A Tale of Evil, Incompetence, & Heroism

Few people who go to church on Sunday expect to encounter mass murder. We think we are in a safe place. Yet sin abounds, and there is no place that is 100% safe. Last Sunday, a presumably safe place in a small Texas church turned into a scene of terror.

Details are now emerging about that killing spree. We see a combination of evil, incompetence, and, as we more recently found out, heroism.

The evil was in the heart of the perpetrator, Devin Kelley. We now know that he was a wife and child abuser, more than once. While in the Air Force, his actions of domestic abuse landed him in confinement for a year and he received a bad conduct discharge.

The incompetence focuses on the Air Force, which somehow forgot to enter his name into the National Criminal Information Center database, which would have disallowed him from purchasing guns.

Kelley was also an outspoken atheist, ranting against God and Christians on Facebook.

In a press conference yesterday, it was revealed that Kelley had a dispute with his mother-in-law who goes to that church, so the official claimed Kelley’s actions had nothing to do with religion; it was simply a domestic issue.

If that’s all this was, why try to kill everyone in the church?

No, this is deeper. This is rebellion against God and everything the Christian faith stands for. Kelley hated Christians, with his mother-in-law representing an outlet for his hatred.

The words of Jesus at the Last Supper recorded in John 15 come to mind:

If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. . . . If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. . . . All these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me.

Christians have been and are persecuted and attacked worldwide. We’re only now coming to grips with what might happen in America in the future. We’ve felt “safe,” but that safe feeling may be ending.

I mentioned heroism. It turns out that a neighbor heard the gunshots, grabbed his gun, and engaged Kelley, wounding him. He then followed Kelley all the way to the place where he apparently committed suicide by ramming his vehicle and overturning it.

The man who confronted Kelley, Stephen Willeford, is a former NRA instructor. Contrary to what some might think, that means he trained people to use guns wisely and carefully. He followed his own advice. And because of that Second Amendment right, more lives probably were saved.

Willeford says he’s no hero: “I think my God … protected me and gave me the skills to do what needed to be done.”

That kind of humility and dependence on God is actually a mark of genuine heroism, the kind God rewards.

A Century of Totalitarianism & Terror

This year commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. I use the word “commemorate,” not “celebrate.” There is nothing to celebrate in the establishment of the first Marxist communist state; that state, and all the progeny to which it has given birth, embodied the greatest scourge of the 20th century—and its pernicious beliefs and system continue to plague us today.

Russia was ripe for revolution while enmeshed in WWI. I won’t go into all the historical background; suffice to say there were genuine grievances. Yet, all too often, the chosen solution for grievances can be just as bad, or worse, than the original grievance.

The Bolsheviks came to power in late 1917, led by Vladimir Lenin, a man with no pity for anyone, who judged all people by whether they agreed with him on every point, and who introduced the modern concept of genocide, as he evaluated people not by individual guilt or innocence, but by their association with whatever group he deemed unfit to live.

Lenin became the model for all 20th-century revolutionaries. He devoted himself to developing professional revolutionaries who believed in total revolution, without any compromise.

He exploited the people’s war weariness and promised peace and bread for everyone. He controlled the Russian parliament by armed threats and intimidation. The press became a tool of propaganda; no dissenting voices were allowed. And he set up a secret police to inspire terror to any who might try to object to his goals. The czarist secret police were babes in terrorism compared to Lenin’s.

His method for total control can be outlined in this way:

  • Destroy all opposition outside the Party
  • Place all power in Party hands
  • Destroy all opposition within the Party
  • Concentrate all power in the Party in himself and his handpicked subordinates

The irony is that Lenin finally was undone by his own decree that the Party would oversee the health of its leaders. When Lenin had a stroke, his eventual successor, Josef Stalin, pushed Lenin out of power and grabbed the reins himself.

What is there to say about Stalin that most don’t know now? While we choose to highlight the obvious horror of Adolf Hitler (and rightly so), Stalin was conducting his own holocaust within his nation. He starved 7 million Ukrainians in the winter of 1932-1933; he held fake trials of Party officials, always leading to their execution (an estimated one million from 1936-1938), and signed a pact with Hitler in 1939 that allowed the latter to begin that awful world war.

Once that war ended, Stalin then proceeded to take over as many Eastern European countries as he could, giving rise to the Cold War. His long reign of 30 years led to the state murder of approximately 30 million of his own citizens.

From this horrific beginning, the communist vision of coerced utopia gave rise to a bevy of totalitarian states operating from that vision: China, North Korea, Cuba, etc.

No, I don’t celebrate the centennial of communism. My task is to educate others on its nature, based as it is on the rejection of Christian faith and the exaltation of man in all his depravity.

I’m also called to point out that it has never worked as advertised in any place it has been tried. A book needs to be written that neatly summarizes that reality. Perhaps this would be a good title:

Despite the hard facts about this ideology, some still say it is a wonderful vision of what man can be if only it’s tried the right way. I beg to differ. This “wonderful vision” is a vision of man without God and is, as Whittaker Chambers so eloquently explained when he broke from communism and found Christian faith,

What I had been fell from me like dirty rags. The rags that fell from me were not only Communism. What fell was the whole web of the materialist modern mind—the luminous shroud which it has spun about the spirit of man, paralyzing in the name of rationalism the instinct of his soul for God.

Yet far too many never face up to the obvious: this is totalitarianism, plain and simple.

This false ideology, this attempt to make man into a god and annihilate genuine Christianity, doesn’t deserve a second chance.

Chad Walsh’s Baptized Imagination

One of C. S. Lewis’s earliest American friendships was with Chad Walsh, a professor of English at Beloit College in Wisconsin. Like Lewis, Walsh traveled the road from atheism to Christianity, and Lewis helped him on that journey.

“In my case there was no childhood faith,” Walsh wrote in an account of how he eventually found the Christian path.

If I ever believed in God as a small child, no memory of the time remains with me. I regarded myself as an atheist from the moment I learned to read—and, indeed, pamphlet editions of Ingersoll, et cetera, were part of my earliest reading.

Why would a young boy be so attracted to a non-Christian worldview? Walsh, although ultimately placing the blame on his own stubbornness and pride, also pointed to a reaction he had to the community in which he was raised:

Undoubtedly my atheism was in part a revolt against the Fundamentalism of my home town—Marion, Virginia. . . . It was not a winsome faith, and I was in full agreement with H. L. Mencken about the superstitious backwardness of the ‘Bible Belt.’

He eventually escaped what he considered the confines of that small town and found the atmosphere of the University of Virginia more to his liking. There he didn’t have to worry about people shoving religion at him. He was free, he felt, but the freedom did not settle the bigger questions that began to crowd upon his mind. While he claimed to be a self-satisfied atheist, doubts crept in. “Is there such a thing as good or evil?” he often wondered. “Is there any meaning in life and the universe?” World events in the 1930s helped crystallize the answers.

The rise of Hitler in Germany, and the growing awareness of the actions of that regime, forced him to confront the problem of evil in the world. Walsh’s companions in atheism and/or agnosticism, when challenged by Walsh to come up with a response to what Hitler was doing, would provide excuses, albeit excuses that were actually consistent with their worldview.

Walsh recounts,

They agreed with me that the world was a senseless jungle. Very well, they reasoned, if the world is a jungle, it’s absurd to speak of right and wrong. Everything is relative. Hitler thinks he’s doing right to invade Poland and murder the Jews. Very well, it is right for him. It’s all in the way you look at it.

That response shook him. He knew he had to come to grips with the reality of evil.

Walsh’s second question, about the meaning of life and the universe, intruded more on his thoughts once he was forced to recognize that real goodness and real evil existed, and that there was a decided difference between the two. If everything was some kind of cosmic accident, what did that say about his personhood? Was he living an illusion?

His atheism was crumbling. He lived in a transition from atheist to Christian for a few years, trying to figure out what he should believe. It all came down to the person of Jesus Christ.

Walsh began reading the New Testament. What he found surprised him. He had preconceived ideas of Jesus as some weak character—the words “meek and mild” were stuck in his mind from childhood. What he saw in the pages of the Gospels was something different:

The man I encountered in the Gospels was a towering figure of strength; even his death was that of a man strong enough to accept death voluntarily. So I was up against the final question: What or who was Jesus?

Eventually, reason led to faith.

As I recount in my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis, along the way, Walsh had begun to read some Lewis, and that helped him see the reality. But then he had an experience with one of Lewis’s books that absolutely transformed him.

A friend enthusiastically lent him a book she had just finished reading; she just knew he would love it. That book was Perelandra, the second in Lewis’s Space Trilogy in which the protagonist, Elwin Ransom, is transported to Venus to save an innocent world from falling into sin. Walsh was transported as well:

I quickly consumed it from cover to cover. I was struck first of all by the sheer beauty of the book. It transported me into a kind of Elysian Fields—or better yet, an unspoiled Eden, inhabited by the innocent and unfallen.

A second revelation was that, even though he had always been a science fiction fan, he had never read any science fiction like this, where it could be used as a “vehicle of great philosophic and psychological myth.” The third revelation, though, was the greatest of all:

Finally, and most importantly, in Perelandra I found my imagination being baptized. At the time I was slowly thinking, feeling, and fumbling my way towards the Christian faith and had reached the point where I was more than half convinced that it was true. This conviction, however, was a thing more of the mind than of the imagination and heart.

In Perelandra I got the taste and smell of Christian truth. My senses as well as my soul were baptized. It was as though an intellectual abstraction or speculation had become flesh and dwelt in its solid bodily glory among us.

Walsh then became the first person to write a book about Lewis. To do so properly, he knew he had to visit Oxford and interview him. That’s the tale I’ll tell in a Lewis post next Saturday. Please come back.

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.