A Dual Spiritual Biography

I spent parts of ten years researching the links between Ronald Reagan and Whittaker Chambers. Those years also were spent documenting the difference in outlook between the two conservative icons: Chambers the brooding intellectual who doubted the wisdom of men and their commitment to truth; Reagan the optimist who always saw a bright future ahead.

Yet despite that basic disparity in outlook, Reagan was deeply appreciative of what Chambers had taught him, primarily through his autobiography, Witness. Pearls from Chambers’s depth of personal struggle found a prominent place in Reagan’s utterances as president.

Chambers’s depiction of the communist mentality stayed with Reagan throughout his life. He referred to Chambers a number of times in his speeches. Like all presidents, Reagan had a corps of speechwriters, but he contributed valuable edits to his speeches, adding and deleting lines, passages, and even full pages.

Whenever he included Chambers in a speech, he did not just mention him in passing, but often used direct quotes from Witness. At other times, the author of Witness went unmentioned, yet the words Reagan used sounded familiar to those who knew and appreciated Chambers’s writings.

For instance, at a Fourth of July speech in Decatur, Alabama, in 1984, the president, comparing the totalitarian world of communism with America, said that man was created to be free. “That’s why,” he opined, “it’s been said that democracy is just a political reading of the Bible.” Chambers’s exact words had been, “Political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible,” but the source for Reagan’s comment is unmistakable. It was a phrase from Witness that found a home in his memory.

Speaking before friendly audiences—those with whom he could share more personally in an ideological sense—the president invoked Chambers regularly. Just two months into his presidency, he addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference Dinner.

In a tone reminiscent of the language used in Witness, he proclaimed, “We’ve heard in our century far too much of the sounds of anguish from those who live under totalitarian rule. We’ve seen too many monuments made not out of marble or stone but out of barbed wire and terror.” He then spoke of “witnesses to the triumph of the human spirit over the mystique of state power,” and declared that “evil is powerless if the good are unafraid,” as if channeling Chambers’s decision to cross over the bridge on his witness and not turn back.

Marxism, he said, is a “vision of man without God” that must be exposed “as an empty and a false faith … first proclaimed in the Garden of Eden with whispered words of temptation: ‘Ye shall be as gods.’” Where were all these ideas coming from?

The crisis of the Western world, Whittaker Chambers reminded us, exists to the degree in which it is indifferent to God. “The Western world does not know it,” he said about our struggle, “but it already possesses the answer to this problem— but only provided that its faith in God and the freedom He enjoins is as great as communism’s faith in man.”

The real task, Reagan concluded, was a spiritual one: “to reassert our commitment as a nation to a law higher than our own, to renew our spiritual strength.” Only by having this kind of commitment could America’s heritage be preserved. The emphasis on spiritual strength, while also part of Reagan’s core beliefs, certainly was consistent with Chambers’s foundational message.

Near the end of his presidency, in December 1988, addressing his own administration officials, Reagan thought it important to remind them of what Chambers had said. He recalled the sad state of the nation when he took over the reins of the presidency, and how the people had been accused by former president Carter of suffering from the disease of malaise. Everyone at the time, it seemed, had bought into the lie that “there wasn’t much we could do because great historic forces were at work, the problems were all too complicated for solution, fate and history were against us, and America was slipping into an inevitable decline.”

A quote from Chambers seemed appropriate here: “Well, Whittaker Chambers once wrote that, in his words, ‘Human societies, like human beings, live by faith and die when faith dies.’” America, Reagan reminded his audience, possesses “a special faith that has, from our earliest days, guided this sweet and blessed land. It was proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and enshrined in the Constitution.” It was faith in what a free people could accomplish. “And in saying that America has entered an inevitable decline, our leaders of just a decade ago were confessing that, in them, this faith had died.”

This particular use of Chambers is instructive: it shows how Reagan almost always took a quote from him and turned it into something positive, no matter how negative the quote was in context. Reagan’s optimism enveloped Chambers’s pessimism and made it encouraging and upbeat instead.

These excerpts from my book are only a small sampling of what awaits the reader who cares to delve into this dual spiritual biography. And a spiritual biography it is, as both men based their beliefs on their grasp of Christian faith.

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.

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.

Chambers: The Meaning of Witness

Every couple of years, I’m privileged to teach my course on Whittaker Chambers. As this semester nears its end, students are also getting near the end of Chambers’s masterful autobiography entitled Witness.

Why that title? Chambers, as he shared what he knew about the communist underground of which he had been a part for many years, was a witness. Another word for a witness is a martyr—one who is willing to lay down his life for what he knows to be true.

Chambers took a great chance in providing information; he might have been the one indicted for his past activities. Yet he came forward regardless because integrity demanded it; he sought to help Western civilization understand the threat it faced, not just from an outward manifestation called communism, but from an inner loss of spirit due to its increasing denial of Christian faith.

Chambers made a distinction between making a witness and simply giving a testimony. “The testimony and the witness must not be confused,” he wrote. “They were not the same.” He explained further,

The testimony fixed specific, relevant crimes. The witness fixed the effort of the soul to rise above sin and crime, and not for its own sake first, but because of others’ need, that the witness to sin and crime might be turned against both.

Chambers, in confessing his sins and crimes, was hoping to help the world understand the deeper truths. Yet he was concerned “that the world would see only the shocking facts of the testimony and not the meaning of the witness.”

He expressed his concern in words that reverberate down to our day—elegant words, words wrought out of the depth of his soul:

To those for whom the intellect alone has force, such a witness has little or no force. It bewilders and exasperates them. It challenges them to suppose that there is something greater about man than his ability to add and subtract.

It submits that that something is the soul.

Plain men understood the witness easily. It speaks directly to their condition. For it is peculiarly the Christian witness. They still hear it, whenever it truly reaches their ears, the ring of those glad tidings that once stirred mankind with an immense hope.

What does the Christian hope offer to men? I love how Chambers ends this short soliloquy:

For it frees them from the trap of irreversible Fate at the point of which it whispers to them that each soul is individually responsible to God, that it has only to assert that responsibility, and out of man’s weakness will come strength, out of his corruption incorruption, out of his evil good, and out of what is false invulnerable truth.

Chambers’s words remind me of chapter 4 of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. . . .

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Be a witness today, even if you feel weak. God uses whatever we offer Him for His glory.

Making Our Witness: The Chambers Model

What startled many readers of Whittaker Chambers’s Witness when it first was published in 1952 (and became a bestseller) was its deeply spiritual tone, its message of returning to faith in God, not only for the sake of individual salvation but also for the hope of salvaging Western civilization.

Chambers had been a avowed atheist, an ideological stance influenced by his dysfunctional family upbringing, the nihilism communicated to him by his university education, and his commitment to changing the world through communism.

One of his most famous lines about religious belief prior to his conversion shows not only his attitude but his ability to convey that attitude in memorable phrases:

I associated God with ill-ventilated vestries and ill-ventilated minds.

That attitude crumbled when he finally faced the truth of the Christian faith. There is one passage in Witness that best describes what happened to him when the Spirit of God touched his life, and that passage is even more memorable than the one noted above:

What I had been fell from me like dirty rags. The rags that fell from me were not only Communism. What fell was the whole web of the materialist modern mind—the luminous shroud which it has spun about the spirit of man, paralyzing in the name of rationalism the instinct of his soul for God, denying in the name of knowledge the reality of the soul and its birthright in that mystery on which mere knowledge falters and shatters at every step.

It was that touch from the hand of God that led Chambers to his decision to make his witness before the world—not just a testimony about what he knew of the workings of the communist underground and its designs to overthrow the American government—but a witness to the grace of God in men’s lives.

Yet it was that very witness that most intellectuals rejected. They didn’t understand how Chambers could embrace the “old” faith that so many of them now despised. This is why Chambers, near the end of Witness, wrote this:

To those for whom the intellect alone has force, such a witness has little or no force. It bewilders and exasperates them. It challenges them to suppose that there is something greater about man than his ability to add and subtract. It submits that that something is the soul.

What’s interesting is that Chambers saw a clear demarcation between those intellectuals and the majority of the population:

Plain men understood the witness easily. It speaks directly to their condition. For it is peculiarly the Christian witness. They still hear it, whenever it truly reaches their ears, the ring of those glad tidings that once stirred mankind with an immense hope.

For it frees them from the trap of irreversible Fate at the point at which it whispers to them that each soul is individually responsible to God, that it has only to assert that responsibility, and out of man’s weakness will come strength, out of his corruption incorruption, out of his evil good, and out of what is false invulnerable truth.

Why did Chambers believe that weakness could become strength, that corruption could be transformed into incorruption, that good could be squeezed out of evil, and that falsehoods could nevertheless lead men to see the truth?

He could believe all of that because it happened in his life. He responded to the Christian message, he acknowledged that he was individually responsible to God, and he took the necessary steps to assert that responsibility by proclaiming the witness God had given him through his own personal experience.

The message hasn’t changed. God hasn’t changed. All of us need to respond as Chambers did. We need to make our individual witnesses to the world. We are all individually responsible to God and need to take whatever steps are necessary to make our witness.

Lewis on the Proper Christian Spirit

C. S. Lewis 13Last Saturday, I wrote about how C. S. Lewis warned against what he called a type of “band-wagoning,” in which we can, at the expense of our principles, decide to become part of a system with which we say we disagree. He continues the discussion in Reflections on the Psalms with what he believes are more subtle forms of the problem that can easily deceive us.

Many people have a very strong desire to meet celebrated or “important” people, including those whom they disapprove, from curiosity or vanity. It gives them something to talk or even (anyone may produce a book of reminiscences) to write about. It is felt to confer distinction if the great, though odious, man recognizes you on the street.

That motive is completely unchristian. But what about Jesus’ example of sitting down with sinners? One must keep in mind that when Jesus did it, His goal was to revolutionize their thinking, not to join in with it. There is a fine line here that Lewis works through carefully with these words:

But I am inclined to think a Christian would be wise to avoid, where he decently can, any meeting with people who are bullies, lascivious, cruel, dishonest, spiteful and so forth.

I could insert a certain political figure here as an example, but I will restrain myself.

Why avoid such people? Lewis continues,

Not because we are “too good” for them. In a sense because we are not good enough. We are not good enough to cope with all the temptations, nor clever enough to cope with all the problems, which an evening spent in such society produces.

The temptation is to condone, to connive at; by our words, looks and laughter, to “consent.”

TruthIf you seem to go along to get along, what happens to your Christian witness? Yet are we to become obnoxious in our response? Again, Lewis threads the needle:

What is one to do? For on the one hand, quite certainly, there is a degree of unprotesting participation in such talk which is very bad. We are strengthening the hands of the enemy. We are encouraging him to believe that “those Christians,” once you get them off their guard and round a dinner table, really think and feel exactly as he does. By implication we are denying our Master; behaving as if we “knew not the Man.”

Yet the opposite actions can be just as bad:

On the other hand is one to show that, like Queen Victoria, one is “not amused”? Is one to be contentious, interrupting the flow of conversation at every moment with “I don’t agree, I don’t agree”? Or rise and go away? But by these courses we may also confirm some of their worst suspicions of “those Christians.” We are just the sort of ill-mannered prigs they always said.

What is the solution, then? Lewis advises this course of action:

Disagreement can, I think, sometimes be expressed without the appearance of priggery, if it is done argumentatively not dictatorially; support will often come from some most unlikely member of the party, or from more than one, till we discover that those who were silently dissentient were actually a majority.

A discussion of real interest may follow. Of course the right side may be defeated in it. That matters very much less than I used to think. The very man who has argued you down will sometimes be found, years later, to have been influenced by what you said.

So it really comes down to the attitude we display. We can stand for truth, even argue for it, as long as our spirit is Christian. And it is that Christian spirit that may ultimately win someone to God’s kingdom. After all, isn’t that the goal, and not simply winning an argument?

Lewis: Not Ashamed of the Gospel

C. S. Lewis 3In his customary pithy way, C. S. Lewis reminds us that we do stand for something, and that we had better make that stand:

As Christians we are tempted to make unnecessary concessions to those outside the Faith. We give in too much. Now, I don’t mean that we should run the risk of making a nuisance of ourselves by witnessing at improper times, but there comes a time when we must show that we disagree. We must show our Christian colours, if we are to remain true to Jesus Christ. We cannot remain silent or concede everything away.

May we demonstrate Christian boldness wherever God has planted us.