The Enemy–He Is Ourselves

I was reminded this morning of some prescient words from Whittaker Chambers—prescient because they clearly foretold what we see today. In a letter he wrote to William F. Buckley in 1954, Chambers offered this analysis of the state of Western civilization:

I no longer believe that political solutions are possible for us. I am baffled by the way people still speak of the West as if it were at least a cultural unity against Communism though it is divided not only by a political, but by an invisible cleavage.

On one side are the voiceless masses with their own subdivisions and fractures. On the other side is the enlightened, articulate elite which, to one degree or other, has rejected the religious roots of the civilization—the roots without which it is no longer Western civilization, but a new order of beliefs, attitudes, and mandates.

His first sentence set the tone, and I agree that our ultimate solutions will never come from our politics. Yet, for many, politics has become the be-all and end-all of life. Everything is seen as political. We believe, by and large, that government can handle all of our problems.

How very wrong.

His second point is truly poignant, as he demolishes the illusion that we are still somehow a cultural unity. Most people today at least see the great divide that now exists between the Christian worldview and the secular. Chambers succinctly and accurately describes the self-identified “enlightened” elite who have rejected our religious roots, and who have created “a new order of beliefs, attitudes, and mandates.”

The America of 2018 is only faintly reminiscent of the America I recall from my younger days. And I’m not just some old-timer speaking out of bitterness or nostalgia. My observation is based on a lifetime of analyzing culture from the Biblical worldview that has now been largely rejected.

Chambers is usually known as a pessimist regarding the future of Western civilization. In his final paragraph to Buckley, he begins with this:

The enemy—he is ourselves. That is why it is idle to talk about preventing the wreck of Western civilization. It is already a wreck from within.

Don’t blame outside forces, he counsels. Look within instead. Then he provides, in his own inimitable writing style, what little hope he can look toward:

That is why we can hope to do little more now than snatch a fingernail of a saint from the rack or a handful of ashes from the faggots, and bury them secretly in a flowerpot against the day, ages hence, when a few men begin again to dare to believe that there was once something else, that something else is thinkable, and need some evidence of what it was, and the fortifying knowledge that there were those who, at the great nightfall, took loving thought to preserve the tokens of hope and truth.

Are we of that company—the few—who are willing to keep alive the basis of our civilization? What are we doing to further the truths of God—that Biblical message of sin, repentance, and redemption?

Whittaker Chambers was somewhat of a twentieth-century prophet; he saw the demise that was coming and already had begun in his day. The prophetic mantle has now been placed on the current generation of Christians who need to take the calling seriously.

Will we?

Nikki Haley & Mature Conservatism

I’ve been impressed by Nikki Haley for quite some time: first, as governor of South Carolina, and now as our UN ambassador. What I read about her today has only increased my appreciation for her as a spokesperson for mature conservatism.

Yesterday, she spoke to the High School Leadership Summit, a conference for conservative teenagers. In discussing what leadership means, she told them they had to take a more responsible, reasonable approach to those with whom they disagree. Her words:

Raise your hand if you’ve ever posted anything online to “own the libs.” I know that it’s fun and that it can feel good, but step back and think about what you’re accomplishing when you do this. Are you persuading anyone? Who are you persuading?

She contrasted that in-your-face approach with real leadership; she called it the exact opposite, then explained how real leadership works:

Real leadership is about persuasion, it’s about movement, it’s about bringing people around to your point of view. Not by shouting them down, but by showing them how it is in their best interest to see things the way you do.

Think about it. Shouldn’t that be the goal rather than feeling good that you just let someone really “have it”?

Haley demonstrated the Christian spirit beautifully. While reading about her comments, it reminded me of why I’ve been so drawn to Whittaker Chambers and Ronald Reagan.

Chambers wrote his masterpiece, Witness, as a plea to show people truth and get them to change their thinking. Yes, he condemned the system of communism that he once thought would change the world for the good. Yes, he called out some of the truly evil people involved in that system.

Yet there is a pathos to Witness that is its most appealing feature for me. Chambers doesn’t hate those who are in error; he appeals to them to rethink. Even when testifying against Alger Hiss, he didn’t want to divulge everything; he sought Hiss’s repentance instead so that he might be saved from his sins and errors. Only when Hiss proved arrogant and stubborn did Chambers reluctantly come forward with all of his evidence.

When Reagan read Witness, for the first time he saw why communism had a certain appeal to those who embraced it. His response to it transformed from simply being “against” something to seeking to free people from its chains.

Reagan could speak forcefully against wrong ideas (mature conservatism doesn’t mean pulling back from truth-telling) but he always reached out to those on the other side of the ideological divide. He sought to develop a relationship with House Speaker Tip O’Neill despite the latter’s constant diatribes against Reagan.

He sent letters to every Soviet leader, wanting to explain to them why they misunderstood the US; he finally found one who would listen (although he might not have if Reagan hadn’t taken a firm stand against Soviet aggression).

“Speaking the truth in love” is how it’s described in the New Testament. Nikki Haley, Whittaker Chambers, and Ronald Reagan show us how that’s done. I’ve been dismayed by the devolution of the conservatism I’ve always espoused. I hardly recognize what passes for conservatism in the past few years.

Those of you who call yourselves conservatives, I appeal to you to consider what I’ve written today. I think it’s important for the future of genuine conservatism and for the future of our nation.

Here’s the scenario: the culture is in decline due to a loss of Biblical principles; beliefs based on those principles that used to hold the society together are attacked as bigoted, narrow, and intolerant; the government is increasingly dysfunctional and policies, despite the best efforts of honest and caring representatives, move further away from Biblical norms.

What’s someone to do about this, especially when one feels called by God (to some, that’s a rather presumptive and/or arrogant statement right there) to warn of the decline and the loss of a proper perspective on life?

One can choose to rail against this decline. After all, it is Biblical to warn sinners of the error of their ways. Purely on the governmental side, one can continually point out the false ideologies, hypocrisies, and evil deeds of our generation.

Pointing out the problems is something that must be done. However, there is a limit; after a while, if all one does is constantly harp on the negatives, one runs the risk of being a Johnny-one-note that people begin to ignore.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve started to notice the down side of some conservative commentary. While the commentary is most often true, depicting accurately the perfidy, the dishonesty, and the radical agenda of progressivism, one gets tired of hearing nothing but angst.

I’ve also noticed that some of those commentators are far more shallow in their thinking than I at first realized. They have certain talking points they repeat, and that’s all the farther they go. The repetitive nature of that approach makes it easy to tune them out.

As regular readers of my blog know, I’ve gained a lot of understanding through the words of Whittaker Chambers in his wonderful/tragic autobiography Witness.

Once Chambers left the communist underground and got a position writing for Time magazine, he eagerly used his position to try to point out the communist threat he knew from personal experience. He was so committed to warning about it that people got tired of hearing his warnings. He was kept from writing anything on the subject.

That seemed like a defeat. As Chambers relates,

My tacit exclusion from writing Communist news at first exasperated me, for I saw no one around me (except the Communists, of course) who knew anything at all about the subject.

He could have protested this treatment. He could have caused a ruckus and further divided the staff over his actions. But he kept calm and came to a new realization about tactics:

But gradually I welcomed the ban. I began to see that the kind of sniping that I had been doing was shallow and largely profitless; anybody could do that.

That last sentence is all too true. Anyone with an axe to grind or an ability to channel anger can do that. There are multitudes of those kinds of people. Chambers tried a new approach, one that more fully reflected the Christian spirit he was developing at that time in his life:

It seemed to me that I had a more important task to do, one that was peculiarly mine. It was not to attack Communism frontally. It was to clarify on the basis of the news, the religious and moral position that made Communism evil.

I had been trying to make a negative point. Now I had to state the positive position, and it was a much more formidable task than attack.

It’s deceptively easy to mount attacks. What Chambers now understood was that he had to do the harder job: help readers grasp the underlying Christian viewpoint of what constituted “good” and contrast that with the evil in communism.

It meant explaining simply and readably for millions the reasons why the great secular faith of this age is wrong and the religious faith of the ages is right; why, in the words of the Song of Roland, the Christians are right and the heathen are wrong.

This affected Chambers’s character in a positive way as well:

This change in my mood and my work reflected a deepening within myself.

The challenge before those of us who might take on the mantle of cultural warrior is perhaps to learn how to conduct the battle in a different manner. We need to leave the tactic of shallow anger and dull repetition and move on to deeper reflections on the nature of God, man, and His principles, and thereby help others gain a greater understanding of the battlefield.

That has always been my intent in this blog—hence its title, Pondering Principles: Reflections on God . . . Man . . . Life. My commitment to that goal is refreshed today.

An Encouragement to All Who Teach

As a professor for nearly thirty years, my aim has been to instill solid Biblical principles and sound historical teaching based on original sources and insightful secondary works, with the ultimate goal that students would be able to see for themselves how those principles and sources reveal truth.

The trendy phrase is “to develop critical thinking.”

Professors/teachers sometimes wonder how successful this endeavor has been, especially when teaching a class that few of the students seem to care about or when mired in all that grading.

Despite discouragements along the way, I’ve never doubted God’s call on my life for any serious length of time. And then there are those encouragements that pop up unannounced, like the e-mail I received from a recent Southeastern history major who graduated and is now teaching high school at a classical academy.

With his permission, I’m going to share what he is experiencing.

He began by commenting that my blogs this past week on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn were “wonderful.” That was the first encouragement, but it was only the beginning.

He just finished teaching an American history/literature class based on a Socratic method of questioning. He then related that he began the course with a thoughtful quote from the book I use in my American history survey courses, Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People. He used it to spur their thinking; it became the cornerstone of everything they studied during the semester. Here’s the quote he used:

American history raises three fundamental questions. First, can a nation rise above the injustices of its origins and, by its moral purpose and performance, atone for them?…

The Second question provides the key to the first. In the process of nation-building, can ideals and altruism—the desire to build the perfect community—be mixed successfully with acquisitiveness and ambition, without which no dynamic society can be built at all?…

Thirdly, the Americans originally aimed to build an other-worldly “City on a Hill,” but found themselves designing a republic of the people, to be modeled for the entire planet. Have they made good their audacious claims? Have they indeed proved exemplars for humanity? And will they continue to be so in the new millennium?

Is that typical fare for a typical high school? I doubt it. My former student was up to the challenge of helping these students think through American history with that as the backdrop.

What he described next stirred my heart:

My class spent a full two hours dissecting this quote in an attempt to mine its meaning and see what kind of answers we could put forth. To say the least, the students’ answers were antiquated and bereft of any deep historical knowledge.

So, for the rest of the year I used Paul Johnson’s work as a supplementary guide to my lectures, and tried my best to emphasize the principles you taught me in undergrad about self-government, constitutionalism, the need for citizens of a democratic-republic to adhere to moral/religious principles, etc.

I had students read and discuss the Mayflower Compact, Plymouth Plantation, the Declaration, the Federalist Papers, Jefferson’s anti-federalist essays, the Constitution, Democracy in America (which we spent two weeks on), the Lincoln-Douglass debates, Fredrick Douglass’s Narrative Life of a Slave, Walden, and much more.

Note two things here: first, the principles he saw as important; second, the original sources he used to explore those principles.

But he didn’t stop there with just the first part of American history; he went on to examine the philosophies that arose to undercut those founding principles:

Along with all these great works of American literature and political philosophy, I also spent a substantial amount of time teaching students about Marxism, communism, the eugenics movement (including Margaret Sanger’s contributions), and the advent of progressive welfare politics.

My students were horrified and amazed that although they had heard many times about the 11 million people killed by Hitler’s regime, they had never heard about the 19 million (or more) killed by Stalin’s regime, the 40 million (or more) killed by Mao’s regime, and the 200,000 (or more) killed by Pol Pot’s regime.

They were even more surprised to learn that “Nazism” stood for “National Socialism.” Our all-too-brief lesson on Whittaker Chambers and the Hiss Case was also a big hit with the students. Although most of my lectures focused on the overall narrative of American political/social history, I couldn’t help going off on these very important tangents.

What a joy it was to learn that these students were being exposed to facts, ideas, and principles that weren’t the focus of their thinking prior to his class. What did the students actually learn? What did they take to heart?

Yesterday was our very last class of the year, and I asked students to discuss Paul Johnson’s questions again to see if they could arrive at different answers based on what we learned this year. Their responses were absolutely fascinating.

They pointed out (without any prompting from me) that the ideals of human rights, the dignity of the individual, the fallen nature of man, private property, and self-government were principles that truly made the U.S. a “city on a hill.”

They also pointed out that nearly all of the many failures and injustices that our country has perpetrated were violations or rejections of these founding principles. I then asked the class “where do these ‘rights’ come from? What gives us the impression that all human beings possess intrinsic dignity? What grounds these American ideals?”

The answer to his question?

One of my very intelligent students pulled out the Declaration of Independence and read the opening words aloud with an emphasis on “our Creator.” It was a very fulfilling moment for me, and a confirmation of how important these lessons are.

The final encouragement—a personal one—concluded his e-mail when he wrote, “I just thought you would like to know that your lessons did not fall on deaf ears, and are already being reproduced in the minds of my own students. Thank you for your commitment to Christ-centered scholarship and education.”

For all you teachers reading this, please know that what you do is significant. Even when you don’t see immediate results, you don’t know what’s going on inside your students. I had no doubts about this former student; I knew he was solid. But there are others you may never hear from who have been impacted by what you have said and, even more important, how you lived your Christian faith before their eyes.

Be encouraged today.

Solzhenitsyn: “Men Have Forgotten God”

The Templeton Prize, established in 1972 by philanthropist Sir John Templeton, is awarded each year to a person “who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.” The monetary award for this prize is continually revised upward to ensure it exceeds the award given to Nobel winners. Why? It is “to underscore Templeton’s belief that benefits from discoveries that illuminate spiritual questions can be quantifiably more vast than those from other worthy human endeavors.”

I like that.

The Templeton Prize, back in 1983, was awarded to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I like that, too. Yesterday, I highlighted Solzhenitsyn’s challenging Harvard commencement address in 1978, an address that pointedly accused the West of abandoning its spiritual heritage.

His Templeton Address, entitled “Men Have Forgotten God,” builds on his comments at Harvard. The first three paragraphs set the tone for this sobering look at the demise of our Christian heritage:

More than half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.

Since then I have spent well-nigh fifty years working on the history of our Revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some sixty million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.

What is more, the events of the Russian Revolution can only be understood now, at the end of the century, against the background of what has since occurred in the rest of the world. What emerges here is a process of universal significance. And if I were called upon to identify briefly the principal trait of the entire twentieth century, here too, I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than to repeat once again: Men have forgotten God.

Solzhenitsyn lived under the Communist regime in the USSR; he was persecuted by it and understood its underpinnings:

Within the philosophical system of Marx and Lenin, and at the heart of their psychology, hatred of God is the principal driving force, more fundamental than all their political and economic pretensions. Militant atheism is not merely incidental or marginal to Communist policy; it is not a side effect, but the central pivot.

But this address is not merely a jeremiad, lamenting the sad state of affairs. Solzhenitsyn reveals that beneath all the persecution, all the hatred of Christianity, the Communist state could not wipe it out.

But there is something they did not expect: that in a land where churches have been leveled, where a triumphant atheism has rampaged uncontrolled for two-thirds of a century, where the clergy is utterly humiliated and deprived of all independence, where what remains of the Church as an institution is tolerated only for the sake of propaganda directed at the West, where even today people are sent to the labor camps for their faith, and where, within the camps themselves, those who gather to pray at Easter are clapped in punishment cells–they could not suppose that beneath this Communist steamroller the Christian tradition would survive in Russia.

In fact, he declared, “It is here that we see the dawn of hope: for no matter how formidably Communism bristles with tanks and rockets, no matter what successes it attains in seizing the planet, it is doomed never to vanquish Christianity.”

From the depths of his own Christian faith, Solzhenitsyn rightly diagnoses the problem: it’s not some external force that makes evil occur; rather, it comes from within.

All attempts to find a way out of the plight of today’s world are fruitless unless we redirect our consciousness, in repentance, to the Creator of all: without this, no exit will be illumined, and we shall seek it in vain. . . .

We must first recognize the horror perpetrated not by some outside force, not by class or national enemies, but within each of us individually, and within every society. This is especially true of a free and highly developed society, for here in particular we have surely brought everything upon ourselves, of our own free will. We ourselves, in our daily unthinking selfishness, are pulling tight that noose.

Some might wonder why this sudden interest on my part in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, enough to warrant two posts this week. I give credit to a book I’m currently reading by Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know. Glaspey’s essay on Solzhenitsyn revived my remembrance of how he inspired me during the 1980s when I was reading Whittaker Chambers’s Witness (which conveys the same spirit as Solzhenitsyn’s writings).

I was also quite taken by a quote Glaspey included in his essay. When asked shortly before his death in 2008 what he thought about dying, Solzhenitsyn expressed confidence that it would be “a peaceful transition.” He concluded,

As a Christian, I believe there is life after death, and so I understand that this is not the end of life. The soul has a continuation, the soul lives on. Death is only a stage, some would even say a liberation. In any case, I have no fear of death.

May the writings and the character of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn continue to inspire us to be faithful to the truth.

Reagan & Modern American Conservatism

Finals week is upon my students and me. Another semester nears an end. Naturally, I am relieved, but I do enjoy the teaching. When students ask which courses are my favorites, I have to say I like them all. Yet there are some that usually stand out because of my particular interests: my course on C. S. Lewis is one, as is the course on Whittaker Chambers.

Then there’s the one I just completed called “Ronald Reagan and Modern American Conservatism.”

That course has two purposes: first, to highlight the life and accomplishments of the man I believe to be the best president of the 20th century; second, to understand him within a movement of modern conservatism, of which he was the prime example, exemplifying the various strands that comprise the movement.

To understand Reagan the man, as well as the president, I have students read his autobiography. It reveals what motivated him to aspire to the highest office in the land. They are pleased to learn about his Christian faith.

This course, though, is more than a simple biography of one man. It describes how some men and women responded to the drift in America toward the idea that government can manage our lives better than we can, as well as the cultural drift away from traditional moral principles (which most of them found in the Bible).

The most comprehensive book to deal with this rising movement after WWII is George Nash’s masterful work, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945.

It can be a tough read in some spots, as my students earnestly inform me, but it’s also an essential read.

Nash shows how modern American conservatism built on a philosophical basis, not merely as an emotional reaction to liberalism, socialism, or communism. Instead, it had bedrock principles that formed the core of a movement that eventually landed Reagan in the White House.

In addition to those two books, I offer selections from my own study of Reagan and Whittaker Chambers (yes, he figures in this course also).

My goal is to help these students grasp that conservatism has a good history. True conservatives are bound by the concept of the rule of law, they hold to the tenets of the Constitution, and they realize the necessity of a firm spiritual/moral grounding for our government to function properly.

I also hope they come away from the course with an ability to discern what genuine conservatism is in our day and what is not all that genuine. I don’t want them to fall in line with something trendy that may pass itself off as conservative when, in fact, it’s much closer to populist demagoguery.

My mission from God, if I were to put it in those terms—and I do—is to provide them with truths that will become the anchor of their lives and will stay with them to the end. This course helps achieve that goal.

I sincerely hope that everything I teach leads my students toward faithfulness to God and His purposes in their lives. He has given me this privilege—and this responsibility—and I do not take it lightly.

A Witness, Not a Testimony

The most fascinating autobiography of the 20th century was Whittaker Chambers’s Witness. I’ve re-read it numerous times, particularly in tandem with the course I teach on him and his writings.

Why did Chambers decide to call his book Witness? His testimony before HUAC was an accounting of what he knew about the underground—but that is all a testimony is. It tells what happened; it provides facts. Chambers saw what he was doing as something more, something deeper. A witness is someone who goes beyond simply providing testimony. He describes it in this way:

A witness, in the sense that I am using the word, is a man whose life and faith are so completely one that when the challenge comes to step out and testify for his faith, he does so, disregarding all risks, accepting all consequences.

With his mouth, a man testifies; with his life, he makes a witness.

The opening section of Witness was slightly unorthodox, but that kind of thing could be expected from Chambers. He chose to begin with his own foreword that he called “A Letter to My Children.” Family was the highest priority for him. That was why he bought Pipe Creek Farm. It was why he sought to shield his children from everything connected to his past for as long as possible. The Hiss Case changed that; now he wanted to leave them a personal witness as a prelude to the rest of the book.

His Time associate Craig Thompson had seen him the day after his first testimony before HUAC. ‘“Boy,’ I said, ‘you’ve sure dropped an A-bomb this time.’ For once he couldn’t even grin. ‘Yes,’ he said heavily, ‘And now I’m going home to see what my children think of me.’” His “Letter” was intended as a guidepost for them:

My children, as long as you live, the shadow of the Hiss Case will brush you. In every pair of eyes that rests on you, you will see pass, like a cloud passing behind a woods in winter, the memory of your father—dissembled in friendly eyes, lurking in unfriendly eyes.

Sometimes you will wonder which is harder to bear: friendly forgiveness or forthright hate. In time, therefore, when the sum of your experience of life gives you authority, you will ask yourselves the question: What was my father?

I will give you an answer: I was a witness.

The foreword is powerful as a concise essay on what to expect in the rest of the book: the two irreconcilable faiths; the commitment of the communists to their cause; the communist vision of man without God; the proper way to break with communism; the need for the West to renew its faith in God or be destroyed.

“There has never been a society or a nation without God,” Chambers instructed. “But history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that became indifferent to God and died.” The “Letter” ends with a highly personal passage:

My children, when you were little, we used sometimes to go for walks in our pine woods. In the open fields, you would run along by yourselves. But you used instinctively to give me your hands as we entered those woods, where it was darker, lonelier, and in the stillness our voices sounded loud and frightening.

In this book I am again giving you my hands. I am leading you, not through cool pine woods, but up and up a narrow defile between bare and steep rocks from which in shadow things uncoil and slither away. It will be dark. But, in the end, if I have led you aright, you will make out three crosses, from two of which hang thieves. I will have brought you to Golgotha—the place of skulls.

This is the meaning of the journey. Before you understand, I may not be there, my hands may have slipped from yours. It will not matter. For when you understand what you see, you will no longer be children. You will know that life is pain, that each of us hangs always upon the cross of himself. And when you know that this is true of every man, woman and child on earth, you will be wise.

I was deeply moved by the elegance of the writing the first time I read Witness. That emotional connection with the book has never left me. It’s why I want to introduce students to it. I want them to grasp—as a generation seemingly removed from the grip of the Cold War and the threat of communism—the eternal truths Chambers enunciates.

Just because the outward expression of the conflict, the Cold War, has ended, that doesn’t mean the conflict is over. It’s never over, precisely because the conflict is not simply between two political or economic systems; rather, it’s the age-old conflict of faith in God vs. faith in man. That one never ends.

I highly recommend reading Chambers’s Witness. You also can get a significant part of it in my book, The Witness and the President: Whittaker Chambers, Ronald Reagan, and the Future of Freedom, from which this excerpt is taken.