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.

The Trump-McCarthy Parallel

I admit to being amazed at the support Donald Trump seems to be getting, not only from what might be called “movement conservatives,” but more specifically, from evangelical Christians. One article indicates that he is the leading candidate among that latter group. I don’t know for sure if that’s true, but if it’s even close to the mark, it’s astonishing.

Donald Trump 2I won’t go into detail again (see a previous post) on why I do not support Trump’s candidacy, but I can offer a short summary: supreme arrogance (he says he’s never asked God for forgiveness for anything; constant boasting about how rich he is and how smart); other personal character traits (favorite words being “loser” and “stupid”; resorting to twitter jibes on an adolescent level toward those who criticize him); and his recent “conversion” to conservative policies.

On that last point, some have tried to compare his change to conservatism to Ronald Reagan’s. I’ve studied Reagan in some depth and know that his worldview changed over time as a result of intense study and grappling with foundational philosophical issues. I’m not convinced that is the case with Trump; neither do I trust him to remain true to what he now says he believes.

In fact, he’s rather mixed up on some things: he claims to be for repealing Obamacare, yet says a universal, government-run healthcare system is workable in some countries. He doesn’t quite say why he considers it unworkable here. Perhaps he really doesn’t. Perhaps, were he to attain the presidency, we might be subject to another failed promise from a politician.

Joe McCarthyI’m also seeing a historical parallel with another situation. Back in the early 1950s, Sen. Joe McCarthy made a big splash as a crusader against communism. He was bold and brash and developed a large following. Many in conservatism at the time saw him as the leader against the establishment and flocked to his bandwagon. Yet he was little more than an opportunist, seizing on a hot topic that he did not really grasp clearly.

As evidence for this conclusion, I turn to Whittaker Chambers, a genuine champion of liberty who left the communist underground, gave his witness to Congress, and suffered publicly for doing so. Yet he succeeded in unmasking the underground movement, with the climax being the conviction of Alger Hiss—who had been his compatriot in the underground and then became a top State Department official—for perjury.

McCarthy wanted to tie his crusade to Chambers. They met. Chambers came away with some rather pointed comments about the senator. In a letter to William F. Buckley, 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.”

Chambers at DeskThese heavy-handed tactics were of deep concern to Chambers, who wrote:

I know he thinks this is a superior technique that the rest of us are too far behind to appreciate. But it is repetitious and unartful, and, 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.

He tried not to come to a rash judgment, but concluded, “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.”

What worried him the most was the damage McCarthy would do over time:

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 correct: McCarthy stumbled on his own arrogance and ignorance; his actions discredited anti-communist efforts to this day.

Personally, I have those same fears about Donald Trump. Everything Chambers said about McCarthy looms in my mind when I hear Trump speak, and I am concerned that his nomination, let alone his possible election as president, may be the death knell for true conservatism, and Christians who currently look past his character failings will one day regret their willful blindness.

There are some who say that God doesn’t need a committed Christian to accomplish his purposes, that He can use someone who is terribly flawed and not in touch with Him to carry out His will.

I understand that position. God does work in all situations. He did use Nebuchadnezzar to carry out His judgments on His people of Israel. But that was for the purpose of punishment for sin. Frankly, He has a lot of politicians to choose from if He is ready to unleash His judgment on America. Trump is not unique in that sense.

Since when do we deliberately choose a spiritual renegade over a committed Christian man or woman who is seeking to do His will? Those men and women do exist, and some are running for president right now. Why would we throw our support behind someone who is more egocentric than anyone else in the political realm?

I don’t want to have to defend myself before God after making a choice like that. I’m going to give my vote to someone who at least has a heart for righteousness and the God who defines what is and is not righteous.

If Trump is the Republican nominee, we may be destroying whatever remains of principle in that party. If he should ever be elected president, we may see in that office someone who is a combination of Nebuchadnezzar and Joe McCarthy. He may be the channel for God’s judgment, but I will not willingly go that route. I still want to help save America.

My musings in this post will not be accepted by all, I know. But I hope you will, at the very least, avoid being caught up in an emotional appeal and will take some time to reflect on the concerns I have expressed here. May the Lord have mercy on us all.

Fruits of the Sabbatical

My 27th year of teaching at the college level begins today. I’m a little out of practice, though, after a year’s sabbatical. I’ll have to change my mental outlook and reorient myself.

The sabbatical year was a real blessing. When some people picture a sabbatical, they probably think of someone relaxing for a year, playing golf, etc. Well, I haven’t played golf since I was 18 (that was at least a couple of years ago) and for me, relaxation consists of reading, researching, and writing.

And that’s what I did for those many months.

What did I accomplish?

20141025_095359I researched at six presidential libraries—Eisenhower, LBJ, Nixon, Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton—and at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College for a collaborative effort with a colleague on what we hope will be a book (books?) on spiritual advisors to presidents.

That research resulted in a mass of information in the form of letters, memos, etc., that still need to be examined more closely to decide what to use. Once a book contract for this is achieved, I’ll gladly let you know.

C. S. Lewis 5While at Wheaton, I delved into papers on C. S. Lewis at the Wade Center and came away convinced that a book should be written on Lewis’s influence on Americans. That turned into a major research project in which I read and took notes on all letters Lewis wrote to American correspondents.

As I was nearing completion of the book, I found an agent who is now working to place it with a publisher. As of this date, there is a bright prospect that one publisher is serious about it, but I’m still awaiting final approval.

Just last week, another breakthrough occurred. I had finished a book-length manuscript comparing the optimism of Ronald Reagan with the pessimism of Whittaker Chambers back in 2010. At one point, I had a publisher but had to withdraw from that contract. Now I have another contract on that one, and the book should be ready for the market either late September-early October.

El PradoSo, all in all, this has been a wonderful year of devotion to scholarly pursuits. I will always be grateful to Southeastern University for its confidence in me and the funding it provided for all those research trips.

My research deepened my own knowledge significantly. One of the fruits is a new course I will be teaching this semester on the influence of C. S. Lewis. That will be fun. Is it okay to have fun as a university professor?

So it’s back to “normal” life now. My spirit has revived and I’m ready to accept the teaching challenge once again. I thank God for the opportunities He provides.

Obama vs. the Founding Fathers

On President Obama’s favorite “news” station, MSNBC, over a week ago, he was interviewed by Chris Matthews on Hardball. Matthews, you might remember, is the one for whom Obama’s election sent a thrill up his leg, which means he is of course a serious, non-biased interviewer who won’t let anyone get away with silly comments. Well, you judge.

In the course of that interview, Obama declared, “There actually is probably less war and less violence around the world today than there might have been 30-40 years ago.” Does that strike you as an intelligent, discerning statement? Or does it lend itself to the diminution of an already diminished presidency?

Less Violence

Respect for this kind of “leadership” is hard to come by. That statement is from the man who still refuses to identify the victims of terrorism as Christians and the perpetrators as Muslims. This is the man who has sidelined the war on terror because he doesn’t think it exists. The facts just don’t back him up:

Never Say Never

This is also the man who thinks that Iran will join the civilized world if only we give them what they want. He perhaps views himself in the Reagan mold when he reached agreement with the Soviets. Reagan, though, had a guiding principle for those negotiations: trust but verify. Obama has modified that somewhat:

Trust

He also seeks to do what Reagan did not do: carry on this negotiation and “deal” with Iran unilaterally, without any congressional oversight or approval. The Constitution clearly says that all treaties must be ratified by a 2/3 vote of the Senate. The way around this is to say this is not a treaty, just an agreement. Yeah, that’s a big difference. Whom is he kidding? His concept of an ideal government is slightly different than that of the Founding Fathers:

Branches of Govt

I’ve studied the Founding Fathers. I believe I know what they thought, and why they thought it. This much I do know: they had far more knowledge of the operation of government and far more wisdom as to what makes for a balanced government than Barack Obama will ever have. I trust their judgment above his any day.

Netanyahu’s Historic Warning

Yesterday, while watching Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress, I felt as if I were a participant in a historic event of the same stature as Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” and “Tear Down This Wall” speeches. Even as Reagan confronted the evil of totalitarian communism, Netanyahu forcefully focused our attention on the current totalitarian evil of radical Islamism.

Reagan succeeded in toppling the Evil Empire and the Wall came down. Will Netanyahu’s speech lead us to a similar success against Islamism?

Netanyahu Speech

Netanyahu was very politic in praising Obama and John Kerry—he had to be—but he made it quite clear that not only Israel, but America as well, was facing a firestorm should Iran get nuclear capability.

The speech was filled with poignant quotes.

“The greatest danger facing our world is the marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons.”

“When it comes to Iran and ISIS, the enemy of your enemy is your enemy.”

“Iran’s regime is not merely a Jewish problem, anymore than the Nazi regime was merely a Jewish problem.”

Commentator Stephen Hayes summed up the message well: “This is the clearest description of the threat from Iran presented to the American people in the last decade. Long overdue.”

Congress, on both sides of the political divide, applauded his words continually. There’s hope. However, there remains the one greatest hurdle:

Israel's Concerns

In effect, rhetoric notwithstanding, President Obama has conceded the inevitability of Iran’s nuclear desires. The only problem, of course, is that Iran has publicly stated it wants to wipe Israel off the map, and that it seeks to develop ICBMs that can be used to direct nuclear bombs at faraway targets, i.e., the United States. Yet we are supposed to believe his assurances that this will never happen? What is there in his history of his pronouncements that would give us such assurance?

No Consequences

He’s not exactly a tough negotiator:

Obama Negotiations

He pushes for a deal with Iran that is clearly not sufficient, yet he tells us to accept it. Again, his ideological blindness takes over. Unfortunately, the rest of us suffer for it:

Good Nuclear Deal

Frankly, I agree with another comment I heard—Obama probably wouldn’t shed one tear if Israel no longer existed. In his view, that nation is the main agitator in the Middle East, even as he sees his own country as the primary abettor of everything he considers evil in the world.

If only we had a Netanyahu in charge of our nation at this perilous time. Before he spoke, House Speaker Boehner presented Netanyahu with a bust of Winston Churchill. I think that is most fitting. He is the new Churchill, warning the world of the coming holocaust.

Does anyone recall that one of the first actions Obama took as president was to return a bust of Churchill to Britain? That was fitting as well. It was only a sign of things to come.

Sabbatical Update: Lewis Edition

Many of my regular readers know I’m on a sabbatical this year, and I’ve been alert to provide periodic updates on the progress of my various endeavors. Recently, I posted photos of my time at the Reagan and Nixon libraries and the Reagan Ranch as I research on the topic of spiritual advisers to presidents. The hope is that will turn into a series of books with my Southeastern colleague, Dr. Robert Crosby.

C. S. Lewis 7I’m also deeply involved with a study of C. S. Lewis’s influence on Americans. I would like to author a book on that particular topic, since no one has ever done it. I have a literary agent who is working with me on the book proposal. A major blessing has been the e-mail communication I’ve had with Rev. Walter Hooper, who served as Lewis’s personal secretary during the author’s final months of life. Rev. Hooper then has gone on to be the primary representative for keeping Lewis’s writings in print for the last five decades. His help in providing personal information on his relationship with Lewis has been invaluable.

20140804_184024I’ve mentioned before how the Wade Center at Wheaton College has come alongside to aid in my research. Wade has the largest collection of Lewis papers and books by and about him in America. The Center featured on its website and Facebook page my appeal for testimonies from Americans on how Lewis has influenced their thinking and their lives. Again, as with Rev. Hooper’s assistance, the Wade Center’s willingness to work with me on my research has greatly encouraged me to continue this project.

I’m also reading through the 3-volume collection of Lewis’s personal correspondence, pulling out all letters he wrote to Americans and making extensive notes on them. One might think such a task would reek of drudgery, but it has been quite the opposite. Lewis’s lively words practically fly off the pages and into my heart and mind.

So I’m optimistic that my Lewis research is progressing well. I would like to thank those of you who participated in my survey on the Wade Center site. It’s not too late to do so if you have been considering it but just haven’t gotten around to it yet. I want as many testimonies as possible.

You can access the survey by going to this link: http://www.wheaton.edu/wadecenter/News-and-Events

Scroll down to the announcement titled “C. S. Lewis’s American Influence Survey” and simply click on “Take the Survey.” Your contribution would be greatly appreciated.

As you can tell, I continue to be excited by the opportunities I have during this sabbatical year. Please pray for them to come to fruition.

Tear Down This Wall!

Today marks an auspicious historical anniversary: 25 years ago today, the Berlin Wall fell. First erected in 1961 to keep East Germans from fleeing communism, it became the symbol of the Cold War. Its demise, and the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in general, is worth remembering—that is, if you have a memory of it at all; our education system isn’t exactly top-notch:

Doomed to Repeat

I grew up with the reality of the Cold War and the threat it posed. I also knew the reality of communism, a totalitarian philosophy that hid behind rhetoric that expressed compassion for the people. Some still haven’t figured out the illusion it offered (and still offers):

Real Communism

By God’s grace, we had, at that time, some people in authority who grasped the nature of the evil that threatened us:

Leader

Along with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan took the lead in bringing Soviet communism to its knees. The fall of the Berlin Wall was a high point of this overall victory:

Berlin Wall Falling

And the people of Berlin knew whom to thank for this victory. Go out to the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, and you will find this:

Berlin Wall Reagan Library

A section of the Berlin Wall was sent to the Library to honor Reagan’s role in its fall. I thank God for the leadership he demonstrated on this vital issue.