyard vacation spot he should have the press office issue a release saying his reaction to finding out a rodeo clown was rudely spoofing him, was, “So what?” Say he loves free speech, including inevitably derision directed at him, and he does not wish for the Missouri state fair to fire the guy, and hopes those politicians (unctuously, excessively, embarrassingly) damning the clown and the crowd would pipe down and relax. This would be graceful and nice, wouldn’t it?

Noonan, however, doesn’t stop there because she has seen this president in action for nearly five years. She continues,

He would never do it. He gives every sign of being a person who really believes he shouldn’t be made fun of, and if he is it’s probably racially toned, because why else would you make fun of him?

 It’s not good to have developed that kind of reputation. One cartoonist, by the way, in commenting on President Obama’s penchant for classy vacations, has an idea that he thinks would help the country:

Keep America Strong

Well, he’s probably just a racist and should be prosecuted for airing his view. Now that I’ve shared his view, should I be subject to prosecution also? Where are we headed as a country? What is the future of the First Amendment? There are many indications we’re not as free to speak openly as we used to be.

Dismal Education: The Head Start Failure

Whenever government takes on a task for which it is ill-suited, failure ensues. Nowhere is this failure more evident than in the realm of education. I always begin with a Biblical analysis, and in this case I find no basis in Scripture for civil government to be in charge of education. That is primarily the responsibility of parents. Historically in America—prior to the development of the public school system—parents, churches, private academies, and local townships dominated education, and we were probably the most literate nation on earth.

Then we decided to mess up the system by getting the government deeply involved. There are a lot of examples I could give, but today I just want to mention the Head Start program that began in the 1960s as part of LBJ’s Great Society—one of the greatest misnomers in history.

The stated goal of Head Start was to provide comprehensive education, health, nutrition, and parental involvement services to low-income children and their families. Sounds good, right? It has continued to expand over the years, always getting reauthorized with even more funding, because presumably all these problems can be solved by spending as much money as possible. At least that’s the theory.

Studies, though, even those conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services, are revealing a rather dismal showing for all the dollars being thrown at these children. Although they seem to be helping them at the ages of three and four, by the time they have completed first grade, there is no discernible difference in their performance or emotional stability than the children who were not in the program. Spending those billions of dollars yielded little in return. No amount of funding can compensate for the fact that 70% of inner-city children grow up without a father in the home. The destruction of the family structure has more of a negative impact on these children than anything government can do to balance that loss. Yet those who are responsible for the program have a hard time facing reality.

The cartoon captures an important fact about how liberals/progressives operate: it’s more about feeling good about doing something they believe is beneficial than it is about being really effective. They live for the government program and cannot handle the truth. In fact, they are very skilled at fixing the blame elsewhere:

Head Start is only one small example of government-sponsored education’s spiritual, moral, and intellectual poverty. Even more pernicious are the emphases on trendy causes such as diversity, multiculturalism, environmentalism, radical feminism, and the immorality of most sex education. If we want to examine the roots of our cultural rot, a major factor would have to be the deterioration of education. That’s probably sufficient reason for a series of posts in the near future.