My New Semester: Creating Appreciation for American History

In two weeks, all the faculty meetings begin; in three weeks, classes start once more. My summer of research, reading, and preparation for the new semester will come to an end. I will begin my 30th year of teaching university students.

One of the courses I’ll be teaching this fall is the one I always teach in the fall: my basic American history survey course that covers America from its colonial days through Reconstruction after the Civil War.

I’ve used one book for the survey course continually throughout my 13 years at Southeastern, and I would hate to ever set it aside. British historian Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People is unique. It’s not your typical textbook put together by some kind of collaboration between professional historians and/or a committee that seeks to dumb down history reading and make it as staid and unenjoyable as possible.

Johnson has wit and is not afraid of offering his interpretation on various events in the history of America. Is he fair? After all, he’s British and may have hard feelings about such things as the American Revolution (aka, The American War for Continued Self-Government) and the War of 1812.

Not at all. He says there was a world of difference in leadership during that Revolution between the Mother country and its colonies. He praises the genius of many of America’s Founding Fathers.

While some students struggle with Johnson, I don’t mind trying to stretch them. It’s good for them to read a truly worthwhile writer.

The other book I use is now out of print but I’m told there should be enough copies this time around (I pray that’s the case). James Hutson’s Religion and the Founding of the American Republic emanates from the Library of Congress (where Hutson works) and performs the marvelous task of revealing to students the sources from which we can identify just how significant Christian faith was to the majority of people during that era.

It’s a wonderful complement to the Johnson book, helping students see how Christianity formed the basis for culture and law at that time. Given the drive to excise that portion of our heritage from the teaching of history, it offers a great corrective. I hope the students appreciate it.

Teaching a survey course can be fun and exhilarating when students respond; it can be the worst of all worlds if they don’t care. I try to be consistent in my teaching methods and create interest, even if it doesn’t seem to exist at first. Sometimes the students catch that spirit; sometimes they don’t.

I’ll be teaching two sections of the course, back to back each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It will be interesting to see if there is a qualitative difference in the level of interaction from one section to the other. My prayer is that students in both sections, even though they are comprised of hardly any history majors, will go away from this semester with a deeper knowledge and appreciation of what occurred in the founding of this nation.

That’s one of four courses I’ll be teaching. I’ll explain the others in future posts.

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.

A Compromised Principle, Unfortunately

The guideline I try to follow when considering whether I support a policy action is whether it actually advances the position I ultimately want to see enacted. I have stated that stance in these words before and will do so again:

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

For instance, on abortion, I don’t take an all-or-nothing approach. If a proposed bill decreases the number of abortions, I support it because lives will be saved. I then hope for further steps that will get policy even closer to my ideal.

Obamacare repeal is now on the front burner in Congress. I’m trying to figure out whether what the Republican Congress is proposing is truly an advancement in repeal—a principled compromise—or if it is instead a compromised principle.

I’m willing to be patient if I know that the proposed bill is only a first step toward an effective repeal and replacement. I also know that some compromise is probably necessary due to lack of unity among Republicans on what should be done. I don’t really envy Mitch McConnell’s job:

The problem, as this political cartoon illustrates, is that some of the ducks are more like chickens—they are afraid of losing their prestigious Senate seat by supporting something that will anger too many voters.

The House bill already was rather weak; the Senate bill, which was released yesterday, is, by most accounts, even weaker, as most commentators predicted it would be.

Already four senators—Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Rand Paul, and Ron Johnson—have declared they cannot support it in its current state. They say it does nothing to reduce premiums and it leaves most of the infrastructure of Obamacare in place. Even the principal architect of Obamacare, Jonathan Gruber, gleefully declared that this proposed bill keeps Obamacare basically intact.

Obamacare’s regulatory scheme remains untouched; insurance companies will continue to receive subsidies (from taxpayers, keep in mind); it says it will reform Medicaid (but not for a number of years, so who really believes that will happen?); Planned Parenthood is defunded (for one whole year; after that, it reverts back to current funding); the individual mandate and taxes do go away, but all the regulations continue as before.

Those four senators who said they cannot support the bill are now going to try to strengthen it. If they don’t succeed, and they stay firm in their opposition, it will go down to defeat, and rightly so.

Why rightly so? It’s not enough of a principled compromise; it leans heavily toward a compromised principle.

How often were we told by Republicans that once they got control of Congress and the White House that they would destroy the Obamacare monster once and for all? Well, here’s the reality:

This is so sad, it’s hard to know what else to say.

Third-Party Options?

With respect to my stated conviction that I will not be voting for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, I’m repeatedly asked about options. They are few, and yes, I understand that no one on a third-party ticket is going to win the presidency. Yet it’s worth looking briefly at what some consider to be third-party options—a place to go without violating one’s conscience.

Gary JohnsonMost of the third-party attention is focused on the Libertarian Party and its nominee, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson.

Johnson was the Libertarian nominee in 2012 and earned only about 1% of the vote nationally. Some are saying that could change this year due to the overwhelmingly bad poll numbers for Clinton and Trump. Polls that show which one is leading the other must be understood in the context that, for many, that choice is between two equally disliked candidates.

I once flirted with libertarian ideology, mainly because I was drawn to its commitment to the free market and limited government. I attended a libertarian conference two decades ago that gave me greater insight into the ideology. I saw that, even though I could agree with libertarians on economic issues, there were other serious deficiencies in their thought.

Most of the libertarians I have met and have read about since then are so adamantly devoted to their definition of liberty that it is more like licentiousness. On what are normally called the social issues—abortion, sexuality, marriage—most libertarians believe you should just let people do whatever they want. It’s fine with them to allow abortion as a “freedom,” to be openly homosexual, and to endorse same-sex marriage.

Johnson fits into that category of libertarians. He is opposed to abortion restrictions and announced that he will stop smoking pot while running for president. Really.

Johnson is on record as saying Christian bakers should be forced to bake cakes for same-sex weddings. In an interview on Fox Business Network, he even stated that Jewish bakers should be forced by the government to bake cakes for Nazis.

This is libertarian? It’s certainly not limited government on that issue.

Overall, I think libertarianism is in conflict with basic tenets of the Christian faith and the Libertarian Party is not one that should receive support from Christians. I’m as opposed to it and to its nominee, Johnson, as I am to Clinton and Trump.

Darrell CastleAnother option might be the Constitution Party. It used to be called the National Taxpayers Party. I recall meeting with an official of that party in the 1990s and telling him that the name was too narrow, that it seemed to indicate an interest only in economic matters, while the party itself stood for the Constitution. I encouraged him to push for a name change. I suggested Constitution Party.

Well, a few years later, that’s exactly what it became. Did I do that?

I’ve always been interested in this party and have hoped, over the years, that it might develop more. If you peruse the party platform, you find that it is staunchly pro-life and devoted to the original intent and meaning of the Constitution. The only part of the platform with which I’m not fully in tune is its more isolationist foreign policy that seems to discount even support for Israel.

However, I’m willing to live with the party’s foreign policy because of its overall perspective on government. It doesn’t say we cannot go to war; it simply seeks to follow the Constitution’s precise language that a declaration of war by Congress must come first.

Its nominee, Darrell Castle, is a lawyer and a former Marine who served in Vietnam. Interestingly, he trained under an officer by the name of Oliver North. He has been married to the same woman for 38 years. He and his wife founded a Christian mission to homeless gypsy children in Romania.

The problem with the Constitution Party is that it has never seemed to be able to garner enough support to be on the ballot in all states. I also have been looking to see if it will begin fielding candidates for Congress and state-level offices. Unless I’ve missed something, that isn’t happening. If it were to do so, could it be a possible successor to a Republican party that seems to have lost its way?

If the Constitution Party is on the ballot in Florida, I may very well vote for Castle. If it is not, then what will I do?

I’m not sure if the Florida ballot allows write-ins, but if it does, I will consider that. If neither write-ins nor the Constitution Party are options, I will simply have to decline to vote for anyone for president.

That doesn’t mean I won’t be voting. I will gladly vote for Marco Rubio as senator and for Dennis Ross, my current congressman and a man of integrity.

There is still talk of the rise of a protest party among conservatives. We’ll just have to see if anything comes of that. But whatever transpires, I have to follow my conscience before God.

If Donald Trump wins, the Republican Party may never be what it was, and I may have to cut ties if it becomes even more Democrat-light. If Donald Trump loses, there may be hope that the party has learned a valuable lesson and will regroup with a firmer commitment to its purported principles.

Christians just need to keep praying that God isn’t finished with this nation yet.

On Political Courage

Here’s a thought. What if, at the Republican convention next week, the powers-that-be allowed a secret ballot to choose the nominee? What if the delegates truly had the freedom to vote according to what they believed best for the party and the country instead of being pressured by their political leaders to fall in line with Donald Trump?

Would that secret ballot vote be different than the public one? If so, what would that say about those delegates? What would it say about their adherence to principle? What would it say about their personal character? Where are the spines? Where is courage when it is needed?

History affords us examples of courage in voting. One comes readily to mind for me. President Andrew Johnson was brought to the Senate for an impeachment trial in 1868. The Republican party at that time, which controlled the Senate, sought to remove him from office over disagreements in policy.

Edmund RossIt would take a two-thirds vote for that removal. Everyone knew the vote would be close, and one Republican senator, Edmund Ross of Kansas, would not commit to voting for removal. No one knew exactly what he might do.

Two days before the first vote, Ross had received a telegram from his home state that read, “Kansas has heard the evidence, and demands the conviction of the President.” It was signed by “D. R. Anthony, and 1,000 others.” Ross responded,

I do not recognize your right to demand that I shall vote either for or against conviction. I have taken an oath to do impartial justice . . . and I trust I shall have the courage and honesty to vote according to the dictates of my judgment and for the highest good of my country.

Not to be outdone, Mr. Anthony and his “1,000 others” retaliated. “Your telegram received. . . . Kansas repudiates you as she does all perjurers and skunks.”

The roll call began. Ross had been warned by fellow Radical Republicans that a “no” vote would end his political career. When his name was called, Ross stood and quietly cast his vote—for acquittal. His vote effectively ended the impeachment proceedings.

Some newspaper editorialists decided that Ross could best be compared to Benedict Arnold, Jefferson Davis, or Judas Iscariot. As predicted, his political career did end swiftly; he lost his reelection bid.

In a letter to his wife one week after his momentous vote, Ross declared,

This storm of passion will soon pass away, and the people, the whole people, will thank and bless me for having saved the country by my single vote from the greatest peril through which it has ever passed, though none but God can ever know the struggle it has cost me.

Where are the Edmund Rosses in the current Republican party? Where is the courage needed to stop the most foolish nomination in the party’s history?

Donald & Hobbes 1

Donald & Hobbes 2

We need to be looking out for the nation instead. It’s time for real principle to come to the forefront.

What About Impeachment?

Talk of impeachment is beginning. President Obama’s latest power grab, declaring publicly that he will act without Congress to get done what he considers his priorities, is rankling those who are committed to the delicate separation of powers established by the Constitution. Is this just talk? Are there sufficient grounds for impeachment? Is it even politically feasible?

Impeaching a president is a big step. Two presidents have been formally impeached: Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. A third, Richard Nixon, resigned before it could come to a full vote in the House of Representatives. To be impeached simply means to be accused by a majority of the House of actions warranting removal from office. In both cases when the House approved articles of impeachment, neither president was removed from office after a trial in the Senate. The Senate has the final say on articles of impeachment, and in the case of a president, two-thirds of that body must vote for removal.

The vote for Johnson’s removal was very close. It fell just one vote short, so he completed his term, which was less than a year anyway. For Clinton, a Republican-controlled Senate had a majority for removal, but not the two-thirds necessary; not even one Democrat joined the Republicans in favor of turning the White House over to VP Al Gore.

If you study the history of impeachment proceedings, both in Britain and America, you find that causes for removal from office can range from actual violations of law to non-criminal activity that simply brings disgrace and/or dishonor to the office. It’s not essential to find that someone has broken a law; if continuation in office is deemed to be detrimental to the proper functioning of the government, that is sufficient grounds for dismissal.

Because the Clinton impeachment is so near to us historically, that’s what most people will use as their comparison with the current president. What were Clinton’s actions that led to the impeachment? He was formally accused of perjury and obstruction of justice, both violations of law. In the background, of course, were his unseemly sexual inclinations. At the time, accusations of sexual relations with a young woman working in the White House and a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by a former Arkansas state employee formed the context for his violations. The whole thing was tawdry. I was in favor of his impeachment and removal due to the dishonor he conferred upon the presidency, not just because I disagreed with his political agenda.

ImpeachableAfter the Senate trial ended in his acquittal, I interviewed all the House Managers who argued before the Senate for his removal. It led to a book that gave their side of the story. Nowadays, conventional wisdom says they were wrong and/or foolish to proceed with the impeachment. Even though the Senate had a majority of Republicans, getting the two-thirds vote was considered a real long shot. However, I thought it was worth the fight, if for no other reason than to stand for principle. There was at least a glimmer of hope for success, given that Republicans did control that chamber.

My interviews also revealed to me a group of congressmen who fought this fight for the sake of principle: no man, not even a president, is above the law. Everyone is equal before the law, and all must be held accountable. I continue to honor them today for the stand they took.

So what about President Obama? There are two considerations: has he committed impeachable offenses and is there any realistic hope that impeachment proceedings will result in his removal from office?

On the first consideration, I am of the decided opinion that he has overstepped the lawful boundaries of his authority on many occasions. He is currently attempting to rule by executive orders, a clear violation of the constitutional limitations on a president. With respect to the IRS targeting of his political foes, is there anyone who, deep down, believes this was the result of a few rogue agents who acted without the approval—either directly or with a smile and a nod—of the president? Using a federal agency to undermine political opposition is the very thing Nixon was accused of. Democrats, at that time, didn’t think it was unjust to use that as a reason for impeachment.

Obama Arrogant Look 3Then there’s Benghazi. Regardless of whether the military could have gotten there in time to help the besieged, the massive coverup afterwards is reprehensible. Blaming the attack on some obscure video when it’s obvious now that Obama and everyone else around him knew it was a planned terrorist action, is inexcusable. Throwing the producer of the video in prison was unconscionable. And doing it all during an election season to hide the truth from an electorate deciding whether to keep Obama in office was deception of the highest order.

So, yes, he has committed clearly impeachable offenses. His disregard for the Constitution seems limitless; his desire to do whatever is necessary to remain in power renders him unfit for the office.

But that brings us to the second consideration: is there a realistic hope that the Senate actually would remove him? I don’t think there’s any hope of that at all. Not only is the Senate controlled by his own party, it is more bitterly partisan now than ever. If not even one Democrat senator could bring himself or herself to vote to remove Bill Clinton from office, how is there any reasonable expectation that twenty-two of them would do so today? Any impeachment proceeding against Barack Obama would be futile.

So what can be done?

First, I applaud Sen. Rand Paul’s lawsuit against the president over the misuse of the NSA’s intelligence-gathering. How about some more lawsuits aimed at the president’s unconstitutional power grabs? Not all the courts are corrupt. There are still some judges out there who revere the rule of law.

Second, focus laser-like on the upcoming congressional elections. If Republicans can take back the Senate, and if a few more of those senators can grow the spines they currently lack, legislation can be passed to curtail unconstitutional activities. Yes, the president will veto all such legislation, but this will be a vital educational experience for the general public as they see a president flaunting the law so openly.

Education of the public in the principle of rule of law will provide an opening for a Republican presidential candidate who has the stomach and integrity to stand for what is right. If Republicans can unite behind a bold, principled leader, there remains a hope that the present drift of the nation politically can be turned around.

I realize a lot has to come together to make this happen. I’m not naïve. And at the root of any great reversal of national fortunes must be a spiritual revival that calls people back to foundational truths. Although we need to take the proper steps in the political realm, ultimate success rests with a Biblically grounded people. Will we be such a people?

False Faith & A New Reality

I’ve commented before on the unrealistic expectations some of President Obama’s supporters had for him as he assumed the office. As historian Paul Johnson has noted, the loss of Christian faith in the Western world has allowed all sorts of false messiahs to rise to the top. People want to have faith; they simply choose the wrong gods. There is only one. Consequently, it’s not surprising when disillusionment sets in.

Many promises were made. The most outlandish had to do with lowering the oceans and healing the planet. Perhaps it would have been better to just handle the manageable problems correctly. That hasn’t happened either.

The “solutions” enacted have actually done more damage. In some cases, as illustrated above, they have targeted precisely the wrong sectors. The corruption in Fannie and Freddie goes untouched, while the small businesses that create most of the jobs in society bear the brunt of the penalties.

The Obama administration has been a disaster for the nation on so many fronts I can hardly begin to enumerate them. Yet if you’ve been reading this blog for some time, you know about the most egregious actions and attitudes.

Is it possible he doesn’t realize the reality of his situation?

For the sake of the country as a whole, let’s pray for a new reality—beginning in November.