Archive for the ‘ The Historical Muse ’ Category

A Speech Etched into America’s Memory

Yesterday, November 19, was the 154th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, one of the most significant and poignant speeches in American history—and also one of the shortest.

The battle at Gettysburg had occurred in July of 1863, three days of some of the most awful warfare the nation has ever endured. It was particularly awful because those who died were all Americans, fighting one another. It took from July to November to clean up the battlefield of all the dead. The carnage practically defied description.

Abraham Lincoln went to Gettysburg to commemorate the victory by Union forces. He wasn’t even advertised as the primary speaker that day—the renowned orator Edward Everett had top billing. Yet no one recalls Everett’s words now. Lincoln’s concise two-minute address has come down to us as one of the most eloquent ever delivered. It doesn’t take long to read, so I offer it to you here:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

The photographer at the event figured he had time to make the changes necessary to the camera and still catch images of Lincoln’s speech, but he wasn’t prepared for one that short. The only photograph we have of that special occasion is one of Lincoln sitting down right after delivering his comments.

Lincoln’s only error in the speech was in saying that the world would not remember what was said there. At the time, newspapers mocked the president’s address, calling it embarrassing. Speakers were supposed to go on forever, thrilling their audiences with decorative flourishes of oratory. Lincoln instead opted for directness, simplicity, and heartfelt gratitude for those who died.

Most people don’t know that Lincoln was feeling ill at the time. It turned out he had contracted smallpox, although not a virulent strain. When I was last at the museum in Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC, I noticed this plaque that I thought was a splendid example of Lincoln’s sense of humor:

The Civil War was a constant strain on Lincoln, yet he learned how to handle the heavy burden placed on him. Evidence is strong that the trials he suffered led him back to Christian faith. The Gettysburg Address and his subsequent Second Inaugural Address give testimony to that faith.

Socialism/Limited Government Forum

In October I presented at a forum held at Southeastern University. The topic under debate was whether the Biblical worldview promotes a more limited government perspective or the socialist view. Incorporated into that was also the difference between socialism and free-market capitalism.

It was an opportunity for me to express my Biblical basis for what I believe about these issues.

Another SEU professor, Jason Old, took the viewpoint opposite to mine. I think we held a civil discussion even while disagreeing nearly 100% on everything. On how many college campuses does that happen anymore?

We called the forum “God, Man, and the State: Socialism or Limited Government?”

The video for that forum is now available, and you can go to it right here.

Prof. Old begins with a 20-minute presentation; I follow with my 20 minutes. After that, we both get another 5 minutes to respond to what the other presented, then it’s opened up to the audience for questions.

The room was packed—not only the 125 seats were filled, but people were standing in the back and sitting on the steps.

While I encourage you to watch it all (it’s just over an hour), if you would like to jump ahead to my comments, I begin at the 23:45 mark.

I hope this forum/discussion will be edifying for you.

A Century of Totalitarianism & Terror

This year commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. I use the word “commemorate,” not “celebrate.” There is nothing to celebrate in the establishment of the first Marxist communist state; that state, and all the progeny to which it has given birth, embodied the greatest scourge of the 20th century—and its pernicious beliefs and system continue to plague us today.

Russia was ripe for revolution while enmeshed in WWI. I won’t go into all the historical background; suffice to say there were genuine grievances. Yet, all too often, the chosen solution for grievances can be just as bad, or worse, than the original grievance.

The Bolsheviks came to power in late 1917, led by Vladimir Lenin, a man with no pity for anyone, who judged all people by whether they agreed with him on every point, and who introduced the modern concept of genocide, as he evaluated people not by individual guilt or innocence, but by their association with whatever group he deemed unfit to live.

Lenin became the model for all 20th-century revolutionaries. He devoted himself to developing professional revolutionaries who believed in total revolution, without any compromise.

He exploited the people’s war weariness and promised peace and bread for everyone. He controlled the Russian parliament by armed threats and intimidation. The press became a tool of propaganda; no dissenting voices were allowed. And he set up a secret police to inspire terror to any who might try to object to his goals. The czarist secret police were babes in terrorism compared to Lenin’s.

His method for total control can be outlined in this way:

  • Destroy all opposition outside the Party
  • Place all power in Party hands
  • Destroy all opposition within the Party
  • Concentrate all power in the Party in himself and his handpicked subordinates

The irony is that Lenin finally was undone by his own decree that the Party would oversee the health of its leaders. When Lenin had a stroke, his eventual successor, Josef Stalin, pushed Lenin out of power and grabbed the reins himself.

What is there to say about Stalin that most don’t know now? While we choose to highlight the obvious horror of Adolf Hitler (and rightly so), Stalin was conducting his own holocaust within his nation. He starved 7 million Ukrainians in the winter of 1932-1933; he held fake trials of Party officials, always leading to their execution (an estimated one million from 1936-1938), and signed a pact with Hitler in 1939 that allowed the latter to begin that awful world war.

Once that war ended, Stalin then proceeded to take over as many Eastern European countries as he could, giving rise to the Cold War. His long reign of 30 years led to the state murder of approximately 30 million of his own citizens.

From this horrific beginning, the communist vision of coerced utopia gave rise to a bevy of totalitarian states operating from that vision: China, North Korea, Cuba, etc.

No, I don’t celebrate the centennial of communism. My task is to educate others on its nature, based as it is on the rejection of Christian faith and the exaltation of man in all his depravity.

I’m also called to point out that it has never worked as advertised in any place it has been tried. A book needs to be written that neatly summarizes that reality. Perhaps this would be a good title:

Despite the hard facts about this ideology, some still say it is a wonderful vision of what man can be if only it’s tried the right way. I beg to differ. This “wonderful vision” is a vision of man without God and is, as Whittaker Chambers so eloquently explained when he broke from communism and found Christian faith,

What I had been fell from me like dirty rags. The rags that fell from me were not only Communism. What fell was the whole web of the materialist modern mind—the luminous shroud which it has spun about the spirit of man, paralyzing in the name of rationalism the instinct of his soul for God.

Yet far too many never face up to the obvious: this is totalitarianism, plain and simple.

This false ideology, this attempt to make man into a god and annihilate genuine Christianity, doesn’t deserve a second chance.

Lewis on the Ancient vs. the Modern

C. S. Lewis exchanged Oxford for Cambridge in 1955. He never received the recognition he deserved at Oxford; Cambridge offered him a special professorial chair designed with him in mind. It was a major event when he gave his inaugural Cambridge lecture, speaking to a full house about the distinctions between the ancient and the modern.

It’s in that lecture, De Descriptione Temporum,” that he made his oft-quoted comment about being a dinosaur because he was an Old Western Man, a type he claimed would not be around much longer.

Another passage in that lecture that is well worth contemplating is the part where he critiques the idea that just because something is new it must naturally be better.

“How has it come about,” he queried, “that we use the highly emotive word ‘stagnation,’ with all its malodorous and malarial overtones, for what other ages would have called ‘permanence'”? He continued,

Why does the word “primitive” at once suggest to us clumsiness, inefficiency, barbarity? When our ancestors talked of the primitive church or the primitive purity of our constitution they meant nothing of that sort. . . . Why does “latest” in advertisements mean “best”?

Acceptance of Darwinian evolutionism as applied to all aspects of society was one answer, he affirmed. We are all supposedly evolving and getting better all the time. But along with that, the coming of the age of the machines helps explain it more fully.

It is the image of old machines being superseded by new and better ones. For in the world of machines the new most often really is better and the primitive really is the clumsy. And this image, potent in all our minds, reigns almost without rival in the minds of the uneducated.

Technological improvements, Lewis opined, become milestones in people’s lives. He used examples from his day: the development from an old push-bike to a motorbike to a car; from gramophone to radio to television. Today, we can use other examples: the latest I-Phone simply must be purchased because it’s so much better.

This way of looking at things—this approach to life—has left “footprints on our language,” Lewis asserted, and is the very thing “that separates us most sharply from our ancestors and whose absence would strike us as most alien if we could return to their world.”

What if those ancestors could somehow make a trek into our modern world?

Conversely, our assumption that everything is provisional and soon to be superseded, that the attainment of goods we have never yet had, rather than the defence and conservation of those we have already, is the cardinal business of life, would most shock and bewilder them if they could visit ours.

As a historian, I love Lewis’s analysis of the differences between the past and the present. I agree that we have changed our language and definition of terms sometimes in a downward direction.

As a Christian, I resonate with his attachment to the permanent. Our society lives for the new, the more advanced, the latest novelty. Yet our society has little regard for that which needs to be preserved—ideas that permeated an earlier era: we are all made in the image of God; there are moral absolutes given by God; man, in society, needs to get as close to those absolutes as possible, and attain the moral character that they embody.

Will we see that kind of society again? It’s an open question.

Individual Choices, Not Impersonal Forces, Determine History

I’m teaching my American Revolution course this semester. Every time I do, I’m impressed with how character shapes history. In this case, the character of George Washington comes to the forefront.

As 1776 drew to a close, it seemed more likely than not that the fledgling nation was in jeopardy and that the Declaration of Independence was destined to be a silly footnote in history, another testament to man’s folly.

Washington’s army, such as it was, composed primarily of untested militia with short-term enlistments, had miraculously escaped the British noose on Long Island in August. Many would comment on the remarkable feat of ferrying the army from that island over to New York City in the dark of night.

Many others would remark with wonder at the almost-supernatural fog that descended on Long Island that morning, thereby allowing the retreat to end successfully. Divine Providence, many would say.

Yet after that, one might wonder where Divine Providence had gone. The ragtag Americans were pushed back in battle after battle, eventually losing the entire island of Manhattan and licking their proverbial wounds for the winter on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River.

Morale in the army and the new nation was at low ebb as Christmas approached. Would the army disintegrate completely? Was this experiment in independence over before it could even begin?

I’ve often taught that history does not revolve around impersonal forces (such as economics). Rather, it’s the individual choices we make that determine what happens next.

Washington took a risk. He knew the mercenary Hessian troops just across the river in Trenton, New Jersey, would be “celebrating” Christmas in their traditional manner—getting stone-cold drunk.

That’s when he made the decision—called rash by some in his ranks—to cross the river in the dead of night and march straight into the Hessian encampment, taking them by surprise.

Who hasn’t seen this famous painting? Leaving aside for the moment whether Washington actually stood up in the boat in this heroic pose, he nevertheless was embarking on a desperate and heroic endeavor.

It worked. The surprise was complete. The Hessians surrendered quickly.

British general William Howe was in the area and vowed vengeance for this brazen act. He attempted to surround Washington’s army, but Washington fooled him, again moving his forces during the night while keeping enough camp fires burning to make Howe believe the army was still there.

In the morning, Washington’s troops ran into a contingent of British near Princeton. At first, the troops were timid and started a retreat. Washington himself then rode to the front and rallied them. The result: another stunning victory.

When news of these back-to-back military successes found its way into the newspapers, the reeling nation’s morale rose immediately. Washington, by his personal courage and determination, had single-handedly revived their hopes.

Historians, of course, note that this was hardly the end of the trials and that morale would rise and fall throughout the next few years, depending on the circumstances. Washington would face more hard times, even to the point where some in Congress sought to remove him as commander of the army.

Yet this winter of 1776-1777 was crucial to the continuing struggle, a struggle that eventually saw the establishment of America’s independence.

I often call George Washington the indispensable man of this era. This is just one example of why that is true. And I repeat: individual choices, not impersonal forces, are the determiners for how history unfolds.

Columbus, Racism, & Protests

Wealthy football players claim America is oppressive. Their protest over the national anthem goes viral. The nation gets thrown into turmoil.

Columbus Day arrives. We have our annual Columbus-was-a-genocidal-maniac theme trumpeted from the mouths of those who, like the football players, believe America is the bastion of systemic racism.

As a historian, I know that our history includes some terrible things. Yet we need some sense of comparative analysis, not emotional outbursts, to deal with what has happened. We also need to see more clearly that many of those things we don’t like have been corrected.

And as a historian, I also know that not many people are well versed on that history. They simply follow the lead of some who claim they know the truth, even though often they are following a political agenda, not truth.

Take Columbus. Who really knows that one of his prime motivations was to spread Christianity? Oh, I know—he was also vainglorious and coveted rank and honor. He loved the title bestowed: Admiral of the Ocean Sea. But how many know that when he returned for his second voyage that all the men he had left in the New World had been slaughtered and that another native chief joined him in attacking those who committed that slaughter?

We have a much-too-romanticized view of what life was like among those natives. Jesus’s comment about how there will always be wars and rumors of wars applied among them as well as European nations. They were not as innocent as sometimes portrayed. They connived politically for advantage over other tribes and engaged in types of behavior not countenanced today.

In other words, they were people just like all other peoples—and where there are people, there are problems.

Just a hint: don’t get caught in a war; your end will be slow and torturous.

Back to Columbus. Here’s a comic I found a number of years ago that probably is closer to the truth than anything nowadays:

I’m no apologist for Columbus Day. I can take it or leave it. But neither do I bow to a modern political correctness that can only see evil in the arrival of the Europeans. I can draw distinctions between those who carried out evil and those who didn’t.

When it comes to American history, I can decry the racism that led to slavery, while simultaneously rejoice that America became one of those nations that put an end to the practice.

I can clearly see that the segregation that followed slavery was evil, yet I can enthusiastically applaud the end of that particular evil empire.

I know that the inner cities of America are a place of disadvantage for success in life. Yet I also know that government programs to “help” have only led to the disintegration of the black family structure, thereby creating more poverty. When over 70% of children born in the inner cities grow up without a father, consequences follow. God intended that all children have both a father and a mother.

So, in an ironic twist, it’s all that government help that has created an atmosphere that some see as oppressive.

If the family structure were to be reestablished and genuine capitalism be allowed to flourish (not the crony type that dominates cities run by so-called progressives), I believe we would see much greater prosperity across the board in our society and much less rationale for the protests we see now.

Where do those foundational beliefs in the necessity of a strong family and a vibrant, free economy come from? They are Biblical principles. Only a return to those principles will bring this about.

A Dual Spiritual Biography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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