Archive for July, 2018

About This Teaching Ministry

I don’t have a hard time trying to stay busy. Now I know some would question that; after all, as a university professor, I get the summers off, right? Well, I do appreciate the breather from the routine that I receive in the summers, so I agree—but only in part.

What have I done this summer? I’ve prepared for the five courses I will be teaching this fall at Southeastern University; I’ve worked on a new course I will be teaching in the spring on “Religion and the Presidents” (yes, I have to work that far ahead).

That’s all for my day job. In addition:

I’ve completed developing a class I will be teaching at my church on Wednesday evenings from September through December—that one is on C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis; I’ve attended two conferences, where I presented a paper at one (which required a lot of reading and preparation) and spoke at a church while attending the other.

I’ve also just agreed to begin teaching an adult class at my church on Sunday mornings, beginning in September.

Oh, and while teaching those five courses at SEU and teaching at my church, I’ll also be grading papers for about 30 high school students who are part of the Classical Conversations homeschool program.

Yes, I stay busy.

Keep in mind this is not a complaint. I love everything I do because it’s all wrapped up in the ministry God has given me.

In the midst of the coming fall semester, I already know, by about late October-early November, I will begin to feel overwhelmed. The temptation will be to start complaining (too much grading; too few students who really want to learn, etc.).

What I need to remember at that crucial time is that every day that I teach a class session, God have given me an opportunity to help direct the thoughts of the upcoming generation. More than that, He has given me the opportunity to demonstrate to them through my own life that God’s love reaches out to us all and that we need to respond to that love.

I’m in the same position as the apostle Paul (and all other Christians, frankly), as he reminds us in 2 Cor. 5:20:

Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

I’m not just a university professor. Most university professors are only doing a job. For me, it’s a ministry, a calling, a sober responsibility to hold out Truth to everyone who hears me.

I accept this ministry gladly. This year is my 30th year teaching at the university level. It’s been an interesting ride all those years, filled with both high points and very discouraging moments at times. Yet the calling has never been revoked.

The goal of my teaching has not changed:

To equip the saints for works of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, to equip the saints for works of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God, as we mature to the full measure of the stature of Christ.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed about by the waves and carried around by every wind of teaching and by the clever cunning of men in their deceitful scheming.

Pray for all those who have this ministry that we will be faithful to the calling.

Many False Routes to the Only Well

“It is not so much of our time and so much of our attention that God demands,” wrote C. S. Lewis in the essay, “A Slip of the Tongue.” But he went further: “It is not even all our time and all our attention.” What else could there be? “It is our selves.”

That’s one step deeper.

You see, we can assiduously carry out our spiritual “responsibilities,” but even all of those, carefully observed, might be little more than external duties if not done from a heart of devotion to Him. Lewis continues,

For each of us the Baptist’s words are true: “He must increase and I decrease.” He will be infinitely merciful to our repeated failures; I know no promise that he will accept a deliberate compromise.

Let us make up our minds to it; there will be nothing “of our own” left over to live on; no “ordinary” life.

To those who may be tempted to think God is being rather selfish with this demand, Lewis explains how one should see this through a different, and positive, lens:

He cannot bless us unless He has us. When we try to keep within us an area that is our own, we try to keep an area of death. Therefore, in love, He claims all. There’s no bargaining with Him.

God, the fount of all knowledge and wisdom, knows we will never be what we were created to be without a full commitment of ourselves to Him. What we call life is actually death; His call to die to self is actually life. That’s not the thinking of the world, of course; that’s why we need a renewed mind.

Lewis lays out a dichotomy for life: the Kingdom of God is on one side of the divide; everything else resides on the other side. Those who don’t choose the Kingdom lose real life regardless of what else they choose.

Will it really make no difference whether it was women or patriotism, cocaine or art, whisky or a seat in the Cabinet, money or science? Well, surely no difference that matters. We shall have missed the end for which we are formed and rejected the only thing that satisfies.

Does it matter to a man dying in the desert, by which choice of route he missed the only well?

All other paths are routes to death, even the ones that seem “good,” if they are what we live for.

As Jesus instructed the “good” man Nicodemus, “”I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.”

And that’s the only thing that really matters.

The Prickly Tariff Issue

I know that writing about tariffs doesn’t sound all that appealing, but I wouldn’t have to do this if President Trump hadn’t decided to make them so central to his policy. After all, here’s what he tweeted a couple of days ago:

Tariffs are the greatest! Either a country which has treated the United States unfairly on Trade negotiates a fair deal, or it gets hit with Tariffs. It’s as simple as that – and everybody’s talking! Remember, we are the “piggy bank” that’s being robbed. All will be Great!

Are they really all that great for everyone?

I’ll come back to that further down in this post, but first, a short history lesson.

Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution gives the Congress the authority to pass tariff laws, so they are constitutional. No argument there. However, it is Congress that has that authority. Why, then, can President Trump unilaterally impose tariffs? Sadly, it’s because Congress passed some laws that he can use to assume that power.

Basically, that is Congress relinquishing its responsibility. Some in Congress are trying to change that, but the effort seems to be going nowhere. Apparently, Congress doesn’t want that responsibility too much—tough decisions might lead to losing a re-election bid.

The first time a tariff became an issue was with the so-called Tariff of Abominations, which passed in 1828. The tariff sought to protect northern and western agricultural products from competition with foreign imports; however, the resulting tax on foreign goods would raise the cost of living in the South and would cut into the profits of New England’s industrialists.

South Carolina, under the leadership of John C. Calhoun, declared that the tariff was unconstitutional because it was not primarily for raising revenue but for protection of certain segments of society. That led to the Nullification Controversy of 1832-33 when South Carolina simply said that the tariff wouldn’t apply in that state.

Regardless of the merits of the objections to the tariff, it’s pretty clear that no state can just decide that a federal law passed by Congress won’t be carried out in the state. Challenging the law in the courts would be the way to go, or finding a compromise in legislation, but there is no basis for nullification. Eventually, a compromise bill was enacted that soothed ruffled feathers on both sides, but not without lingering animosity.

Let’s see, who fired the first shots of the Civil War? Oh, yes, that would be South Carolina.

Tariffs later became a vehicle championed by the Republicans as a means to protect American products by making foreign goods more expensive. Democrats, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, were actually the party of free trade. The tariff was a big issue in the 1880s and 1890s, particularly. One political cartoon of the era made fun of the need to protect American industries that were fully capable of holding their own in the world:

But the one tariff bill that always strikes terror into the hearts of those who know history is the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, passed in the throes of the Great Depression.

This tariff increased protection to an all-time high in American history. The purported goal was to raise the price of foreign goods so high that Americans wouldn’t want to buy them, would turn to American industry instead, which would then need to produce more, which would mean they would hire more workers, thereby ending the unemployment problem.

Voilà! Depression ended! All will be well! It made a certain amount of logical sense. But that rationale left out one salient feature—a response from those nations who were the targets of the tariffs.

Other nations reacted to these tariffs by raising their own against American goods. After all, they didn’t want their citizens buying American when they could buy homegrown products. Consequently, the overseas market closed to a lot of American industry and the opposite happened from what was promised: more Americans were thrown out of work.

While there may be a place for tariffs, one must be very careful that they don’t boomerang and create new problems at home: higher costs, lower production, and greater unemployment.

Ever since Trump initiated his tariffs, a number of productive companies, along with certain types of farmers, have been hurt.

Because farmers, especially those who grow soybeans, are being affected, Trump came up with a solution that most conservatives and/or Republicans would have never agreed to (but they didn’t have a vote because everything is coming straight out of the executive branch—something conservatives always legitimately criticized when Obama did it). What is the solution? A $12 billion bailout for those farmers.

Yes, it’s the tried and untrue government subsidy solution made possible by taking more from the American taxpayers: taking from all (well, all who actually pay taxes, at least) to benefit a targeted group.

Some will say that Trump’s approach is working because the EU is now in negotiations to reduce tariffs all around. Some are referencing a recent Wall Street Journal editorial as proof.

While it’s true that the editorial expressed relief that we might be stepping back from the brink, it’s instructive to read the entire editorial, where one finds this warning/caution:

The White House will crow that Europe blinked, but it’s more accurate to say the two sides are stepping back from mutually assured economic destruction. The car tariffs would certainly have punished Germany, the locomotive of Europe’s economy.

But Mr. Trump also had ample political and economic incentive to call a truce. The retaliatory tariffs from China, the EU, Mexico, Canada and Japan are beginning to hurt U.S. farmers and manufacturers.

Mr. Trump felt obliged this week to bail out U.S. farmers by providing up to $12 billion to buy surplus crops that can’t find a foreign market. Harley-Davidson and other firms are moving plants abroad to avoid higher import costs and duck retaliatory tariffs. All of this in turn is beginning to have political consequences as more Republicans in Congress are finding their voice in favor of free markets.

The combination of a potential economic crisis followed by an electoral crisis undoubtedly entered into the reasoning for trying to bring the tariff war to an end.

By the way, it’s not necessarily ended. These are only the beginnings of talks; we still have to wait and see how they develop.

I’m a free-trader at heart because I believe that protective tariffs put the government in charge of picking winners and creating losers, thereby messing up the market system. I also believe that American manufacturing and agriculture can compete with the world without tying themselves to the government, with all its attendant strings, and regardless of how unfair some other nations might treat our trade.

When did conservatives stop believing this?

Gilbert Tennent & the First Great Awakening

Whenever I get an e-mail from the Christian History Institute that is pertinent to American history, I like to pass it on. This one deals with the life of Gilbert Tennent, one of the premier preachers of the First Great Awakening. Here’s that account:

Tennent arrived in America from Ireland at the age of fourteen. His father, William, founded a “Log College” to train ministers. Following his father into the ministry, Gilbert was ordained in 1726. He had little success at first. However, following a deep illness, he recovered and preached with a new zeal that brought many conversions.

His fiery faith also placed him at the center of a split in the Presbyterian Church. A friend of evangelist George Whitefield, Tennent hoped to see revival in America. He was convinced the nation’s religious stagnation was the fault of its clergy.  In a scathing sermon preached at Nottingham, he had said, “The reason why congregations have been so dead is, because they have had dead men preaching to them; for I am verily persuaded the generality of preachers talk of an unknown and unfelt Christ.”

That “generality of preachers” complained in return that his meetings were too emotional. Feelings ran high. The Presbyterian synod reproved Tennent. With several other preachers, he withdrew from the association. For almost two decades, the Presbyterians were divided into New Lights and Old Lights.

From 1743 onward, Tennent pastored a church in New Jersey but continued to travel and evangelize, too. Once he held revival services for three months in New England. Thomas Prince, founder of the first religious journal in North America, described the results: “By his arousing and spiritual preaching, deep and pungent convictions were wrought in the minds of many hundreds of persons in that town; and the same effect was produced in several scores, in the neighboring congregations.”

In later years, Tennent’s sermons became milder. He pastored with success at Philadelphia until he was very old. Around 1749, he published a sermon titled Irenicum Ecclesiasticarum (Peace in the Church) and later a pamphlet titled The Pacificator in which he pleaded for a restoration of unity. These helped heal the breach between the Old Lights and the New Lights that his words had done so much to precipitate.

In a sermon preached shortly after Gilbert Tennent’s death, Dr. Samuel Finley, President of Princeton College, said:

He had an habitual, unshaken assurance of his interest in redeeming love, for the space of more than forty years; but, eight days before his death, he got a more clear and affecting sense of it still. And though he lamented that he had done so little for God, and that his life had been comparatively unprofitable, yet he triumphed in the grace of Jesus Christ, who had pardoned all his sins, and said his assurance of salvation was built on the Scriptures, and was more sure than the sun and moon.

It’s important to learn about those who have gone before us. They provide a combination of inspiration and, at times, caution, as we attempt to infuse our culture with the truth of the faith.

Nikki Haley & Mature Conservatism

I’ve been impressed by Nikki Haley for quite some time: first, as governor of South Carolina, and now as our UN ambassador. What I read about her today has only increased my appreciation for her as a spokesperson for mature conservatism.

Yesterday, she spoke to the High School Leadership Summit, a conference for conservative teenagers. In discussing what leadership means, she told them they had to take a more responsible, reasonable approach to those with whom they disagree. Her words:

Raise your hand if you’ve ever posted anything online to “own the libs.” I know that it’s fun and that it can feel good, but step back and think about what you’re accomplishing when you do this. Are you persuading anyone? Who are you persuading?

She contrasted that in-your-face approach with real leadership; she called it the exact opposite, then explained how real leadership works:

Real leadership is about persuasion, it’s about movement, it’s about bringing people around to your point of view. Not by shouting them down, but by showing them how it is in their best interest to see things the way you do.

Think about it. Shouldn’t that be the goal rather than feeling good that you just let someone really “have it”?

Haley demonstrated the Christian spirit beautifully. While reading about her comments, it reminded me of why I’ve been so drawn to Whittaker Chambers and Ronald Reagan.

Chambers wrote his masterpiece, Witness, as a plea to show people truth and get them to change their thinking. Yes, he condemned the system of communism that he once thought would change the world for the good. Yes, he called out some of the truly evil people involved in that system.

Yet there is a pathos to Witness that is its most appealing feature for me. Chambers doesn’t hate those who are in error; he appeals to them to rethink. Even when testifying against Alger Hiss, he didn’t want to divulge everything; he sought Hiss’s repentance instead so that he might be saved from his sins and errors. Only when Hiss proved arrogant and stubborn did Chambers reluctantly come forward with all of his evidence.

When Reagan read Witness, for the first time he saw why communism had a certain appeal to those who embraced it. His response to it transformed from simply being “against” something to seeking to free people from its chains.

Reagan could speak forcefully against wrong ideas (mature conservatism doesn’t mean pulling back from truth-telling) but he always reached out to those on the other side of the ideological divide. He sought to develop a relationship with House Speaker Tip O’Neill despite the latter’s constant diatribes against Reagan.

He sent letters to every Soviet leader, wanting to explain to them why they misunderstood the US; he finally found one who would listen (although he might not have if Reagan hadn’t taken a firm stand against Soviet aggression).

“Speaking the truth in love” is how it’s described in the New Testament. Nikki Haley, Whittaker Chambers, and Ronald Reagan show us how that’s done. I’ve been dismayed by the devolution of the conservatism I’ve always espoused. I hardly recognize what passes for conservatism in the past few years.

Those of you who call yourselves conservatives, I appeal to you to consider what I’ve written today. I think it’s important for the future of genuine conservatism and for the future of our nation.

Reagan & Trump: The Dishonesty of the Moral Equivalence Defense

If you’re going to say anything to help explain why evangelicals are so on board with Donald Trump, at least don’t be dishonest about it. The dishonesty rears its head particularly when comparing Trump to Ronald Reagan.

It happened again recently on Fox News when the Rev. Robert Jeffress stated that Reagan was a “known womanizer” also. Jeffress continued, “The reason we supported President Reagan was not because we supported womanizing or divorce. We supported his policies.”

I can try, I suppose, to give Jeffress the benefit of the doubt that he is merely ignorant. I hope that’s the case.

Lou Cannon, one of Reagan’s chief biographers, when asked about this claim, commented,

Reagan dated widely after his divorce before he met Nancy. I don’t think he looked at another woman after that. Neither of his wives ever accused him of infidelity. Definitely NOT a womanizer.

Well, what about the divorce? Doesn’t that make him the same as Trump?

William F. Buckley, a close friend of Reagan’s, shared that when someone told Reagan, “Well, you got divorced,” the response came back, rather heatedly, “I didn’t divorce anyone. She divorced me.”

All who have studied Reagan with more than a passing glance are well aware of how deeply hurt he was by that divorce. He didn’t want it; he had been completely faithful to his wife, actress Jane Wyman. She was unfaithful to him.

Consequently, from a Biblical standpoint, he was guiltless regarding that divorce. When he married Nancy in 1952, he was steadfastly faithful to her for their entire 52 years together. He loved her with all his heart, as everyone who knew them can attest.

The moral worlds of Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump don’t align; rather, they clash.

So, if you are one of those who tries to equate the morality of these two men, seeking to provide a rationale for why it’s fine to look the other way with respect to Trump’s many infidelities and other major character flaws, I respectfully ask you to change your tactic. This one is a dead end.

Lewis: Knowing the Past for the Sake of the Present

Politics. Is there anyone else besides me who wishes he/she could turn it off for a while? I’m a professor of American history, though, so it’s important for me to keep up with political developments and provide analysis—for my students, of course, but I also feel a responsibility to help others understand the principles we need to follow.

There is a temptation, though, to be so immersed in politics that one sees it as all-consuming. C. S. Lewis recognized that temptation. In his day, WWII was one of those potentially all-consuming events. Some people, at that time, were saying that all other activities, including Lewis’s own profession as a professor, should be set aside so that all thought and energy would be concentrated on the war.

Lewis said no to that. One of his most enlightening essays, “Learning in War-Time,” addressed the complaint that some had about allowing normal day-to-day activities to continue uninterrupted.

Lewis wanted to be sure he was not misunderstood: the war was a righteous one and every citizen had a duty to support it. “Every duty is a religious duty,” he believed, “and our obligation to perform every duty is therefore absolute.”

Rescuing a drowning man is a duty, he continued, and if we happened to live on a coast, perhaps we should be well prepared as lifesavers. But even such a laudatory effort as lifesaving needs to be seen as only part of one’s overall duties.

If anyone devoted himself to lifesaving in the sense of giving it his total attention—so that he thought and spoke of nothing else and demanded the cessation of all other human activities until everyone had learned to swim—he would be a monomaniac.

The rescue of drowning men is, then, a duty worth dying for, but not worth living for.

Lewis then opined that all political duties were like that. Politics is not the sum total of life. Seeking to put the right people in political office is a worthy endeavor, but it should never consume one’s life.

He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God: himself.

For Lewis personally, God had charted a course for his life that pointed to intellectual activity, something that was not to cease simply because a war was going on. One of his most famous quotes comes from this essay: “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”

He then offers me, as a historian, this encouraging word:

Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.

A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.

There continues to be a “great cataract of nonsense” in our day. The America of 2018 suffers from a type of myopia, forgetting what has gone before, never learning from the past. History offers us tremendous lessons if we are willing to learn from them.

The reason I am so focused, at times, on the current political situation, is that I am disturbed by our ignorance of the past and our apparent unwillingness to correct what we have done wrong previously. We think we are charting a new course that will lead us to some type of utopia when, in fact, we are simply following some of the same old ruts that have caused misery before.

Lewis concludes his essay with what WWII should teach his generation. His conclusion applies to our generation as well if we think political programs or putting the right person in office will be our savior:

If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.

We must never forget that we are pilgrims on this earth, and that the pilgrimage goes on regardless of what happens in politics and government.