My New Semester: Creating Appreciation for American History

In two weeks, all the faculty meetings begin; in three weeks, classes start once more. My summer of research, reading, and preparation for the new semester will come to an end. I will begin my 30th year of teaching university students.

One of the courses I’ll be teaching this fall is the one I always teach in the fall: my basic American history survey course that covers America from its colonial days through Reconstruction after the Civil War.

I’ve used one book for the survey course continually throughout my 13 years at Southeastern, and I would hate to ever set it aside. British historian Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People is unique. It’s not your typical textbook put together by some kind of collaboration between professional historians and/or a committee that seeks to dumb down history reading and make it as staid and unenjoyable as possible.

Johnson has wit and is not afraid of offering his interpretation on various events in the history of America. Is he fair? After all, he’s British and may have hard feelings about such things as the American Revolution (aka, The American War for Continued Self-Government) and the War of 1812.

Not at all. He says there was a world of difference in leadership during that Revolution between the Mother country and its colonies. He praises the genius of many of America’s Founding Fathers.

While some students struggle with Johnson, I don’t mind trying to stretch them. It’s good for them to read a truly worthwhile writer.

The other book I use is now out of print but I’m told there should be enough copies this time around (I pray that’s the case). James Hutson’s Religion and the Founding of the American Republic emanates from the Library of Congress (where Hutson works) and performs the marvelous task of revealing to students the sources from which we can identify just how significant Christian faith was to the majority of people during that era.

It’s a wonderful complement to the Johnson book, helping students see how Christianity formed the basis for culture and law at that time. Given the drive to excise that portion of our heritage from the teaching of history, it offers a great corrective. I hope the students appreciate it.

Teaching a survey course can be fun and exhilarating when students respond; it can be the worst of all worlds if they don’t care. I try to be consistent in my teaching methods and create interest, even if it doesn’t seem to exist at first. Sometimes the students catch that spirit; sometimes they don’t.

I’ll be teaching two sections of the course, back to back each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It will be interesting to see if there is a qualitative difference in the level of interaction from one section to the other. My prayer is that students in both sections, even though they are comprised of hardly any history majors, will go away from this semester with a deeper knowledge and appreciation of what occurred in the founding of this nation.

That’s one of four courses I’ll be teaching. I’ll explain the others in future posts.

Was “Revoice” the Scriptural Voice?

The message of the Gospel is this: man is sinful; man must recognize his sins and repent of them; when he does, God, through the mercy of the Cross that Jesus suffered, will forgive all sins, and will set people free from the chains of sin that had them bound.

It’s truly the “Good News,” a positive message of redemption. It just doesn’t seem like good news to those who want to hold onto their sins. They refuse to see the freedom being offered to them in Christ.

Recently, the Presbyterian Church in America hosted a meeting in St. Louis that it called the Revoice Conference. The stated goal was to discuss the issue of homosexuality in the church and how the church should respond to it.

There was a decidedly mixed message in this conference. Yes, attendees were told that anyone with same-sex attractions should not give in to that temptation, but there was also an affirming message about “gay” orientation that existed side-by-side with that warning.

World magazine explained what else was heard besides the message of not practicing homosexuality:

One reason the conference was controversial: Its use of fuzzy pro-gay terminology such as “sexual minority” and “queer culture.” One breakout session on redeeming “queer culture” spoke of the “virtues of queer culture” and asked, “What queer treasure, honor, and glory will be brought into the New Jerusalem at the end of time?”

The use of the pro-gay terminology and the question at the end are both disturbing. Homosexuality might contribute to the treasure, honor, and glory of the New Jerusalem? Really?

World‘s description continued, quoting Nate Collins, organizer of the conference:

“Is it possible that gay people today are being sent by God like Jeremiah to find God’s words for the church to eat them and make them our own; to shed light on contemporary false teachings and even idolatries—not just the false teaching of the progressive sexual ethic, but other, more subtle forms of false teaching?” he asked attendees. “Is it possible that gender and sexual minorities who live lives of costly obedience are themselves a prophetic call to the church to abandon idolatrous attitudes toward the nuclear family, toward sexual pleasure? If so, then we are prophets.”

Now we’re supposed to call “gay” people prophets, in the same manner as Jeremiah? While I realize that he’s talking about those who don’t give in to their inclinations, he’s simultaneously demeaning the nuclear family. Can some people make family into an idol? Certainly. But the tone of this statement seems to downplay the role of the family, as if being homosexual and remaining celibate is a higher glory.

What bothers me about the overall leaning of the conference is the almost-affirming nature of homosexuality and the seeming acceptance that this is how God has created some people. If my perception is accurate, that would be a wholesale sellout to modern trendy thinking.

We need to remember what is explicitly stated in Scripture, in a number of places, but most clearly in Romans, chapter 1:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. . . .

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. . . .

Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

Let me repeat what I said at the beginning of this post: The message of the Gospel is this: man is sinful; man must recognize his sins and repent of them; when he does, God, through the mercy of the Cross that Jesus suffered, will forgive all sins, and will set people free from the chains of sin that had them bound.

Any deviation from those central tenets of the faith is a betrayal of Scripture, which, in turn, leaves people in their sins. That’s not the good news we’re supposed to be offering.

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.

About This Teaching Ministry

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, I stay busy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The goal of my teaching has not changed:

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

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

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

Many False Routes to the Only Well

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

That’s one step deeper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s the only thing that really matters.

The Prickly Tariff Issue

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

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

Are they really all that great for everyone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When did conservatives stop believing this?