Chambers: Death of a Nation?

Those who have read this blog long enough know my affinity for Whittaker Chambers, a man I consider one of the true heroes in American history. That’s why he is one of the subjects of my new book The Witness and the President: Whittaker Chambers, Ronald Reagan, and the Future of Freedom.

He had joined the Communist Party in the 1920s, thinking it was the answer to all the world’s crises. Only later did he come to grips with his error, but when he did, a whole new understanding opened to him.

As he notes in his masterful autobiography Witness, his mind had to be renewed completely:

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, denying in the name of knowledge the reality of the soul and its birthright in that mystery on which mere knowledge falters and shatters at every step.

As he stepped out into his new reality, he found faith in God, and that gave him insight that is well worth sharing with our generation:

External freedom is only an aspect of interior freedom. Political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible. Religion and freedom are indivisible. Without freedom the soul dies. Without the soul there is no justification for freedom. … Hence every sincere break with Communism is a religious experience.

There has never been a society or a nation without God. But history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that became indifferent to God, and died.

That last line is haunting. How indifferent are we as a nation right now? How close are we to death?

Reagan: The Principled & the History Makers

Yesterday, I wrote about my new book on Ronald Reagan and Whittaker Chambers. Both men are as relevant to our day as they were to theirs.

As we near the end of another year, and as we consider the challenges that loom, some select quotes from Reagan may help us focus on our responsibilities. There are some quotes from Reagan with which many people are familiar, but I’ve chosen to pull out some that are less well known, yet just as insightful.

Just two months into his presidency, right before the assassination attempt, he spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference dinner:

We’ve heard in our century far too much of the sounds of anguish from those who live under totalitarian rule. We’ve seen too many monuments made not out of marble or stone but out of barbed wire and terror.

But from these terrible places have come survivors, witnesses to the triumph of the human spirit over the mystique of state power, prisoners whose spiritual values made them the rulers of their guards. With their survival, they brought us “the secret of the camps,” a lesson for our time and for any age: Evil is powerless if the good are unafraid.

That last line is the key. As we think of the battles ahead, we need to believe that. At a commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the Heritage Foundation, he exhorted his audience that they had to face the reality of the world situation:

We must never be inhibited by those who say telling the truth about the Soviet empire is an act of belligerence on our part. To the contrary, we must continue to remind the world that self-delusion in the face of unpleasant facts is folly, that whatever the imperfections of the democratic nations, the struggle now going on in the world is essentially the struggle between freedom and totalitarianism, between what is right and what is wrong.

This is not a simplistic or unsophisticated observation. Rather, it’s the beginning of wisdom about the world we live in, the perils we face, and the great opportunity we have in the years ahead to broaden the frontiers of freedom and to build a durable, meaningful peace.

When laying a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery, Reagan spoke of principles and common sense:

Peace fails when we forget what we stand for. It fails when we forget that our Republic is based on firm principles, principles that have real meaning, that with them, we are the last, best hope of man on Earth; without them, we’re little more than the crust of a continent. Peace also fails when we forget to bring to the bargaining table God’s first intellectual gift to man: common sense.

Common sense gives us a realistic knowledge of human beings and how they think, how they live in the world, what motivates them. Common sense tells us that man has magic in him, but also clay. Common sense can tell the difference between right and wrong. Common sense forgives error, but it always recognizes it to be error first.

I added the emphasis at the end.

I’ll conclude today with a pithy, yet valuable, Reagan perspective—one we would do well to remember:

History is no captive of some inevitable force. History is made by men and women of vision and courage.

Let’s go out and make some history.

The Witness of Whittaker Chambers

Chambers at DeskEvery other year, I have the opportunity to teach a course I call “The Witness of Whittaker Chambers.” I’m teaching it again this semester. Chambers is not well known to most of our generation, but he was to an earlier one. Product of a dysfunctional family, devoid of any Christian upbringing, hit hard by life and seeking answers to the crises of the world after WWI, he turned to communism as the solution. Eventually, he became part of an underground cell that worked to place communists in key positions in the American government and pass secrets on to his master, Stalin.

Chambers finally came to realize the horror he was supporting and broke away. He then had to come to grips with the God he never knew. When he made the conscious decision to turn to God, his worldview was revolutionized. In his bestselling autobiography, Witness, he explained what happened when the transformation took place:

WitnessWhat 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, denying in the name of knowledge the reality of the soul and its birthright in that mystery on which mere knowledge falters and shatters at every step.

He now saw things in a new light and realized the connection between the spiritual and the political:

External freedom is only an aspect of interior freedom. Political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible. Religion and freedom are indivisible. Without freedom the soul dies. Without the soul there is no justification for freedom. . . . Hence every sincere break with Communism is a religious experience.

His masterful autobiography is filled with memorable quotes. One of my favorites is this one:

There has never been a society or a nation without God. But history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that became indifferent to God, and died.

Perhaps it’s time we heeded these wise words uttered more than sixty years ago. His insights are more apropos today than they were when they were written. Will we ever learn?

Chambers was not too optimistic about our society’s openness to the truth. In one of his essays in Time magazine, “Ghosts on the Roof,” he commented through the imagery of the Muse of History,

I never permit my foreknowledge to interfere with human folly, if only because I never expect human folly to learn much from history.

While I tend to agree, in the main, with that sentiment, I still hold out hope for a solid remnant who will cling to truth and make a difference in our culture. Those who know the One who is the Truth have both a deep responsibility for spreading the message and a reason for hope, not only in the next world, but also in this one. We need to be faithful to the task to which we have been called.

The Pillars of Christianity

When I was working on my master’s and doctoral degrees in history, I distinctly recall an attitude that some of my professors had toward the American colonial and revolutionary eras—they conveyed to us, their students, the idea that the leaders of those eras were just so backward when compared to the more enlightened age we live in now. I didn’t accept that attitude then; I don’t accept it now.

Yes, we have progressed technologically in ways our Founders would find astonishing. Technology, though, is hardly a substitute for principle. Neither can we be considered more advanced if we have dismissed the Biblical framework that gives us a proper understanding of the place of man in God’s creation. That Biblical framework offers us, as well, a greater comprehension of the role civil government should play in the overall society. Personally, I believe a lot of those early Americans have a lot to teach us still.

When I was writing my master’s thesis, I researched the lives and writings of two prominent Americans of the Founding Era: Timothy Dwight and Jedidiah Morse. Most people today have no idea who they were. Dwight served ably for many years as president of Yale, ensuring it retained its Christian foundations. Morse, a pastor, also was famous as the Father of American Geography; he wrote the first American textbook on the subject, which was the first to include key geographical features of North America. His fame was eventually superseded by that of his son, Samuel F. B. Morse, who invented the telegraph.

Jedidiah MorseJedidiah Morse gave a sermon in 1799 that includes one of the best quotes I’ve ever read on the relationship of Christianity and civil government. A lot of quotes from this era, both genuine and spurious, have made their way to the internet, but I’ve never seen this one make the rounds. I’d like to offer it now for your consideration. Here’s what Morse would have us remember:

Our dangers are of two kinds, those which affect our religion, and those which affect our government. They are, however, so closely allied that they cannot, with propriety, be separated. The foundations which support the interests of Christianity, are also necessary to support a free and equal government like our own. . . .

To the kindly influence of Christianity we owe that degree of civil freedom, and political and social happiness which mankind now enjoy. In proportion as the genuine effects of Christianity are diminished in any nation, either through unbelief, or the corruption of its doctrines, or the neglect of its institutions; in the same proportion will the people of that nation recede from the blessings of genuine freedom, and approximate the miseries of complete despotism. . . .

Whenever the pillars of Christianity shall be overthrown, our present republican forms of government, and all the blessings which flow from them, must fall with them.

When I read those words, I am impressed by the wisdom behind them. Religious beliefs always provide the context of what a people accept as appropriate in society. Christianity, in particular, lends itself to genuine liberty. When Christianity recedes into the background, liberty recedes also. Morse’s words are a warning to a people who, in their pride, abandon Biblical principles and replace them with man-centered, humanistic ideas. If the blessings of our republican forms of government seem to be disappearing, we would do well to ponder what Morse says—the reason is that we are attempting to overthrow the “pillars of Christianity.”

We have a lot to learn from those who have preceded us. It’s not too late to take their warnings seriously and make a course correction. It will take humility on our part, however. Are we up to the challenge?

How to Make an Award Meaningless . . . or Worse

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian award given to American citizens. It should be reserved for those who have embodied the quest for genuine liberty, and who have warned against threats to that liberty. That’s why President Reagan gave one of these medals, posthumously, to Whittaker Chambers, a man who put his personal reputation, his career, and possibly even his life, on the line when he revealed what he knew about the underground communist network within the U.S. government. That’s what this medal is supposed to signify.

President Obama has made a mockery of this award. Yes, I realize that the president has the prerogative to award this to whomever he wishes, and political beliefs are going to influence those choices, but sometimes a line is crossed. Let me talk about three of this year’s recipients.

Very few people have ever heard of Dolores Huerta, but conservative commentators lit up the internet yesterday with information about Huerta the president cleverly chose not to share. Here are some highlights:

  • Honorary Chairman of the Democratic Socialists of America, the largest socialist organization in the U.S. and the principal U.S. affiliate of The Socialist International
  • Professed Marxist
  • Believes the War on Terror is really a war on immigrants
  • Board member for the following radical groups: Feminist Majority, Latinas for Choice, the Center for Voting and Democracy, and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting [the name sounds good, but it’s another Media Matters-type organization]
  • In 2006, she said, “Our theme will be: Republicans hate Latinos”

Giving a medal of freedom/liberty to an avowed Marxist is the ultimate in oxymorons. The two couldn’t be more opposed. Yet what this reveals is that the president himself holds the same views. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be honoring her.

Another recipient was former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. Now, what could be wrong with honoring a man who served on the highest bench in the land? That would only make sense, right? Superficially, yes. But the philosophy Stevens brought to the Court was of the farthest-Left variety. He even gave an opinion on a partial-birth abortion case that said to deny a woman the “right” to have her unborn child put to death while being birthed would be to deny her “liberty” to make such a decision. Stevens said nothing about the right of the unborn child to have liberty. The unborn child didn’t matter at all to him. His concept of liberty is radical licentiousness. Licentiousness is a rather long word; let me simplify it: sin. So now we have a Presidential Medal of Freedom winner who won’t even protect the life of an unborn child at the very point of birth. This is tragic . . . and laughable, if one can truly laugh at the plight of innocent children.

I’m not aware of the list of recipients over the past years, but I’m sure Stevens is not the only pro-abortionist who has been so honored. It’s just that in this case, his decisions have made their mark on an entire nation. His influence was not indirect, but direct. He is one of the reasons we still fight the fight against partial-birth abortion. Giving him a medal of freedom is hypocritical at the least; an abomination might be a better term.

Another recipient was singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. This one is almost comical to me. Weirdly, as befits his persona, Dylan showed up to receive his award wearing sunglasses. Well, you know, those White House lights are pretty bright. One may be tempted to ask just what Dylan has done to deserve this award, and to be placed on the same pedestal as Whittaker Chambers. I’m certainly asking.

I grew up in the sixties. I remember Dylan and his songs quite well. The songs were all of the protest variety. Some are catchy, even though the sentiments expressed are classic left-wing. I can understand why people may enjoy some of his songs. It’s more of a stretch to imagine anyone enjoying his voice—nasal, whiny, strange.

Let’s be honest: Obama gave Dylan this award because he likes the protest movements of the 1960s and sees Dylan as a symbol of the counterculture. Obama still lives in the spirit of the 1960s; that’s where he is most at home philosophically. It reminds him of his own Marxist tutors and the influence of radical activists like Saul Alinsky.

One commentator jokingly suggested the real reason Obama thought Dylan deserved the award can be seen in light of his own autobiography, which reveals our president as a regular pot-smoker in his youth. Perhaps, the commentator noted, he really liked one of Dylan’s songs better than the rest: “Everybody Must Get Stoned.”

Sad.

If you want to know what kind of president we have—what his underlying beliefs are, and how he wants to transform this nation—all you have to do is look at his choices for the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His choices diminish the meaning of that award, even as his presidency demeans the office itself.

Chambers: Death of a Nation?

Those who have read this blog long enough know my affinity for Whittaker Chambers, a man I consider one of the true heroes in American history. He had joined the Communist Party in the 1920s, thinking it was the answer to all the world’s crises. Only later did he come to grips with his error, but when he did, a whole new understanding opened to him.

As he notes in his masterful autobiography Witness, his mind had to be renewed completely:

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, denying in the name of knowledge the reality of the soul and its birthright in that mystery on which mere knowledge falters and shatters at every step.

As he stepped out into his new reality, he found faith in God, and that gave him insight that is well worth sharing with our generation:

External freedom is only an aspect of interior freedom. Political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible. Religion and freedom are indivisible. Without freedom the soul dies. Without the soul there is no justification for freedom. … Hence every sincere break with Communism is a religious experience.

There has never been a society or a nation without God. But history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that became indifferent to God, and died.

That last line is haunting. How indifferent are we as a nation right now? How close are we to death?

Tocqueville & American Christianity

Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who toured America from 1831-1833, was a keen observer of what he experienced. He put those observations into a famous book, still used in political sciences courses, called Democracy in America, first published in 1835.

Tocqueville quotes can be found throughout the Internet; unfortunately, some of them dealing with religion in America are more legend than fact. I know, since I’ve read the entirety of his book without finding them. However, he did make clear statements about the influence of the Christian faith on American society. Here are some samples:

There is an innumerable multitude of sects [denominations] in the United States. All differ in the worship one must render to the Creator, but all agree on the duties of men toward one another. … All the sects … are within the great Christian unity, and the morality of Christianity is everywhere the same. …

… America is … still the place in the world where the Christian religion has most preserved genuine powers over souls; and nothing shows better how useful and natural to man it is in our day, since the country in which it exercises the greatest empire is at the same time the most enlightened and most free.

So this French observer was duly impressed with the unity he discovered among the various Christian denominations and the pervasiveness of the Christian faith in the nation. He also saw another practical effect of the universality of Christian faith: “Of the world’s countries, America is surely the one where the bond of marriage is most respected and where they have conceived the highest and most just idea of conjugal happiness.” Would that were the case today.

Christian influence on the morals of society dominated, according to Tocqueville:

Revolutionaries in America are obliged to profess openly a certain respect for the morality and equity of Christianity, which does not permit them to violate its laws easily when they are opposed to the execution of their [revolutionaries’] designs; and if they could raise themselves above their own scruples, they would still feel they were stopped by those of their partisans. Up to now, no one has been encountered in the United States who dared to advance the maxim that everything is permitted in the interest of society. An impious maxim—one that seems to have been invented in a century of freedom to legitimate all the tyrants to come.

So, therefore, at the same time that the law permits the American people to do everything, religion prevents them from conceiving everything and forbids them to dare everything.

Religion, which, among Americans, never mixes directly in the government of society, should therefore be considered as the first of their political institutions; for if it does not give them the taste for freedom, it singularly facilitates their use of it.

Tocqueville’s experience in France had taught him that religion combines with the state to produce tyranny. He was amazed to find the opposite in America:

On my arrival in the United States it was the religious aspect of the country that first struck my eye. As I prolonged my stay, I perceived the great political consequences that flowed from these new facts.

Among us [in France], I had seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom almost always move in contrary directions. Here I found them united intimately with one another: they reigned together on the same soil.

What we have here is a nineteenth-century Frenchman with a sharper vision of the greatness and uniqueness of America than most current commentators, particularly those on the Left of the political spectrum. If only they would listen and learn from him.