The History of a Book

Why did I write a book comparing Ronald Reagan and Whittaker Chambers? May I provide some history on that?

I came of age politically in the 1980s. After suffering through Richard Nixon’s Watergate, Gerald Ford’s caretaker presidency, and Jimmy Carter’s near-total ineptitude, I looked upon Reagan’s inauguration as a fresh start for America. Even Time magazine, in its cover story, seemed to agree with that assessment.

I followed political developments closely. This corresponded with working on my master’s degree and then my doctorate in history.

As a strong conservative, I rejoiced in what Reagan accomplished, while sometimes fearing he was becoming too squishy in his dealings with the USSR. Hindsight shows I was wrong to fear that. He knew what he was doing in helping bring down the Evil Empire.

At the same time, as I proceeded through my higher education, I read for the first time a book that had been recommended to me time and again: Witness by Whittaker Chambers.

I was mesmerized by the masterful writing, the poignant life story laid out within, and the message of the Christian response to the evils of communism.

So impressed was I by what Chambers had written that I began to include Witness in courses I taught. Further, I learned of the link between Chambers and Reagan, how reading Witness showed Reagan the reason why communism became attractive to people.

Chambers’s hard life, both in and out of communism, impacted Reagan to the point that he could quote portions of Witness from memory. When I went to the Reagan Library, I saw in the speechwriting files Reagan’s own handwritten annotations for inserting quotes from Chambers in his speeches.

During his presidency, Reagan also awarded Chambers, posthumously, the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his contribution to the advancement of American liberty.

In his remarks on Chambers, Reagan noted,

“At a critical moment in our Nation’s history, Whittaker Chambers stood alone against the brooding terrors of our age. Consummate intellectual, writer of moving, majestic prose, and witness to the truth, he became the focus of a momentous controversy in American history that symbolized our century’s epic struggle between freedom and totalitarianism, a controversy in which the solitary figure of Whittaker Chambers personified the mystery of human redemption in the face of evil and suffering.

As long as humanity speaks of virtue and dreams of freedom, the life and writings of Whittaker Chambers will ennoble and inspire. The words of Arthur Koestler are his epitaph: ‘The witness is gone; the testimony will stand.’”

I also became aware of the key difference between Reagan and Chambers: the former was a supreme optimist with respect to the future of freedom, while the latter despaired that Western civilization would ever learn its lesson and freedom would be eclipsed.

The question then arose in my mind: who was closer to the truth? Is freedom/liberty the inevitable outworking of God’s design for man, or will man’s sinfulness inevitably lead to the collapse of freedom?

Was Reagan correct when he said that Marxism contained the seeds of its own destruction? Was Chambers right when he told his wife, upon leaving communism, that they were now joining the losing side?

Overall, was communism the real problem or was it something deeper—namely, the exaltation of man over God? Was communism perhaps only one manifestation of that deeper problem? Even if communism were to fall, would that really signal a brighter future for freedom?

All of those issues are what led me to research and write The Witness and the President. My research for this book was extensive. I’ve read everything Chambers wrote—all of his essays, his posthumous book Cold Friday, and letters to friends.

For Reagan, I read every speech he gave as president, as well as nearly every book on the market dealing with his life, both his background and his beliefs.

Both Reagan and Chambers based their beliefs about the future of freedom on their Christian faith, so the book is replete with an examination of their faith as well as how that played out in their outlook.

The book is endorsed by some excellent and renowned Reagan and Chambers scholars. Dr. Paul Kengor, a prolific author himself and expert on Reagan, wrote the foreword. Dr. George Nash, the preeminent scholar of America conservatism, also gave it an enthusiastic review. Richard Reinsch, author of a study of Chambers’s philosophy, and Dr. Luke Nichter, co-editor of volumes on the Nixon tapes, add their positive commentary as well.

All that to say, I believe I’ve offered in this book a unique comparative biography that will shed light on these two conservative icons. I’m hopeful that this short history of how this book came into being will inspire you to purchase a copy yourself. You can do that by going to this Amazon page.

You can also view my Facebook page dealing with the book and see what I’ve posted there. My sincere desire is to get the message out, a message that will challenge you perhaps, and that will make you think more deeply about the nature of man and the future of our civilization.

Charlottesville: A Christian Perspective

The rally and subsequent violence that erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past weekend has dominated the news. I want to comment on it as I trust a Christian should, starting with some overall statements about groups in general, then on to some specifics.

First, there is no place in a Christian worldview for beliefs about racial superiority or inferiority. Any group claiming to be Christian while simultaneously promoting racial division is not really Christian; it’s merely using Christian cover for its sinful purposes.

The “white supremacists” who staged the Charlottesville rally, ostensibly to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue, but actually devoted to racial hatred, are a moral stain on the nation. Neo-Nazis and the KKK were prominent in their ranks.

They should be called out for what they are: immoral, hate-filled hypocrites.

Second, there is no place in a Christian worldview for those in a minority group to rise up and call for violence, regardless of the treatment they have received. Members of Black Lives Matter, spurred on by their own bitterness, have promoted violence against law enforcement officers, painting them all with the broad brush of a stereotype—which is the very thing they claim to be opposed to.

Third, there is another group out there calling themselves “Antifa,” which is supposed to mean they are anti-fascist. The strange thing about them is that they use fascist tactics to make their point, thereby becoming in practice what they say they oppose in theory. They were part of the violence in Charlottesville, although you don’t hear much about that.

Interestingly, though, a New York Times reporter at the scene did tweet this: “The hard left seemed as hate-filled as alt-right. I saw club-wielding ‘antifa’ beating white nationalists being led out of the park.”

This movement also is anti-Christian and should have no place in the heart of anyone calling himself/herself a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Now, on to the specifics.

The primary blame for what occurred in Charlottesville rests with the white supremacists. They staged the rally, knowing full well it would spark a counter-protest. They wanted a reaction from the extremists on the other side to try to make their point more pointedly.

They succeeded, if indeed you can describe what happened as a success.

Moreover, this group of sinful racists (a tautology, I know) tried to carry out this rally in the name of Christian faith, political conservatism, and as an arm of what many see as the Trump agenda.

It was not Christian, it was not representative of true conservatism, and Republicans nationwide have denounced the actions of these racists. That won’t stop the media, however, from constantly trying to make those connections.

The only sliver of accuracy here is that Trump did rely on their votes as a segment of his support in the campaign. Steve Bannon, his chief strategist, when he ran the Breitbart website, actually referred to it as a platform for the alt-right (the term used to incorporate such racists and others who sometimes lend them credibility with their “America First” ideology).

David Duke, one of the more prominent white supremacists in America, spoke at the Charlottesville rally and said the following: “This represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take this country back. We’re gonna fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in. That’s why we voted for Donald Trump because he said he’s going to take our country back.”

Please note that I’m not saying Trump is a racist; I’m simply saying that many white supremacists see him as their hope to fulfill their racist fantasies.

Trump’s response to the violence was technically accurate: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides.”

I can read that and say I agree. But I can also read that and wonder why he refused to single out the one “side” that created the problem this time. It’s as if he doesn’t want to go the entire way and point out that white supremacists were the real culprits in this particular event.

Usually it’s Trump’s words that get him into hot water; for the first time in my memory, it’s now what he didn’t say that’s causing the problem. Trump has this uncanny ability to make things worse.

The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, chapter 3, says explicitly what our attitude must be. He tells us to put aside “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech” from our mouths. He then goes on to say that through Christ we are being renewed:

A renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.

He concludes the passage with these positive words:

So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.

The groups I mentioned in this post are opposed to forgiveness, choosing instead to highlight their grievances. Nothing about any of them is remotely Christian, and it’s incumbent upon Christians to be clear about that. We cannot allow a false image of the faith to gain predominance.

Honesty & Integrity in Higher Education

As a new academic year approaches, I continue to be grateful for the liberty I have to teach from my Christian conservative perspective. At my university, I don’t have to tread carefully; I can fully expound on Biblical principles and make application to the courses I offer.

Professors at secular universities who have my perspective are not always so blessed. Neither are the students who swim against the progressive tide at those places:

Even guest speakers who go against the prevailing orthodoxy on campuses are experiencing hostility. Most often this is directed at conservatives who are invited to share at an event, but I recently noticed a fascinating divergence from the usual: Richard Dawkins, the outspoken atheist, had an invitation to speak at Berkeley withdrawn. Why? He had made comments critical of Islam.

Liberals love clichés, especially ones about freedom of speech, etc. The reality is somewhat different than their self-righteous pronouncements:

While my university does have a definite statement of faith that all professors must sign, that covers only the basics of Christian doctrine. There is room for discussion on many issues, as long as that discussion is based on those basic beliefs.

Take history, for instance—my subject. There are many questions that arise from a Christian standpoint when looking at the history of America. What about slavery? What are the real reasons for why we had a civil war? Was big business good for the nation or a detriment? What are the proper limits for civil government? Was it right to engage in a particular war? What about the dropping of those atomic bombs on Japan? Can that be justified?

Christians will differ on some of those issues. I have definite views. My study of history from my Biblical perspective leads me to believe that there was a lot of Christian influence, especially in early America. I also like to highlight people and events that bolster that viewpoint.

Yet that doesn’t mean I whitewash history to make it conform to my preconceived notions. While I would like for Thomas Jefferson to have been a Christian, I have to tell students that the evidence indicates he wasn’t. Many people love Andrew Jackson, but I frankly abhor much of what he did. Southern partisans praise Stonewall Jackson; my praise is muted, to say the least.

It has become fashionable to decry all of American history because of some of the blemishes in our character that have occurred, but we need to be more nuanced than that:

Honesty. Integrity. Those are my guidelines when teaching.

If only those were the guidelines for most of American higher education.

Saving Christian Conservatism’s Soul

Above all else, my identity is as a Christian—a follower of Jesus Christ in which I consistently acknowledge His lordship over all of life. I take seriously the admonition that our time on earth is temporary and that we are pilgrims on a spiritual journey. Our primary focus in not anything in this world.

However, I also take seriously the call for Christians to be salt and light in every situation in this world to help guide others into the truth. We don’t live in a corner somewhere, ignoring the world.

That’s why I’ve always been very involved in teaching Christians how to understand politics and government. Yes, those are transitory as well, but they have a tremendous impact on everyone’s daily existence. Government is a realm where Christians should make a difference.

At this point, allow me to recount my bona fides as a political conservative, especially as what I will say later may dismay some readers.

I have been a conservative in principle most of my adult life. I was conservative before many of you reading these words were even born. In the 1980s, I wrote for the Heritage Foundation and the American Conservative Union. In the 1990s, I chaired a county chapter of the Christian Coalition.

As a history professor, I’ve tried to communicate Christian conservatism to my students now for twenty-eight years. My book on Whittaker Chambers and Ronald Reagan grew out of what I have researched and taught for all those years.

I teach a course on Chambers specifically (who is considered practically the godfather of modern American conservatism) and another one on Reagan and the varieties of cultural and political conservatism that have developed since WWII.

My goal always has been to show students that, as Christians, our political beliefs should be grounded in Biblical principles, and that we should never be led astray into some kind of secular salvationism or put anyone on a pedestal, especially any political leader whose life doesn’t reflect Biblical principles.

I’ve attempted to instruct them on the distinction between a principled compromise and a compromised principle.

Have I made my point yet?

All during the presidential primary season last year, I wrote about and admonished my fellow conservatives, and Christian conservatives in particular, to be focused on principle and not simply jump on some kind of nationalistic bandwagon offered by any candidate. I also questioned quite pointedly the character of Donald Trump, issuing warning after warning that he was not a conservative and that his character (as revealed in the manner by which he campaigned) would do great harm long-term to conservatism as a political force.

When he became president, despite his many flaws, I made it clear that I would support him whenever he did something that aligned with sound policy, but that I would not be a cheerleader for him whenever his policies departed from principle or whenever his character undermined the office to which he had been elected.

Frankly, I don’t see how a Christian conservative can maintain integrity without that dual commitment.

I won’t go through a laundry list today of all the problems I see with Trump and his administration. It is sufficient to say that he continues to be his own worst enemy.

I know. His most ardent devotees will cry “fake news” about everything negative in the media. Is there a lot of fake news out there? Of course. Again, I will point to the fact that I’ve critiqued the media continually in this blog for the past nine years that I’ve written it.

Is there a double standard toward Republicans in general and toward conservatives specifically? No question about it. A political cartoon that came out back in 2007 makes a case that can still be made today.

Yet those who are defending President Trump, no matter what he does, are relying far too much on what some commentators have called “whataboutism.” Every time Trump does anything questionable, crass, or unprincipled, they cry, “Well, what about the Democrats? Remember what they did?”

While this might soothe some consciences, it doesn’t soothe mine. Wrong is wrong regardless, and if we want to be true disciples of our Lord, we cannot dismiss wrongdoing because the one involved in the wrongdoing is “on our side.”

I’m trying to be charitable here, and I hope you see it in that light. This is not a diatribe against those who are outraged at the obvious double standard and hypocrisy all around us.

But it is a caution, especially for all of us who call ourselves Christian conservatives. In the understandable desire to have a voice in the current political climate, we must not violate the trust God has given us to be His spokesmen. We must not sell our souls for transitory and ephemeral political clout. We must remember these exact words from the One we say we love and obey:

What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world yet loses his own soul?

Let’s not sell our souls and our birthright as children of the King for that which doesn’t truly advance His Kingdom. Be a voice of integrity in the midst of party spirit, acrimony, dishonesty, and unprincipled behavior.

By doing so, we save the Christian conservative soul and become the type of witnesses we are called to be.

Rockefeller the Christian?

A couple days ago, I posted about Booker T. Washington—the fruit of the preparation I’m doing for a course called “The Emergence of Modern America, 1877-1917.” I hope I showed in that post that he is someone to be admired for his character.

Another figure from that time period who needs his reputation reexamined is John D. Rockefeller. Historians typically castigate this man for supposedly destroying other companies by buying them out. Another presumably evil thing he did was to negotiate with the railroads for special rates for shipping his product: Standard oil.

I won’t try to do a total overhaul of those interpretations today, but I will offer these rejoinders:

First, Rockefeller was a very efficient oil producer; many other companies were sloppily run and doomed to failure. Many people that he bought out were actually saved by the transaction. He paid them a good market price for their equipment and sometimes even hired the best of their managers and employees.

He’s accused of creating a monopoly, which would be bad for consumers because monopolies can charge whatever they wish. Well, Rockefeller so lowered the price of oil to all Americans that they all could afford it, thereby lighting their homes in a significantly cheaper way than by candles.

What about the special rates with the railroads? Unfair? If someone gives you far more business than another person, what’s morally wrong with providing them, in return, a better rate? Isn’t that how business operates all the time? Buy in quantity and you get a lower price. Ever heard of Sam’s Club?

Rockefeller, to the surprise of many, was a devoted Baptist who tithed from his millions to his church and to missionary endeavors. And when journalists hoped to find an extravagant lifestyle that they could expose, they ran into the proverbial brick wall. Rockefeller liked nothing more than quiet times at home and going to church with his family.

Everyone talks about how much money Andrew Carnegie gave away. That’s fine, but Rockefeller gave away even more, and he was more focused on Christian charities. He even gave the funds necessary to ensure the establishment of Spelman College, the historically black women’s college that is named after his wife’s family.

I found some very fascinating Rockefeller quotes in my research. Here’s one that shows his goal for becoming rich:

He noted that anyone who concentrates solely on getting rich is missing the mark:

And how about this one from arguably the richest man in America at that time?

Although a Baptist, Rockefeller saw all Christians as his brothers and sisters:

And I’ll end with this:

So did Rockefeller never make a misstep? Am I whitewashing him because of my personal agenda? There are some things to critique, but I think they are minor in comparison with what he accomplished. He deserves more credit than many historians are willing to acknowledge.

Chambers: Why the Christians Are Right & the Heathen Are Wrong

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.

Literary England II: The Wordsworth-Lewis Link

Prior to my recent England trip with students, the only time I can recall reading English poet William Wordsworth was in one of our sessions in preparation for the trip.

For today’s blog post, I was simply going to include Wordsworth as one of three authors whose homes we visited.

Then, just yesterday, as I was doing more research on him, I discovered a stronger connection with C. S. Lewis than I had imagined. I decided Wordsworth needed a post of his own, especially as I wanted to put a spotlight on that connection.

For eight of Wordsworth’s most productive years, he lived in Dove Cottage in the picturesque village of Grasmere, located in the Lakes District, an area of England I’d never seen before.

Wordsworth’s poems, especially those from his early years, are quite focused on nature. In fact, for the first thirty-plus years of his life, one could say that nature was his religion. That’s why he’s considered one of the originators of Romantic poetry. The beauty of the Lakes District certainly can help engender such feelings. The back yard of his home is a garden with a hill from which one can see the nearby village and mountains.

I knew Lewis called himself a Romantic and that he had referenced Wordsworth occasionally, but until yesterday’s research, I didn’t know how strong that link was.

I don’t know how I missed it, but Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy, takes its title from a Wordsworth poem, “Surprised by Joy–Impatient as the Wind.” You can even find that quote on Lewis’s title page. Wordsworth’s poem is about memory and an intense longing for a love who was lost to death. Lewis’s memoir also focuses on that intense longing for joy that Wordsworth enunciated. Lewis even attempted, at first, to write his autobiography as a long poem in the Wordsworth style in his classic, The Prelude.

Romanticism was one of Lewis’s philosophical stops on his journey to Christianity. I also read that when he wrote The Pilgrim’s Regress, the fictional tale of his roundabout path to Christian faith, it not only took that form with John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress as a model, but also with Wordsworth’s The Prelude in mind.

Lewis couldn’t stop at Romanticism; it didn’t fulfill that longing ultimately. He mentions Wordsworth in Surprised by Joy, and in chapter XI, “Check,” he describes how a walk he took (Wordsworth loved walks also) gave him a sense of tasting heaven, and how he longed to find that experience again. He realized, though, that he couldn’t replicate the exact experience, but that it wasn’t the experience itself that was the issue—instead it was the stab of joy that he could still remember.

What Lewis eventually learned was that you cannot recapture that very moment; that would be idolatry. Then he said,

Wordsworth, I believe, made this mistake all his life. I am sure that all that sense of loss of vanished vision which fills The Prelude was itself vision of the same kind, if only he could have believed it.

Lewis says Wordsworth made this mistake all his life, but in my research I saw that he finally came to orthodox Christian faith and was known as a strong Anglican. I would need to research more to see how that influenced his later writings, but at least one source noted that he moderated his nature worship and brought it into submission to Christianity. I sincerely hope that is true.

The Wordsworth-Lewis link is most interesting. I’m glad I could add this to my ever-increasing boatload of knowledge about English literature.