Thoughts on Presidents’ Day

So, it’s Presidents’ Day. It didn’t used to exist. In my younger years, we had instead separate days to honor George Washington and Abraham Lincoln specifically, on their respective February birthdays. I’m not even all that sure what the current Presidents’ Day is supposed to focus on. People from my generation probably still consider it a commemoration of Washington and Lincoln, but what about the new generation? Is the intent to honor anyone and everyone who ever served as president? Frankly, I would have a hard time getting excited about praising the achievements of James Buchanan, as just one example.

I would prefer to go back to what we did previously. Most Americans have a sense that there is a world of difference in quality between Washington and Lincoln on one side and Buchanan and Franklin Pierce on the other. As a historian, my extensive reading in American history has provided me with a firmer basis than most on the merits of the various presidents. My esteem for Washington and Lincoln has only grown after reading and studying them more closely.

George WashingtonGeorge Washington was the indispensable man for our young nation. He held an army together when the attempt at independence suffered from one defeat after another. He modeled servant leadership by resigning his commission at the end of the war to return to private life. At one point, when pressed by some to become America’s king, he resoundingly rejected the offer. That’s not what we’ve been fighting for, he replied.

His steadiness as president got us through a tumultuous first decade under our new Constitution. Captaining the ship of state past the shoals of influence from the French Revolution and the fracturing of the political leaders into two parties, he was the one man all could look to for assurance and guidance. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, the titular heads of the emerging parties, both pleaded with him to run for a second term. They knew his stature was sorely needed to keep the nation on track and avoid a disastrous split.

Washington’s Farewell Address was wise, particularly the inclusion of the significance of religious faith as the cornerstone of our society and government. Without that, he said, we would have no firm basis for morality. Education, he counseled, was not the answer; only religious belief would suffice. And for Washington and his generation, he wasn’t talking about some vague concept of God, but Christianity.

Abraham LincolnI’ve changed my views on Abraham Lincoln over the years. Whereas I once was ambivalent about him, with a hint of concern that he might have been at least a mini-tyrant, I have now shifted over to an ardent admirer of his heart, his logic, and his quest for a meaningful Christian faith. His path to faith was filled with cynicism, agnosticism, and fatalism. Yet, from what I surmise in all my reading, the struggle in his own soul over the loss of two of his children, over the institution of slavery, and over the future of the Union, reshaped his original skepticism. The nearly overwhelming burden of the Civil War drove him back to the God of his childhood. His speeches and personal letters both reveal a deep and growing confidence in the truth of the Christian faith.

He came along at a pivotal moment, much as Washington did. I tend to think that no one of his generation could have led with the same degree of humility and ultimate wisdom as he did. As the war neared its end, his mind and heart were fixed on the issue of reconciliation. He sought to heal the nation of its self-inflicted wounds. His assassination was one of the most tragic events in American history, yet it left us with the legacy of a man we ought to admire for his character and leadership.

Legends have grown up around both men. No, Washington never chopped down that cherry tree. There are a multitude of sayings attributed to Lincoln that he never really said. Of course, he himself warned us about that:

Lincoln Quotes on Internet

Yes, his wisdom continues to reach out to us.

Incidentally, another president born in February was Ronald Reagan. Regular readers of this blog already know what I think of him. I have a proposal: instead of this amorphous Presidents’ Day that is too vague to be meaningful, how about we have three separate commemorations for arguably the three best presidents in American history: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Ronald Reagan. All three days could be valuable for teaching the new generations what genuine character in government looks like.

Challenging the Status Quo

As I write my post this morning, the Senate is poised to pass a budget deal crafted by Republican Paul Ryan and Democrat Patty Murray. It is being hailed in some quarters as a sign of bipartisanship and progress, but is it really? I listened to Ryan explain why this is a good deal—no tax increases;  return of some sequester cuts to the military; deficit reduction down the road. I’ve listened to the critique of the deal—it includes more spending now and those reductions are far down the road, thereby increasing the deficit in the short run; no guarantee that a future Congress will keep this deal when the spending is set to go down; military veterans taking a hit on their pensions, even those who were wounded in action; no one else in the federal government affected in the same way as these veterans because their pensions remain untouched, so this once again penalizes those who lay their lives on the line for us.

When I first heard it explained, I hadn’t yet known about the downside of the bill. I wonder how many of those in the House of Representatives who voted in favor of it—the majority of Republicans included—really understood the ramifications. Were they hearing all the facts ahead of time?

New Budget Deal

Now, I know one overriding reason why many Republicans jumped on board with this, even some who have steadfastly resisted bills like this in the past—they are nearly petrified by the political fallout of another looming battle over the budget for which they will get blamed if we have another government “shutdown,” better described as a “slimdown.” One has to wonder why this deal would look so good to them if not for that fear. Surely, by now, they should realize they can’t trust the Democrats to uphold their side of the bargain:

Deficit Reduction

There are good people on that side of the debate who say that by putting this budget mess aside, we can concentrate on stopping Obamacare by offering an alternative. I hope so. Yet the Republican leadership doesn’t seem to be able to create unity around one solid proposal. It’s time for genuine leadership to emerge. This deal, in my view, does nothing to allay the major concerns going forward:

Budget Compromise

I, and many others out here in the hinterlands, are seeking bold leadership that will challenge the status quo. Yes, I understand political realities, but those realities will never change until courage comes front and center.

As a historian, I try to draw lessons from our past. I recall that Ronald Reagan was despised by the Republican party establishment back in the 1970s. They said he wasn’t realistic, he was too confrontational, too conservative to be elected. He went on to win two smashing victories, revived the economy, and forced the Soviet Union to the bargaining table, which eventually led to the downfall of the Evil Empire. The establishment was wrong then, and it is wrong now.

 

The Rot Doesn’t Start at the Top

Have you ever felt like this: so sickened by the ocean of dishonesty, lack of integrity, and arrogance of the majority of humanity that you just want to seal yourself off from the ugliness of it all? If not for the mercy I’ve received personally from the Lord, and His forgiveness for my own past dishonesty, lack of integrity, and arrogance, I would be tempted to find a nice isolated corner of the world where I could simply let the parade pass me by.

As if anyone can find such a corner.

There’s no escape from the pervasiveness of sin in our society. For me, the two most distressing places to find sin are among those who claim the name of Christ and in those who presume to lead us politically. The first—the church—is supposed to be the light in this dark world. When we act like the world, we snuff out the light. The second—our government—is supposed to be a servant of God, carrying out His will in the public sphere. When it decides to become its own miniscule god, it does the opposite of what the real God intended.

In my study of church history, I’ve often been grieved by the manner in which so many have dishonored the God they claim to serve. As a student of the history of politics and government, I’ve been almost as dismayed by the pride of politicians who believe they are bringing us utopia and by the outright lies they offer to achieve their goals.

Our current political leader, though, has set a new standard for arrogance and deception. Just when I thought no one in public life could ever top Bill Clinton for blatant dishonesty and love of self, along comes Barack Obama.

I don’t really want to go through a litany of all the dishonest statements he’s made or the growing list of things for which he denies all knowledge or responsibility, but some cartoonists have encapsulated them for me, so I’ll let them speak:

Didn't Know

Knows Nothing

He won’t even admit when he’s been wrong. Previous presidents have taken responsibility for failures and have won back public confidence: Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs fiasco; Reagan in the Iran-Contra affair. But this president? He won’t even acknowledge that his “guarantee” that everyone would be able to keep their health insurance policies if they liked them was a complete sham. He invents a new narrative of what he “actually” meant by words that could only be taken in one way. It’s obvious he lied to get Obamacare passed into law; it’s just as obvious his overall goal is to force everyone in the country into his system eventually.

It’s difficult for me to contain the disgust I feel for this man. I’m ashamed he’s the president of my country. Yet how did he get to be that leader? He didn’t just grab the title and run with it. He convinced enough of our fellow citizens that he was their savior—and I use that word advisedly, as he has always held himself up as larger than life. I mean, who else would ever say that their election was “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal”?

I expect people with outsized egos to dominate our politics. The lure of power draws them. What’s most distressing is how easily fooled the people can be as they continue to believe the big lies:

Great Pumpkin

The rot doesn’t start at the top. It rises from the masses who are an unhealthy combination of ignorance and selfishness. At this point, there’s no excuse for ignorance about Obama or his agenda. The selfishness at the root of it all—we want the goodies government promises—can only be dealt with at the personal level. It’s back to the basic Gospel: recognition of our sinfulness, repentance, acceptance of the forgiveness offered through the Cross, and the development of a renewed mind so we can see the world more clearly—through the principles found in Scripture—and not be fooled again.

The Ultimate Hope

The whole country is breathing a sigh of relief now that the government is fully funded again. We’re comforted by the thought that all things are up and running once more. But I’m reminded of the time when Ronald Reagan was recuperating from the assassination attempt back in 1981. His top cabinet officials all came to see him at the hospital. At the time, he had a tube going down his throat and couldn’t yet speak, but he was writing little notes. When they told him not to worry, the government was operating as usual, he quickly wrote down, “Why would you think that would make me feel better?” It was a humorous line, but sadly reflective of the real state of things. It would make even more sense to say the same thing today:

After Shutdown

And through it all, Emperor President Obama protected his signature legislation:

Eat Obamacare

Not to worry, though. Our excellent federal bureaucracy is doing its usual fine job of implementation, this time under the careful eye of HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius:

Capt. Sebelius

And all those premium increases in nearly every state? Again, don’t bother about that. This is a wonderful gift being offered the country by a benevolent ruler:

Trojan Horse

So sit back and relax. Obama’s in his White House and all is right with the world.

Actually, much of what we see now is an illusion. People think things are fine when they are not. My hope is not in any political solution for our woes; no substantial change will ever take place without a genuine repentance sweeping over the nation and a renewed church pointing to a Cross. Ultimately, my hope lies beyond the “normal” state of affairs:

For the coming of the Son of Man will be just like the days of Noah. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away, so will the coming of the Son of Man be.

Therein lies my hope.

Obama’s Syria vs. Reagan’s Grenada & Libya: The Differences

Syria SpeechI agree with President Obama. Now, get up off the floor and read the rest. I know the first sentence was a shock to your system, but it is a limited agreement with all kinds of cautions. On what do we agree? His decision to turn to Congress to debate what action should or should not be taken in Syria was the correct decision. I have no illusions as to why he finally decided to do so—it had far more to do with public opinion and lack of support from other countries than from any constitutional scruples of his own. But I’ll take what we can get.

Only the Congress can declare a war. I realize that’s rather quaint to say nowadays, but it’s still the truth—at least if we seek to abide by even a shred of the concept of rule of law anymore. I’m glad Congress is going to take up the issue when it returns on September 9; my hope is that, after the debate, we will not commit any military to this theater of action. My reason? There is no side to support. One side uses chemical weapons against the other and is an ally of Iran, while the other commits atrocities of its own, particularly on the Christian community. It does so primarily because Al Qaeda is part of the rebel coalition. As I stated in a previous post, it would be unconscionable to provide military aid to any movement associated with that terrorist organization. I also believe that if the opposition should win, Syria won’t be a better place, and it certainly could get demonstrably worse.

There’s another facet of this as well. If the Congress should do as I have outlined, Obama may disregard the vote and go ahead with military strikes anyway. His administration has concluded it can act unilaterally, and cites the War Powers Act for authorization. I fully agree that, if attacked, or if America or American citizens are in imminent danger, the president can move forward without a protracted debate first. But those are worst-case scenarios. Neither can the War Powers Act go contrary to the Constitution, regardless of the rationalizations used by supporters of taking action.

Some may cite what Ronald Reagan did in the 1980s as a similar situation. Again, I disagree. Reagan used the military in two specific instances: Grenada and Libya. Here are the differences.

C18148-8First, in Grenada, a radical Marxist government took over, Cubans were employed to build a runway for aircraft, and the island would have become another outpost for the Soviets in the Western Hemisphere. The other islands nearby were frightened by this prospect and asked America for help. In addition, there were American citizens on the island, medical students, whose lives were endangered by this takeover. Reagan moved swiftly and without congressional debate primarily because if he hadn’t, those students would undoubtedly have been used as hostages and/or human shields. He did consult with congressional leaders from both parties before acting, but he couldn’t afford to wait until Congress had aired everything. A public debate would have allowed time for the Soviet allies to prepare. When those students returned home, he welcomed them to the White House. They were exuberant that their nation had put their safety first.

In 1985, a disco in West Berlin was the target for a terrorist attack,  bombs killing and wounding many, including American soldiers stationed in that city. The investigation led back to Qaddafi in Libya. This was a direct attack on Americans, and Reagan responded with a military strike on specified targets within that country. He also hoped he could take out Qaddafi as well. While the latter objective wasn’t achieved, Qaddafi’s direct involvement in terrorism lessened from that day forward.

Today, in Syria, while events on the ground are horrific, and even though in a general sense what happens in the Middle East will affect us, no Americans are in imminent danger and, as I have already stated, there is no one to support. All options are lose-lose. For those reasons, I am not in favor of using our military in this situation. But above all, I am opposed to the president simply doing whatever he wishes in disregard of the Constitution.

So, President Obama has done one thing right. Now it’s Congress’s turn to do what is right. If Congress does so, Obama must then abide by that decision. I have no illusions that he will do so because it is the right thing to do, but I’m hopeful there will too much pressure on him to do otherwise.

On Clowns, Presidents, & the First Amendment

I always prefer to write about truly significant events or great insights offered by the wisest people. Then there are days that simply dictate what needs to be written, whether significant or not. This is one of those days.

I have a difficult time believing I have to comment on what a rodeo clown did last week, but the story refuses to die. You probably already know what happened, but for the few who live in a monastery somewhere carefully crafting illuminated manuscripts, let me get you up to speed. The gist of it: a rodeo clown wore an Obama mask; the announcer said something about how real clowns know they are clowns but Obama doesn’t realize his status as a clown; then a comment was made about the bull possibly running over the clown, who was there of course to distract the bull away from a thrown rider.

That’s the entire story. Well, it should have been. But now all the perpetually outraged amongst us are at it again. It’s okay, in their view, to ridicule the King of Kings who reigns forever, but one must never do so to The One who now reigns temporarily in one country, and who will be retired to the realm of private citizen after the next election. It’s just fine to take the name of the Lord of Lords in vain, but no one may dare mock a mere human who himself shows disdain for that Lord of Lords. The outrage is disproportional, but it does clarify the worldview of those so outraged:

Blasphemy

Before I go any further, let me assure everyone that I think the rodeo’s attempt at humor was rather tawdry, and that it never should have happened. Yet, in our society, at our current stage of devolution, even a stupid action leads to calls for “justice.” The clown involved has been banned from future Missouri rodeos, all the clowns are now subject to sensitivity training, and the NAACP, convinced that racism is behind this action [well, the NAACP is convinced racism is behind nearly everything], is demanding that both the Secret Service and the DOJ carry out further investigations. Such actions should not permitted in America without severe penalties, they seem to think:

Hate Crime Division

Let’s just reflect for a moment on how previous presidents have been treated. During the Vietnam War, LBJ and Nixon were castigated in public in every protest and demonstration. Protesters wore masks with the presidents’ faces on them, and many screamed for their heads, quite literally. While I don’t condone language that might set someone off and lead to violence, if the government had decided at that time to jail every protester and fill the courts with trials, the legal system would have ground to a halt. Some actions are sinful, but not unlawful. Some actions are distasteful and ugly, but not necessarily subject to legal redress.

The same could be said of how protesters treated Ronald Reagan during his presidency. Reagan masks were everywhere, depicting the president as an evil, cruel warmonger. No one was indicted for doing so. And then there’s George W. Bush. Anyone remember this image of him that was going around?

Bushitler

Should someone be prosecuted for that? Apparently Bush didn’t think so. The Justice Department wasn’t unleashed on those who promoted the image. Here’s an apt comparison:

 Let Me Be Clear

How has Barack Obama responded to his followers’ calls for justice? He’s silent, as usual, when it comes to soothing the outrage. Peggy Noonan made an astute observations the other day that is worth quoting. She said,

Let me suggest a classy Obama move that might go over well. From his Vineyard vacation spot he should have the press office issue a release saying his reaction to finding out a rodeo clown was rudely spoofing him, was, “So what?” Say he loves free speech, including inevitably derision directed at him, and he does not wish for the Missouri state fair to fire the guy, and hopes those politicians (unctuously, excessively, embarrassingly) damning the clown and the crowd would pipe down and relax. This would be graceful and nice, wouldn’t it?

Noonan, however, doesn’t stop there because she has seen this president in action for nearly five years. She continues,

He would never do it. He gives every sign of being a person who really believes he shouldn’t be made fun of, and if he is it’s probably racially toned, because why else would you make fun of him?

 It’s not good to have developed that kind of reputation. One cartoonist, by the way, in commenting on President Obama’s penchant for classy vacations, has an idea that he thinks would help the country:

Keep America Strong

Well, he’s probably just a racist and should be prosecuted for airing his view. Now that I’ve shared his view, should I be subject to prosecution also? Where are we headed as a country? What is the future of the First Amendment? There are many indications we’re not as free to speak openly as we used to be.

A Teaching Ministry: Worth the Effort

El PradoAs August draws near, my thoughts are beginning to turn once again to the new academic year. All my courses are ready and syllabi complete. I have to admit I always look forward to the fall semester. Fresh new faces showing up in the classroom, very welcome “old” faces, and the opportunity to share God’s truths make it all worthwhile.

I am privileged to be at a university like Southeastern where I have liberty to teach without censorship or threat of “re-education” training. This will be my eighth year here, and I’ve been able to develop new courses without hindrance. I doubt there are many universities where students can take a course on Ronald Reagan and modern conservatism—taught sympathetically, that is—or another entire course on Whittaker Chambers and the history of communism. In most places, I’m sure you can learn about communism, but only as a springboard for promoting radicalism:

Limber Up Cliches

Christian universities are not immune from such perspectives, but they’re not as prevalent as at other universities. Our students differ as well. When you think of the typical college student, what image comes to mind?

Familiar Refrain

Yes, we have our quota of students who don’t take their studies seriously, but we have a much higher percentage of those who seek to do God’s will through what they learn. That makes for a far better classroom environment. Not a perfect environment, by any means, particularly in a survey course where many students don’t really want to be there, but even that is part of the ministry God has given me. If I can, by the end of the semester, convince many of those apathetic students that learning history is essential for their overall understanding of life, I will feel like I’ve succeeded.

When you view your life’s work as a ministry, it stops being merely a “job” or “career.” I thank the Lord for the ministry He’s allowed me to have. This is my twenty-fifth year of teaching at the college level; sounds like it ought to be celebrated as some kind of landmark. I don’t need some special celebration, however; I celebrate each day as I receive reports from a few hundred of my former students who are now raising families and fulfilling the ministries God has given them. Those good reports make all the trials of these twenty-five years worth the effort.