Needed: Another Ronald Reagan Moment

The third, and final, presidential debate is tonight, and the topic is foreign policy. Most Americans, apparently, find the topic of lesser interest than domestic policy, yet is has a direct impact not only on pocketbook issues but our very survival as a nation. I guess what I’m saying is that we ought to be intensely interested in what transpires overseas.

America has always been affected by the ideologies and actions of foreign nations. In our first decade, with George Washington as president, our political scene was poisonously divided over the matter of the French Revolution. Founding Fathers who fought side by side in our war for independence accused each other of either wanting to reestablish British control over us or of seeking to set up guillotines on the street corners. It was only Washington’s steady hand and the general esteem in which he was held that got us through the crisis. It does matter who is in charge.

Closer to our day, in 1979, when Iranian radicals invaded the American embassy and took hostages, we didn’t have a strong leader. The Carter presidency shriveled under the stress and the crisis dragged out until 1981. The hostages were released on the day Ronald Reagan was inaugurated. Perhaps the Iranians had second thoughts about tangling with someone who exuded greater confidence.

One of Reagan’s signal achievements was the part he played in the demise of the Soviet Union. The pressure he put on that country via aid to Afghans who sought to remove Soviet troops from their homeland, and the announcement of his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to counter Soviet missiles aimed at the U.S. pushed the Soviets to the brink of economic extinction. When he then sat down with Gorbachev, he did so from a position of strength. The Cold War, which loomed over us for four long decades, ended not with a bang but with a whimper. Today, there are monuments to Ronald Reagan throughout the old Soviet-dominated Eastern European countries.

Yes, foreign policy matters, and it also matters who is in charge of it.

The Obama campaign had hoped to capitalize on the death of Osama bin Laden and their predetermined theme that Al Qaeda was diminished and on the run. The Libya debacle capsized that strategy. If they were to admit it was terrorism, and terrorism associated with Al Qaeda, it would seriously damage their credibility in the handling of a war on terror they never liked from the beginning. Remember how they changed the wording to “overseas contingency operations”? They’ve been adept at wordsmithing all along the way. When the gunman at the Ft. Hood massacre made it evident he carried out his act because of his radical Islamic ideology, the Obama administration swept that under the rug by calling it “workplace violence,” as if Islamic terrorism had nothing to do with it. I’m surprised they haven’t yet employed that terminology to the Libyan situation.

I wonder if that’s what we will hear tonight? At the very least, Obama is going to have to explain why he and his people took so long to call the attack on the consulate and the murder of our ambassador simply a demonstration against a movie trailer hardly anyone has seen. If he tries to deny that was the case, he has history against him:

The key to this debate will be whether Romney is up to the challenge of clearly exposing this hypocrisy. There are other issues as well—our relationship with Israel, the misnamed Arab Spring, violence in the Middle East in general, the failure of the “reset” button with Russia—that also should come up.

Foreign policy is vitally important, and it’s just as important who is leading America on the world stage. We are suffering through another Jimmy Carter Moment. Will another Ronald Reagan Moment follow?

Barton & Jefferson (Continued & Concluded)

Last Friday, I wrote a post about the controversy over Thomas Nelson ceasing publication of David Barton’s latest book, The Jefferson Lies. My aim was to offer a balanced perspective: I appreciate Barton’s ultimate goal of restoring the knowledge of our nation’s Biblical heritage, yet I take issue with him over trying to force someone like Jefferson into the Christian mold. From my own study of the Founding era and of Jefferson himself, I cannot subscribe to the view that Jefferson was an orthodox Christian.

Barton has written a response at his Wallbuilders site to some of the critiques that others have leveled at him. I read his response, and I now have a response to that. Without going into all the details he presents, I will focus on two of his points.

First, Barton takes aim at academic elites who think they are the absolute experts with respect to historical knowledge and proper understanding of primary documents. I have a lot of sympathy with this critique, but a few qualms as well. After successfully navigating through a doctoral program myself, I can say with complete confidence that having letters such as “p,” “h,” and “d” after one’s name does not confer omniscience. There also is a great temptation to believe you are now in a select fraternity of the privileged; there’s almost a gnostic “special knowledge” quality to this temptation. And yes, there are some professional historians with an agenda who want to rip out all the vast evidence of the Biblical underpinnings of American society and government. But one must be careful not to paint all those with history doctorates with that broad stroke.

After what I wrote on Friday, some may view me as part of that fraternity. Well, that would be almost laughable. I’ve spent most of my post-doctoral existence critiquing that very fraternity as a close-knit group of thinkers and writers who think with and write to one another. Very few of them write a book that the general public is aware of. My desire has always been to provide well-documented, scholarly writing that is geared more toward a general audience. When I penned my doctoral dissertation on Noah Webster, for instance, I determined to break from dissertationese and write in a fashion that could be understood and appreciated by a wider audience than merely my dissertation committee.

So, yes, I agree with Barton that a fraternity of the elite does exist; however, many of his critics do not belong to that fraternity, so to lump everyone together into an amorphous academic elite does not effectively answer the criticisms of his book.

Another part of his defense that I found weak was his assertion that Jefferson only wandered off the Christian path toward the end of his life. I think it is pretty obvious Jefferson was a good Anglican in his younger days only as an external convention; it was how he was raised and what was expected of him. I doubt he ever made any kind of real commitment to orthodox Christian faith. Even when Barton writes of Jefferson’s deviations from some points of doctrine, he does not emphasize that Jefferson denied the deity of Christ. No one who denies the deity of Christ can be a Christian. And this deviation didn’t wait until his later years; his time in France in the mid-1780s marks a decided turn in his views. Jefferson loved French society with its permissiveness in both thought and action. It was this very permissiveness and decadence that turned the stomach of John Adams when he went to France.

I think Barton has chosen the wrong person to try to redeem historically. In my view, Jefferson doesn’t rank very high in a list of Founders who deserve our admiration. Yes, he wrote the Declaration of Independence, but even he later noted he didn’t contribute anything original to the document; he was simply putting into words the general consensus of the time. Yes, he attended church services in the Capitol, but he did so primarily because he thought it important that the chief executive give his approval to religion. He saw religion as beneficial to society with respect to its morals, but he never submitted his life to the One who set the moral standard.

I also defend Jefferson as the author of the “separation of church and state” letter. That letter was not a declaration of complete separation of faith from public office, but only an affirmation to Baptists that the federal government was not going to set up an official church. Further, I use some Jefferson quotes that are quite pithy with respect to federalism and taxes. He is very quotable, and sometimes says exactly what I wish to communicate to my students. So I don’t despise Jefferson, but I do have a critique of his character and worldview throughout his long tenure in public office.

Before we put Jefferson on a pedestal, consider the following:

  • There has been much controversy over his relationship with Sally Hemings, a slave on his plantation. It is not conclusive that Jefferson fathered children with Hemings; it could have been his younger brother Randolph. Yet I personally believe it is more probable that the elder Jefferson is the father. Honest people can disagree on this point, but Jefferson’s close relationship with Maria Cosway [a married woman] while he was in France and his general acceptance of lax French morality lend themselves to that probability. Jefferson also freed Hemings’s children at the end of his life. He didn’t do that for any of his other slaves.
  • In the 1790s and beyond, Jefferson was enamored of the French Revolution, which, at one point, carried out a policy of dechristianization. He never came to grips with the violent nature of that revolution and supported it completely.
  • As George Washington’s Secretary of State, Jefferson continually worked behind the scenes to undermine Washington’s policy toward France, which was neutrality. He even sponsored a newspaper that was set up for the express purpose of lambasting the Washington administration and Washington personally. Jefferson harbored the belief that Washington was trying to set himself up as a king. Early in his second term, Washington lost patience with the disloyal Jefferson and would have sacked him had Jefferson not resigned his position.
  • John Adams was elected president in 1796. In a quirk that was later corrected by a constitutional amendment, Jefferson became his vice president even though he was in the opposing party. Adams, to his credit, reached out a hand of friendship to Jefferson and sought to bring him aboard as an active colleague in his administration. Jefferson rejected the hand of friendship and worked to replace Adams with himself in the next election. He placed his own personal political interest ahead of the nation’s well-being.
  • As president, Jefferson, in tandem with a Congress dominated by his party, placed an embargo on all American goods in an attempt to keep American shipping out of the Napoleonic wars. This relegated an entire section of the nation, New England, to potential poverty. It also just happened to be the section that was the most anti-Jefferson politically. The embargo was a major disaster for American commerce and prosperity, it had to be repealed as one of the final acts of the Jefferson administration, and Jefferson left office a defeated man. His presidency was looked upon as a failure due to this.
  • Although fiscally prudent as president, Jefferson was profligate in his personal finances. He continually spent more money than he had. At one point, he sold his entire library to try to pay his debts. It became the foundation of the Library of Congress. However, he fell back into debt again, and at his death his home, Monticello, along with all his slaves, had to be sold to cover his obligations.

Jefferson’s contributions to the American Founding were mixed. His positives were either balanced by his negatives or his negatives outweighed his positives. That’s a judgment call. However, I would advise Barton and others not to spend so much time resuscitating Jefferson’s reputation. There are other Founders who deserve more attention. To Barton’s credit, he has not ignored other Founders who have a Christian foundation, and when he focuses on them, he can continue to perform a valuable service. But it’s time to stop attempting to defend the indefensible.

Presidents, Polls, Professors, & the Public

Young America’s Foundation is an organization devoted to conservative principles in culture and government. While it doesn’t claim to be openly Christian—other conservatives are welcome—the concepts it promotes are consistent with Biblical principles. In the last few years, it has established the Reagan Ranch Center in Santa Barbara, where it holds a number of significant seminars and conferences. The organization also bought the Reagan Ranch in the mountains outside Santa Barbara, and is keeping it as Ronald Reagan had it when he lived there. I’ve visited with some of the leaders, both in Virginia and Santa Barbara, but haven’t yet had the opportunity to go to Reagan’s ranch. The last time I was there, I was told to just let them know ahead of time, and on my next trip, they would arrange a visit. Unfortunately, I haven’t been back since; not sure when I’ll be able to go again.

Recently, the Foundation commissioned a poll of college and university professors. They took the opinions of 284 professors on the ranking of presidents. Which presidents did they consider to be the most influential and/or most effective? What grade would they give each president? The answers may not surprise you.

Not one of these professors considered Reagan as his/her top choice. Sixty percent didn’t even put him in the top ten of all presidents. Overall, they gave him a C+ for his achievements, apparently overlooking the tremendous economic resurgence during the 1980s, his pivotal meetings with Gorbachev, and the ultimate demise of the Soviet Union, stemming from the combined efforts of Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II. In fact, when they were asked to state what they considered to be Reagan’s greatest accomplishment, nearly 1/5 of them could come up with nothing.

Here are some other indicators of how college professors view American presidents:

  • When asked to list their picks for the three greatest presidents, they mentioned FDR more times than George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or James Madison.
  • They mentioned FDR four times as often as Reagan.
  • FDR ranked in the top three presidents for 54% of these professors.
  • Overall, Bill Clinton received six times as many favorable mentions as James Madison, the Father of the Constitution.

From where does this stem? Well, three times as many professors identified themselves as liberal than as conservative. The review of this poll that I read doesn’t break down the professors by discipline, but I would suspect that most of them were history or political science professors, and the fact that there were three times as many liberals as conservatives only surprises me in the sense that I thought the divergence might be even greater, given the stance taken by national leadership for these disciplines.

Now for a counterpoint. In February of 2011, the Gallup organization polled Americans nationwide to determine their idea of who should be considered the greatest presidents. In that poll, Reagan came in first, 5 points ahead of Lincoln. Reagan also topped the list in 2001, 2005, and 2009, and ranked first or second in eight of the ten “Greatest President” polls conducted by Gallup since 1999.

I have my own critique of public opinion polls, and how they seem to fluctuate based on the public’s feelings rather than facts. I don’t always consider the majority viewpoint to be the most accurate. Yet I find this poll fascinating. What it indicates is that as time has gone by, people are looking back at the Reagan years with increasing fondness. I think they remember them, when compared to today, as solid, strong, and patriotic. They believe that America came back from the brink in the 1980s, after the disastrous events of the 1960s and 1970s. Reagan was the antidote to LBJ, Nixon, Ford, and Carter. He called us back to our roots, and that led to revitalization.

I believe America can be called back again, and I believe we can overcome the national disgrace of the Obama years. The only question is: will we do so this November? The future is not fixed; our decisions can redirect the ship of state as well as the drift of the culture. One more thing: Christians need to take the lead in this redirection. Now is the time to call us back to a humble dependence on the One who will bless if we come to Him in genuine repentance and a sincere desire to do His will.

George Washington, the Presidency, & Character

On this day in 1789, George Washington took the very first presidential oath of office. His inauguration on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City was the beginning of a grand experiment. Although the fledgling nation had been in existence since 1776, it had only an ad hoc government throughout most of the American Revolution, then switched to a very weak Articles of Confederation in the 1780s. At Washington’s inauguration, the new Constitution also was inaugurated. The question in everyone’s mind was whether it would or could work.

Ten thousand citizens were present to witness the first inaugural. Washington, at six-foot, three inches, looked every bit the part of a president. Of course, he already had won the confidence of Americans by his leadership during the war. They now looked to him to transfer his leadership from military matters to those of civil government. Everything he did would be seen as a precedent.

After he repeated the oath of office, Washington then kissed the Bible and went inside to deliver his inaugural address in the newly improvised Senate chamber. The address was short, but focused on the need for a strong Constitution, the addition of a Bill of Rights [which came along two years later], and how government was to be for the public good. As was his practice as general of the army in the war, he took no pay other than reimbursement for actual expenses.

At the end of his address, he and a number of the legislators and local politicians then walked to St. Paul’s Chapel to pray. He knew this new nation would need all the prayer it could get. It really was a grand experiment. Many thought it would fail. One of the reasons it did not can be traced directly to the wisdom George Washington brought to the presidency and to the precedents he set, not the least of which was to step down after serving two terms, thus laying to rest the fear that the presidency would evolve into just another kingship.

Excellent character in high office is a requisite for success in government. Washington set the bar high. We can’t say the same for all of his presidential successors, but we can, on this day, honor the good start he gave us. May we work now to preserve that heritage.

Honesty, Integrity, & Spurious Quotations

Those who read this blog regularly know that I believe America had a strong Biblical basis at its founding. The evidence is pretty overwhelming. Those of us who believe that, though, need to be careful in passing along quotations we have read in secondary sources to back up our belief. Let me give a few examples of spurious quotations we should avoid using.

George Washington was an Episcopalian who had his own family pew at the Pohick church near his Mount Vernon home. He served as a vestryman. I’ve read minutes of the vestry that show he even purchased the communion plates for the church. There are also a number of solid quotes that indicate his faith was genuine. There is one, however, that always comes to the forefront, but has no original source. He is often quoted as saying, “It is impossible to rightly govern the world [other sources say “a nation”] without God and the Bible.” Just the fact that there is a discrepancy in the exact wording should be a tipoff that something is amiss. While this is a wonderful statement, unfortunately, it cannot be traced back to anything Washington either spoke or wrote.

Then there’s this supposed quote from Patrick Henry: “It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was not founded by religionists but by Christians. . . not on religions but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” As it turns out, this is actually a statement from the author of an article about Henry, and wrongly attributed to the Virginian of “Give me liberty or give me death” fame.

James Madison, considered the Father of the Constitution, allegedly commented, “We have staked the whole of all our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government, upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.” This one fooled me for some time as it was just so perfect for the principle of self-government that I teach in class. I even used it in my book about Biblical principles and civil government until I had to face the reality that this statement doesn’t appear anywhere in Madison’s writings. Consequently, I removed the quote when it came time for a second edition.

We need to be honest. When I authored my book on the Clinton impeachment, I said the following in its preface:

My presuppositions are first and foremost Biblical in orientation. The grid through which I see the world—my basic worldview—is grounded upon Biblical principles. These principles form the basis for my values, my decisions, and my analysis of right and wrong. These principles also inform my understanding of the role of civil government, placing me on the conservative side of the political spectrum. . . .

But I am also an academic. The training I receive in academia requires that I follow the evidence wherever it may lead. I must be honest and cannot, in good conscience, misrepresent the facts. Properly understood, there is no dichotomy here. My Christianity and my academic training require the same standard. Academic integrity rests upon moral integrity, which I believe flows from Biblical faith. Consequently, when I undertake any research and writing project, I must be true to that faith.

That is my practice, and that is why I thought it important to shed some light on those false quotations. We undermine our position when we latch on to falsehoods to prove a point.

I have another one I want to highlight tomorrow. This one is actually a genuine quote, but it has been twisted out of context. It involves Thomas Jefferson.

See you back here tomorrow?

A Historian’s Perspective on Bad Times in American History

I don’t think there’s really any disagreement about how pessimistic the majority of Americans are about the future. Currently, all the polls reveal that pessimism.  As I survey the scene—the spiritual/moral, political, and cultural aspects [what does that leave?]—I have grave concerns as well. I plan to expound on those concerns in tomorrow’s post. But for now, I’d like to offer a historian’s perspective.

Since I teach American history, I have a more in-depth knowledge of what has transpired previously. I can imagine myself transported back into earlier eras and think about how I might have felt about current events at those times. Bad moral climates, disunity, and devastating government policies have cropped up throughout our history.

If my life had spanned the late colonial and revolutionary era, for instance, I would probably have been quite distressed over the state of affairs. The colonies had declared independence, and it was a thrilling prospect, but the progress of the war was anything but thrilling. George Washington was often near despair over the inability of the Congress to pay his troops or provide for their needs. Thousands deserted during events such as Valley Forge. There was talk of meekly bowing to the British because all hopes for the future now appeared to be delusional. Even after achieving independence, the new states didn’t seem to want to work together; the entire national governmental structure was on the verge of collapse.

If I had experienced the 1790s, I would have been shocked by the vitriol that spewed forth daily in the newspapers, particularly those who accused Washington of wanting to set himself up as king. The French Revolution, which took place at that time, was one of the bloodiest episodes in all of history, and many in America were hailing it as a magnificant development. I would begin to question the wisdom of the electorate and wonder if this fledgling country could survive its first decade after the Constitution.

Later, during the War of 1812, our military defenses were so disorganized that the British actually burned Washington, DC, including the president’s house and the Capitol. Their troops were ravaging the countryside, destroying everything in their path without any effective countermeasures. What a low point for a nation.

Then there’s the Civil War and the decade that led to it. Passions were so heated in Congress that representatives started bringing their weapons with them into the House and Senate for protection. Slavery, by this time, had become entrenched. The Founding Fathers had hoped to eliminate it, but now the South was proclaiming it to be a positive good from God. The nation split; more than 620,000 died in the war that followed, the highest tally for any American war. Bitterness remained for years afterward [you can still see its remnants today].

The Progressive Movement, after the turn of the twentieth century, introduced more government involvement in people’s lives and decided that the Constitution was an outdated document that had to be reinterpreted. Woodrow Wilson, a racist and a eugenicist, took the presidency. The eugenics movement sought to limit who could have children; only the “best” should reproduce. This movement formed the cornerstone of Nazi policies in Germany later.

Wilson moved the country down the path that led to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s—the fulfillment of progressive dreams as the government took charge of getting the nation out of the Great Depression. FDR’s policies were so dismally foolish that the Depression continued until WWII. If I had lived during those decades, I would have mourned the loss of Biblical principles and constitutional limitations. The reigning ideology tossed out the concept of the rule of law. Now, anything could happen.

I did live during the 1960s and 1970s. It was not pleasant. First was LBJ’s Great Society, which could be described as the New Deal on steroids, followed by the rancor of the Vietnam War, then Nixon’s Watergate fiasco, and finally, the debilitated presidencies of Ford and Carter. The economy was in the tank, the worst since the Great Depression. Along the way, we also concluded that innocent children in the womb could be murdered.

I say all of this to make this point: there have always been bad times. Quite often, those who believe in Biblical morality and constitutionalism have come to the edge of despair. Yet we are still here. There is still hope to turn things around. We survived the disunity of the Revolution and the Civil War. We overcame the disgrace of the burning of the nation’s capital. Calvin Coolidge reversed Woodrow Wilson’s policies and Jimmy Carter brought forth Ronald Reagan.

Will the disaster that is the Obama administration become a footnote in our history or have we turned a corner and lost our way forever? That page in our history has yet to be written. We are the ones who will write it. If we take our responsibility seriously, hope remains.

The Virginia Declaration of Rights

This month commemorates the writing of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, largely the effort of a neighbor of George Washington’s. While Washington was trying to piece together a continental army in 1776, others were busily constructing constitutions for the states that were ready to break from Britain.

That neighbor was George Mason. Drawing on a rich British heritage as well as newer developments in the colonies, Mason concocted a list of rights that set a standard for the era. Thomas Jefferson, up in Philadelphia at that time working on a declaration of independence, looked to Mason as one of his inspirations, and was receiving information from the Virginia convention that was finalizing the new Virginia constitution.

What did Mason include in his Declaration of Rights? He clearly spelled out:

  • Inherent rights cannot be surrendered by any compact
  • Government power derives from the people
  • Oppressive government may be altered or abolished
  • The branches of government need to be separated
  • It is essential that there be due process of law and jury trials
  • No excessive bail or fines
  • No cruel or unusual punishments
  • No general search warrants [meaning the government cannot simply ransack one’s home looking for whatever]
  • Freedom of the press will not be restrained
  • A militia is essential to liberty

Some of these might look familiar. As I said, Jefferson drew from them, and the Bill of Rights that was later added to the Federal Constitution mirrored some of these concepts.

These were not backward people. They understood what makes government work and what constitutes tyranny. We should continue to study them and learn from them.