Play It Cool, Mr. President

Calvin Coolidge once noted, correctly, “I have never been hurt by anything I didn’t say.” If only Donald Trump would follow that wise advice.

In the middle of some positive developments in his presidency with respect to policy (don’t mention tariffs, though), the ongoing Mueller investigation on Russian collusion and whatever else fits into that bailiwick continues to arouse the president’s ire.

He can’t seem to stop talking/tweeting about it. Then he goes one step further in his fusillade of words by hinting very strongly that he might pardon himself, assured as he is by some of his legal advisors that he has that authority.

Let’s deal with a couple of aspects here. First, a pardon is supposed to be issued only for those who have been found guilty of something. So is this an admission of guilt?

Not even Richard Nixon tried to use this approach.

Second, what about the constitutionality of pardoning oneself? From what I’ve read, experts are divided on that. But let’s be serious. Yes, the Constitution doesn’t specifically deny that the president can pardon himself, but when did anyone ever think—before this current situation—that it was permissible? When in the history of this nation has anyone ever contemplated such a move? If they have, I am unaware of it.

The Founders based our Constitution on the separation of powers so that a tyranny would be difficult to achieve. If a president can pardon himself (or herself, if Hillary had won), how can that be anything short of a tyranny?

We are supposed to be grounded in the concept of the rule of law, which, among many things it means, at the top of the list is the bedrock conviction that no man is above the law, not even the president.

For those who are concerned that I’m just trying to unduly criticize Donald Trump, let me affirm my basic position: I will praise anything good that comes from his administration, but will not allow partisanship to ignore what is not good.

I doubt very much that Trump was actively involved in collusion, but his family (I’m talking about you, Jared, Don Jr., and Ivanka) has done some things that raise questions. The investigation needs to proceed. Trump should want it to do so if, as Congressman Trey Gowdy has asserted, there is nothing there to point to him directly.

But Trump will have to overcome his natural desire to spout off. Here’s some advice for him from a trusted source:

Yes, Mr. President, stop the bloviating and play it cool for a change. You also might avoid an ulcer in the process.

I’ve been consistently concerned now for the last couple of years with respect to what is happening in our political realm. I come at politics and government from a very definite perspective.

Here, therefore, is my attempt at a personal manifesto.

I believe in Christian principled constitutional conservatism. Let me now explain what that means to me.

Christian

Jesus Christ is Lord of all aspects of life. My own life would have no meaning without His love, His forgiveness, and His direction for me. Politics and government fall under His Lordship. Consequently, whenever I think on those issues, I do so with a desire to ensure that His truth is the cornerstone for all governmental policies.

I want to see all of the vital questions before us through the lens of Biblical faith and solid doctrine. I want a Biblical approach to the way government is organized and I want, as much as possible, people serving in that government who are dedicated Christians. Where that is not the case, I at least want to support those who are not hostile to Christian faith, but have respect for liberty of conscience.

I seek to help put into practice a Christian worldview on all manner of legislation, whether that be right to life/abortion, religious liberty, marriage, taxes, education, welfare, immigration—well, that’s the short list. I believe that no matter what the issue, there is a Biblical way to understand that issue.

Principled

I shouldn’t have to make this a separate section. Christians ought to be, simply by the nature of their relationship to God and truth, naturally principled. However, I am dismayed by how often those who profess the name of Christ make disastrously unprincipled decisions. They allow emotions or self-interest to set aside what they claim to believe.

What principles mean the most to me?

  • The inherent value of human life—we are all created in the image of God.
  • The concept of self-government—God has so designed us to grow into maturity and make most decisions ourselves without the oversight of civil government. Not only individuals, but families, churches, voluntary organizations, etc., should be free of undue government influence.
  • The sanctity of private property—government has no mandate from God to be our overlord on economic matters; He instead, as part of our maturity, seeks to teach us how to be His stewards of all types of property: money, material goods, our minds, and the free will He has given us.
  • Voluntary association without the force of government coming down on us—people only unite when they are united, and that unity is internal, not provided by government coercion.
  • Christian character—God intended us to carry out our lives as reflections of Him; the world only works correctly when we do things His way.
  • Sowing and reaping—man is accountable for his actions, and he will receive back what he has sown: if obedience to God, blessings; if disobedience, dire consequences; we can’t blame society and claim victimhood status in God’s eyes because He will always hold us personally responsible for our choices, whether right or wrong.

Constitutional

I believe in the concept of the rule of law, meaning no man, regardless of high rank in society, is above the law. We all are to be judged by the same standard.

I believe in the system set up in this nation through the Constitution that gave us a solid basis for the rule of law.

I believe we need to hold firm to the original meaning of those words in our Constitution and not allow judges, legislators, or presidents to stray from the limited authority granted in that document.

Changes to the authority given to our federal government must go through the proper constitutional channel: the amendment process as outlined in the Constitution. A judge’s gavel is not a magic wand.

Anyone running for the presidency or for Congress, and anyone nominated for a federal judgeship, at whatever level, all the way to the Supreme Court, must pass muster as constitutionalists. No one who denigrates the rule of law should ever be supported for public office.

Conservative

This is a relative term. In a totalitarian system, a conservative would be one who wants to conserve totalitarianism. But in our system, a true conservative is someone who seeks to conserve what the Founders established. Often that can happen only by acting to overturn or reverse what has been done to destroy the Founders’ ideals. If a revolution has occurred, a real conservative might have to take on the nature of a counterrevolutionary in order to reestablish the foundations.

Conservatism does not merely conserve the status quo—if that status quo is a deviation from the constitutional system bequeathed to us.

Conservatism is not “reactionary”; it is a positive movement to secure the blessings of liberty to us and to future generations.

This is where I stand. This is my personal manifesto.

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.

Iran & North Korea: Good Developments

The deal Obama and the Democrats forged with Iran over its nuclear program was supposedly going to spare us from a major nuclear conflagration. I didn’t believe it then, and I still don’t believe it now. That deal was no better than the phony deals people have foisted on the gullible throughout history.

The Iran deal was only a ten-year moratorium (again supposedly) on developing nuclear material and allowed Iran itself to do its own inspection on whether it was keeping to the agreement.

Huh?

That’s a long way from the Reagan approach called “trust but verify.” In fact, it’s downright foolish. How many people who still use their brains actually believe that Iran is keeping its word? Well, Obama and John Kerry are prime examples, in spite of how Israel’s top-notch spy service tries to enlighten us.

Then there’s the very nature of the deal. Whenever nations enter into these types of agreements, they’re called treaties. The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of a treaty is as follows:

An agreement or arrangement made by negotiation; a contract in writing between two or more political authorities (such as states or sovereigns) formally signed by representatives duly authorized and usually ratified by the lawmaking authority of the state.

There’s a reason I highlighted that last portion of the definition. The Constitution of the United States (that document largely ignored by the previous administration) requires that agreements such as this Iran deal should be brought to the Senate for ratification. Obama chose not to go that route (which is called “constitutional”) and simply declared it a “done deal.”

He was always very good at just doing things whenever he wanted. Remember his “I’ve got a pen and a phone” comment? He’s a little upset at the moment now that President Trump has pulled out of the deal.

I’m going to give Trump credit here for following through on this. I’m sure he was emboldened by the addition of John Bolton to his team, but his was the final decision, and it was the correct one.

One of the things he has done well has been the reversal of a number of Obama’s executive orders.

We need to face reality, though. Pulling out of a phony deal is one thing; finding a way to stop Iran’s march toward nuclear proliferation and carrying out its evil desire to wipe Israel off the face of the Middle East map is another matter. Much hard work remains.

Immediately after this welcome decision to call Iran out for its deviousness, there was other good news as the Trump administration secured the release of three Americans who had been imprisoned by the unstable North Korean government.

To Trump’s credit, he greeted those three in person at 3 a.m., which showed how important he considered the release to be.

Yet, even when something good happens, he has a tendency to detract from the moment. First, he declared that they had received “excellent” treatment from the North Korean dictator. He is slavishly devoted to using every superlative imaginable in the English language. I would not have lavished that kind of praise on the monster in charge of that nation.

Second, he just had to say something about TV ratings, commenting that this event was probably the highest-rated one ever for anything broadcast at 3 a.m. His inflated ego and desire for popularity stepped on this significant moment.

Please, Mr. President, consider that not everything is about you. Just savor moments like these as a plus for the American people and let it go at that. I pray there are those in his inner circle who are trying to make that same point.

Overall, though, these developments are reasons for encouragement. May there be more of them.

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.

Compromises at the Constitutional Convention: Principled?

When is compromise right? When is it wrong? When I look at historical compromises, I try to apply this rule:

A compromised principle leads to unrighteousness, but a principled compromise is a step closer to the principle’s ideal.

Let’s take the Constitutional Convention as an example.

The delegates who comprised the convention that led to our current Constitution had to grapple with a number of controversial issues. The two most prominent were how to carry out proper representation and how to incorporate the existence of slavery within the document.

On the issue of representation, states with greater population argued that they should have more say in the making of the laws. After all, they had more people, so it only seemed fair to them.

The smaller states, however, fearing that they would always be outvoted on matters of concern to them that might not concern larger states, called for equal representation in the newly proposed government.

Who had the better argument?

In this case, both were making good points. Both arguments had validity.

Consequently, a compromise was forged that led to setting up two houses in the national legislature (as opposed to one in the Congress established by the Articles of Confederation). The House of Representatives would be allotted a proportional number of members based on each state’s population while the Senate would have two members from each state, thereby providing a chamber where the smaller states had an equal vote.

In my view, this was an acceptable compromise that answered the concerns of both parties. No one sacrificed a principle.

The other thorny issue was whether to count the slaves as part of the population of a state. If all slaves were counted, that would definitely give slave states a higher number of representatives in the House. The Southern states, therefore, favored this position.

Northern states, many of whom had already abolished slavery while others were in the process of doing so, thought that would be unfair. After all, as Gouverneur Morris of New York postulated in the debate,

Are they men? Then make them citizens and let them vote. Are they property? Why then is no other property included?

Fair question. What was to be done?

The convention came up with this compromise: count 3/5 of the slave population toward a state’s representation (not all the slaves, as the South desired); allow the Congress, twenty years hence, to pass a law that would prohibit the importation of more slaves into the country.

That latter provision was based on a sincere wish that most of those delegates had: the eventual elimination of slavery in America. They hoped that such a law would dry up the slave population over time.

Incidentally, twenty years later, Congress did pass that law.

Was this an acceptable compromise? People are divided on that. Personally, I would have welcomed a stronger stance against slavery, but I also understand the tenor of the times and the limitations on what that convention needed to accomplish.

The Constitutional Convention couldn’t hope to achieve unanimity on the issue of the continuance of slavery. What it could hope to achieve was to set up a working government that could then deal more fully with the issue.

That was accomplished. The sad fact that Congress, over the next few decades, didn’t come to grips with slavery as it should have is not something that should be laid at the feet of those at the Convention.

In fact, based on what they knew at the time, there was good reason to believe slavery was already on its way out. It was not as profitable as expected.

What changed? How about the invention of the cotton gin seven years later, which made slavery far more profitable?

Let’s not play a blame game that holds people responsible for something that happened seven years in the future. That would be like holding people in 2018 responsible for something that will occur in 2025 that alters the whole perspective of an issue.

We’re not really all that good at knowing what the future holds, given the millions of individual choices of citizens that will be made along the way.

It’s possible, therefore, to consider even that slavery compromise as a principled one, despite the disrepute it has earned over time.

The main lesson here, I believe, is to work toward compromises that move the ball toward what one wants to see eventually. Any step in the right direction should be welcomed.

Rule of Law & the Constitutional Convention

In our era, when the rule of law seems to be weakening, it’s instructive to look back at how our cornerstone document, the Constitution, came into being. The 1780s, under the Articles of Confederation, saw a loose-knit assemblage of states that were in danger of splitting apart permanently. Those with concern for the rule of law and who had a vision for a better system urged a meeting of all the states to address the governmental crisis.

Twelve of the thirteen states responded to that call—tiny Rhode Island excepted due to fear of being overwhelmed by any change in the government—and sent delegates to Philadelphia. They met in this building in the summer of 1787, newly called Independence Hall, the place where they also debated and passed the Declaration of Independence eleven years earlier.

Of the thirty-nine individuals who eventually signed off on the new Constitution, over half had some training in the law. Lawyer jokes aside, that’s rather important, and was doubly so at that time, since all of them perceived of law as emanating from God ultimately, and not man.

They held to the conviction that man’s laws had to be in concert with God’s laws; otherwise, they would be invalid.

Half of the delegates had either attended or graduated from college. While that might seem to be a low percentage from the perspective of the twenty-first century, that was a high percentage in that era.

Further, thirty-three had served in the Continental Congress during the Revolution, a mark of stability and experience in governmental affairs. This was not to be an assembly of radicals who wanted to change everything.

Then, by choosing George Washington to preside over the convention, they provided its deliberations a respectability that all Americans would have to take seriously.

One delegate showed up with a plan: James Madison, probably the best researcher in the nation on the issue of good and effective government, offered his Virginia Plan, which became the basis for the debate as the convention went forward.

Madison’s influence was strong throughout that summer. He spoke frequently (second-highest number of speeches) and kept a record of what everyone said. Later, after all the delegates had died, his notes were published, and that book is now considered one of the most valuable of all American historical documents.

Another man, too infirm to be a delegate at this time, nevertheless made his mark on the Constitution because he was Madison’s mentor. Rev. John Witherspoon, president of the College of New Jersey, guided all of Madison’s intellectual pursuits. They had even worked together in the Continental Congress.

Witherspoon is credited, during his time at the college (later to be renamed Princeton) with graduating, along with the expected ministers, many men who later became governmental leaders. Four others at the convention, besides Madison, had studied under Witherspoon. Overall, the graduates during his tenure account for a future president (Madison), a vice president (Aaron Burr, but don’t hold that against Witherspoon), nine cabinet officers, twenty-one senators, thirty-nine congressmen, three US Supreme Court justices, and twelve state governors.

There is ample reason to accept the title many have bestowed on Witherspoon as “The Man Who Shaped the Men Who Shaped America.”

Some of what occurred at the Constitutional Convention will be the subject of a future post. Sufficient for today is the result: a system of government that gave precedence to the rule of law for a fledgling nation and that has helped that nation survive many tumultuous episodes. Regardless of our concerns with how our government may be functioning now, we can still feel some measure of confidence in its stability due to the wisdom of those who constructed it.