Archive for the ‘ The Historical Muse ’ Category

Faith in God or Faith in Man?

Where does our faith reside as a nation? Simply putting “In God We Trust” on coins doesn’t really mean that we trust in God, does it? The god of America currently might be no more than a benevolent grandfather who isn’t really all that upset with what’s happening and who certainly wouldn’t want to damage anyone’s self-esteem.

However, that’s not the God of Scripture.

In my book on Ronald Reagan and Whittaker Chambers, I try to deal with the views of both men with respect to America’s spiritual perceptions and with the future of Western Civilization. Reagan and Chambers differed in their predictions for the future. What can we learn from both? Let me share some excerpts from the book:

Whittaker Chambers had no doubts with regard to the evil that resides within man. His affinity for writers and thinkers such as Dostoevsky and Niebuhr, and his own experiences in his dysfunctional upbringing, within the communist underground, at Time, and throughout the duress of the Hiss case, leave little room for debate on that point of doctrine.

Reagan, meanwhile, seemed to hold contradictory views with respect to the nature of man. As he himself noted, he tended to see the good in people. At the same time, he recognized evil in individuals and empires alike; most of his life after Hollywood was spent trying to expose and overthrow what he believed was an evil system.

Chambers helped balance Reagan’s natural tendency to see primarily the good. Witness provided Reagan with a sobering reality. He said that Witness helped him learn the bitter truth “of that great socialist revolution which in the name of liberalism has been inching its icecap over the nation for two decades.”

My book is an examination of the quintessential Reagan optimism balanced by the sometimes bleak pessimism of Chambers. Yet both built their worldview on the same cornerstone of spiritual reality:

Reagan’s optimism was based on his Christian understanding of redemption. He had experienced his own personal redemption, he spoke of Chambers’s redemption from his former life, and he fervently asserted that God was poised to redeem the world from totalitarian communism.

Chambers, from the same basic Christian worldview, could not express that degree of optimism. He believed, as Reagan did, that God redeems individuals, but had a much more pessimistic view of that redemption rippling throughout society. Chambers’s perspective can be likened to the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, who foretold disaster for ancient Judah because of its apostasy while simultaneously calling the people to repentance.

Reagan and Chambers held to the same faith, the same basics truths about life, yet they differed in their predictions of the future of freedom.

Shortly after Reagan left office, the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union disintegrated. Did this mean that the communist threat was no more? One of Chambers’s closest friends commented as follows:

Ralph de Toledano noted that when the “evil empire” collapsed, people asked him: “Would Whittaker Chambers still believe that he had left the winning side for the losing side?” He replied that Chambers, long before the collapse, had already seen “that the struggle was no longer between Communism and Western civilization, but one in which Western civilization was destroying itself by betraying its heritage.”

In essence, “Communism had triumphed, not in its Marxist tenet but in its concept of man—a concept which the West has accepted.” It goes back to Chambers’s insistence that there are two faiths and the West must make a decision: God or man?

One quote from Chambers’s classic Witness is a fitting ending for today:

God alone is the inciter and guarantor of freedom. He is the only guarantor. External freedom is only an aspect of interior freedom. Political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible. Religion and freedom are indivisible. Without freedom the soul dies. Without the soul there is no justification for freedom. …

… There has never been a society or a nation without God. But history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that became indifferent to God, and died.

Is America still open to Biblical truth? The jury is still out, in my view, but if you were to ask in which direction I lean, I would have to say that Chambers seems closer to the truth right now. We have made ourselves deaf, dumb, and blind to all the warnings God has sent us. Only a genuine reformation of thinking and practice can restore what we have lost.

Shall We Retire the Term “Evangelical”?

I call myself an evangelical. What does that mean? “Evangel” means good news; an evangelist is someone who spreads good news; evangelicals, therefore, are those who believe in spreading the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

So I like the term.

Yet it has come under scrutiny lately within the church because it seems to be losing its original meaning. Some are questioning whether it ought to be dropped as a description of those who follow Christ.

Most of that questioning stems from political developments. Evangelicals are now considered one of the “interest” groups in elections. Commentators examine their political clout and try to figure out how they will vote.

The problem, however, is the number and type of people who are lumped together under the name “evangelical.” They include those were who raised in the church but aren’t really faithful Christians. Many simply relate to the word evangelical because it’s part of their family tradition.

The word, then, has lost its real definition.

Let’s look at history for some guidance.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the US experienced what historians describe as the Second Great Awakening. This revival of Christian faith spawned groups of believers who were tired of the division of Christians into denominations. They sought to get back to how they perceived the first-century church operated.

One group decided simply to call themselves Christians, as distinct from Congregationalist, Presbyterians, Lutherans, etc. Another took the name Disciples of Christ in an attempt to identify as Christians only, without any denominational tag.

They even said they would not become official denominations; they were merely movements of like-minded Christians. Well, no matter the original intent, they coalesced into identifiable denominations regardless; it was a natural development.

So the attempt to be just “Christian” without any further label wasn’t wholly successful.

Toward the end of that century, with the new higher criticism of Biblical authority threatening to undermine basic Biblical doctrines, those who rejected that criticism called themselves “fundamentalists” because they were declaring their allegiance to the fundamentals of the faith.

As theological liberals who denied Biblical teachings such as the virgin birth of Christ began taking over the seminaries, the fundamentalists set up their own Bible colleges and seminaries to counter that denigration of the true faith.

Unfortunately, too many of the fundamentalists became rather rigid in their practices while simultaneously withdrawing from meaningful interaction with the world, avoiding politics, education, etc., and thereby losing influence in the culture.

Those who agreed with the concept of maintaining the fundamentals but who didn’t wish to be viewed in the same light as those who claimed that label, migrated to a new term: evangelicals.

The shock of the cultural changes of the 1960s-1970s, spurred by events such as Supreme Court rulings relegating the Bible and prayer to the periphery of social life and opening the floodgates of abortion led these evangelicals to get involved in the political arena to hold back—and hopefully reverse—that cultural tide.

In my opinion, evangelicals have tried their best to carry out that endeavor without rancor and in the hope of drawing people to the Truth, not only about personal salvation, but also about how the Christian faith ought to impact all aspects of our society’s culture.

Evangelicals, in the last election, eventually attached themselves to Donald Trump. Some did so reluctantly, knowing his many flaws, but unable to countenance the alternative. Others did so with genuine fervor, seeing Trump as God’s anointed/political savior, not only minimizing his history of poor character but actually applauding his in-your-face persona.

I have to admit that’s when I started wondering whether the word evangelical had lost so much of its flavor that it needed to be retired.

Yet, despite the watering-down of the term, the original definition remains. An evangelical is someone who knows the truth of the Gospel message and is determined to see that truth disseminated so that the chasm between God and man, created by our own sins, can be bridged through repentance and faith in what Christ has done for us.

Therefore, I’m not retiring the word. I’ll continue to use it to describe who I am. The evangel of God is the good news; I’m to be an evangelist of that good news; I am an evangelical.

Unity, Union, & a Great Awakening

Today, I offer an excerpt from one of my books, If the Foundations Are Destroyed: Biblical Principles and Civil Government. The topic is the principle of Unity and Union and how imperative it is to first have internal unity before attempting an external union.

The initial step in the formation of unity in the colonies came from God. It was called the Great Awakening. The Awakening was a revival of the Christian faith that began sporadically in the 1720s and extended into the 1740s. It began in local self-governing communities, as the Spirit of God reawakened people to their individual accountability for salvation.

The climax came in 1740 with the arrival of evangelist George Whitefield, who came ashore in Georgia and traversed the entire eastern seaboard, preaching the Word of God with powerful effect. Through Whitefield, the Awakening became a multi-colony experience. Whole cities came to a standstill to hear him.

Even Benjamin Franklin, who never became a Christian convert, was impressed with the results of Whitefield’s time in Philadelphia. Franklin commented, “From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seemed as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk through the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street.”

Historians have disagreed over the actual results of this Awakening. Some point to denominational splits and conclude that it did not create unity. Yet I believe the general effect was positive. Many new colleges started, colleges dedicated to Christian scholarship and to applying the Christian faith to all walks of life. Princeton, Brown, Rutgers, and Dartmouth all trace their beginnings to the Awakening.

Although some critiqued the Awakening’s external methods (British colonials were not used to emotional religion), many were shaken from their lethargy concerning the need for individual salvation. The message of personal response to God was preached in every colony and the Awakening became the first truly “American” event, shared by every colony. It created a sense of American unity of spirit that prepared the way for eventual political unity and union.

Where is our internal unity today as a nation? The lack of such unity is why we’re seeing the chasm culturally and politically. We need another Great Awakening.

Tax Cuts & the Poor: Reagan & Now

When Ronald Reagan took office back in 1981, he had three goals: a tax cut to stimulate the economy; cutting back on federal spending and regulations; and building up the American military to a state of preparedness after a post-Vietnam demise.

He accomplished all of those except for the cutback on federal spending. Some blamed his military buildup for that, but the bulk of the increased spending was on the domestic side—Democrats who controlled the House wouldn’t allow any sensible reductions.

The tax cuts were supposed to kill people, according to many Democrats. Reagan was excoriated as a tool of the wealthy at the expense of the poor. That was untrue. Look at these figures comparing how households fared in income during Reagan’s terms:

I won’t try to explain the entire chart (examine it at your leisure), but it shows that of those who were the poorest households in 1979, 85.8% of them were in a higher income bracket by 1988. The re-energized economy of the 1980s helped the poor significantly.

Congress recently passed more tax cuts. Dire predictions emanated once more from Democrats—but as in the 1980s, those predictions are proving to be demonstrably false.

History can show us what worked before and what didn’t. So why are some people so immune from learning those lessons? It has to do with their worldview and the false philosophies that they believe as a result.

This has been your history lesson for today. You’re welcome.

Our Own Version of Newspeak

I read George Orwell’s classic novel 1984 way back sometime in my youth. Orwell, a socialist who saw the potential tyranny of socialism (read his Animal Farm for a withering treatment of Soviet-style communism under Stalin), displayed in 1984 just how bad it could get.

One of the words he introduced in the novel was Newspeak. It has now become part of our vocabulary. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the term this way:

Propagandistic language marked by euphemism, circumlocution, and the inversion of customary meaning.

Vagueness and reversal of established terminology, giving new and often perverted meanings to words, has now become an art in our society. Here’s one cartoonist who has noticed how this has come into play lately:

We used to think that global warming meant the temperature is getting warmer. Silly us. Now we know that global warming creates record cold waves.

Tax cuts used to mean that people paid fewer taxes. Wrong again. Somehow, those evil tax cuts are going to make us pay more. Oh, and everyone is going to die very soon because of them.

On university campuses across the nation, free speech is under attack because it’s not really free speech anymore, but speech that oppresses certain classes of people. That cannot be allowed. The First Amendment must be abolished so we can be free indeed.

See how it works? No? Well, join the club.

Pernicious as these developments are in overturning basic logic and even threatening our right to speak our minds in public, there is a moral inversion that is not new. It goes way back, even to the beginning of the human race—and we see it rising in our day as well.

The prophet Isaiah, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, explained it this way:

Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil;
Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness;
Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!

Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes
And clever in their own sight

Woe to those who are heroes in drinking wine
And valiant men in mixing strong drink,

Who justify the wicked for a bribe,
And take away the rights of the ones who are in the right!

Abortion is the fulfillment of reproductive rights, not the murder of an innocent child.

Homosexuality/same-sex marriage is love in action, not a perversion of God’s gift of sex.

The end justifies the means: as long as you come out on top in the end, you are to be praised regardless of how you got there. Righteousness in the means one uses is outmoded and unrealistic. All that matters is winning.

Those are the examples that immediately come to mind, but there are more.

Have we reached our own version of 1984, albeit a few decades later? Are we allowing Newspeak to guide our thinking and short-circuit genuine logic?

Don’t follow the herd. Think as God intended you to think. Take a stand for truth even when that stand is a lonely one. God sees. He honors those who stand.

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.

The Confessing–and Faithful–Church

Every day I receive an e-mail from the Christian History Institute with a feature story about some aspect of church history, highlighting the faithfulness of Christians in ages past. Today’s was especially poignant to me as it revealed the stark difference between those who link their Christianity too closely to the State and those who stand for righteousness when the State does not.

This account centers on Nazi Germany, but the principles remain the same for any nation:

After Hitler came to power, he confronted Christians in Germany with uncomfortable choices. At first, few pastors seemed to recognize where Hitler was taking the church. He sought to co-opt both Lutheran and Reformed churches to support his National Socialist Party.

Many church people supported him. Sick of the decadence that had characterized the previous government, the “Weimar Republic,” many hoped that the Führer, with his emphasis on history and tradition, might usher in spiritual renewal. Others feared the Communists more than the Nazis.

Playing on the fears and longings of churchgoers, Hitler nationalized the church under a single bishop with a Nazi-inspired constitution. German churches were ordered to eject Jewish Christians, to accept Hitler as a prophet, and to accept German racial consciousness—which exalted the Aryan race above all others—as a second revelation. The so-called “German Christians” elected Ludwig Müller, an ardent Nazi, as their “Reichs-bishop.”

To keep their jobs, hundreds of clergymen accepted Müller’s racist and political restrictions. But a minority of church leaders did not. Martin Niemoller brought them together, inviting all German pastors to join what he called the Pastors’ Emergency League.

Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others joined him. These men insisted that the church belonged under the headship of Christ, not the state, and must obey God rather than national leaders. They urged German pastors to bind themselves by Scripture and centuries-old, reliable confessions of faith.

To their credit, once the stakes were made clear, many pastors resigned from the state church. A number of Protestants who stood against the Nazis gathered at the city of Barmen to discuss the situation and prepare a response. They called themselves the Confessing Church because they clung to the old confessions of faith. Niemoller and Bonhoeffer went to prison; Bonhoeffer died there. Barth fled to Switzerland. A number of Roman Catholic priests also resisted the Nazis. Some, like Bernhard Lichtenberg, died in concentration camps.

On this day, 4 January 1934, Reichs-bishop Müller tried to silence critics of the Nazi church, issuing a “muzzling order” forbidding them from speaking about the church-state issue from their pulpits. However, the Confessing Church refused to be silenced.

In May, they issued the Barmen Declaration, whose primary authors were famous Reformed theologian Karl Barth and Lutheran theologian Hans Asmussen. One of its key statements read, “We reject the false doctrine that beyond its special commission the church should and could take on the nature, tasks, and dignity which belong to the state, and thus become itself an organ of the state.”

The leaders of the confessing church’s deepest concern was to call the entire German church to a much-needed renewal. This renewal did not take place until after the fall of Hitler’s Third Reich.

Two things struck me in this account: first was the fear that seemed to be the motivation for many to accept Hitler’s regime; second was the courage it took for the Confessing Church to stand up to the pressure of conforming.

The fear was ostensibly valid due to the moral decadence that dominated the culture. When we allow fear to drive our actions, principle is often abandoned.

The courage was remarkable, as each member of the Confessing Church knew the probability of facing severe persecution and death. Many, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, were martyred for their faithfulness to Christ.

What of American Christians? How many of us would succumb to the fear that compromises the faith if the government tried to dictate in the same way Hitler did? How many of us would choose instead to stand for Christ and be the salt and light we are called to be?

What Jesus told His disciples 2000 years ago still resonates today:

Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.

What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels. (Mark 8:34-38)