Presidential Greatness: A List to Ponder

Presidents Day apparently was a prime time to release the new rankings of presidential greatness. Who is judging which president is greater than another, you may ask. The answer: 170 members of the Presidents & Executive Politics Section of the American Political Science Association.

You may ask further: what are the political leanings of these 170 members? The answer with respect to political party: 57.2% of respondents were Democrats, while 12.7% were Republicans, 27.1% were Independents, and 3% selected Other as their option.

The other question asked was whether they considered themselves liberal or conservative. Here’s that breakdown: 32.5% consider themselves ideologically liberal, while 25.9% consider themselves somewhat liberal, and 24.1% consider themselves moderate. Only 5.4% consider themselves ideologically conservative, while 12% say they are somewhat conservative.

In my experience, those who call themselves somewhat liberal are being too modest; they are usually quite liberal but don’t like to be labeled as such. If I’m correct, that would put the ideologically liberal as well over half the respondents while conservatives overall top out at just under 18%.

Gosh, I wonder if that skewed the results of this survey?

To be fair, I think there were some solid selections of greatness. For instance, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington come in as #1 and #2, respectively. Given Lincoln’s gargantuan task of navigating a civil war and Washington’s precedent-setting tenure as our first president (and giving honor and dignity to the office), I take no issue with those choices.

But, as is always the case with a liberal-dominated group, we find FDR voted in as the third-greatest president in American history. This is the man who tossed aside the Constitution, who allowed the federal government to dictate an ever-higher portion of each individual’s life, and who put into place policies that extended the Great Depression for an entire decade.

Sorry, but that’s not my idea of greatness.

FDR’s cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, comes in fourth, probably because he began the movement toward more “progressive” policies and even ran for president later on the ticket of the newly formed Progressive Party. Now, there are things I like about TR as well, but not those.

The #5 spot went to Thomas Jefferson. I’m currently teaching a course on the Early Republic and if you were to ask my students their view of Jefferson now, you probably wouldn’t get too many superlatives. He did his best to undermine both Washington and John Adams. He thought the French Revolution was a wonderful event. He signed an embargo act that practically froze all American commerce and his presidency ended with a whimper, not a bang.

Ah, but the Declaration of Independence makes up for all of that, I guess.

I admit to being pleased, and somewhat surprised, to see Reagan included in the top ten, coming in at #9. What was less surprising was to see Obama just ahead of him at #8. Let’s see now: one president revived the economy and was instrumental in bringing down the Soviet Union; the other reigned over an economy in the doldrums, attempted to take over the entire healthcare industry, and apologized the world over for America even existing.

Can you tell I disagree with that ranking?

LBJ comes in at #10, just behind Reagan. He only put FDR’s New Deal on steroids with his Great Society. And I don’t think we can call his Vietnam policy a sterling success.

I won’t try to go through the whole list, but here are some more thoughts as I look over it.

Woodrow Wilson ahead of James Madison? Really? Bill Clinton fell from #8 to #13 in this new ranking—a nice trend. Keep it going. Grover Cleveland all the way down at #24? I guess that’s what happens when someone believes in reining in government spending and warns against big-government paternalism.

Jimmy Carter at #26 ahead of Calvin Coolidge at #28? Give me a break. Why is Carter so high comparatively? His presidency was a near-total bust. Coolidge had integrity and presided over a robust economy. But he was Coolidge, you know, and that’s all it takes for a liberal-dominated voter pool.

Filling out the bottom of the list were some of the perennials: Warren Harding, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, William Henry Harrison (hey, give the guy a break; he was president for only one month), and James Buchanan.

Oh, I almost forgot. At the very bottom is the name Donald Trump. Now, that’s hardly fair with only one year under his belt. Even though I’m a great critic of Trump’s character, etc., I would hardly place him below some of those perennials noted above. At least not yet. Let’s see how this plays out over the next three years.

Lists like these are interesting, but you always need to know who the respondents are. A liberal-dominated electorate will always give a decided nod to those who have expanded government power.

A Presidents Day Reflection

On this Presidents Day, I’d like to honor some of the men who filled that post with integrity. Let’s forget, for this one day at least, those who degraded the office and focus instead on those who gave it a degree of eminence.

One must always begin with the man who set all the precedents for what a president should be: George Washington.

At the end of the Revolutionary Era, in the midst of economic chaos and a woefully weak central government, Washington came out of a long-deserved respite from public affairs to preside over what we now call the Constitutional Convention, knowing full well that the improved government structure that would emerge would undoubtedly place him at its head.

With humility, he undertook this new responsibility even though he would have preferred to remain at Mt. Vernon. No one else commanded the respect he had earned, and no one else could have kept the nation as united as he did during these shaky years.

Washington had to navigate the rough waters of the effects of the French Revolution and had to ensure the government survived its infancy. He did both superbly. He then left us with his Farewell Address, a document of wisdom that we would do well to heed: avoid a party spirit; maintain the religious foundation of our society.

Our fourth president, James Madison, made his mark on the new nation long before he assumed the presidency. He was the greatest student of government among all the Founders.

At the Constitutional Convention, he was the one who brought with him a plan for the new government. That plan became the basis for the debate; most of what he wanted came to fruition.

During his tenure, the nation went to war again with Britain. There were some missteps during that war, and he did have to leave Washington, DC, in a hurry as the British invaded. Yet, when it was over, American nationhood was secure.

In my view, Madison’s too-close association with Jefferson led him astray for some years before becoming president, but his later life showed a return to his former principles.

One of his legacies is the notes he took at the Constitutional Convention. They are now published and give us an insight into all the debates. More than merely a historical document, those notes are a window into the early American soul. Madison gave us a great gift.

I cannot omit Abraham Lincoln in this list of worthies. Yes, I know the unreconstructed among us think he was a tyrant. In my earlier years, I tended in that direction as well. Then I did research.

Lincoln faced a national emergency that has dwarfed all the others, before and after. How does one maintain constitutional integrity in a circumstance where the Constitution offers little guidance? Lincoln tackled it with a rare combination of firmness and mercy.

His view that the states could not just leave arbitrarily was accurate. He took on the burden of trying to preserve the union without becoming bitter toward those who tried to disrupt it. His Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural are testimonies of his character: government of the people, by the people, and for the people is the catchphrase of the first. The second ends with these stirring words:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Lincoln’s tragic assassination ended that hope, as the next decade was filled with the bitterness and resentment that he sought to avoid. To those who don’t like Lincoln, I urge a second look. This was a man of integrity.

Liberals love to make fun of Calvin Coolidge. They don’t really know the man. Thrust into the office by the untimely death of Warren Harding, Coolidge took over with a quiet and calm demeanor. His first action when hearing of Harding’s death was to kneel with his wife by their bed and pray for wisdom.

The scandals of the Harding administration might have doomed the Republican party if a man of lesser character had inherited the office. Coolidge, though, made sure that all who were guilty were exposed.

He also believed firmly in constitutional limitations on the federal government, restoring a limited-government approach that had been shoved aside in the Woodrow Wilson years. The economy flourished during his administration as he sought to reduce the tax burden on individuals.

Many want to blame him for the Great Depression that followed, but that was the result of many other decisions, some of which can be laid at the feet of the Federal Reserve actions during the decade of the 1920s.

Coolidge could have run again in 1928 and would have won easily, but he chose to step down. One of my favorite presidential quotes comes from Coolidge’s autobiography when he disclosed why he chose to return to private life:

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.

If only more presidents had that perspective.

Finally, I come to the president I consider to be the best of the twentieth century: Ronald Reagan.

I’ve written so much about him in this blog already that I probably can’t come up with anything new. Yet it’s worth repeating that Reagan did see the world through the Christian framework and wanted to make sure his actions were right before God.

He took over the office at a time when we were pretty despondent as a people. Historian Paul Johnson calls the 1970s “America’s Suicide Attempt.” That is an accurate description, in my view.

Reagan restored confidence, but not in the superficial manner of Franklin Roosevelt. He actually promoted policies that made a difference, bringing us out of the doldrums. It’s instructive that he looked back to Coolidge for inspiration with regard to tax cuts and getting the federal government out of people’s lives.

He dealt wisely with the Soviet Union, declaring it would soon be on the ash heap of history. The know-it-alls called him stupid for saying this, but he turned out to be right.

When he died in 2004, after a decade-long bout with Alzheimer’s, his passing brought out the best in our country. The respect shown at that time probably won’t be equaled by the passing of any future president.

Ronald Reagan always brought out the best in us.

So, as you go about your everyday activities, give a thought or two to those who have held the presidential office in high esteem and who gave it the kind of respect it deserves.

Our Very Unscrupulous God

The fool says in his heart, “There is no god.” Psalm 53:1

For many years, C. S. Lewis was a fool. He later acknowledged the truth of that statement. As a young man who had seen his mother die of cancer despite his prayers, who had witnessed the horrors of the Great War, and who had been trained in severe logic by an atheist, he declared to himself that there was no god. As he put it in his autobiography Surprised by Joy,

I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Antitheists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating a world.

There are many people who have that same attitude today. They rail against the god they say doesn’t exist. They, despite the logical incongruity of it, demand “justice.” Yet what is justice to an atheist? Why is demanding it incongruous? Lewis again, this time from Mere Christianity:

[When I was an atheist] my argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust?

A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it?

Unlike many atheists, Lewis took his logic to its ultimate destination; he eventually saw the illogic of it:

Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense.

His conclusion?

Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning [emphasis mine].

Then, as Lewis continued to ponder the possible meaning of the universe and, as an academic, delved into his large stack of “books to be read”—something all avid readers will understand—he kept coming across sensible authors who, irritatingly, always turned out to be Christians. They came across as so sensible that he had to rethink everything.

As he explained in the autobiography,

A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere—“Bibles laid open, millions of surprises” as Herbert says, “fine nets and stratagems.” God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.

This “unscrupulous” God is our salvation. I thank Him daily for being so “very unscrupulous.”

That which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. Romans 1:19-20

False Assurances of Eternity

I’ve never read George MacDonald’s Thomas Wingfold, Curate, but in the anthology C. S. Lewis put together of MacDonald’s writings, one selection from that book stood out to me this morning. I think the nugget in this excerpt is worth noting.

It begins with MacDonald quoting someone who says, “I cannot see what harm would come of letting us know a little—as much at least as might serve to assure us that there was more of something on the other side.”

Don’t we hear that quite often today? People just want some kind of assurance that death isn’t final, that there is something that awaits hereafter. The problem is that they almost don’t care what that something is as long as it isn’t too bad.

MacDonald explains that “their fears allayed, their hopes encouraged from any lower quarter, men would (as usual) turn away from the Fountain, to the cistern of life.”

Mankind will accept any explanation of the afterlife that provides some assurance, yet they stubbornly resist the only Source of knowledge of what actually transpires upon death; they don’t turn to the “Fountain” where eternal life is found.

He then hits home with this insight:

That there are thousands who would forget God if they could but be assured of such a tolerable state of things beyond the grave as even this wherein we now live, is plainly to be anticipated from the fact that the doubts of so many in respect of religion concentrate themselves nowadays upon the question whether there is any life beyond the grave; a question which . . . does not immediately belong to religion at all.

What does he mean? People don’t really want to know the God who offers life beyond the grave; they simply want to know there is something. God is an afterthought.

Satisfy such people, if you can, that they shall live, and what have they gained? A little comfort perhaps—but a comfort not from the highest source, and possibly gained too soon for their well-being.

Does it bring them any nearer to God than they were before? Is He filling one cranny more of their hearts in consequence?

Simply coming to some kind of assurance that life goes on after one dies is not only insufficient—it is a delusion by itself. It ignores the stark Scriptural reality that there are two destinations after death, and only one is a state of eternal joy. Further, there is only one path to that joy:

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. John 14:6

Hell is just as real as heaven, but most people don’t want to believe that. They want the assurance that all will go to the same blissful eternity. Yet, as Jesus warns,

For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it. Matthew 7:14

That’s not a popular message. It refuses to agree with the culture that assumes all roads lead to the same place.

Unfortunately, the message is not popular in many churches either. How many pastors teach this truth? How many are providing false assurances?

If we truly love others, we will want them to know the truth and not be misled. Warnings are essential in the proclamation of the Gospel. The Good News must be preceded by the bad news. That’s what makes the Good News good.

May Integrity Be Our Guide

Does anyone remember when Republicans thought deficits were a bad thing? Somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind, I can recall that the Obama spending was going to ruin the country.

Now, not so much, apparently.

Republicans, under the leadership [?] of Sen. Mitch McConnell, have joined hands with Sen. Chuck Schumer’s Democrats to pass a budget that continues to blow the roof off the deficit.

We’re over $20 trillion and still counting. But don’t worry, both parties are coming to our rescue.

I used to believe that Republicans were sincere about reducing spending. Ah, for those good old days when I could rest assured that there were adults in the Congress.

I don’t wish to overstate, as there are conscience conservatives who stand for principle, but it’s becoming painfully obvious that they are a distinct minority.

And all that talk about defunding Planned Parenthood? Well, talk is, as they say, really, really cheap. Sometimes satire sites get it absolutely right, as the Babylon Bee did the other day. Check it out.

Please know that I take no pleasure in pointing out all the hypocrisy. It’s disheartening, and I do continue to pray for the Christians among our representatives to come forward and stand with integrity. They have a hard job, I know.

Meanwhile, this exhortation seems appropriate:

The integrity of the upright guides them, but the unfaithful are destroyed by their duplicity. Proverbs 11:3

If True, This Is of Infinite Importance

“Apologetic work is so dangerous to one’s own faith. A doctrine never seems dimmer to me than when I have just successfully defended it.” So wrote C. S. Lewis in a 1946 letter. Yet a good many of us are grateful that he took the time and effort to add his part to all the apologetics offered throughout the Christian era.

I can understand his sentiment in that letter. When you have to labor to help people understand the basics of how the universe functions, who is behind it all, the problem of sin and the remedy for it—well, it can be, at times, a wearying task.

Shortly before Lewis wrote that letter, he wrote an essay called, simply, “Christian Apologetics.” In it, he sought to help readers come to grips with the obstacles we face when we try to explain and demonstrate to people that there is a Truth out there. “One of the great difficulties,” Lewis opined, “is to keep before the audience’s mind the question of Truth.” He continued,

They always think you are recommending Christianity not because it is true but because it is good. And in the discussion they will at every moment try to escape from the issue “True—or False” into stuff about a good society, or morals . . . or anything whatever.

The apologist’s job, he says, is “to keep forcing them back . . . to the real point.” The goal is to help lead them out of a phony idea that while “religion” may be useful, “one mustn’t carry it too far.” He then provides a wonderfully insightful quote that many have used ever since:

One must keep on pointing out that Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.

Lewis argues similarly in another essay written at about the same time, “Modern Man and His Categories of Thought.” In this one, he notes, “Man is becoming as narrowly ‘practical’ as the irrational animals.” People don’t seem interested in objective truth.

They only want to know if it will be comforting, or “inspiring,” or socially useful. . . . When an Englishman says he “believes in” or “does not believe in” Christianity, he may not be thinking about truth at all. Very often he is only telling us whether he approves or disapproves of the Church as a social institution.

The mass of mankind doesn’t desire to find truth. After all, if they had to come face to face with the truth of the Gospel, they would have to acknowledge their sins, repent of them, humbly lay down all pretensions to their own goodness, and learn to be a disciple of Christ, setting aside all of their selfishness, pettiness, and pride.

That’s not appealing. Therefore, they run away from the truth.

Closely connected with this unhuman Practicality is an indifference to, and contempt of, dogma. The popular point of view is unconsciously syncretistic: it is widely believed that “all religions really mean the same thing.”

Such a statement defies all logic and rational thought. How can Christianity and Hinduism both be correct when they disagree on all pertinent points? How can one really equate the god of Islam with Christianity? A bland monotheism by itself in no way equates with what Christianity says. Neither is the character of Islam’s Allah the character we see in the God of the Bible. That’s why Lewis also poignantly declares,

I think we must attack wherever we meet it the nonsensical idea that mutually exclusive propositions about God can both be true.

It all makes so much sense. But then, is our society interested in “sense”? Is it interested in truth? Not if it points the finger at them and says that dreadful word “repent.”

Yet we must not falter in explaining the faith and in praying that God’s Holy Spirit will awaken hearts and minds to His truth.

In your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. I Peter 3:15

Every Secret Will Be Brought to Light

I’ve been letting this whole FBI-Trump Dossier-Russian Collusion episode play out before attempting to comment much on it. It’s always best not to jump into something in the middle while it’s all still a muddle.

I naturally want to trust the FBI in the hope that it is fair and impartial in its investigations. It’s clear now that some agents haven’t lived up to that standard, yet it’s not an indictment of the entire organization, even if some people think it is.

What’s also pretty clear is that the Hillary campaign was behind the infamous Trump Dossier, thinking it would derail Trump in the election. There’s nothing surprising about that since integrity has never been a Clinton trait.

The Mueller investigation into whatever influence Russia had on the election has become a center of controversy as well, with partisanship on both sides seeming to overrule sound judgment. While I have my own concerns about whether this investigation is being conducted with all rectitude, I heartily concur with the aim of bringing everything to light.

One burning issue is whether the president will be called to give testimony. Apparently there is a division among his own lawyers as to whether that would be wise and/or appropriate. At the very least, it could be entertaining.

Politicians and political operatives tend to believe that they can get away with almost anything. Too often that has been the case. But they need to know that there is One who sees everything, no matter how cleverly they try to hide what they are doing. Jesus noted,

For everything that is hidden will eventually be brought into the open, and every secret will be brought to light. Mark 4:22

And there is that Day coming when nothing will be hidden ever again:

For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil. Ecclesiastes 12:14

Justice doesn’t always prevail in our day, but on God’s Judgment Day, He will have the last word.