Fake News Is Not New News

Everyone is now decrying “fake news.” As if it’s a new phenomenon. I’m a historian; I can testify that fake news is nothing new.

Three decades ago, while working on my doctorate, I was immersed in fake news—from the 1790s. Newspapers of the era were sponsored by either Federalists or the Democrat-Republicans. The “news” in some of those papers was sometimes pure speculation, often made up just to undermine the political opposition. My subject of study was Noah Webster, who was editor of a New York City newspaper at the time. He stood out as one of the few who refused to succumb to the fake news temptation.

Read all the commentary on Abraham Lincoln during his presidency, then tell me that fake news has only popped up in the last campaign. I recall scurrilous stories about Ronald Reagan when he took office. He supposedly hated minorities; he sought to throw old people out in the streets; Nancy was taking taxpayer money to buy china for the White House (that’s “china” as in plates, not the country).

I hate to be the one to break this “news”—human beings lie, cheat, and slander other human beings all the time. It’s something called sin.

The latest example, apparently, is the report of a dossier about Russia that purports to show Donald Trump is pretty much owned by the Russians. Beyond that, there were hints of sexual improprieties. Those were only hints until a liberal organization called Buzzfeed decided to open the sewer.

Is everything in this dossier untrue? We don’t know. Is anything true? We don’t know. Why? Nothing has been substantiated. It was unethical in the extreme for Buzzfeed to feed the controversy without proof of the allegations.

Unfortunately for Trump, he has not done himself any favors by seeming to be almost buddy-buddy with Putin. He has made a number of statements that show admiration for the Russian dictator. He is the one who has created that impression, so if it’s not really how he feels, he needs to correct that impression as soon as possible:

Maybe Putin can do his part to help:

There also has been pushback against Trump in the arts. Some performance artists have decided to use the liberty this country provides to decline to perform at Trump’s inauguration (it’s a good thing they aren’t Christian bakers or photographers, for whom that liberty doesn’t exist). Well, who needs them? I’m sure Trump’s people can find substitutes:

Meryl Streep, at the Golden Globes, where Hollywood pats itself on the back each year, gave a short speech that, while not mentioning Trump by name, made it clear that she had contempt for him. Hollywood wants to think it is somehow the conscience of the nation.

Streep didn’t say anything unusual; these award ceremonies are always politically liberal. It’s just expected. Yet because Trump is going to be the president with the thinnest skin since Andrew Jackson, he couldn’t help himself—he had to immediately tweet that Streep is an “overrated” actress.

Now, while I disagree with everything Streep said, there is no way she is an overrated actress. When I know Streep is in a film, I know at least one thing about that film: the character she portrays will be handled wonderfully. She is an excellent actress.

Trump continues to hit back at anyone who insults him. Streep is only the latest in a long line of individuals and/or organizations to be called overrated, losers, etc. What if even the pope were to give him advice he doesn’t like, advice he considered insulting?

Let’s pray it doesn’t come to that.

The C. S. Lewis Conference: A Report

I had a wonderful weekend at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s summer conference held at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Why was it held there? I’ll get to that.

As I did last fall, I presented a paper at the Academic Roundtable, a time for deeper thinking as a group of academics listened and discussed what each had to offer. The most interesting part of such a roundtable is getting perspectives from different disciplines. I was the only historian in the group; others were professors of theology, philosophy, and architecture.

My paper was on the distinction that we must make between liberty of conscience, which is a Biblically based concept, and pluralism, which is the more humanistic viewpoint—a viewpoint that attempts to push the Biblical worldview out of the public square. It seemed to be well received.

Plenary sessions were offered by excellent speakers. One of the most interesting to me was Malcolm Guite, a minister, theologian, professor, and poet at Cambridge University. He was a captivating speaker, is a songwriter and performer (he gave us some samples), and his poetry is the type that I actually love, which is saying something because I’m not naturally attracted to poetry.

Malcolm Guite

With his full beard, long hair, and short stature, he reminds me of a hobbit. That’s a compliment, by the way.

At a special faculty luncheon, Dr. Mary Poplin of the Claremont Graduate School spoke, and her personal testimony was both striking and stirring. She was a strident radical feminist and atheist (toying with Buddhism along the way) before God gave her a dream of standing before Jesus. That, along with other miraculous occurrences, led her to faith at the age of 41. Shortly after, she went to India to work with Mother Teresa.

Mary Poplin 1

Dr. Poplin also spoke at the final plenary session, outlining the four distinct worldviews that are in conflict. I was struck by how her presentation was very similar to what I do in the classroom, even starting with Colossians 2:8, one of my favorite scriptures:

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.

Green Pastures-Outside 2I raised the question earlier as to why this conference was taking place in Massachusetts. The site was only about half an hour from a house that the Foundation has purchased and is planning to use as a study center. So one of the highlights of the conference was an excursion to that home in the town of Northfield.

Currently, a massive renovation of the home is taking place, with the goal of its being a place where students can come and discuss issues of faith and the Christian answer.

The Foundation already owns Lewis’s home, The Kilns, in Oxford, which it uses as a study center; the goal is to make this a place that can be used in the same way.

One of the dreams of the Foundation is to also establish a C. S. Lewis College in the town. It would be focused on the study of the Great Books and intensive discussion/argumentation (that latter word used in the best sense).

Green Pastures 1

A bonus on this trip was that just down the street is the birthplace of famous 19th-century evangelist Dwight L. Moody, which we also were able to tour.

Moody Birthplace-Outside

Included in the home was an excellent museum.

Moody Birthplace-Museum

I took a shuttle to and from the airport. While the shuttle was waiting for another person to pick up at Amherst College, I noticed a statue that I had wanted to see, so I was able to jump out and take a picture of it.

Amherst College started in the early 19th century as an institution to train ministers. One of its key founders was Noah Webster, who, as some of you know, was the subject of my doctoral dissertation (and the book that was published as a result of that). The college acknowledges Webster’s role.

Webster Statue-Amherst College

I have to admit to being disappointed somewhat by the statue. First, it barely resembles Webster; second, it seems to have been neglected. But there is a scripture on it, 2 Timothy 1:12, for anyone who might take the time to read it:

For I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day.

Amherst College no longer exists for its original purpose, but a testimony remains for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

Many thanks for the hard work and dedication of those who planned and carried out this conference. The Holy Spirit was evident in every aspect of it. A spirit of love and genuine fellowship prevailed.

My doctoral dissertation was on Noah Webster, widely considered America’s first schoolmaster. His Speller taught generations how to read; his 1828 Dictionary was unique, not only in its being the first produced by an American, but in its Biblical basis. Webster’s illustrations for words included Biblical citations and short homilies on the significance of some key words. His influence in early America was great.

Noah Webster Books

I’m highlighting him today because he offered insight to his generation when it came to choosing political leaders. His words are timeless; they apply to our current situation.

“In selecting men for office,” Webster urged, “let principles be your guide. . . . Look to his character as a man of known principle, of tried integrity, and undoubted ability for the office.”

To ignore lack of principle and integrity in a candidate is to violate the sacred trust given to us as citizens:

When a citizen gives his vote to a man of known immorality, he abuses his civic responsibility; he not only sacrifices his own responsibility; he sacrifices not only his own interest, but that of his neighbor; he betrays the interest of his country.

Webster continued: “If rulers are bad men, it is generally the fault of the people.” After all, who puts men of depraved character in office? We can too often be deceived by them, he notes, but often we vote them in simply because they belong to “our” party. Here’s how he framed it:

Noah WebsterThey choose men, not because they are just men, men of religion and integrity, but solely for the sake of supporting a party [emphasis mine]. This is a fruitful source of public evils.

But as surely as there is a God in heaven, who exercises a moral government over the affairs of this world, so certainly will the neglect of the divine command, in the choice of rulers, be followed by bad laws and as bad administration.

I trust you know why I chose to emphasize that one phrase in the quote above.

By 1837, Webster was becoming distraught by what he was seeing in the culture and politics of his nation. He wrote to a friend,

Principles, sir, are becoming corrupt, deeply corrupt; & unless the progress of corruption, & perversion of truth can be arrested, neither liberty nor property will long be secure in this country.

And a great evil is, that men of the first distinction seem, to a great extent, to be ignorant of the real, original causes of our public distresses. Many of our greatest men are making vigorous efforts to remove present evils, but not an effort is made to correct the radical cause of our political calamities.

Webster’s concern in 1837 should be our concern today. Our principles have been corrupted; integrity is discounted; truth is being perverted. Yet we don’t address those fundamental issues. Instead, we rally to someone who either promises free stuff or who pledges to build a wall.

Webster’s prescription for the ills in our society is a return to Biblical principles and integrity of character. I agree with that prescription. That’s why I will never vote for anyone who lacks the very rudiments of those qualities. That’s why I will not vote for Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, or Donald Trump.

WebsterNoah Webster was a man of his time, but the ideas he fostered are based on the Book that applies to all men at all times. If you wish to know more about Webster, his views, and his influence during his lifetime, my book, Defining Noah Webster: A Spiritual Biography, is available. You can find it on Amazon right here.

We are faced with virtually no good choice in this coming presidential election, so let’s keep in mind that government is not our savior. There is only one Savior. Our responsibility is to be faithful to Him and maintain our integrity. Stand for righteousness, then stand back and see what God will do.

Noah Webster & the Wisdom of Earlier Ages

Noah WebsterI spent a number of years researching Noah Webster, who became the subject of my doctoral dissertation. He’s known primarily for two things: his Speller, which taught Americans to read and write correctly; his dictionary, a monumental effort of about twenty years of his life, and which defined terms in the context of his Biblical worldview.

Webster started out his career as a devotee of the Enlightenment, that movement of the eighteenth century that gave far more credit to human reason than human reason should allow. But he came to the end of his faith in human reasoning that sought to separate itself from God’s revelation. In 1808, he experienced a solid Christian conversion that affected all his works from then on. All his educational efforts were henceforth directed to pointing men to the One to whom they all must answer someday.

His conversion also provided a more Biblical concept of government and education. As he wrote to one of his personal correspondents in 1836,

An attempt to conduct the affairs of a free government with wisdom and impartiality, and to preserve the just rights of all classes of citizens, without the guidance of Divine precepts, will certainly end in disappointment. God is the supreme moral Governor of the world He has made, and as He Himself governs with perfect rectitude, He requires His rational creatures to govern themselves in like manner. If men will not submit to be controlled by His laws, He will punish them by the evils resulting from their own disobedience.

Any system of education, therefore, which limits instruction to the arts and sciences, and rejects the aids of religion in forming the characters of citizens, is essentially defective.

In my view, the Christian religion is the most important and one of the first things in which all children, under a free government ought to be instructed.… No truth is more evident to my mind than that the Christian religion must be the basis of any government intended to secure the rights and privileges of a free people.

When I was taking doctoral courses in history, more than once my professors hinted at the idea that we, in our day, are naturally more knowledgeable and possess more wisdom than those in earlier, more primitive, ages. Well, when I read comments such as Webster’s above, I just kind of smile inwardly at the arrogance of our learned elite today. No, there are some things that earlier generations understood much better than we do now.

WebsterIf you would like to delve deeper into Noah Webster, his thoughts, and his times, I recommend my doctoral dissertation, which is now in book form. The latest version is found at the Barnes & Noble website: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/defining-noah-webster-k-alan-snyder/1005377905?ean=9781591600558

A lot of time and effort went into this book, and I can say I’m pleased with the result. I believe it has stood the test of time and offers some real insights into a man who devoted the last half of his life to promoting God’s truths.

Snyderian Truism #6

When I teach history, the emphasis is not on statistics, charts, or graphs, helpful as they all are. Instead, I concentrate on individuals and their impact on events. I believe history is a story, which includes themes, plots, and character development. As we begin to delve into the events of history in class, I reveal to my students another Snyderian Truism that I hope will make them see a significant distinction:

Personality and character are not the same: the first arrives with you at birth; the second is a matter of choice and requires work on your part.

I find that people often confuse the two. There is no moral aspect to one’s personality. It’s simply the type of person you are, as created by God. Some are more take-charge types, while others are laid back. We have introverts and extroverts. The distinctions could go on for quite some time. Yet all types are necessary; that’s the kind of diversity God seeks. They each have their unique strengths.

Noah WebsterCharacter is the moral side. We are all free moral agents made in the image of God, and we must take on His character in order for the world to operate the way He intended. Noah Webster, in his original dictionary, defines the generic “character,” apart from the human element, in this way:

A mark made by cutting, engraving, stamping, or pressing.

I say that’s the generic definition because it applies to the word in general. One makes a character on a sheet of paper, for instance, by pressing down with a pen. Anyone remember typewriters? When you press the key, the designated letter jumps up and stamps or engraves the mark on the paper. It makes an impression.

We can make the application to human character as well. How is our character formed? All the cutting, engraving, stamping, and pressing that occur in daily life—also known as trials, tribulations, challenges—shape our character. We emerge from these pressures as different people. God uses them to help conform us more to the image of Christ. Our hearts are changed along the way, and we take on a greater measure of the character God intended for us. It’s our hearts that are affected; we are transformed within, and then the transformation shows up on the outside so others can see it.

I find this exemplified in a statement the apostle Paul made to the Corinthian church. In 2 Corinthians 3:2-3, he remarks,

Your yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. You know that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

When we see exemplary character exhibited in history, it serves to inspire us to emulate that character. The prophet Samuel, upon his retirement, asked the elders of Israel to tell him if he had done anything to harm them while he served in his high office. They responded,

“You have not cheated or oppressed us. . . . You have not taken anything from anyone’s hand.” Samuel said to them, “The Lord is witness against you, and also His anointed is witness this day, that you have not found anything in my hand.” “He is witness,” they said.

Think about that. What a testimony. How many politicians can we say that about today? They exist, but we see the opposite so often that it invites cynicism. Another great example from the Old Testament is Daniel, who served in the government for most of his life. At one point, the other government officials were so jealous of his success that they sought to find a reason to get him kicked out. Here’s what happened:

Now Daniel so distinguished himself among the administrators . . . by his exceptional qualities that the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom. . . . The administrators . . . tried to find grounds for charges against Daniel in his conduct of government affairs, but they were unable to do so. They could find no corruption in him, because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent.

Again, what a solid testimony of God’s character through an individual.

George Washington1When George Washington stepped down as general of the army at the end of America’s war for independence, he sent out a letter to the states in which he prayed,

That He [God] would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility, and pacific temper of mind, which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy nation.

That prayer is still urgently needed. The truth of Washington’s statement remains. Unless we take on the character of Christ, we will be most miserable as a people. It’s the Christians who have to take responsibility to show the way. We must fulfill our obligation to reveal the character of God, and it’s through our own character that He is to be revealed.

Education & the Corruption of Principles

Chicago public school teachers are out on strike. They’ve been treated so unfairly there was just no other option. After all, in a city where the median income is $47,000 per year, they make only $76,000. Sure, they get all their benefits on top of that, but since they are the most important people in the city, they deserve more. So you can understand why when they were offered a measly 16% raise, they hit the roof. How insulting. Wouldn’t you be insulted if you were given only a 16% raise? Surely you can feel their pain.

The other indignity they’ve been forced to suffer is the threat to evaluate whether they are doing their jobs well. I mean, what other profession has to worry about that? They are being singled out, and they know why. Reports are that 79% of eighth-graders are are not proficient in reading and 80% are not proficient in math. But is that their fault? Absolutely not. It’s an unreasonable expectation to demand results to match one’s salary. No wonder they have decided to strike. Life is the pits for Chicago teachers.

They know the solution to the problem:

And they certainly deserve to live a more luxurious life; they’ve had to scrape by much too long:

I’m sorry. I can’t go on. I’m just so frustrated by the poor treatment these teachers are receiving. My empathy for them is boundless. I’m going to continue to teach at the college level where we make sure our students are well-rounded individuals who are fully aware of their heritage:

Yes, I’m being sarcastic, but only mildly, in as good a humor as I can generate. We are in a mess educationally. There are many particulars we can examine to determine why that is, but I believe Noah Webster, back in 1837, clearly described the root of the problems we face—an insight that applies universally, whether the year is 1837 or 2012. He stated to a correspondent,

Principles, Sir, are becoming corrupt, deeply corrupt; & unless the progress of corruption, and perversion of truth can be arrested, neither liberty nor property will long be secure in this country. And a great evil is, that men of the first distinction seem, to a great extent, to be ignorant of the real, original causes of our public distresses.

Wisdom from our Christian heritage. If only our politicians, teachers, and students could be well-schooled in it.

Noah Webster: Schoolmaster to America

Yesterday I encouraged those of you who need more information on how the Bible views government to purchase a copy of my book If the Foundations Are Destroyed: Biblical Principles and Civil Government. Today, let’s focus more historically.

My doctoral dissertation was on a man who was highly influential in America’s formative years: Noah Webster. That dissertation was published as Defining Noah Webster: A Spiritual Biography. I’ve always thought the title was rather clever, given that Webster’s primary work for which he is remembered is the first American dictionary. But he did so much more.

Long before publishing his 1828 dictionary, he wrote the first American speller, a book that could be found in nearly every family’s home from the cultured environs of Boston and New York to the frontiers of what we now call the Midwest. Pioneer families would carry their Bible and Webster’s Speller.

Webster later became a newspaper editor during the tumultuous years of the 1790s, then an author of a multitude of school books that became familiar to thousands of students prior to the Civil War.

The centerpiece of this work, though, is Webster’s Christian conversion at age 50, a conversion that altered his thinking on government, education, and morality. His famous dictionary was also a treatise for the Christian faith. I have an entire chapter that explains how he accomplished that goal. The conversion and how it affected him is why the subtitle of the book is A Spiritual Biography.

Even though it was originally a doctoral dissertation, I think you’ll find it highly readable. I had that in mind while writing it. To me, it’s such a waste to spend all that effort researching and writing, only to have a committee of three historians read the final product, and then have it fade into oblivion. I wrote this book with the intention of publishing it, and deliberately diminished what some might call “dissertationese.” I believe it’s a fascinating account of the life of a man few know, but with whom we should become better acquainted.

I don’t recommend purchasing this book on Amazon.com. For some reason, they have the correct picture, but not the correct version. They have only the older hardback that doesn’t include the newest revisions. To get this one, go to barnesandnoble.com. Try it; you might like it.