America’s Best Presidents

There was no Presidents Day in my younger years. Instead, February stood out as the month we celebrated, separately, the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

I have no problem with a day that seeks to honor all those who have served as president, but there are some who certainly don’t deserve as much honor as others (I won’t name names) and the fusion of all presidents into one day has diminished the special occasions of Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays, so that, in my view, is another downside to the change.

As a historian who comes at politics and government from a Biblical and conservative perspective, some presidents rise above others in my admiration. Four, in particular, rise to the top for me. Let me identify them and explain why I esteem them above all the others.

George Washington

This is the man who was indispensable to the Founding of the nation. I don’t use the word “indispensable” lightly. Washington’s roles as head of the military during the American Revolution and as the first president were the glue that held us together. No one else during that era commanded the same respect as he did.

The Constitutional Convention was given greater legitimacy through his attendance as president of the convention, and the expectation that he would take on the responsibilities of the presidency calmed the country as it sought stability.

Washington’s character was his hallmark; he demanded integrity from himself as much as from others. He suffered through those long years of war, holding a ragtag army together when the Congress couldn’t figure out how to supply and pay the soldiers.

When, at the end of that war, Congress faced a potential mutiny of the officers, it was Washington who defused the mutiny with the force of his character. Respect for their commander who had shared their sufferings kept the nation from starting out with a military coup.

When the war ended, he resigned his commission and went home, confounding King George III, who couldn’t conceive of anyone voluntarily setting aside the kind of power and authority Washington had attained. He rebuked those of his followers who urged him to proclaim himself king of America.

He also stepped down from the presidency after two terms, even though the Constitution at that time didn’t require it, thus setting a precedent for all who followed after.

So, yes, I believe George Washington deserves special honor on this day.

Abraham Lincoln

There are still people today who grate at the name of Lincoln, believing he was a tyrant during the Civil War. Research into his character and actions overall, though, put the lie to that perception.

Lincoln was devoted to the Constitution and was a keen student of American history and government. All one has to do is read his Cooper Institute speech prior to his presidency to see how he amassed a ton of information on the views of the Founding Fathers as the basis for his political positions. And no one can escape his devotion to the Declaration of Independence.

Lincoln was one of the greatest of presidential wordsmiths; he crafted his speeches carefully in the hope of showcasing the principles that lay at the foundation of the nation. His Gettysburg Address and his inaugurals, particularly the Second Inaugural, are testaments to the heart of the man, as he wove Biblical charity and forgiveness into the texts for all to remember.

The Civil War was the greatest crisis the nation has ever faced, and Lincoln had to deal with issues no president before or since has had to handle. If this was the ultimate on-the-job training, he came through magnificently.

The tragedy of his death is that he was only beginning to embark on the path of a peaceful, forgiving reconstruction of the country. Without him, that path became much rockier.

Through the loss of two sons to early deaths and the burdens of a great war, Lincoln was compelled to draw closer to God. I believe, in the end, he rediscovered his Christian faith. He richly deserves the honor so many have bestowed upon him.

Calvin Coolidge

Some will be surprised by the inclusion of Coolidge in my list of most honorable presidents. Liberal historians disparage the man they say did nothing in his presidency. They promote the idea that because he was a man of few words that he was insignificant. Well, wordy people are not always the significant ones; those who use caution in what they say may be far wiser.

Coolidge, as vice president, found himself thrust into the presidency by the death of Warren Harding in 1923. It was not an easy task to ascend to the office at that point because scandals in the Harding administration were just beginning to bubble to the surface.

Upon hearing of Harding’s death, the first thing Coolidge did was to take his wife’s hand and kneel with her by the bed to pray for guidance and the wisdom to take up the challenges set before him.

Coolidge, because of his basic integrity, made sure all investigations of those scandals proceeded accordingly. People who had been in the Harding administration went to prison. He offered no favors to them, no pardons.

The 1920s were a boom time economically for the country. Coolidge’s low-tax and reduced-regulation policies helped spur innovation and prosperity. He was in no way to blame for the later Great Depression. The prosperity of the 1920s was genuine.

He won election in his own right in 1924, and undoubtedly would have won again in 1928, but he voluntarily relinquished the power of the presidency in the same spirit as Washington. In his memoir, Coolidge explained why he chose to step down, and I find it one of the wisest statements ever made by a president:

It is difficult for men in high office to avoid the malady of self-delusion. They are always surrounded by worshipers. They are constantly, and for the most part sincerely, assured of their greatness. They live in an artificial atmosphere of adulation and exultation which sooner or later impairs their judgment. They are in grave danger of becoming careless and arrogant.

Character meant more to Coolidge than power. For that reason alone, he deserves our respect and honor.

Ronald Reagan

Reagan as one of my top presidents should surprise no one. After all, I’ve written a book about him. He won the presidency at one of the lowest points in the history of that office. Post-Vietnam, posts-Watergate, post-Carter, the nation was in the doldrums. Reagan, with his sunny disposition, helped restore optimism. And his policies—tax cuts, deregulation, and the rebuilding of the military—inspired new confidence in the nation’s future.

Couple all of that with his solid defense of liberty and firm belief that communism was destined for the ash heap of history, and we witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, and new hope for freedom.

Reagan’s Christian faith was real; I interviewed his former pastor and left that interview with confirmation of that fact. Reagan believed God had a purpose for America and that this country, despite some of its missteps over time, remained the beacon for freedom in the world.

Reagan’s humility stands out above all else in his character. He never took credit for the economic upsurge in the 1980s; he said it was the result of the hard work and faith of the people. When he received the Alzheimer’s diagnosis, he wrote one final address to the American people. The last paragraph states,

In closing let me thank you, the American people for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your President. When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be I will face it with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future.

I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.

Even in that address, it wasn’t really about him—it was about America. His humility was his strength. Ronald Reagan deserves our gratitude and should be honored for what he brought to the Oval Office.

There are other presidents who served admirably, but, in my view, Washington, Lincoln, Coolidge, and Reagan are the four best in American history. Let’s remember them today.

Lewis: His Intellectual & Emotional Impact

In the survey I conducted in 2014 about how C. S. Lewis’s writings have impacted Americans, I saw how that impact was both intellectual and emotional, and how God used both to help people find Him.

On the intellectual side was this comment:

When I was an arrogant college student who believed only weak and/or stupid people believed in Christ, Lewis showed me beyond question that faith could make sense even to an intellectual. He awakened my spiritual imagination with his fiction and persuaded my reason with his nonfiction.

Another provided a more in-depth scrutiny of how Lewis dealt with the intellect:

Lewis’s works exemplify what I consider a Holy Spirit baptized intellect. Knowledge on holy fire. His ability to frame the issues in a succinct way and then address them with such extremely critical thinking skills provides a wonderful exemplar for Christians all over the world on how to not only be people of faith, but also engage our intellect (verbal and writing skills) to provide a “defense for the hope that is within us.”

His work, Mere Christianity, remains one of my favorite recommendations for intellectual unbelievers who are serious about weighing through claims of Christian faith. I believe many will either embrace Christ for the first time or reinforce their beliefs in Him through its reading.

Beyond the purely intellectual appeal, Lewis and his writings also have impacted the emotions and encouraged Christians in their various struggles. One woman was willing to share her personal struggles and how staying in touch with Lewis made a huge difference in her life:

When I walked away from my Christian faith during my twenties and early thirties, Lewis was one of the few Christian authors I still trusted and could stand to read. I was grieving, angry, and depressed, and when I reread The Chronicles of Narnia, the hope that shone through them was almost painful. Emotionally, it was as though a frozen and numb part of me began to regain feeling.

Some years later, a passage from The Screwtape Letters was instrumental in helping me realize that I’d been angry at the church when, in fact, the church had been my truest friends and best support through very dark days.

For those who completed this survey, there is no doubt that Lewis remains a source of spiritual strength and intellectual rigor for many American Christians. He has kept many from losing their faith while in college; his books continue to sell briskly more than half a century after he penned his last one; he has inspired children with his Narnia tales and introduced them to Christ in the form of a beloved lion; societies are springing up throughout the land devoted to the study of Lewis; and major Hollywood movies have attempted to put his vision and message into the mainstream of American entertainment. C. S. Lewis appears to be in America to stay.

Trump: Lessons Learned?

At first, it appeared that Trump had this president thing all figured out. He was quick out of the block to undo many of President Obama’s unconstitutional actions. He was signing executive orders right and left.

Then came indications that maybe he’s still enmeshed in on-the-job training. While I agree that his executive order regarding immigration was within his authority and had the right intent—ensuring we aren’t importing terrorists—the rollout was bungled. People were caught in it who shouldn’t have been; Trump didn’t get ahead of the narrative so that the opposition, both Democrats and the media, couldn’t use it as a cudgel.

A misstep, to be sure.

Then when a federal judge put a stay on the order and it went to the Ninth Circuit Court, commentators were quick to note that Trump’s advocates in the court weren’t apparently top-notch. The Ninth Circuit upheld the stay.

It’s easy to criticize that particular court because it has a history of tacking to the political Left. No other circuit has had so many of its decisions reversed by the Supreme Court. It would have more credibility if it actually followed law rather than its own political ideology.

Trump, throughout this controversy, did what he always does so well: go to Twitter to denounce and insult. That’s not a tactic designed to win over the opposition.

Now we have the Mike Flynn fiasco. When Flynn was picked to be National Security Adviser, I was not entirely on board. Whenever I saw him offering commentary, I had reservations about his approach and his temperament. Yes, he seemed to understand the Islamist threat, but he also seemed far too cozy with Russia, which mirrored Trump’s attitude.

Flynn resigned late Monday night over reports that he hobnobbed with the Russian government prior to taking office. There is no law against that, but there was concern about what he was promising the Russians. Personally, I think it’s good to start talking with foreign governments when a national security official is about to take on that duty.

However, Flynn attempted not only to hide what he had done; in addition, he lied to VP Pence about it, making Pence an unwitting liar when he defended Flynn publicly.

That is inexcusable. As we always hear, the coverup is often worse than the original offense.

So Flynn is gone, undermining another of Trump’s boasts that he will surround himself with the best people. Flynn was not one of those “best” people.

Some report indicate that Trump is surprised by the resistance he is experiencing and is trying to figure out how to handle it. I know, we never can tell if such reports are genuine or fake in this heated environment, but I don’t have trouble believing this one. Trump is used to having his way, and he probably thought that being president would make it easy to get done what he wants to get done.

Welcome to the real world, President Trump. It’s time to get this under control. Will he learn his lessons?

Chambers, McCarthy, & the Real Thing

Whittaker Chambers brought credibility to the concerns Americans had after WWII that communism in general, and the Soviet Union in particular, were infiltrating American society. Chambers, as many regular readers of this blog know, had worked as a communist in the underground in the 1930s. He had labored to help the USSR place people in positions of authority in the American government, and he had served as a liaison with the USSR, sending US government secrets to that nation.

So when Chambers came forth with his witness to what he knew, he was believed ultimately, and Alger Hiss, one of the highest-placed communist agents in the government, went to prison for perjury.

Then along came Sen. Joe McCarthy with his anti-communist crusade. McCarthy had no inside knowledge. My own research into his activities has convinced me he hardly knew what he was doing, and he probably was more interested in personal political advancement than anything else.

As McCarthy rose in prominence, Chambers’s support of his career was sporadic and cautious, perhaps welcoming at first, since he was enlisted on the same side, but as time wore on, Chambers disassociated himself from what McCarthy became.

In early 1954, in a letter to his friend Ralph de Toledano, Chambers summarized McCarthy’s approach in this way: “Senator McCarthy’s notion of tactics is to break the rules, saturate the enemy with poison gas, and then charge through the contaminated area, shouting Comanche war cries.”

In letters to William F. Buckley, founder of National Review and the leader of the modern conservative movement, Chambers shared even more of his concerns. He thought McCarthy could easily become a national bore:

With time, the repeated dull thud of the low blow may prove to be the real factor in his undoing. Not necessarily because the blow is low, or because he lacks heart and purpose, but because he lacks variety, and, in the end, simply puts the audience to sleep. …

… I said long since that the crucial question about Senator McCarthy was not whether his aims are ultimately good or bad, but whether his intelligence is equal to his energy.

“One way whereby I can most easily help Communism is to associate myself publicly with Senator McCarthy,” he wrote to Buckley. It would lead to a confusion with the Hiss Case and roll it all “into a snarl with which to baffle, bedevil and divide opinion.” He had told McCarthy that even though they “were fighting in the same war,” they were engaged “in wholly different battles” and that they “should not wage war together.”

Chambers concluded, “I do not think that the Senator really grasps this necessity. For it is more and more my reluctant opinion that he is a tactician, rather than a strategist; that he continually, by reflex rather than calculation, sacrifices the long view for the short pull.”

McCarthy was a potential problem for the anticommunist movement, Chambers believed. Everyone was trying hard to overlook his errors and give the benefit of the doubt, but his judgment was increasingly suspect, and his tendency to go for the sensational over the substantive might lead them all into trouble.

“In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that we live in terror that Senator McCarthy will one day make some irreparable blunder which will play directly into the hands of our common enemy and discredit the whole anti-Communist effort for a long while to come.”

Consider those final words. Even when someone is on the same side, whether we are talking about the Christian faith or conservative politics, there is the danger of undermining the whole effort due to foolishness, lack of genuineness, or a combination of the two.

Great truths and great causes need spokespeople who are committed to those truths and causes and who know how to communicate them to others. Whenever we follow a false teacher (in the faith) or a false politician who is primarily out for himself and doesn’t really believe what he says, we may see everything we stand for being diminished through their falseness.

Always hold out for the real thing—the people of solid character who can be trusted and who believe in their cause with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.

What Prayer Really Accomplishes

All those essays by C. S. Lewis contain nuggets that can be missed when we focus only on his more famous works. For instance, in “The Efficacy of Prayer,” written in 1959, he provides many thoughtful insights:

Prayer is either a sheer illusion or a personal contact between embryonic, incomplete persons (ourselves) and the utterly concrete Person.

That’s a good starting place for any prayer: recognize who you really are in comparison to the One to whom you are praying.

Then there are the various aspects of our prayers:

Prayer in the sense of petition, asking for things, is a small part of it; confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its bread and wine.

There’s a lot going on in genuine prayer; it’s not just seeking God’s favor with petitions:

In it God shows Himself to us. That He answers prayers is a corollary—not necessarily the most important one—from that revelation. What He does is learned from what He is.

We are tempted at times to try to use God to get things. The temptation is to value Him as the One who provides us with what we need or want. Instead, we need to value Him just for who He is. The “things” will disappear in eternity, but the relationship with Him is what makes heaven truly heaven.

Breaking the Education Stranglehold

Republican congressman Thomas Massie of Kentucky has introduced a bill to abolish the Department of Education. The bill is quite simple, consisting of one sentence: “The Department of Education shall terminate on December 31, 2018.”

The probability of this bill going anywhere is nearly zero. The NEA and others who feed at the federal trough won’t allow it. All Democrats get money from the NEA, as do many Republicans. Beyond the funding, there’s also the undying belief that government-sponsored and -controlled education is necessary to the survival of the republic.

My view is the opposite: government-sponsored and -controlled education is the reason we are in such a mess educationally. One size does not fit all, and the federal government’s bureaucracy has no idea how to carry out real education, especially since it removes the Christian element.

Here’s the truth historically and constitutionally: there is no authority in the federal Constitution for the government at that level to be involved in education at all. The Department of Education is foundationally unconstitutional and should be scrapped.

But who pays attention to the Constitution anymore?

My view is that states, which have given themselves authority to delve into education, also make a mess of it, primarily because it’s not a proper function of government. No level of government should be telling citizens what education is and how it should be carried out.

Education is a function of the family, and parents should have complete liberty to decide how and where their children will be educated.

Pipe dream? Probably. But that doesn’t change the Scriptural mandate that puts parents in charge of their children. Neither does it negate the efforts of legislators like Rep. Massie to draw our attention to the basics and try to move the needle away from government oversight.

This latest effort to disengage government from education will fail. Yet it is worth making the attempt. Every time we do, we inform and educate the public about the proper role of government and the significance of parental choice.

Betsy DeVos is the new secretary of education. I’m sure she would rejoice if she were the last one because she grasps the importance of educational choice. It will be interesting to see if she can make any headway at all in breaking the stranglehold that the NEA has on education.

The Dismal State of American History Knowledge

Recently, I was asked to speak at a Lakeland Kiwanis meeting. The subject I was given was how much the younger generation knows about American history. The concern over reports of ignorance of America’s past was the impetus for this invitation.

I’ll give the gist of what I said.

I began with an anecdote from a teacher that appeared in Education Week a couple of years ago. She tutors in a poor section of Brooklyn and noted that of all the subjects her students have to pass to receive their high-school diploma, the one they fail most regularly is the American history exam.

A student she calls Tony is typical:

When we first started to study together, Tony, like all my students, had no sense of U.S. presidents, the sequence of wars in which the United States has been involved, the U.S. Constitution and the structure of government, and the central issues over which our democracy has struggled since we separated from England more than two centuries ago.

He knew the name Abraham Lincoln, but drew a blank when I asked him which war Lincoln was associated with. He was unfamiliar with Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust. Segregation and civil rights were not concepts he could articulate.

Tony didn’t know how a person becomes the president, he was unaware of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision on abortion (he found it abhorrent, by the way), and didn’t know how the government spends its money.

Well, a lot of us are puzzled by that last one.

Another article, in the liberal Huffington Post, no less, highlighted the dismal history scores in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report. The NAEP regularly assesses knowledge in a number of subject areas; history always does poorly.

Former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch summarized the history findings:

It’s worth noting that of the seven school subjects tested by NAEP, history has the smallest proportion of students who score Proficient or above in the most recent assessment available. The results of this assessment tell us that we as a nation must pay more attention to the teaching of U.S. history.

Last year the American Council of Trustees and Alumni studied the top 25 liberal arts colleges, the top 25 national universities, and the top 25 public institutions to see what is required by those higher education establishments with respect to learning American history. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Top 25 Liberal Arts Colleges: 7 require U.S. history
  • Top 25 National Universities: 4 require U.S. History
  • Top 25 Public Institutions: 14 require U.S. history
  • Of the 23 programs that do list a requirement for United States history, 11 allow courses so narrow in scope—such as “History of Sexualities” or “History of the FBI”—that it takes a leap of the imagination to see these as an adequate fulfillment of an undergraduate history requirement.

How’s that for dismal?

One example is George Washington University in Washington, DC, which now has decided that history majors are no longer required to take American history. That’s history majors, not just the run-of-the-mill students in other majors.

Even at my own institution, one that does value American history, most students are only required to take one history course overall, and it can be Western Civilization rather than American. It’s a trend nationwide.

One of our history professors decided to conduct a pre-test of his students’ knowledge of American history before taking his survey courses. What do they already know coming into the university?

Here are the results.

Pre-test results for American History I:

# of Students: 40

# of Passing Scores: 5 (60% or above)

Average Score: 37%

Pre-test results for American History II:

# of Students: 32

# of Passing Scores: 0 (60% or above)

Average Score: 25%

What surprised me most was the lower score for more recent American history. One would think that they would be more attuned to what has happened since the Civil War.

Some of the answers given to specific questions about basic American history facts were rather interesting.

Did you know that Great Britain was our ally in the American Revolution?

Or that the city that became the largest immigration center in the world was either Canada, Mexico, or Alabama?

How about the general whom Lincoln finally found to help end the Civil War? Who knew that was James Madison? I certainly didn’t.

I ended the talk by letting the attendees know they can send their children to me and the other history professors at Southeastern. We will be glad to get them up to speed.