Archive for the ‘ Politics & Government ’ Category

Teaching the Controversial Civil War Era

For the 6th time in my tenure at Southeastern, this fall I will be teaching my course on the Civil War Era. The topic is one of intense interest for many students, albeit one of continuing controversy. I do my best to deal fairly with those controversies—this is a part of American history that still lingers with us today.

It’s not merely a course that describes battles. Rather, it begins with a discussion of issues that led to the conflict: slavery and race relations and interpretation of the formation of the nation and the proper role of states’ rights.

At the start of the course, students are reading two books alternately. One is an excellent detailing of the furor over runaway slaves, the abolitionist movement, and the development of the Underground Railroad.

Ann Hagegorn’s Beyond the River tells that story, but with a special emphasis on the role of Rev. John Rankin, a leader in the abolitionist crusade.

Never heard of his name? You wouldn’t be alone. Modern accounts give more attention to the primary attention-getter of the abolitionists, William Lloyd Garrison. Yet Rankin, at the time, might be considered the premier abolitionist, particularly since he was attacking slavery from his Christian beliefs, unlike Garrison, who was not an evangelical.

Rankin lived in Ripley, Ohio, just on the freedom side of the Ohio River. His house on the hill was a beacon of freedom for slaves seeking to escape the South. It was a beacon in more than figurative language; Rankin always put a light in the window at night so the slaves could see where they needed to go.

Rankin’s house, therefore, for many, was the first stop on the Underground Railroad.

Hagedorn’s book is the best type of narrative history, as the reader is drawn into the lives of people; it’s a living narrative, not a dusty tome of facts.

The other book students read simultaneously is Mark Noll’s The Civil War As a Theological Crisis. This one is a must-read, since it lays out both sides in the emerging conflict and shows how Christians took opposing points of view on the issue of slavery, with both attempting to use Scripture for their support.

In one sense, it is a difficult book because it forces readers to deal with a deep divide between Christians and their interpretation of Scripture. Yet that’s precisely why it is so important for this course. We need to understand where people are coming from when we disagree with them. We can’t simply denounce everyone who has a different belief when they are seemingly using Scripture as their basis.

Both of these books provide the background for the war itself. I make good use of Ken Burns’s classic documentary on the Civil War for many of the battle details, along with my PowerPoint slides to emphasize key points. Besides battles, though, there were the political maneuverings throughout the war that were just as significant.

A book that portrays the opening stages of the conflict is Adam Goodheart’s (yes, that’s his real name) 1861: The Civil War Awakening.

This book is a latecomer to my course, but a most welcome addition, as it continues the fine narrative quality that the Hagedorn book gives the students. They are taken into the intimate lives of those affected by the outbreak of the war in the same manner as they have previously been introduced to the historical figures involved with abolitionism.

One of my goals is always to give students books that keep their attention. 1861 does that admirably.

The same can be said of a book that I’ve used every time I’ve taught this course: Jay Winik’s April 1865: The Month That Saved America. No superlatives can adequately describe how well written this book is. Even though the title suggests nothing outside of that particular month, in actuality, it offers all the background necessary to understand why the book has as its subtitle, The Month That Saved America.

By the time students finish reading Winik, they grasp, perhaps for the first time, how differently things might have turned out without some key decisions that were made during that crucial month, especially considering the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Speaking of Lincoln, no, I don’t minimize his role, although my recitation of the books I’m using may seem to indicate that. The final book for the course is very Lincoln-centered. Ronald White’s Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural delves into the mind of Lincoln in a comprehensive way, in particular, his spiritual growth during the agony of the war.

Lincoln’s religious beliefs have always been a fertile field of study and interpretation for historians, and, naturally, there is disagreement. What White accomplishes is a step-by-step account of how Lincoln’s views of God and Scripture led him to write the specific words we see in that second inaugural, which has been called, with credibility, the most theologically oriented address ever given by a president. And it was not a speechwriter who cobbled it together; it all came directly from Lincoln’s own meditations.

The Civil War Era was a tragic time in American history, but there is much we can learn from it and apply today. Teaching a course like this is not just some listing of battles; rather, it’s an opportunity to meditate deeply ourselves about the impact Christians can make in the world and how the events from this era still reach down to our society now.

Two Errors: Privatizing & Collectivizing the Faith

“No Christian and, indeed, no historian could accept the epigram which defines religion as ‘what a man does with his solitude,” began C. S. Lewis in his “Membership” essay. “It was one of the Wesleys, I think, who said that the New Testament knows nothing of solitary religion.”

Why is that? “The Church is the Bride of Christ. We are members of one another.”

Lewis continues by pointing out that modern society tries its best to confine religious beliefs and practices to the private life, and what he said in this essay decades ago is even more true today. He then notes the paradoxical nature of the “exaltation of the individual in the religious field . . . when collectivism is ruthlessly defeating the individual in every other field.”

The society of Lewis’s day, as he describes it, tried to denigrate any time for the individual as it pushed the idea of collectivism.

There is a crowd of busybodies, self-appointed masters of ceremonies, whose life is devoted to destroying solitude wherever solitude exists. . . .

If a really good home . . . existed today, it would be denounced as bourgeois and every engine of destruction would be levelled against it. And even where the planners fail and someone is left physically by himself, the wireless has seen to it that he will be . . . never less alone when alone.

We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and privacy, and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.

One wonders how much more Lewis would emphasize this if he were to witness what takes place in our day with the barrage of entertainment and social media drowning out genuine solitude and friendship. We think we are reclaiming both through social media platforms, but we may be fooling ourselves.

Both in Lewis’s day and in ours, the world “says to us aloud, ‘You may be religious when you are alone,'” yet “it adds under its breath, ‘and I will see to it that you never are alone.'”

Make Christianity a private affair and then banish all privacy is how Lewis explains that approach. Christians then fall into the trap of reacting against this “by simply transporting into our spiritual life that same collectivism which has already conquered our secular life.” He calls that “the enemy’s other stratagem.” Here’s what he means:

Like a good chess player, he is always trying to manoeuvre you into a position where you can save your castle only by losing your bishop.

In order to avoid the trap we must insist that though the private conception of Christianity is an error, it is a profoundly natural one and is clumsily attempting to guard a great truth.

Behind it is the obvious feeling that our modern collectivism is an outrage upon human nature and that from this, as from all other evils, God will be our shield and buckler.

So, we have a tendency to accept an error (collectivism) in our attempt to reject the privatization of our faith.

Collectivism is found primarily in politics. Lewis goes on to make this statement, one that I find quite appropriate to our current societal state:

A sick society must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much about his digestion; to ignore the subject may be fatal cowardice for the one as for the other. But if either comes to regard it as the natural food of the mind—if either forgets that we think of such things only in order to be able to think of something else—then what was undertaken for the sake of health has become itself a new and deadly disease.

We are a society immersed in politics. For many, it is the be-all and end-all of life. Any society in that state remains sick.

Christian faith should be our focus, not politics. Yet this faith cannot be either a private thing or a copy of secular collectivism. We lose if we go in either of those two directions. The true Body of Christ as explained in Scripture is of another nature entirely.

What is that nature? I’ll deal with that as I conclude Lewis’s thoughts in this essay in a future post.

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.

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?

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.