Archive for the ‘ American Character ’ Category

A Man I Respect

Reposting from my very first month of Pondering Principles back in August 2008.

When people say that there are no principled men in government, I must disagree. There are men and women who are living their principles in public life.

One of the men I respect most is Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. For the record, Justice Thomas does not know me personally and would not recognize me if introduced. I did meet him twice–once at the Supreme Court when the government school at Regent University took students there in 1995, and again a few years later when he came to the Regent campus to speak. As a faculty sponsor for the Federalist Society, I did once again greet him at a reception.

But I have read his recent book, an autobiography entitled My Grandfather’s Son. Once I began the book, I could hardly put it down. The story he tells–of his childhood in poverty, his anger over racism as a young man, his return to the Christian faith in his later years, and the trials of his Senate confirmation hearings–is riveting. It shows, to me, how God will use everything in a person’s life to shape and prepare that individual for a calling in this world.

Thomas has been attacked by many people because he espouses a view of the Constitution that says you don’t ignore the limitations that the document places on the authority of the federal government. But in taking the stance that he does, he is abiding by principle.

Yes, principled people are in the minority, but they do exist. Rather than promoting cynicism about government, we should be sharing the stories of those who try to apply Biblical principles such as the rule of law to society.

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.

I’ve been consistently concerned now for the last couple of years with respect to what is happening in our political realm. I come at politics and government from a very definite perspective.

Here, therefore, is my attempt at a personal manifesto.

I believe in Christian principled constitutional conservatism. Let me now explain what that means to me.

Christian

Jesus Christ is Lord of all aspects of life. My own life would have no meaning without His love, His forgiveness, and His direction for me. Politics and government fall under His Lordship. Consequently, whenever I think on those issues, I do so with a desire to ensure that His truth is the cornerstone for all governmental policies.

I want to see all of the vital questions before us through the lens of Biblical faith and solid doctrine. I want a Biblical approach to the way government is organized and I want, as much as possible, people serving in that government who are dedicated Christians. Where that is not the case, I at least want to support those who are not hostile to Christian faith, but have respect for liberty of conscience.

I seek to help put into practice a Christian worldview on all manner of legislation, whether that be right to life/abortion, religious liberty, marriage, taxes, education, welfare, immigration—well, that’s the short list. I believe that no matter what the issue, there is a Biblical way to understand that issue.

Principled

I shouldn’t have to make this a separate section. Christians ought to be, simply by the nature of their relationship to God and truth, naturally principled. However, I am dismayed by how often those who profess the name of Christ make disastrously unprincipled decisions. They allow emotions or self-interest to set aside what they claim to believe.

What principles mean the most to me?

  • The inherent value of human life—we are all created in the image of God.
  • The concept of self-government—God has so designed us to grow into maturity and make most decisions ourselves without the oversight of civil government. Not only individuals, but families, churches, voluntary organizations, etc., should be free of undue government influence.
  • The sanctity of private property—government has no mandate from God to be our overlord on economic matters; He instead, as part of our maturity, seeks to teach us how to be His stewards of all types of property: money, material goods, our minds, and the free will He has given us.
  • Voluntary association without the force of government coming down on us—people only unite when they are united, and that unity is internal, not provided by government coercion.
  • Christian character—God intended us to carry out our lives as reflections of Him; the world only works correctly when we do things His way.
  • Sowing and reaping—man is accountable for his actions, and he will receive back what he has sown: if obedience to God, blessings; if disobedience, dire consequences; we can’t blame society and claim victimhood status in God’s eyes because He will always hold us personally responsible for our choices, whether right or wrong.

Constitutional

I believe in the concept of the rule of law, meaning no man, regardless of high rank in society, is above the law. We all are to be judged by the same standard.

I believe in the system set up in this nation through the Constitution that gave us a solid basis for the rule of law.

I believe we need to hold firm to the original meaning of those words in our Constitution and not allow judges, legislators, or presidents to stray from the limited authority granted in that document.

Changes to the authority given to our federal government must go through the proper constitutional channel: the amendment process as outlined in the Constitution. A judge’s gavel is not a magic wand.

Anyone running for the presidency or for Congress, and anyone nominated for a federal judgeship, at whatever level, all the way to the Supreme Court, must pass muster as constitutionalists. No one who denigrates the rule of law should ever be supported for public office.

Conservative

This is a relative term. In a totalitarian system, a conservative would be one who wants to conserve totalitarianism. But in our system, a true conservative is someone who seeks to conserve what the Founders established. Often that can happen only by acting to overturn or reverse what has been done to destroy the Founders’ ideals. If a revolution has occurred, a real conservative might have to take on the nature of a counterrevolutionary in order to reestablish the foundations.

Conservatism does not merely conserve the status quo—if that status quo is a deviation from the constitutional system bequeathed to us.

Conservatism is not “reactionary”; it is a positive movement to secure the blessings of liberty to us and to future generations.

This is where I stand. This is my personal manifesto.

An Appeal to Evangelicals

This post is not intended as a hit piece on Donald Trump. It’s simply a statement of a few facts and an appeal.

It’s now pretty well established (and I waited on this one) that Trump had a brief affair with a porn star (celebrity name: Stormy Daniels) after marrying Melania and four months after the birth of their son.

It’s also pretty well established—particularly by the abrupt silence of the woman in question after having given interviews earlier—that she was paid $130,000 in hush money.

Some will say, well, that affair was many years ago, so it doesn’t matter. But the hush money was paid during the presidential election campaign of 2016.

That’s not that long ago.

Evangelical leaders are, in effect, giving Trump a “mulligan” on his morality. That’s the term used by Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. Franklin Graham has come along and commented that Trump has never lied to him, so he believes the denials.

How does he know Trump has never lied to him? How does one confirm that, especially when Trump has shown a great penchant for lying throughout his life? All I have to do is think of things he said during the Republican primaries as he slandered his opponents.

But that’s Trump, right? We knew what we were getting. After all, I’m told repeatedly, we didn’t elect a pastor-in-chief. I agree. We didn’t.

Yet since when have evangelicals not thought it important to weigh in on the character of our elected officials? We thought it was of the utmost importance when Bill Clinton was dragging the Oval Office through the moral slime.

Now, we apparently don’t care.

As long as we get the policies we want, we will either look the other way (the passive approach) or go out of our way to provide excuses and rationalizations (the activist approach).

Lest you misunderstand me—which happens quite often—I am pleased with most of what the Trump administration is doing in public policy. My concern continues to be twofold: the damage being done to the Christian witness as we uncritically support immoral behavior; the damage being done long-term to American conservatism due to the Trump brand.

The pressing need among evangelicals (a term some have now chosen not to use because it has become so watered-down) is to be faithful to our higher calling as disciple-makers. We cannot fulfill that calling if we wink at sin in our society, whether it manifests itself in the media, on the campuses, or in the White House.

We need to be consistent with our message: sin separates from God; only through repentance and faith in the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross can anyone be saved. And that applies to everyone.

If we fail to communicate that, we have failed in our primary mission. God is seeking those who will be faithful to that mission.

Where There’s Fire, There’s Fury

There sure has been a lot of attention given to this new book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. Cable news and online sites don’t seem to get enough of it.

Author Michael Wolff has created a firestorm of sorts with his account of what those who work in the Trump administration have told him about their boss. Bottom line is that they think he’s somewhat off his rocker.

Or did they say the things he says they said? That’s what has created an equal firestorm as some of those he quoted and/or paraphrased have now branded the quotes as false, inventions of a man who simply wants to embarrass and take down a president.

Where is the truth?

I really don’t know.

As an academic, I want everything sourced/documented in the most detailed way. My goal in any writing I have done is to ensure that readers can trust what I’m quoting. By those standards, Wolff’s book is apparently deficient. Perhaps that’s what publishers want—sensationalism to sell the books, not unimpeachable accuracy.

Even some journalists who are not exactly Trump fans have criticized Wolff. Some have pointed out factual inaccuracies that bring into question the integrity of the work as a whole. Didn’t the publisher have any fact-checkers assigned to this volume?

Wolff does note that he can’t vouch for the accuracy of everything people told him; he claims to be simply reporting what they said and it’s up to the reader to figure out how true those statements might be.

Truth is particularly suspect when one of your major inside sources is Steve Bannon, a man who comes across to me as someone who’s out to puff up Steve Bannon more than anything else. Principled is not an adjective I would use to describe him.

All the attention to the book and to Bannon’s alleged comments in it has led him down an apology path. One wonders how sincere his apologies are when it is obvious he is now in a tentative position with respect to his tenure at the Breitbart news [?] site.

Trump has denounced Bannon, as he always denounces anyone he believes has betrayed him. So it seems a trifle phony for Bannon now to sing praises to his former boss.

My personal opinion about the book is that it is a mixture of fact and fiction and that it’s difficult to know which tidbit is which.

As as result, I have no compelling desire to read it; I have better things to read.

However, as Jonah Goldberg has noted, the reason it can gain some credibility is that it depicts a president that some of us think we already see. It doesn’t surprise us if all of what is said might be true.

How should one respond to a book that depicts one as unfit for the office of the presidency? I can remember the 1980s when journalists attempted to paint a portrait of Ronald Reagan as some kind of a dumb jock that others were leading around by the nose because he had no idea what was going on.

How did Reagan respond to accusations of that type? With jokes about himself, not attacks on the attackers. He defused the charges by self-deprecating humor. Americans saw a man who could laugh at himself, not take himself too seriously, and they readily dismissed the highly partisan, distorted caricature presented by the journalists.

How has Trump responded? On Twitter, of course. Here’s the verbatim tweet, in case you missed it:

Throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart. Crooked Hillary Clinton also played these cards very hard and, as everyone knows, went down in flames. I went from VERY successful businessman, to top T.V. Star to President of the United States (on my first try). I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius….and a very stable genius at that!

First, let me say that if you have to defend yourself, the best way might be through humility. But that seems to be foreign territory for Donald Trump. When you have to assert that you have “mental stability” and that you are “like, really smart,” you have undermined your credibility from the start.

Trump then brags about all his successes (proof that he is “like, really smart”), ending with the modest comment that “smart” is not a strong enough term—no, he’s a genius—no, make that “a very stable genius”—thereby accomplishing the opposite of what he intended.

That tweet only gives credence to the accusations that he is an ego-driven, arrogant yet insecure man-child, who can’t control his reactions. I’ve commented many times that he too often comes across as juvenile; this tweet could be the apex of his juvenile behavior.

The first half of this post will alienate The Resistance, which aims for impeachment. The second half will anger Trump supporters who think he truly is a genius. My goal was not to anger anyone but to be fair and balanced in my assessment.

The book is most likely a travesty that doesn’t deserve much credibility, yet Trump has to stop being his own worst enemy if he doesn’t want the book to gain credibility.

The Old Testament prophet Malachi might have penned this warning to both sides in our current controversy, and the words seem to fit the fire and fury motif:

“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the LORD Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them.

May we take that warning seriously.

Rule of Law & the Constitutional Convention

In our era, when the rule of law seems to be weakening, it’s instructive to look back at how our cornerstone document, the Constitution, came into being. The 1780s, under the Articles of Confederation, saw a loose-knit assemblage of states that were in danger of splitting apart permanently. Those with concern for the rule of law and who had a vision for a better system urged a meeting of all the states to address the governmental crisis.

Twelve of the thirteen states responded to that call—tiny Rhode Island excepted due to fear of being overwhelmed by any change in the government—and sent delegates to Philadelphia. They met in this building in the summer of 1787, newly called Independence Hall, the place where they also debated and passed the Declaration of Independence eleven years earlier.

Of the thirty-nine individuals who eventually signed off on the new Constitution, over half had some training in the law. Lawyer jokes aside, that’s rather important, and was doubly so at that time, since all of them perceived of law as emanating from God ultimately, and not man.

They held to the conviction that man’s laws had to be in concert with God’s laws; otherwise, they would be invalid.

Half of the delegates had either attended or graduated from college. While that might seem to be a low percentage from the perspective of the twenty-first century, that was a high percentage in that era.

Further, thirty-three had served in the Continental Congress during the Revolution, a mark of stability and experience in governmental affairs. This was not to be an assembly of radicals who wanted to change everything.

Then, by choosing George Washington to preside over the convention, they provided its deliberations a respectability that all Americans would have to take seriously.

One delegate showed up with a plan: James Madison, probably the best researcher in the nation on the issue of good and effective government, offered his Virginia Plan, which became the basis for the debate as the convention went forward.

Madison’s influence was strong throughout that summer. He spoke frequently (second-highest number of speeches) and kept a record of what everyone said. Later, after all the delegates had died, his notes were published, and that book is now considered one of the most valuable of all American historical documents.

Another man, too infirm to be a delegate at this time, nevertheless made his mark on the Constitution because he was Madison’s mentor. Rev. John Witherspoon, president of the College of New Jersey, guided all of Madison’s intellectual pursuits. They had even worked together in the Continental Congress.

Witherspoon is credited, during his time at the college (later to be renamed Princeton) with graduating, along with the expected ministers, many men who later became governmental leaders. Four others at the convention, besides Madison, had studied under Witherspoon. Overall, the graduates during his tenure account for a future president (Madison), a vice president (Aaron Burr, but don’t hold that against Witherspoon), nine cabinet officers, twenty-one senators, thirty-nine congressmen, three US Supreme Court justices, and twelve state governors.

There is ample reason to accept the title many have bestowed on Witherspoon as “The Man Who Shaped the Men Who Shaped America.”

Some of what occurred at the Constitutional Convention will be the subject of a future post. Sufficient for today is the result: a system of government that gave precedence to the rule of law for a fledgling nation and that has helped that nation survive many tumultuous episodes. Regardless of our concerns with how our government may be functioning now, we can still feel some measure of confidence in its stability due to the wisdom of those who constructed it.

Defusing the Newburgh Conspiracy

The American Revolution was essentially over. British General Cornwallis had surrendered at Yorktown in October 1781. Yet George Washington still had to keep his army together until a peace treaty was concluded. That didn’t happen until 1783.

Many of his officers were angry with Congress. They hadn’t been paid for a long time and were contemplating open mutiny, even to the point of marching on Congress, guns in hand.

They knew Washington wouldn’t approve their potential plans, so they turned to Gen. Horatio Gates, the supposed hero of Saratoga. He really wasn’t the hero (that honor actually belonged to Benedict Arnold, prior to his turning traitor), but public perception is sometimes everything.

Gates had humiliated himself at the Battle of Camden in South Carolina, not only losing the battle, but being in the forefront of the hasty retreat. Yet there were some who still clung to the false idea that he was a leader, so they looked to him to “lead” in this mutiny.

The army was encamped in Newburgh, New York, in March 1783, and that’s why this episode is called the Newburgh Conspiracy. The mutineers called a meeting to discuss how to proceed with their plans. Gates was in charge.

Then, unexpectedly, Washington appeared at this meeting. He knew what they were plotting, totally disapproved of the movement, and hoped to soothe their anger over how they had been treated.

Washington had not only led the army all those long years of the war, but he had carried on another “war,” so to speak, the entire time—trying to get Congress to follow through on promises made. He was in constant communication with the Congress and came into this meeting to let the officers know about the latest exchange with the political leaders.

Some have called what he did next “political theater,” but to me, it seems genuine enough. One account describes what happened this way:

With a sigh, he removed from his pocket a letter and announced it was from a member of Congress, and that he now wished to read it to them. He produced the letter, gazed upon it, manipulated it without speaking. What was wrong, some of the men wondered. Why did he delay?

Washington now reached into a pocket and brought out a pair of new reading glasses. Only those nearest to him knew he lately required them, and he had never worn them in public. Then he spoke: “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”

This simple act and statement by their venerated commander, coupled with remembrances of battles and privations shared together with him, and their sense of shame at their present approach to the threshold of treason, was more effective than the most eloquent oratory.

As he read the letter, many were in tears from the recollections and emotions which flooded their memories. As Maj. Samuel Shaw, who was present, put it in his journal, “There was something so natural, so unaffected in this appeal as rendered it superior to the most studied oratory. It forced its way to the heart, and you might see sensibility moisten every eye.”

Finishing, Washington carefully and deliberately folded the letter, took off his glasses, and exited briskly from the hall.

Immediately, Henry Knox and others faithful to Washington offered resolutions affirming their appreciation for their commander in chief, and pledging their patriotism and loyalty to the Congress, deploring and regretting those threats and actions which had been uttered and suggested. What support Gates and his group may have enjoyed at the outset of the meeting now completely disintegrated, and the Newburgh Conspiracy collapsed.

I share this story for two reasons: first, I want to showcase again the character George Washington brought to his public duties; second, I want emphasize that history sometimes turns on the actions of one individual.

Let’s never forget that our actions do have consequences. By being obedient to what we know is right in God’s eyes, we can truly make a difference in this world.