Political Fringes and Seams, Part 1

Some years ago, John Stott wrote a powerful book about pastoral ministry called Between Two Worlds. His main idea was that Christian ministers have to inhabit the world of theology and the environment of the study, but they also have to have a foot in the other world. By that, he means the world where the ordinary parishioner and man in the street lives.

Anyone truly interested in politics can draw a parallel here. By truly interested, I mean someone who is actively engaged in watching, reading, and keeping up with politicians and political issues. It would also include government teachers, like me. The need is for the student of politics to have one foot firmly planted in the world of political philosophy and history, with the other foot in the nuts and bolts of political campaigns and the hardball nature of politics (to borrow from Chris Matthews’ show).

If elected, LBJ wanted to make all white people marry blacks, but the Vietnam War, I suppose prevented that. Goldwater’s plan was for all of us to live in the poor house.

When I was in third grade, the nation was involved in a fierce political election year. It was 1964 and the Democrats nominated Lyndon B. Johnson, who had taken office upon the death of John Kennedy. In an amazingly plotted and executed campaign strategy, the Republicans had nominated Barry Goldwater, the most conservative candidate since the Coolidge-Davis campaign of 1924.

Having read quite a few accounts of the 1964 race, I now know that the issues were complex, the voters were bounced back and forth between two very different philosophies of governance, and that the Goldwater mission was doomed from the start. Events after the election would result in a drastic change in the nation leading to a reversal of the Goldwater debacle when Ronald Reagan took up the conservative mantle in 1980.
Back to third grade: We were going home on the school bus when a political argument broke out. I came from a family deeply rooted in the Democrat tradition. Politic issues were not discussed, politicians were not evaluated, ideas had no consequences because they were ignored. And my family voted every season against Herbert Hoover. Or if not voting against Hoover, they were voting against Reconstructionist Republicans.
The dividing point on the bus quickly became clear and pointed: If LBJ was elected, the Goldwaterites asserted, he was going to make white people marry black people. (I must point out that no one on that bus used terms like “black people” or “coloreds,” and the term “African-Americans” had not been invented.)

“Oh yeah,” came the rebuttal, “If Goldwater is elected, then he will make us all go to the poor house.” My sister, rarely political or loud, stood up and said, “I had rather marry a black person than have to go to the poor house.” (I wasn’t bothered because at that age and for the next 20 plus years, I wasn’t married at all.)

A Republican’s hope for the future from my own learning experiences.

Only later in life did I understand, from other elections, that these were not the real issues. Instead, Republicans were all intent on causing depressions like the Great Depression, while Democrats were keen on getting us into wars. That made the issues much simpler.

A Democrat plan for the future, according to the way I learned about politics.

For a time, I looked back at those political arguments as the products of the stupidity of the youth. Now, I am finding–here in the late winter of political discontent–that much political argumentation is still hovering around those levels and have possibly sunk below them.

I am a conservative Republican, a Christian, and a follower of both the Reagan-Buckley brand of conservatism with a big dose of Calvinist political theory. That being said, I don’t have much personal experience dealing with people on the left. I oppose them, try to dissect their arguments, fear them implementing policies, and generally hope to see them defeated in elections. Internally, they have their own arguments, contentions, and conflicting visions.

The right side of the political spectrum in America contains lots of good hearted, brilliant people. It also contains lots of fellow travelers, inconsistent followers, muddled thinkers, non-thinking reactionaries, and people who never think about the issues, but still vote the way I do.

The political right in America also contains a kook fringe. These people are on the extreme. In many cases, they are good family folks, hard working, tax paying, law abiding folks, who go to church on Sundays and love their neighbors as themselves. Nevertheless, their political thoughts exist in an area of kookiness, fanaticism, slippery-slope fallacies, and wild-eyed visions.

In the past, they found a home in organizations such as the John Birch Society. Some found a political hero in George Wallace in 1968. Many were nurtured on conspiracy theories. Many were apocalyptic, meaning that they found the Book of Revelation to be a daily guide to what was happening in the U.S., the U.S.S.R., and the Middle East.

Now, their diet is much more plentiful and they have better means to network. The internet, along with conservative talk radio, provides them with plenty of fodder. Let’s admit also, the cultural degeneration of America and the failed leadership in both parties, float the kook boats as well.
They constitute the CCCP. That is, they are, often self-labeled as Conservative Constitutionalist Christian Patriots. They are, by the way, often well read and versed in their doctrines, and I share many of their convictions. I recognize that to some on the other side, I am one of them.
Demonizing is the main ingredient to this form of politics. Issues are never nuanced, complex, or detailed. It is the Forces of Light versus the Minions of Darkness. It is truth against error. It is America the Land of the Free versus One-Worlder, Common-Core, Muslim-loving, Atheistic, LGBTQ, big spending socialist commies.

The John Birchers operated on a clear syllolgism: Eisenhower was President. China fell to the Communists. Therefore, Eisenhower was a tool, if not an actual member, of the Communist World. Such thinking still abounds.

We all know, as conservative and mostly Republican folk, that Pres. Obama, VP Biden, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Al Gore, and the heirs of Huey Long are all in IT together. All Dems, all libs, all in lockstep to wreck the nation and institute One World Government, favorable to Muslims and homosexuals. Bernie Sanders, an avowed Socialist Senator, is different only in being a bit more transparent and honest.

But the Bushes also had to be a part of the problem. Believe me, there is much to find fault with the three terms of the Bush Presidencies. The Republican Senators and Congressmen who are currently serving are also indicted. Believe me, many Republicans serving in Congress have fallen short of our expectations. Certainly Bob Dole and John McCain (both war heroes) are perpetrators of the problem and co-conspirators. Mitt Romney was a wolf in wolves’ clothing, and Paul Ryan was little better.

Any Republican who has ever had an idea that resembles an idea of the Democrats is sell-out. Any Republican who has ever worked with Democrats is a Republican in Name Only, a.k.a., RINO. (Odd name given the meanness of rhinos.) Any Republican who carefully nuances his answers is a liberal.

Reagan the RINO collaborating with liberal Democrat House Speaker Tip O’Neill.

Of course, it is well to exempt from all these attacks the one pure virgin of Conservatism, Ronald Reagan. (Don’t misunderstand, I nearly idolize Reagan!) Reagan switched positions on issues; Reagan reneged on promises; REAGAN CUT DEALS WITH DEMOCRATS; Reagan had buddies on the left; Reagan supported the Brady Bill which was anti-Second Amendment; Reagan soft-shoed many social issues, although he spoke favorably on them to fellow conservatives; Reagan picked establishment goons like George Bush, Donald Reagan, and James Baker for high positions; Reagan picked Democrats like Daniel Patrick Monihan and Jean Kirkpatrick for high positions; Reagan buddied up with Gorbachev; Reagan increased deficit spending; and on it goes.

Reagan and his worst pick for the Supreme Court, Anthony Kennedy.

Sure, Reagan nominated Antonin Scalia (very conservative) for the Supreme Court, but he also picked Sandra Day O’Connor (centrist) and Arthur Kennedy (center-left). In short, Reagan was a RINO, a moderate, a tool of the left, a compromiser, and just another politician.
So, what is to be done? (That statement, by the way, was the title of a key essay written by Vladimir Lenin, the father of Russian Communism, so it should comfort all those who already suspect that I am “one of them.”)

Let’s return to the concept that John Stott applied to the ministry. Politics exists between two worlds. Conservatives who are students of politics, political junkies, and activists need to read widely, broadly, and historically.

There are lots of “hot off the press” conservative books that focus on current issues with quick solutions. Politicians, political candidates, radio and television commentators, and journalists whip out these books constantly. Many are filled with things that are quite good. Most of these books, however, have about a two year life-span at the most. Just look in the used book stores and bargain bins for such political classics as Unfit for Command, which gives convincing reasons not to vote for John Kerry. (If you don’t understand, take note that that book has been irrelevant since mid-November of 22004.)

These books are made for quick consumption. Notice, that usually the print is large and the spacing is wide. This is political fast food.
For that reason, a person needs to read the classics in political philosophy. An introduction to such can be found in George Grant’s American Patriot’s Handbook. From there, start on with such books as The Federalist Papers and source books on American history.

At some point, such works as Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics, Machiavelli’s The Prince, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, pertinent sections of Calvin’s Institutes, and other heavies from the past.

A great book highlighting Jefferson’s political scheming against Washington and Hamilton.

Read lots of political histories. Build up your biceps by reading biographies of Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Jackson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Reagan, Churchill, and others. Read about people from history that you don’t like. By the way, Thomas Flemings’ recent book The Great Divide: The Conflict Between Washington and Jefferson That Defined a Nation.

Believe me, I have not even scratched the surface of political readings. So, to cap this argument, read National Review, the flagship of conservative thought. Avoid all magazines, commentators, blogs, and other sources that are shrill. Eschew conspiratorialists, Birchers, apocalyptic dooms dayers, ultra-conservative purists, racists, survivalists, and people who have uncovered secrets concerning world takeovers.

In the next installment, I will focus more on book suggestions. My main topic will be on some useful Christian studies that will help formulate sound political thought.

I Miss William F. Buckley, Jr.

Maybe it is the overcast and overly warm February Saturday here in Arkansas.  Maybe it is the weariness of the past week of school and the head cold that keeps threatening.  Maybe it is the on-going news:  the death of Antonin Scalia, the deaths of Umberto Eco and Harper Lee, the competing socialist visions of Bernie and Hillary, the weird acclaim of Donald Trump, and fears of what might happen in the South Carolina Republican Primary going on today.

I am missing William F. Buckley, Jr.  I am missing him here just a week or so before the eighth anniversary of his death on March 27, 2008.  Saying that, I have to add that I have enjoyed spending time with him over the past week.  No, I don’t practice or believe in seances.  Rather, I have read Buckley’s delightful book Flying High: Remembering Barry Goldwater.  This was one of his last books and one of the many Buckley books I have acquired over the years, including one that was signed.

The conservative movement and the Republican Party are both still suffering from Buckley’s death.  At the same time, it should be noted that the conservative movement and the Republican Party are still living off the great wealth accumulated by Buckley, Ronald Reagan, and others.  Several factors need to be noted in assessing both the still-available gold and silver and the rapidly diminishing political money supply.

First, when Buckley published his first book, God and Man at Yale, and later began National Review, the flagship of conservative thought, there was no conservative movement.  There were, to be sure, conservatives, and there had been conservative books and ideas.  Politically, however, the Roosevelt New Deal had captured the culture.  From the standpoint of the 1940s and 1950s, creating a conservative movement was about as unlikely as creating laptop computers at that time.

The conservative movement, after being seeded by Buckley and others, sprung up among the college youth of that day.  Buckley said, “The straw poll at Yale registered two faculty members favoring Goldwater for President.  Two out of sixteen hundred.  The academy had been suffering for two decades under the weight of intensive indoctrination in state welfarism, anti-anti-Communism, moral libertinage, skepticism, anti-Americanism.”  Yet thousands of these students showed up at rallies to cheer for Goldwater.

Buckley wrote some 50 books, including an amazing series of conservative, Cold War spy novels. He was a lover of books as well.

Second, Buckley knew the power of words.  He has sometimes been faulted for not being a deep or profound thinker (and I envy Buckley’s shallowness).  But he was prolific and fast at writing.  Also, he could spot, cultivate, and promote other good writers.  Along with his own magazine, he promoted Goldwater’s short, somewhat libertarian book Conscience of a Conservative.  In truth, the book was ghost-written by Brent Bozell, Buckley’s brother-in-law.  I read that book in the 1980s at least twice and found it outstanding.  It was a manifesto of conservative thinking, and just the right kind of primer to prepare young readers to be politically saavy and conservative.

Third, Buckley knew that the conservative movement was not going to be a sudden race to success, but a slow march.  It was a surprise to many conservatives when they succeeded in getting Goldwater nominated at the Republican convention in 1964.  Both political parties contained conservatives, but neither was dominated by them.  A great source for this story is Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Concensus, written by the very liberal Rick Perlstein. (I read, loved, and reviewed this book some years back, and I corresponded a time or two with the author.)

The results of the 1964 election should have deflated the conservative movement.  Goldwater’s loss was one of the greatest in American Presidential election history.  His campaign, by the way, was one of the worst handled in American history.  Polls at that time showed that Americans wanted less government and were concerned about corruption in the government.  At that time when Communism was the central threat, most Americans believed the country had been lax in security, and 50 percent thought Goldwater would do better than Lyndon Johnson upholding morality and removing corruption in government.  Yet Goldwater was trounced, and the newspapers were quick to heap on the obituaries of the conservative movement.

Buckley pressed on with the books, the magazine, conservative youth groups like the Young Americans for Freedom, and other efforts to build the movement.  Like many, he noticed a rising star on the horizon, a man with superb communicatin skills and a heart for conservative principles. In time, conservatives would laughingly say that Goldwater won in 1964, but it just took 16 years to count the votes.  When those votes were counted in 1980, the standard bearer for the Republican Party was that rising star of 1964 and Buckley’s close friend Ronald Reagan.

This brings us to the fourth point:  The Reagan years were the high triumph of conservatism.  Yet writing it that way makes it sound like a golden age that came and went.  So, let’s state it differently:  The Reagan years redefined conservatism and the Republican Party.  The Republican Party became the conservative party in America.  Conversely, the Democrat Party, which had long been sustained by a coalition of liberal northerners and conservative southerners, became the liberal party.  (Remember that up through 1976, Democrats like Henry Jackson were forces within the party.  The short campaign of Senator James Webb for the Democrat nomination this past year was a reminder of what used to be a powerful faction in that party.)

Every nominee for the Presidency and Vice Presidency in the Republican Party since 1980 has been to the political right of every nominee before that time–Goldwater excepted–going all the way back to 1928 when Calvin Coolidge released a statement saying he would not seek re-election.  (I will know that someone is reading this post when I begin getting objections to that statement.)  Yes, I am saying that Bush-Quayle, Dole-Kemp, Bush-Cheney, McCain-Palin, and Romney-Ryan were all as conservative or more so than Reagan-Bush in 1980.  This is not to say that there were not losing candidates for the nomination who were more conservative or that the nominees were as committed or consistent as we might wish.  But the Buckley and Reagan Revolutions changed the Republican Party.

Fifth, Buckley understood the wide varieties of conservative, libertarian, traditional, neo-conservative, and slightly conservative thought.  He made friends across the political spectrum (with Gore Vidal being an exception) and allies among all who were fellow travelers.  National Review was a balancing act, with a heavy weight on the cerebral side of conservative thought.  Compare one hour of Buckley’s long running Firing Line television show with an hour of conservative talk radio.  (Or should I say you can’t compare the two?)

Buckley on Firing Line interviewing his friend and occasional debate partner and even debate opponent Ronald Reagan.

At the same time that Buckley could bring varieties of conservative ideas and people together, he could draw the line on a particular, re-occuring type within the conservative movement.  I am referring to the kook fringe.  (The left has its own variety as well.)  Buckley dug his heels in when it came to the conspiratorially minded John Birchers.  We overlook the influence of the John Birch society in the 1950s-60s.  The height, or rather, the low point of Birch thought was their belief that the Communist conspiracy even included Pres. Eisenhower, as a willing participant.  Buckley basically excommunicated Birchers from the conservative movement.

Sixth, we need Buckley’s wisdom today.  He saw Communism as the threat it was in his day, and he would see Islamic Jihadism as the threat today.  He would have understood the cultural, moral, and social problems of the time.  He would have located and promoted the writers whose ideas supported conservatism.  And he would have labored on behalf of winning conservative candidates.

The Republican Party is currently in danger of squandering its conservative heritage with the Trump revolt.  Some conservative candidates are Hades-bent on proclaiming that other conservatives aren’t conservatives.  Some are more willing to wreck the party than to yield to wisdom.  Some invoke Reagan’s name to promote a scorched-earth political policy that will never win the states that Reagan carried twice.

It is now getting dark outside.  It is still overcast.  Reagan is gone.  Buckley is gone.  And I am hoping and praying that the country will survive.

Both Buckley and Reagan knew how to laugh!

Christian Thinking–Help Is Here

Thankfully, a trickle has turned into a flood.  For a period of time, we might say from the 1920s through the early 1970s,  Christian thought in America retreated.  It retreated from the academy, from politics, from culture, from economics, from art and literature, from philosophy, and other areas devoted to the life of the mind.

I stand behind the sentence stated above, but also note that it is full of holes.  The decades of the 20th century were the years that God raised up J. Gresham Machen, Herman Dooyeweerd, T. S. Eliot, Karl Barth, C. S. Lewis, Graham Greene, Carl F. H. Henry, R. J. Rushdoony, Christopher Dawson, and a host of other Christian thinkers.  The problem was not the lack of Christian thought or Christian scholarship and certainly not the lack of Christian scholars and intellectuals.  The problem was that the main body of Christians didn’t engage in Christian thought, and the part of the world that did produce scholarship didn’t tend to recognize or interact with Christian thinking.

It was this empty chasm that led Harry Blamires to lament “There is no longer a Christian mind” in his book titled The Christian Mind.  Mark Noll recast the idea in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by stating, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”  Sure there are plenty of Christian musicians (some of whom are reputed to be good), Christian fiction writers (some of whose book covers do not feature Amish girls),  Christian cookbooks and diet plans, Christian wall art replete with Bible verses (some of which actually apply to the pictures), and Christian kitsch.

There are also lots of truly good Christian books dealing with personal, family, relational, and church related matters.  We are also blessed with having some theological heavy weights in our own time along with easy access to the theological writings from all the past centuries.

That being said, the Christian mind is often found to be flabby or starved.  The well-toned muscular Christian mind is still in short supply.  Professor Digby’s concern in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was “Why don’t they teach logic any more?”  That is one concern among many.  There are still far too many Christian ministries that are fluff-centered.  There are far too many churches that are more user-friendly than God-centered.  There are far too many Christians happily retreating into being a clueless witness in a pagan arena (public schools, for example) than in being a cutting edge in a true cultural confrontation.

To say that help is on the way is already passe.  Help is here.  God has always equipped His Church and His People with tools for dominion and conquest.  The Bible itself, of course, is a primary source weapon for any and all cultural battles.  And the Bible didn’t come off the presses and hit the book racks yesterday.  2000 years of interaction with language studies, theological wrangles, cultural confrontations, philosophical interactions, and even outbreaks of screaming and hollering have left us with an embarrassment of riches, Biblically and theologically speaking.

I am all in favor of putting Christian kids through a weight-lifting program with hefty copies of Augustine’s City of God, Luther’s Bondage of the Will, Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and about 6 dozen novels, 2 dozen histories, 20 to 30 works of virtuous pagans–ancient and modern, and a healthy dose of Shakespeare’s plays and Southern poetry and fiction.  But we have to balance out and help refine the work of the “greats and classics” with some specialized worldview thining skills.

I admit that I am a Christian-worldview addict.  Show me a book on Christian worldview thinking and I want it.  The first time I heard the word “Christian World and Life View,” I had no idea what it meant.  Within a short season, that phrase changed my life and redirected my teaching career before it ever actually began.  I have never looked back.

All this brings me to the key point of this blog:  Two books that were published this past year on Christian thinking.

Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians was written by Bruce Riley Ashford and published by Lexham Press.  Dr. Ashford serves as Professor of Theology and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ashville, Kentucky.  That seminary, by the way, is under the leadership of Dr. Albert Mohler and is becoming a center of Christian thought and ministry training.  Lexham Press, a relatively new publishing house, is rocking Christian scholarship with a combination of short, powerful books like the one above, along with some other heavy-weight works such as their translation and publication of Reformed Dogmatics by Gerhardus Vos.

Every Square Inch is a book for square one; that is, it is a book for beginners.  (I am an old grizzled warrior in these matters, but I, too, profited greatly from the book.)  The title is taken from Abraham Kuyper’s defining phrase:  “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ who is Sovereign over all, does not cry ‘Mine.'”  Kuyper, a Dutch Christian who is the father of much of our Christian worldview thinking, is one of three key thinkers that Ashford credits and recommends.  The other two are Francis Schaeffer and C. S. Lewis.  If the only thing a reader got from this book was the recommendation to ready Kuyper, Schaeffer, and Lewis, that reader would do well.

Abraham Kuyper was noted for his unusually large head. What the mind inside that head produced was far more astounding.

C. S. Lewis produced a wide variety of books from fiction and poetry to apologetics and literary criticism.

It is hard to imagine where the Christian community would be if it had not been for Francis Schaeffer.

Ashford devotes chapters to such topics as culture, calling, the arts, the sciences, politics, economics, education, and mission.  For sure, each chapter is incomplete, but this book is a starting block.  Each chapter ends with recommended readings.  The chapters themselves makes the cases for Christian pursuit of each of the areas of thought and life.  Key authors, and not just the three above, are quoted.  Summaries and thought questions are found at the end of each chapter.  There is also a whole chapter devoted to six case studies of Christians, including the blessed trio, who actually did apply the faith in their academic lives or life missions.

This book is a necessity for grounding students in Christian thinking.  It can also be used as for teacher training in a Christian school.  It is also useful for discipling or mentoring.  Since it is short, affordable, hardback, and easily readable, I hope it is soon found on many Christian home bookshelves, book stores, Christian school classrooms, and Christian colleges.

Nancy Pearcey is just plain intimidating.  She is a short, petite middle-aged lady you might expect to encounter in the grocery store, but don’t be fooled.  She has become a virtual Christian version of Achilles, minus the vulnerable heel.  I was blessed by getting to hear her and meet her at the Association for Classical Christian Schools conference in Dallas, Texas in June of 2015.  She was at the back of the meeting room when she was introduced to speak, so she hurried to the front, looked frantically for the steps, and seemed a bit out-of-breath when she began her talk.  That was just a glimpse of this fiery brain that is undaunted by whatever piggish legions unbelief has put in her path.  Dr. Pearcey serves as drill sergeant, or rather as a teacher at Houston Baptist College (where the incredible Louis Markos is also a professor).

She has authored and co-authored some really useful books in the past, such as The Soul of Science, How Now Shall We Live, and Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity.  Her most recent book is Finding Truth:  5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes,   which is published by David C Cook, a long-time publisher of Christian books and resources.  This book is, like Ashford’s book described above, a beginner book.  In this case, however, the book is for beginning to analyze and counter non-Christian thought.  It is heavy on method with the intent being the training of Christian students in apologetic thought across the spectrum of thought.

Nancy Pearcey’s personal experience was that of a church-raised girl who came to a point of unbelief or agnosticism.  Like many a potential unbeliever of the past, such as Augustine, G. K. Chesterton, and C. S. Lewis, the Divine Chessplayer gave her a brain concussion.  The tool God used was Francis Schaeffer and his ministry known as L’Abri in Switzerland.  In short, Dr. Pearsey repented of her unbelief, embraced Christ, and devoted herself to loving God with all her mind.  Her pilgrimage has taken her to and through the works of Christian thinkers such as Herman Dooyeweerd and Phillip E. Johnson.  Her target audience consists of people like the man who told her “I lost my faith at an evangelical college.”

This book provides a 5 step program or 5 tests for students and Christian apologists to use in confronting unbelief:

  1.  Identify the idol  (meaning that unbelief is not belief in nothing, but belief in a false god of some sort; in other words, an idol)
  2.  Identify the idol’s reductionism (an idea borrowing heavily from Dooyeweerd and the brilliant Roy Clouser on all non-Christian thought being reductionistic)
  3. Test the idol: How does it contradict what we know about the world?
  4. Test the idol: How does it contradict itself?
  5. Replace the idol: Make the case for Christianity

Complete with a study guide, extensive notes, and sample test-thought questions, this book is a college level course for Christians.  An eager high school class could do well with this study as well as college students.  Teachers, preachers, and study groups could also enjoy the book.

Help is here.  Let’s keep pressing on.