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.

Another Reagan-Trump Comparison

There’s been a lot of commentary on the number of people in the Trump administration who have been shown the door and/or have voluntarily resigned during his first year in office. is it unprecedented?

I think back to the Reagan years and can think of only two individuals who stepped down during or shortly after the first year. Richard Allen, Reagan’s national security advisor, resigned when accused of taking a bribe, but that accusation was later proven to be false. Alexander Haig, Reagan’s secretary of state for a little over a year, had a habit of thinking he was so much in charge of foreign policy that he was above the president. It’s to Reagan’s credit as a patient man that Haig lasted that long.

When David Stockman, who was director of the Office of Management and Budget, publicly disagreed with Reagan’s policy on tax cuts, Reagan simply sat down with him over lunch and made it clear he had to support the president’s policies. Stockman lasted a full four years in that post.

So, yes, it seems to me that the revolving door at the current White House is somewhat unprecedented, especially for someone who has continuously boasted that he only hires the best people. If that’s so, why have so many either left on their own initiative or have been forced out barely a year into Trump’s tenure?

Now, I don’t mind the fact that some of them are gone. David Shulkin, as head of the Veterans Administration, was not effective. Let’s hope someone better takes his place.

I never believed Rex Tillerson was a good pick for secretary of state, so again, I have no problem with that subtraction from the administration. However, I’m not fond of the way he found out.

In fact, Trump’s method of informing people that they may no longer have a job is not quite what I would call professional.

His constant humiliation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions via tweets is bizarre, unbecoming of what we ought to expect of presidential behavior. To Sessions’s credit, it hasn’t yet worked.

Cartoonists have been having a wonderful time illustrating this revolving door. Here are some examples:

For the record, these examples are from cartoonists with a conservative bent, so this is not part of the liberal/progressive conspiracy to oust Trump. He does enough damage to himself that even those on the conservative side can see the problem.

Meanwhile, many of us continue to pray for this president that he will eventually exhibit grownup behavior. A lifetime of narcissism makes it hard to change at this late date, but one must always hope.

Russia’s New Cold War

Ronald Reagan, with invaluable help from Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, brought the Evil Empire to its knees by the end of the 1980s. He was ridiculed by many when he said that communism and the Soviet version of it would soon be on the ash heap of history.

But he was correct.

The Berlin Wall fell in 1989. The USSR ceased to be officially on January 1, 1992.

For a while, it looked as if it might be a true, long-term change. Then came Vladimir Putin. Many Russians longed for the “strong man” to lead them; he was more than ready to fulfill that wish. He made them look back at an idealized—and false—image of the Soviet Empire. He made them think they could recover those supposed glory days.

While he doesn’t say this is communism that he’s reinvigorating, there are many similarities with the old heresy. Chief among them is the ritual of conducting phony elections. Russia just had another one. The Babylon Bee had a little fun with it:

Unfortunately, though, what’s transpiring in Russia is anything but funny. In my book on Reagan and Whittaker Chambers, I pointed to the danger signs:

Expectations were high that Russia could be transformed into a stable commonwealth. The reality is that Russian nationalism came to the forefront and political leaders such as Vladimir Putin attempted to reestablish Russian power.

The Washington Post’s former correspondents in Moscow authored a book detailing the demise of freedom in Russia. They wrote of the “Putin Project,” which was an attempt to get rid of all challenges to his authority. The Post’s review of the book noted that the authors have provided “a powerful indictment of Putin’s years as president. In his obsessive quest for control and a stronger Russian state, Putin is undermining Russia’s long-term future just as Soviet leaders did in their own repressive days.”

The U.K.’s Daily Mail newspaper told of Russia’s new claim to the North Pole. It spoke of Putin’s “astonishing bid to grab a vast chunk of the Arctic—so he can tap its vast potential oil, gas and mineral wealth.” One British diplomatic source warned, “‘Putin wants a strong Russia, and Western dependence on it for oil and gas supplies is a key part of his strategy. He no longer cares if it upsets the West.’”

Meanwhile, The New Yorker, hardly a bastion of conservative thought, devoted an article to suspicious deaths of some of Putin’s critics. Reagan, of course, could not have foreseen this turnabout; it simply reflects that times change while human nature remains unchanged.

I recall the final debate between Mitt Romney and Obama in the 2012 campaign. Obama made fun of an assertion Romney made in a book, saying sarcastically,

“When you were asked, what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said ‘Russia.’ Not Al-Qaeda; you said Russia. And the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back, because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”

It was a “zinger,” according to the enlightened commentariat, that sealed the coffin on Romney’s candidacy. But Romney was right to call attention to the fact that Russia was reemerging as a worrisome power.

Putin sees himself as a Stalinesque figure, and we need to take the threat seriously. What does he hope to achieve?

That restart may have already occurred.

A Witness, Not a Testimony

The most fascinating autobiography of the 20th century was Whittaker Chambers’s Witness. I’ve re-read it numerous times, particularly in tandem with the course I teach on him and his writings.

Why did Chambers decide to call his book Witness? His testimony before HUAC was an accounting of what he knew about the underground—but that is all a testimony is. It tells what happened; it provides facts. Chambers saw what he was doing as something more, something deeper. A witness is someone who goes beyond simply providing testimony. He describes it in this way:

A witness, in the sense that I am using the word, is a man whose life and faith are so completely one that when the challenge comes to step out and testify for his faith, he does so, disregarding all risks, accepting all consequences.

With his mouth, a man testifies; with his life, he makes a witness.

The opening section of Witness was slightly unorthodox, but that kind of thing could be expected from Chambers. He chose to begin with his own foreword that he called “A Letter to My Children.” Family was the highest priority for him. That was why he bought Pipe Creek Farm. It was why he sought to shield his children from everything connected to his past for as long as possible. The Hiss Case changed that; now he wanted to leave them a personal witness as a prelude to the rest of the book.

His Time associate Craig Thompson had seen him the day after his first testimony before HUAC. ‘“Boy,’ I said, ‘you’ve sure dropped an A-bomb this time.’ For once he couldn’t even grin. ‘Yes,’ he said heavily, ‘And now I’m going home to see what my children think of me.’” His “Letter” was intended as a guidepost for them:

My children, as long as you live, the shadow of the Hiss Case will brush you. In every pair of eyes that rests on you, you will see pass, like a cloud passing behind a woods in winter, the memory of your father—dissembled in friendly eyes, lurking in unfriendly eyes.

Sometimes you will wonder which is harder to bear: friendly forgiveness or forthright hate. In time, therefore, when the sum of your experience of life gives you authority, you will ask yourselves the question: What was my father?

I will give you an answer: I was a witness.

The foreword is powerful as a concise essay on what to expect in the rest of the book: the two irreconcilable faiths; the commitment of the communists to their cause; the communist vision of man without God; the proper way to break with communism; the need for the West to renew its faith in God or be destroyed.

“There has never been a society or a nation without God,” Chambers instructed. “But history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that became indifferent to God and died.” The “Letter” ends with a highly personal passage:

My children, when you were little, we used sometimes to go for walks in our pine woods. In the open fields, you would run along by yourselves. But you used instinctively to give me your hands as we entered those woods, where it was darker, lonelier, and in the stillness our voices sounded loud and frightening.

In this book I am again giving you my hands. I am leading you, not through cool pine woods, but up and up a narrow defile between bare and steep rocks from which in shadow things uncoil and slither away. It will be dark. But, in the end, if I have led you aright, you will make out three crosses, from two of which hang thieves. I will have brought you to Golgotha—the place of skulls.

This is the meaning of the journey. Before you understand, I may not be there, my hands may have slipped from yours. It will not matter. For when you understand what you see, you will no longer be children. You will know that life is pain, that each of us hangs always upon the cross of himself. And when you know that this is true of every man, woman and child on earth, you will be wise.

I was deeply moved by the elegance of the writing the first time I read Witness. That emotional connection with the book has never left me. It’s why I want to introduce students to it. I want them to grasp—as a generation seemingly removed from the grip of the Cold War and the threat of communism—the eternal truths Chambers enunciates.

Just because the outward expression of the conflict, the Cold War, has ended, that doesn’t mean the conflict is over. It’s never over, precisely because the conflict is not simply between two political or economic systems; rather, it’s the age-old conflict of faith in God vs. faith in man. That one never ends.

I highly recommend reading Chambers’s Witness. You also can get a significant part of it in my book, The Witness and the President: Whittaker Chambers, Ronald Reagan, and the Future of Freedom, from which this excerpt is taken.

Presidential Greatness: A List to Ponder

Presidents Day apparently was a prime time to release the new rankings of presidential greatness. Who is judging which president is greater than another, you may ask. The answer: 170 members of the Presidents & Executive Politics Section of the American Political Science Association.

You may ask further: what are the political leanings of these 170 members? The answer with respect to political party: 57.2% of respondents were Democrats, while 12.7% were Republicans, 27.1% were Independents, and 3% selected Other as their option.

The other question asked was whether they considered themselves liberal or conservative. Here’s that breakdown: 32.5% consider themselves ideologically liberal, while 25.9% consider themselves somewhat liberal, and 24.1% consider themselves moderate. Only 5.4% consider themselves ideologically conservative, while 12% say they are somewhat conservative.

In my experience, those who call themselves somewhat liberal are being too modest; they are usually quite liberal but don’t like to be labeled as such. If I’m correct, that would put the ideologically liberal as well over half the respondents while conservatives overall top out at just under 18%.

Gosh, I wonder if that skewed the results of this survey?

To be fair, I think there were some solid selections of greatness. For instance, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington come in as #1 and #2, respectively. Given Lincoln’s gargantuan task of navigating a civil war and Washington’s precedent-setting tenure as our first president (and giving honor and dignity to the office), I take no issue with those choices.

But, as is always the case with a liberal-dominated group, we find FDR voted in as the third-greatest president in American history. This is the man who tossed aside the Constitution, who allowed the federal government to dictate an ever-higher portion of each individual’s life, and who put into place policies that extended the Great Depression for an entire decade.

Sorry, but that’s not my idea of greatness.

FDR’s cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, comes in fourth, probably because he began the movement toward more “progressive” policies and even ran for president later on the ticket of the newly formed Progressive Party. Now, there are things I like about TR as well, but not those.

The #5 spot went to Thomas Jefferson. I’m currently teaching a course on the Early Republic and if you were to ask my students their view of Jefferson now, you probably wouldn’t get too many superlatives. He did his best to undermine both Washington and John Adams. He thought the French Revolution was a wonderful event. He signed an embargo act that practically froze all American commerce and his presidency ended with a whimper, not a bang.

Ah, but the Declaration of Independence makes up for all of that, I guess.

I admit to being pleased, and somewhat surprised, to see Reagan included in the top ten, coming in at #9. What was less surprising was to see Obama just ahead of him at #8. Let’s see now: one president revived the economy and was instrumental in bringing down the Soviet Union; the other reigned over an economy in the doldrums, attempted to take over the entire healthcare industry, and apologized the world over for America even existing.

Can you tell I disagree with that ranking?

LBJ comes in at #10, just behind Reagan. He only put FDR’s New Deal on steroids with his Great Society. And I don’t think we can call his Vietnam policy a sterling success.

I won’t try to go through the whole list, but here are some more thoughts as I look over it.

Woodrow Wilson ahead of James Madison? Really? Bill Clinton fell from #8 to #13 in this new ranking—a nice trend. Keep it going. Grover Cleveland all the way down at #24? I guess that’s what happens when someone believes in reining in government spending and warns against big-government paternalism.

Jimmy Carter at #26 ahead of Calvin Coolidge at #28? Give me a break. Why is Carter so high comparatively? His presidency was a near-total bust. Coolidge had integrity and presided over a robust economy. But he was Coolidge, you know, and that’s all it takes for a liberal-dominated voter pool.

Filling out the bottom of the list were some of the perennials: Warren Harding, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, William Henry Harrison (hey, give the guy a break; he was president for only one month), and James Buchanan.

Oh, I almost forgot. At the very bottom is the name Donald Trump. Now, that’s hardly fair with only one year under his belt. Even though I’m a great critic of Trump’s character, etc., I would hardly place him below some of those perennials noted above. At least not yet. Let’s see how this plays out over the next three years.

Lists like these are interesting, but you always need to know who the respondents are. A liberal-dominated electorate will always give a decided nod to those who have expanded government power.

A Presidents Day Reflection

On this Presidents Day, I’d like to honor some of the men who filled that post with integrity. Let’s forget, for this one day at least, those who degraded the office and focus instead on those who gave it a degree of eminence.

One must always begin with the man who set all the precedents for what a president should be: George Washington.

At the end of the Revolutionary Era, in the midst of economic chaos and a woefully weak central government, Washington came out of a long-deserved respite from public affairs to preside over what we now call the Constitutional Convention, knowing full well that the improved government structure that would emerge would undoubtedly place him at its head.

With humility, he undertook this new responsibility even though he would have preferred to remain at Mt. Vernon. No one else commanded the respect he had earned, and no one else could have kept the nation as united as he did during these shaky years.

Washington had to navigate the rough waters of the effects of the French Revolution and had to ensure the government survived its infancy. He did both superbly. He then left us with his Farewell Address, a document of wisdom that we would do well to heed: avoid a party spirit; maintain the religious foundation of our society.

Our fourth president, James Madison, made his mark on the new nation long before he assumed the presidency. He was the greatest student of government among all the Founders.

At the Constitutional Convention, he was the one who brought with him a plan for the new government. That plan became the basis for the debate; most of what he wanted came to fruition.

During his tenure, the nation went to war again with Britain. There were some missteps during that war, and he did have to leave Washington, DC, in a hurry as the British invaded. Yet, when it was over, American nationhood was secure.

In my view, Madison’s too-close association with Jefferson led him astray for some years before becoming president, but his later life showed a return to his former principles.

One of his legacies is the notes he took at the Constitutional Convention. They are now published and give us an insight into all the debates. More than merely a historical document, those notes are a window into the early American soul. Madison gave us a great gift.

I cannot omit Abraham Lincoln in this list of worthies. Yes, I know the unreconstructed among us think he was a tyrant. In my earlier years, I tended in that direction as well. Then I did research.

Lincoln faced a national emergency that has dwarfed all the others, before and after. How does one maintain constitutional integrity in a circumstance where the Constitution offers little guidance? Lincoln tackled it with a rare combination of firmness and mercy.

His view that the states could not just leave arbitrarily was accurate. He took on the burden of trying to preserve the union without becoming bitter toward those who tried to disrupt it. His Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural are testimonies of his character: government of the people, by the people, and for the people is the catchphrase of the first. The second ends with these stirring words:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Lincoln’s tragic assassination ended that hope, as the next decade was filled with the bitterness and resentment that he sought to avoid. To those who don’t like Lincoln, I urge a second look. This was a man of integrity.

Liberals love to make fun of Calvin Coolidge. They don’t really know the man. Thrust into the office by the untimely death of Warren Harding, Coolidge took over with a quiet and calm demeanor. His first action when hearing of Harding’s death was to kneel with his wife by their bed and pray for wisdom.

The scandals of the Harding administration might have doomed the Republican party if a man of lesser character had inherited the office. Coolidge, though, made sure that all who were guilty were exposed.

He also believed firmly in constitutional limitations on the federal government, restoring a limited-government approach that had been shoved aside in the Woodrow Wilson years. The economy flourished during his administration as he sought to reduce the tax burden on individuals.

Many want to blame him for the Great Depression that followed, but that was the result of many other decisions, some of which can be laid at the feet of the Federal Reserve actions during the decade of the 1920s.

Coolidge could have run again in 1928 and would have won easily, but he chose to step down. One of my favorite presidential quotes comes from Coolidge’s autobiography when he disclosed why he chose to return to private life:

It is difficult for men in high office to avoid the malady of self-delusion. They are always surrounded by worshipers. They are constantly, and for the most part sincerely, assured of their greatness. They live in an artificial atmosphere of adulation and exultation which sooner or later impairs their judgment. They are in grave danger of becoming careless and arrogant.

If only more presidents had that perspective.

Finally, I come to the president I consider to be the best of the twentieth century: Ronald Reagan.

I’ve written so much about him in this blog already that I probably can’t come up with anything new. Yet it’s worth repeating that Reagan did see the world through the Christian framework and wanted to make sure his actions were right before God.

He took over the office at a time when we were pretty despondent as a people. Historian Paul Johnson calls the 1970s “America’s Suicide Attempt.” That is an accurate description, in my view.

Reagan restored confidence, but not in the superficial manner of Franklin Roosevelt. He actually promoted policies that made a difference, bringing us out of the doldrums. It’s instructive that he looked back to Coolidge for inspiration with regard to tax cuts and getting the federal government out of people’s lives.

He dealt wisely with the Soviet Union, declaring it would soon be on the ash heap of history. The know-it-alls called him stupid for saying this, but he turned out to be right.

When he died in 2004, after a decade-long bout with Alzheimer’s, his passing brought out the best in our country. The respect shown at that time probably won’t be equaled by the passing of any future president.

Ronald Reagan always brought out the best in us.

So, as you go about your everyday activities, give a thought or two to those who have held the presidential office in high esteem and who gave it the kind of respect it deserves.

Faith in God or Faith in Man?

Where does our faith reside as a nation? Simply putting “In God We Trust” on coins doesn’t really mean that we trust in God, does it? The god of America currently might be no more than a benevolent grandfather who isn’t really all that upset with what’s happening and who certainly wouldn’t want to damage anyone’s self-esteem.

However, that’s not the God of Scripture.

In my book on Ronald Reagan and Whittaker Chambers, I try to deal with the views of both men with respect to America’s spiritual perceptions and with the future of Western Civilization. Reagan and Chambers differed in their predictions for the future. What can we learn from both? Let me share some excerpts from the book:

Whittaker Chambers had no doubts with regard to the evil that resides within man. His affinity for writers and thinkers such as Dostoevsky and Niebuhr, and his own experiences in his dysfunctional upbringing, within the communist underground, at Time, and throughout the duress of the Hiss case, leave little room for debate on that point of doctrine.

Reagan, meanwhile, seemed to hold contradictory views with respect to the nature of man. As he himself noted, he tended to see the good in people. At the same time, he recognized evil in individuals and empires alike; most of his life after Hollywood was spent trying to expose and overthrow what he believed was an evil system.

Chambers helped balance Reagan’s natural tendency to see primarily the good. Witness provided Reagan with a sobering reality. He said that Witness helped him learn the bitter truth “of that great socialist revolution which in the name of liberalism has been inching its icecap over the nation for two decades.”

My book is an examination of the quintessential Reagan optimism balanced by the sometimes bleak pessimism of Chambers. Yet both built their worldview on the same cornerstone of spiritual reality:

Reagan’s optimism was based on his Christian understanding of redemption. He had experienced his own personal redemption, he spoke of Chambers’s redemption from his former life, and he fervently asserted that God was poised to redeem the world from totalitarian communism.

Chambers, from the same basic Christian worldview, could not express that degree of optimism. He believed, as Reagan did, that God redeems individuals, but had a much more pessimistic view of that redemption rippling throughout society. Chambers’s perspective can be likened to the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, who foretold disaster for ancient Judah because of its apostasy while simultaneously calling the people to repentance.

Reagan and Chambers held to the same faith, the same basics truths about life, yet they differed in their predictions of the future of freedom.

Shortly after Reagan left office, the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union disintegrated. Did this mean that the communist threat was no more? One of Chambers’s closest friends commented as follows:

Ralph de Toledano noted that when the “evil empire” collapsed, people asked him: “Would Whittaker Chambers still believe that he had left the winning side for the losing side?” He replied that Chambers, long before the collapse, had already seen “that the struggle was no longer between Communism and Western civilization, but one in which Western civilization was destroying itself by betraying its heritage.”

In essence, “Communism had triumphed, not in its Marxist tenet but in its concept of man—a concept which the West has accepted.” It goes back to Chambers’s insistence that there are two faiths and the West must make a decision: God or man?

One quote from Chambers’s classic Witness is a fitting ending for today:

God alone is the inciter and guarantor of freedom. He is the only guarantor. 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. …

… 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.

Is America still open to Biblical truth? The jury is still out, in my view, but if you were to ask in which direction I lean, I would have to say that Chambers seems closer to the truth right now. We have made ourselves deaf, dumb, and blind to all the warnings God has sent us. Only a genuine reformation of thinking and practice can restore what we have lost.