Murray Rothbard’s Conceived in Liberty, Volume 5

 

It has been said that while history may not repeat itself, historians repeat each other.  Years of reading histories of different events confirms that as a general truth.  Loving history and loving stories (both are intricately connected), a reader does not mind tramping along on the same battlefields, witnessing the same political risings and fallings, and hearing the same anecdotes, with a few new ones added on.

But one thing that slowly dawns on the eager college kid who is majoring in history is that “the story” is not “a story.”  As Dr. Thomas Wagy repeatedly says, “If you want truth, go to the religion or history departments.  History is art.”  It is well that he repeated this often, for it took me years to grasp what he was saying.  History is built upon layers of interpretation, presuppositions, viewpoints, angles of observation, and preferences.

New information often not only sheds more light on a topic of historical study, but it changes the contours of the study.  Every subsequent event in history changes the way the previous events were viewed.  The rise and fall of Nazism not only altered the understanding of World War II, but it altered the understanding of World War I, the career of Bismarck and the unification of Germany, and the history of Europe.  In short, you never learn history, but you are always learning history.

Generally, there are two major sources or streams of thought that affect the understanding of history.  One is the work of the popular, usually narrative historians. Their books are the ones found in the large book chains and that show up in the New York Times Book Reviews.  Authors such as David McCullough, Rick Atkinson, Andrew Roberts, Joseph Ellis, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and others are among our most gifted and popular historians.  In an earlier era, the works on the Civil War by Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote were among the most popular treatments.  Far from criticizing such writers and writing, I love them.  The authors are generally well trained academically and vetted by fellow authors and historians.  Their writing styles are superbly readable.  Books like Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert Massie were influential in luring me into a life of reading history.

The other current comes from the academic historians.  These works are usually written by professors in universities.  The works are more weighty, more heavily documented, less dependent on secondary sources, and more analytical.  They are usually printed by university presses and are rarely found on the shelves in the book chains.  I love them!  Books pouring off the presses from Oxford University Press, Oklahoma University Press, the University of North Carolina Press, Kansas University Press, and more are weighting down my shelves and bookstands.

Some authors, by the way, manage to score on both fronts.  They maintain their academic standing and produce the less widely distributed and more scholarly studies while producing some more popular books for a wider reading audience.  Mark Hall, who is a political theorist rather than a historian, has written or contributed to quite a few serious, scholarly works.  But his book Did America Have a Christian Founding? was published by Thomas Nelson and is reaching a much wider audience.

So we have three kinds of historians or history writing types:  The popular narrator, the academic analysist, and the rare bird that combines both traits.  Now, let’s add a fourth type:  the outlier.  (I will refrain from examining the kooky historians who load down their books with bogus references and bizarre twists.)

The outlier, to use Malcolm Gladwell’s term, refers to the scholar or writer who presents viewpoints and interpretations, heavily documented from solid or overlooked sources, that run roughly against the grain of the accepted and majority views.  Some of the writers in this category are not historians by profession and training.  Rodney Stark, for example, is a sociology professor at Baylor University, but his history writings on Christianity are outstanding.  Paul Johnson is a journalist and an art student, but his history writings are among the best around.  R. J. Rushdoony was a theologian and pastor, but he wrote several fine works on history.  Shelby Foote, named above for the popularity of his Civil War trilogy, was a novelist who turned his skills to writing about the Late Unpleasantness.

Groupthink is both a useful method and a questionable one.  You go to college and study history in order to think like a trained historian.  That is why I hate the term “history buff” and get really irritated when someone calls me that.  If it is my medical doctor saying that, I want to return the favor and call him a “medicine buff.”  A liking of the History Channel (which at least used to have history documentaries), historical novels, and historical anecdotes are all good things, but that is not what historians do.  The goal of historical training is to proscribe bad analytical thinking and prescribe sound thinking.  But, the group, in this case the academic historians, often narrow their vision and embrace certain orthodoxies of historical interpretation.

Along comes the outlier, that is, the man or woman who approaches the same historical period, the same huge ocean of facts, and the same events, but says, “I don’t think so” in terms of causes, effects, or actual occurrences. Sometimes, they are disparagingly labeled as “Revisionists.”  But all historians are, even within the orthodoxies, seeking to do some degree of revision.  And often, the novelty of the differing interpretations, the revealing of overlooked sources, the guiding presuppositions gets the unorthodox historian ruled out of court, with or without a hearing.

Many paragraphs into this, I now can mention the name of Murray Rothbard.  The guy was brilliant, incredibly well educated, scholarly, meticulous, and guided by a set of ideas.  He was a libertarian, although we might humorously call him a far right libertarian, because he tended toward believing in anarchy or no or almost no government.  He was an economist, associated with the Austrian school (another rich source of outliers).  Although he served as a professor at several schools, he was always on the fringe of academia.  And, he always managed to attract and educate a small remnant of willing students.

He wrote many books, mainly on economics, but also on history.  Called upon the write on the history of the United States, he published four volumes under the title Conceived in Liberty during the middle to late 1970s.  This history, beginning with early colonization only reached as far as the end of the War for Independence.  By the way, he also wrote books on the Great Depression and the Progressive Era.  A fifth volume on the Conceived in Liberty venture remained unpublished until recently.

The text was written in longhand, which according to those who saw it, was undecipherable.  Some brave soul labored through it; the Ludwig von Mises Institute published it; and now we have it.

In part two of this review, I will actually discuss the book!

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Protestants and American Conservatism by Gillis J. Harp

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Protestants and American Conservatism: A Short History by Gillis J. Harp is published by Oxford University Press.  Dr. Harp is a professor of history at Grove City College.

I became a Christian around the year 1972.  A few years later, I self-consciously began identifying myself as a conservative.  The conversion came about from the benefits of a lifelong family commitment to attending church and respecting the Christian faith.  In God’s timing, I began finding sermons, previously uninteresting, suddenly compelling and convicting.  Many factors contributed to what I now know was the work of the Holy Spirit convincing and convicting and drawing me to Christ.

Many factors also contributed to my becoming a conservative.  One night, Johnny Carson had William F. Buckley, Jr. on his show as a guest.  The next day, I went to the college library and checked out God and Man at Yale.  I devoured it.  This was during a season of my life when I was being overwhelmed with a myriad of ideas and concepts.  The biggest intellectual change in my life at that time was embracing a Calvinistic Worldview.  That changed and solidified all types of things in my life.  It put me on a trajectory that has never changed.

But rethinking has been a way of life since the beginning.  Much of what is found in Protestants and American Conservatism is almost biographical.  Familiar names, issues, historical time periods,  political fights, and the changing conservative agendas and definitions have been consuming passions for me in my personal thinking, teaching, lecturing, and writing.

The tendency in our time is to have quite simple ideas of what Conservatism and Liberalism are.  Turn on conservative talk radio and a number of hosts will be there usually defending Pres. Trump and touting his conservative credentials.  A few years back, they were castigating Pres. Obama and attacking his liberal views.  Turn to many of the more liberal media formats and the opposite cases are being presented.  Then there are those who now proclaim that any Republican who is not lining up exactly on the conservative’s check list is a RINO, that is, a Republican in Name Only.

Go back a few years and we have the rise of what has been called the Christian Right, the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and other names, all of which are highlighting the politically conservative and usually Republican-leaning views of evangelical Christians.  Of course, this opens the discussion up to other types of Christians who may not identify as evangelical, fundamentalist, Protestant, or conservative.

When did this all start?  Some say when Ronald Reagan created his winning coalition in 1980.  Some say when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of abortion in 1973 (although Protestants remained asleep for a half decade on that one).  Some date events back as far as the Goldwater race for the Presidency in 1964.  Or maybe it does goes back to Buckley’s God and Man at Yale, published in 1951.

All those markers are useful, and a number of books have been written on both the popular and scholarly levels attempting to alert, alarm, or inform readers of the cultural, political, economic, and philosophical crises of our times. But the strength, the key selling point of this book is that while it covers all of the events listed above, it takes the issue of Christian conservative thought back to the Colonial Era.

This is not just another “America was founded by Christians” book.  Lest anyone think I was being sarcastic with that sentence, I firmly believe our Colonial and Revolutionary Founders were Christians, with many being self-consciously focused on applying the precepts of the faith to events of their times.

“Nothing is simple,” says my former history professor Dr. Tom Wagy.  The interaction of Protestants with politics has a long and textured history.  It was not as though they were all trying to impose a Christian form or design on the political order.  Rather, they carried deep presuppositions about the nature of man, of society, about the covenantal and historic connections between the faith and the social order, and about the applications of such presuppositions in their times.

Christianity is not safely caged within a political creed.  One can argue that the Pharisees and Romans were the conservatives of their day.  Certainly, those who didn’t skip across the pond to start new versions of church and state were not trying to conserve the English status quo.  Nor were Loyalists during the American Revolution the liberals in the scuffle over rule of the colonies.

Literature is full of cases of characters donning someone else’s uniform or armor.  Patroclus, in Homer’s Iliad, Achilles’s armor, leading to his death in battle.  Christians have been sometimes too quick to embrace a political view that puts them in the wrong battle or at least in a awkward position.  Events both prior to and after the American Civil War put Christians in a variety of odd positions regarding application of the faith.

To be sure, I believe that Christian presuppositions call for a view of people that recognizes both their being in the image of God and being fallen.  I believe that there are limits on what government can and should do.  I believe that the free market is generally more conducive to prosperity and distribution and enjoyment of resources.  I believe in freedom.  All of these beliefs and more are grounded in my being a Christian.  They propel me to favoring more conservative politics in our times.  (I identify as an unhappy Reagan Republican.)

I remember some years ago when a conservative and Christian (failed) political figure was calling for America to reclaim the Panama Canal.  For sure, I sided with Candidate Reagan on that issue in 1976. (His close ideologically conservative friend William F. Buckley, Jr. disagreed.)  I think there are sound reasons for arguing that the U. S. should never have relinquished control of the Canal and Canal Zone.  At the same time, I have not witnessed any apocalypse resulting from our ceding it back to Panama.  What is the Christian position on this issue?  I don’t find any of my Christian presuppositions endangered by giving up the Canal Zone.

Of course, not every issue is like that.  And while the Bible doesn’t list a program for government actions, I do believe that there are plenty of laws, admonitions, examples, broad themes, specific applications, and so on for Christians to appeal to in thinking about public policy.  There are both debatable issues and non-negotiables.

This book will not cause a conservative like me to repent, nor cause any who hold more liberal views to accept Christ.  But it does examine and weigh out many of the past issues.

This book is fine history.  Yes, I argued with the author at times.  Yes, I hung my head in embarrassment a few times as well.  Overall, I love the reading experience and hope to read it again and refer to it often.

 

Reliving Presidential Elections from the Past

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First of all, this post is just for fun and to help me celebrate Presidents Day, even though I am not dealing with either #1 or #16.  Second, it does work either logically or historically.  Logically, if A, then B, but if not A, then not B makes sense.  If some of my Presidential choices had happened, everything that followed would not have happened.  What are the odds, for example, that Richard Nixon would have been riding down a street in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963 if he had been elected President in 1960?

I am posting my choices of who I would want to have voted for, based on the perspective of having studied most of these campaigns from afar, and who I would have posited as my preferred choice or choices in some cases.  Feel free to join the party, whether it is the Republican or Democrat Party, here.

Oh, to clarify, I am beginning with the election of 1900.  I am listing the Republican candidate first and the Democrat second.  If this offends you, think of it as either saving the best for last or first is….uh…first.  Maybe I can cover the prior elections on a future post.

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1900:  William McKinley/Theodore Roosevelt vs.  William Jennings Bryan.

As in 1896 in which the same two were running, I would opt for McKinley.  I love so much about “The Great Commoner” William Jennings Bryan, except for his political views.

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1904  Theodore Roosevelt vs. Judge Alton Parker

I vote TR.  I reckon that Parker was the more conservative, more Cleveland-like candidate, but U. S. history would be missing so much without having TR in the White House.  My love for his personality trumps my concerns about some of his politics.

1908  William Howard Taft vs.  Bryan (his third run failed run.

I vote Taft.

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1912  Taft vs. Woodrow Wilson and both of them vs. Theodore Roosevelt (Bull Moose Party) (and also Eugene V. Debs, Socialist)

Taft again.  TR’s more radical positions came more to the forefront, but you have to admire his speech given after being shot.

1916  Justice Charles Evans Hughes vs.  Pres. Wilson

I vote Hughes. “He Kept Us Out of War” rings hollow in the light of history.

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1920  Warren G. Harding/Calvin Coolidge vs. James Cox/Franklin Roosevelt

I vote Harding/Coolidge, wishing it had been Coolidge/Harding.  “Normalcy” ain’t such a bad word.

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1924  Calvin Coolidge vs.  John Davis  (One can also add Progressive Robert LaFollette, if you wish.)

EITHER.  This was my dream election–both honorable, capable men.  Both conservative.

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1928  Sec. Herbert Hoover vs. Gov. Al Smith

I vote for “The Happy Warrior” Al Smith

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1932  Herbert Hoover vs. Franklin D. Roosevelt

I vote Hoover.  After all, somebody needed to vote for him.  Being Southern, Texan, and knowing about the Great Depression’s effects, I admit that I might have voted for FDR.  Ronald Reagan often quoted from FDR’s 1932 campaign platform.  I would have preferred his VP Texan John Nance Garner.

1936  Alf Landon versus FDR

Landon, but the fact of being a Texan and Southerner might have kept me voting Democrat–reluctantly.

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1940  Wendell Wilkie vs. FDR

Awful election choices.  Garner tried to get the Democratic nomination, but FDR held it and went for the unprecedented 3rd consecutive term. Wilkie was just a businessman with no political experience and was very close to FDR in many views.  But I vote Wilkie because some of the Agrarians supported him.

1944  Gov. Tom Dewey vs. FDR

I vote FDR, but only because of the course of World War II and because he dropped Henry Wallace as VP in favor of Truman.

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1948  Dewey vs. Truman

Dewey represented the more liberal/northeastern wing of the party.  Truman had spunk, detested Communists, and had some good gut instincts (honed by years of reading history).  Besides, it is sad to think of the picture above if Truman had been frowning.

As a Southerner, I had a fondness for Strom Thurman.  Both poets Donald Davidson and Robert Frost voted for him.  I might have as well.  But I am glad Truman won that year.

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1952  and 1956 Dwight D. Eisenhower vs Adlai Stevenson

I vote Ike in both cases. Stevenson was not as liberal as many in the party and had some attractive qualities.  Truth be known, I really opt for the Republican Party choosing Robert Taft in 1952.

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1960  Richard Nixon versus John F. Kennedy

Two bright, handsome, young, dynamic men, both terribly flawed.  This is the first election I remember as a child.  My sister explained to me that we were for Kennedy because he was better looking.  Maybe so, but I would have reluctantly voted for Nixon.

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1964  Sen. Barry Goldwater vs. Lyndon B. Johnson

Goldwater ran one of the most inept campaigns in history.  LBJ’s ability to pass a Civil Rights Bill and a brilliant tax cut were outstanding actions.  Oh yes, Goldwater should have put William Scranton in the ticket as his VP.

But let there be no doubt, I would have been in the AU H2o camp all the way.

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1968  Richard Nixon vs. Hubert H. Humphrey and both of them vs. Gov. George C. Wallace

What a calamitous year!  I admire much about Humphrey and about Gov. Wallace (flaws notwithstanding).  It would have been far better had the Republicans nominated the articulate Gov. Ronald Reagan of California or even Gov. George Romney of Michigan.  Maybe even Gov. Nelson Rockefeller would have been better than Nixon.

I was for Humphrey back in 7th grade, but now I would reluctantly vote Nixon.  Brilliant man, flawed leader.

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1972 Nixon vs. George McGovern

I vote Nixon again.  Sen. McGovern was a really good man in his heroic military service and personal life.  But his left-leaning politics were atrocious.  His minions captured control of the Democrat Party by changing rules, but that’s politics.

1976  Ford versus Gov. Jimmy Carter

I voted for Pres. Ford in this, my first, election to vote in.  But in the previous May, I voted for Ronald Reagan in the Texas Primary. I wish the Democrats had nominated Sen. Henry Jackson, the last of the old-time Cold Warriors.

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1980 and 1984

Reagan vs.  Carter in 1980

Reagan vs. Mondale in 1984

Me–Reagan all the way.  He is my favorite.  Once, I got his autograph; twice I saw him.

1988–1992–1996

George Bush vs. Michael Dukakis

Bush vs. Bill Clinton and Ross Perot (Independent)

Robert Dole vs. Pres. Clinton and Ross Perot (Independent)

I wish 1988’s Republican candidate had been Jack Kemp.  I voted for Bush in ’88 and then voted for the hapless Constitution Party in ’92 and ’96.

I favor Bush and Dole with a bit of reluctance.  Their WWII records, however, are highly respected.

2000 and 2004

George W. Bush vs. Al Gore

Bush vs. John Kerry

I voted Bush both times.  Imperfect, but honorable in many ways.

2008 and 2012

Sen. John McCain vs. Sen. Barack Obama

Gov. Mitt Romney vs. Pres. Obama

I voted for both Republicans.  I don’t think Sen. McCain would have been a good President, and I supported Mike Huckabee in the primary.  I was for Rick Santorum in the Republican primary, but came to really like Romney.

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2016

Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton

This was one of the most interesting campaigns ever with two of the worst candidates ever.  Shortly before going to the election location, I decided to stick with the Republican Party because of Mike Pence.  My state, Arkansas, was very Red.  (We didn’t have much regard for our former First Lady of the state and of the nation.)  The election would have been much better had it been Vice Presidential candidate Pence vs. Vice Presidential candidate Tim Kaine.

I much preferred Sen. Marco Rubio as the Republican candidate.  Second choice was Sen. Ted Cruz.  I could have been comfortable with any number of other Republicans, but you don’t have those choices on election day.

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The Lost Soul of the American Presidency by Stephen Knott

The past two years have been enjoyable times for reading political history.  Watching the news and keeping up with current events is another story.  I have enjoyed reading the following political books during this past two years:

Alfalfa Bill: A Life in Politics by Robert L. Dorman.  William Murray was a major political figure in Oklahoma history during the Twentieth Century, and for a time, he made it to the larger stage of American politics.  He vied for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1932, but was beaten by a man named Roosevelt.

A Christian and a Democrat: A Religious Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt by John F. Woolverton and James D. Bratt.  I really enjoyed this study of FDR’s religious faith.  He was a complicated figure, and FDR was impacted by God even though we might all find areas of glaring inconsistencies.

Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  Ms. Goodwin is a well known and popular biographer of political leaders.  In this study, she parallels the lives and crisis of four Presidents:  Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. Fascinating and fun history, these men, like them or not, all had amazing stories leading up to and including their times in the White House

1917 Wilson, Lenin, and the New World Disorder by Arthur Herman.  This was a great book, but a disturbing one.  It left me disliking Woodrow Wilson more than ever.  I already disliked Lenin, but this just added fuel to that fire.

The True Flag:  Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire is by Stephen Kinzer.  This account of a literary figure and a political leader was quite good.  I love both men, but try to keep them at a distance.  The story here is not one that is flattering to Roosevelt.

Hamilton: An American Biography by Tony Williams.  Two things I remember about this book:  First, it is a good, brief survey and defense of Alexander Hamilton, the most controversial of our Founding Fathers.  Second, it was the beginning of a social media (Facebook) friendship with the author Tony Williams.  I now have all of his books.

In Defense of Andrew Jackson by Bradley Birzer.  Andrew Jackson has fallen on hard times in American society.  His presence on the $20 bill is soon to disappear, and he is routinely trounced by many.  But this book gives strong reasons why we should not be so quick to dismiss the man.

Churchill, Roosevelt, and Company: Studies in Character and Statecraft by Lewis Lehrman.  This book is a interesting look at the personalities, quirks, strengths, and weaknesses of the two men responsible for leading the Allies during World War II:  Franklin Rooselvelt and Winston Churchill.  But it also describes those men, whose names are in every account of the two leaders, who worked alongside FDR and Churchill.

I wrote reviews on this blog for most of the books mentioned above.  Please search for those reviews if you want to know more.

My most recent read on Presidents and politics is also the best book I have read during the past two years on these matters.

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The Lost Soul of the American Presidency: The Decline Into Demagoguery and the Prospects for Renewal by Stephen F. Knott is published by the University of Kansas Press.

This book surveys a number of Presidents from the past to the present.  This is not, however, a mere survey of Presidential lives or biographical sketches.  Dr. Knott strongly contends that the model was established by President Washington and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton.  A restrained and yet vigorous executive was conceived by Hamilton, and explained largely through his contributions to The Federalist Papers, and was executed through Hamilton’s mentor and boss, President Washington.

In contrast to Washington and Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson pushed and prodded more toward a majoritarian style of leadership.  This entailed pandering to as well as discerning what the majority of the people wanted.  In part, this seems like part and parcel of what I tend to like about the early era of American politics. Wars rage between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians.  These battles enlist historians, political theorists, political scientists, and the American public.  Many people may not realize how often they are reciting a Hamilton mantra or a Jefferson mantra.  The main thrust of our time is toward Knott’s view of Jefferson’s vision.

The main concerns that Knott has is toward a style of leadership begun by Jefferson and then extended in the Presidency of Andrew Jackson and from there expanded even more by Twentieth Century Presidents Wilson, both Roosevelts, and finally President Trump.  In part, it is based on using the Presidency as a means of dealing with personal vendettas. Knott gives praise to some Presidents who normally get less acclaim on the grounds that they were more careful to stick to the most basic duties, the Constitution, and not public opinion.  Some of his choices here include John Quincy Adams, William Howard Taft, and Gerald Ford.

Part of the fun of this book is cheering and booing as Knott works his way through different styles of leadership.  His praise of Lincoln, while careful, was not satisfactory to me.  And I was really furious at his dealing with Andrew Johnson, but he marshalled enough evidence to make me cry “Uncle” at several points.  I will still credit Johnson with being on the right side of the battle against the Radical Republicans in Congress at the time with acknowledging that Johnson was not ever bit the racist Knott says he was.

The last part of the book focuses on more recent Presidents.  Patterns and expectations devolve upon the holders of that office.  More often than not, those patterns and expectations are derived from the examples of more popularity-based and programs-based Presidents.  All recent Presidents get a score card from their first 100 Days in office.  This goes back to when Franklin Roosevelt took office and he signed a flurry of legislative bills into law.  The time context–deep into the Great Depression–gave momentum to this activity.  But Presidents still get measured in comparison to that standard.

All Presidents have had enemies, and while the Nixon White House was condemned for its “enemies list,” such lists exist in every administration.  Some Presidents, those that Knott is most critical of, went after their personal enemies as well as those who opposed their programs.  President Jefferson famously and nobly said in his inaugural address, “We are all Federalists; we are all Republicans.”  (Remember that Republicans of that time is the party that became the Democrat party in later years.) Shortly after taking office, however, Jefferson privately conveyed his wish to destroy the Federalist Party.  Andrew Jackson was the most vindictive man to hold office.  He entered office convinced that John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay had wickedly delayed him four years in getting there.  In time, he became a bitter foe to John Calhoun and every person in Washington who snubbed Peggy Eaton.  Deep in his psyche, he was loathsome toward the British and the Bank of the United States.

In spite of his spite, Jackson did quite a bit of good, in my opinion, not Knott’s.  I confess to having sympathy with some of Jackson’s rage, having agreement with some of his policies, and having some of the same suspicions as he had.  I also confess to having some sympathy and support for the current President, Donald Trump.  But Knott’s concerns about President Trump’s style, language, work pattern, lack of knowledge of the job, and unpredictability really uncovered some of the same, but not articulated concerns I have.

I know that when the President is criticized in conservative and Republican circles, people respond with “But Hillary.”  Mrs. Clinton was not the only alternative people had in 2016, and I am not talking about the near comic line-up of third party candidates.  The actions that forced us to choose between Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton were made in the cold snows of Iowa and New Hampshire and the myriad of primaries and caucuses along the way.  On that November election day in 2016, we were faced with two candidates who were prone to measure political actions by standards other than the Constitution, who were prone to vindictiveness toward enemies, who were quick to use harsh language describing those who disagreed, and who were bound to govern by appealing to their political bases far more than any moral compass.

The Lost Soul of the American Presidency is a history study.  But it is not just a collection of facts or interpretations over the past.  It is a call for some rethinking and debating about what we will do with this office in the future.  Is the soul of the Presidency lost?  Certainly, no one is going to win an election by promising to do less and less and to simply try to carry out the Constitutional mandates rather than election mandates.

The first step will be for us to read this book and others like it.  Agree with Stephen Knott’s assessments or disagree or both.  Political thought, which almost never occurs in the daily news accounts and discussions, will take us down the road to restoring civility and sanity to the process.  Books like this one give me some hope that all is not lost.

A Christian and a Democrat–Franklin D. Roosevelt

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A Christian and a Democrat:  A Religious Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt by John F.  Woolerton and James D. Bratt is published by Wm. B. Eerdmans.

Merely mentioning the names of Franklin D. Roosevelt in many of the circles where I am involved raises immediate irritation, ire, and objections.  Although he has been gone for nearly 70 years, even people who were not alive during his time are roused to disgust when he is mentioned.  For some, the opposition is due to his New Deal Programs.  Others are suspicious of his handling of World War II from our entry into the war to conduct of the war and on to FDR’s actions regarding the conclusion of the war.  Then there are others who have great concerns over the idea that he was a near dictator, that he was in office to long, that he was conniving, and that he was reckless in his disregard of the Constitution.  Finally, there are plenty of concerns about Roosevelt the man in his private life, especially regarding his unfaithfulness to his wife Eleanor.

Every facet of FDR’s life and Presidency is up for discussion, subject to examination, and open for strong passions.  In my own case, I find that very few Democrats seem to be interested in FDR in any sense.  For them, Democrat Party history reaches all the way back to maybe Bill Clinton.  Perhaps, I simply don’t know or hear from enough Democrats.  But for conservatives–ranging from Reaganites (like me) to more Libertarian types to Christians with political interests–FDR is much more a topic of interest and opposition.

Here is my own autobiography:  I developed an interest in Presidential politics in my young age and quickly adopted FDR as my favorite President.  I was raised in a Southern Democrat home where politics was rarely a topic of conversation.  For most of their years, my parents voted straight Democrat.  (My Dad strongly disliked Hubert Humphrey, but he still voted for him.) I began straying from the old ways when I gravitated toward Richard Nixon in 1972.  It was when I entered college that my whole perspective changed.  Calvinism took a huge chunk out of my previously held and unexamined political thoughts.  One of Johnny Carson’s guests on the Tonight Show helped seal my political fate.  That guest was William F. Buckley, Jr.  A few days after watching that part of the Tonight Show, I checked out Buckley’s God and Man at Yale.  

Much of my understanding and teaching was critical of FDR on several fronts.  Yet I never got past a certain admiration for his considerable political skills and for his personal triumph over polio.  As an orator, he was first rate.  As a radio speaker, he was the man of the hour.  As a skillful executive, he was among the best.  None of his gifts diminished his flaws and failings.

An important truth for a history student (or scholar) is that we are not being called upon to vote for, approve, condemn, or justify historical figures.  We are called upon to first understand them.  From a vast factual base, we can try to interpret what they did and why.  Admittedly, we will often have an agreement with their actions or a sympathy for them or a personal liking for them.  Writing hagiolatry (the worship of saints) or writing hit jobs are not the work of serious historians.

When I first saw the book A Christian and a Democrat, I knew this was a book I wanted to read.  It is a part of a fine series Eerdsmans publishes called The Library of Religious Biography.  I have several of the volumes of that series and previously reviewed Damning Words: The Life and Times of H. L. Mencken by D. G. Hart.  The biographies range from the expected religious leaders, like Cotton Mather and Billy Sunday, to unexpected and often political figures, like Thomas Jefferson and William E. Gladstone.

FDR was raised in the Episcopal Church where he remained an active member all his life.  The Book of Common Prayer was always at his bedside, and his copy was well worn.  He was schooled at Groton and was heavily influenced by Endicott Peabody who drilled his charges in academic and spiritual exercises.  FDR sang hymns, even played the piano at services, labored to help the needy and the young, served on the board of his local church, and always included worship services before his taking oaths of office.

One of my favorite pictures is of FDR and Churchill onboard a ship at the Atlantic Conference in mid-1941.  They are in a worship service together and are singing “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” and “Onward Christian Soldiers.”  Whatever else one might think of these two men and their staffs and military joined in worship, this much is true:  Never would there have been a picture of Hitler and Mussolini worshiping together.

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Roosevelt’s faith was pronounced and public.  Perhaps more than any other President, he spoke of faith in his addresses and quoted Scripture.  He even led the nation in prayer via a radio address on the occasion of the Normandy invasion.  His was not merely a public and for political gain faith, but was a part of the essential man himself.

Theologically, what was he?  FDR’s faith was shaped by the traditional cadences, prayers, and services of the Episcopal Church.  His instruction was infused with lots of Social Gospel content.  In some ways, the Social Gospel that he absorbed was of the better sort.  By that, I mean that he had a strong commitment to acts of service in the community, among the poor, and help to people in need.  He read quite a bit through the years, but was not a serious reader of theology or of Christian doctrine.  He was active in church as a participant and a lay leader, but said little that could contribute to a statement of faith.  From the book, one picks up little or nothing about his take on theological issues of his day or upon the details of his beliefs.

I suspect that he heard many sermons that were tinged by liberal theology, Social Gospel teachings, then-modern deviations from orthodoxy, and Neo-Orthodoxy.  I never got the sense from the book that FDR absorbed or embraced those teachings.  While relatively well read and well educated, he was not a deep thinker.  Did he believe the fundamentals of the faith?  Did he accept the historic teachings of the faith?  He seemed to be a faithful follower of his church’s teachings and traditions without any comments on them.

The historian cannot probe the heart.  Even the man in the pew or pulpit has to be careful when doing that.  I have trouble probing my own heart, much less that of anyone else.  Of course, we can evaluate what a person professes and how he lives.  That assumes that we can know and hear and see enough of the person’s life and words.

Roosevelt was, at least for one period of his life, unfaithful in his marriage to Eleanor.  Theirs was not a model marriage, although politically they were extremely helpful to one another.  Dr. Woolverton says that FDR was remorseful over his adultery which occurred early in the marriage.  He never mentions or alludes to other cases of unfaithfulness.  One can add FDR’s  other sins to the list, if he wishes.  FDR was notorious for lying, but again one has to look carefully to see when he was outright falsifying the truth or when he was concealing things or being canny for political purposes.  I am not trying to give him or any other politician a free pass to distort truth, but am referring to cases where FDR was compelled to mislead or not answer completely when asked about matters that were sensitive due to the war.

A later chapter in the book deals with FDR’s fascination with Soren Kierkegaard.  An Episcopal minister was invited to dine with the Roosevelts.  At that time, Kierkegaard was not widely read or known, but the evils of World War II had awakened an interest in him by more people, including this minister, named Howard Johnson.  Johnson explained Kierkegaard’s views of sin and evil to FDR who found it all fascinating.  It appears that FDR basically accepted a Cliff-notes-like understanding of the Danish philosopher, but that he found it all helpful in understanding the evil of the Nazis.

To sum up, what difference does it make?  This is far from a summary question, for the relationship of an individual with God is the most important question of all.  And the relationship between a national leader and God is vital.  How FDR responded to both domestic crises (the Great Depression) and international crises (World War II) were shaped by his faith commitments.  What a man believes and how he acts or governs are connected.  None of this means that believers are better leaders or that faith leads to perfect policy positions.

All in all, this book is a fascinating study of a complex and religious man.  This book needs to be supplemented by other more broad biographies of Roosevelt, but it does have a useful focus on a part of his life that will not likely get adequate coverage in the standard biography.

 

Imaginative Conservatism: The Letters of Russell Kirk

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Herein lies one of my greatest failings as a book reviewer:  I am too slow.  Too slow to get the books read.  Too slow to get the reviews written.  Sometimes, too slow to understand what the books are about.  On the other hand, I am quick at starting books.  A few pages in and I often find myself saying, “This is great.”  I want digress into yet another problem which is that I am too easily pleased, informed, amused, and enamored by the books I read.  I don’t have enough critical faculties to dislike the books I review, and I usually avoid picking and reviewing books I suspect I will dislike.

This brings us to Imaginative Conservatism: The Letters of Russell Kirk, edited by James E. Person, Jr. and published by the University of Kentucky Press.  I have tried to make myself race through this book.  I have attempted to be like the high school or college student who has procrastinated but now must get the book read before the upcoming test.  But I cannot.

This book is divided into six decades from Kirk’s life.  He lived from 1918 to 1994, but the letters cover the decades starting with the 1940’s.  We get glimpses of Kirk’s experiences and thoughts during World War II.  He was far from the fronts, for he was located in the American west, but he did comment on events from that time.  From there, we see Kirk as a student in Scotland and a teacher in Michigan.  Over the years, he was constantly corresponding with literary figures, publishers, and political thinkers regarding upcoming writing ventures and book reviews.

Just as we often don’t want our children to grow up too fast, I don’t want to get to the end of this book too fast.  I am at a point where Kirk is not yet close to William F. Buckley, Jr., but that bond will be starting soon.  Letter by letter, the man who wrote books on conservative thought and who became one of the key leaders in the conservative movement is in the process of “becoming” as the book develops.

Let’s pause here and look at the bigger picture for a moment.  Now is an important time for reading, thinking, and teaching people to grasp something of the conservative movement.  Don’t think that conservatism is what you hear on talk radio, what is represented by the Trump Administration, what is broadcast on Fox News, or what the Republican Party embraces.  Granted, there are conservative aspects found in all of the above.  But what passes for conservatism that is loved by many and hated and caricatured by others is not to be strictly identified with the conservative movement that Kirk adhered to.

For example, popular (or populist) conservatism tends to be solely consumed with politics, elections, and fear-mongering conspiracies.  Who are the great literary figures we associate today with conservatism?  Brad Thor?  (I like Brad Thor’s Scot Harvath novels quite a lot.)  Great conservative man he is, but not a great literary figure. Who are the great political philosophers we associate with conservatism today?  Rush or Glenn Beck?  (Please stop laughing.)

Russell Kirk rightly associated conservatism with literary figures like T. S. Eliot, with whom he was a friend and of whom he wrote a book about.  Kirk’s pantheon of political philosophers included men like Edmund Burke, Sir Walter Scott (also a literary figure), John Randolph, Richard Weaver, and Cicero.

Conservatism was not a set of bullet points.  Nor was it a series of panic-driven conspiratorial links, blogs, and radio hosts.  Conservatism was deeply rooted in thought and tradition.  And it wasn’t a uniform list of approved and accepted voices from the past.  Conservatives from that era disagreed sharply over which figures of the past they should embrace and which they should eschew.

The breadth of thought, the exceedingly wide range of intellectual interests, and the mental explorations of meaning are what made men like Russell Kirk so valuable in their time.  It is what makes them still challenging and rewarding to read.  Add to that this feature, these were men and women of the full range of life.  Kirk enjoyed food, drink, travel, conversation, art, beauty, and life.  While it was later in life that he joined the Catholic Church, he recognized the centrality of a moral order rooted in the God of the Bible.  While it was relatively late in life that he married, he delighted in family and home life.

His story is aptly and enjoyably told in the book Russell Kirk: American Conservative by Bradley Birzer.  It was one of the best books I read in 2017.  This collection of letters gives yet another biographical look at the man, in this case through his own words.  Both books are published by the University of Kentucky Press.  Both are real gems.

Russell Kirk wrote quite a few books over his lifetime.  Some are in depth studies of topics (conservative thought, the Constitution, economics, etc.) or individuals (such as Eliot or John Randolph or Edmund Burke). He also wrote ghost stories and other fiction.  Gone now for over two decades, his wit and wisdom are still much needed today.  In an age of unimaginative conservatism, we need Kirk–the Imaginative Conservative.

 

John Fea’s Books on History and Politics

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There is just never enough time and energy to read all the books we want and need to read.  For those of us for whom reading is a passion, we are utterly unable to understand people who are content with never or rarely reading.  None of this is said to demean other worthwhile activities ranging from church work to sports to watching movies to visiting friends.  But reading, for me and maybe you, ranks right up there really close with eating and drinking.

History, to no one’s surprise, is the closest and most long-term delight that I have as a subject for reading, writing, and teaching.  There are several periods of history that are more consuming than others, and high on the list is political history.  Just last night while visiting a bookstore, I gazed longingly on a book about the 1968 Presidential election and another about the 2012 Presidential election.  In a fit of showing off, I walked my students through all the Presidential elections in American history by naming and describing a bit about both the winners and the losers.  (For about ten minutes, I could not remember Horatio Seymour of New York who lost to Gen. Grant in 1868.)

So far, I have read only one book about the amazing, weird, quirky, disgusting, and yet thoroughly enjoyable 2016 election.  The book I read was P. J. O’Rourke’s How the H*^# Did This Happen?  I thought the title explained a lot even for those of us who seek to guard our language more that PJO.  That book, as is typical of O’Rourke, was incredibly funny, sneakily brilliant, and very timely.  While whole tables full of books have appeared both celebrating and bemoaning the results, I am restraining from even looking at most of them.  (Sad to say, Hillary Clinton’s What Happened?  will probably never appear on my reading list.)

But I have now purchased a book on the election with the intent of reading it very soon.  Pictured above, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump is by historian John Fea and is published by Eerdmans.  Dr. Fea is a professor of history at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.  Because of his reputation as a Christian and a historian, I bought the book.  Because of my puzzlement at the marriage of convenience between evangelicals and then candidate Trump, I bought the book.  Byron Borger, owner, operator, and book reviewer at Hearts and Minds bookstore, tipped the already leaning scales in favor of me buying the book and buying it from his store.  (More about that later.)

Something went far awry in the 2016 election.  The Republicans had a bench full of incredibly apt and experienced Presidential candidates.  Some very fine men proved to be inept candidates, such as Jeb Bush (who seemed hollow and plastic), Lindsay Graham (who was totally unconvincing), Rick Perry (who missed his chances in 2012), and others.  But there were some really worthy men running.  My favorite was and still is Sen. Marco Rubio.  Sen. Ted Cruz, minus his awkward facial expressions and irritatingly preaching speaking style, was also top rate.  John Kasich, who eventually became a bore, was very gifted.  Even Dr. Ben Carson was appealing if one could accept having a President who knew nothing about the job.  (Note the hint of irony there.)

The shocks of the primary season were unending.  But for me, the biggest sign that something was crazy amiss was when the so-called Christian right, the old voting groups that used to be called the Moral Majority, and the faction within the Republican Party that was labeled as evangelicals completely ignored evangelical heroes of the past, like Huckaby and Santorum (who appealed to evangelicals even though he is Catholic) and of the present like Rubio, Cruz, Kasich, and others.  Donald Trump stated that he was Presbyterian, although he never demonstrated even the least bit of familiarity with any Presbyterian doctrines or practices. (One could digress into the Presbyterian/Calvinistic/Reformed teaching about total depravity, but will not.)  Mr. Trump even denied having any need to seek forgiveness.

It all still seems like a weird dream.  The party that welcomed the evangelicals and religious right into its ranks during the Reagan years, the party that was absolutely appalled at the moral degradation that Pres. Clinton brought to the office and name of the Presidency, the party that was extremely cautious about the moral and upright but Morman Mitt Romney, suddenly embraced and gushed over a man who had been twice divorced (for less than biblical reasons), who ran gambling casinos, who was rude, uncouth, and uninformed, and who seemed vacant minded about most moral issues.

Of course, the story is more complicated.  The Democrats borrowed the old and often failing Republican playbook.  That is, they nominated an old party worker who had tried and failed to capture the nomination once before.  (The last time that had happened was 1968 and it failed then as well.) And it nominated a person whose campaign skills were on the level of an accountant, whose personality was tree-like, whose energy level was sloth-like, whose debate skills were less than those of Dan Quayle.  And the Democrat candidate was so heavy laden with personal scandals, outright and bizarre lies, and her husband’s infidelites, that she stood almost no chance of winning anything beyond the millions of old time party machine votes.

2016 revealed some real and underlying currents of anger, unrest, econmic fears, and resignation among the American public.  Why did we not see this when Iowa was showing up in the Trump electoral camp in all the polling early on?  Of course, experts, news people, and (most important) political bookies (people who set betting odds) missed it.  I knew something was wrong or right and different when Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and even Virginia were still up in the air on election night.  Candidate Trump carried three of those four states that Pres. Obama won twice.

After Wisconsin got called for Trump at about midnight, I knew it was over.  Candidate Clinton would have had to win nearly all of the remaining states to clinch the victory.  As a spectator sport, election night 2016 was the superbowl plus.

Some disclosures are in order:  About a half hour before my wife and I went to vote, I finally made up my mind to vote for Candidate Trump.  Arkansas was nowhere near being a swing state, so my vote was not going to “make a difference,” as we often say.  I would have and could have never voted for Mrs. Clinton.  To put it nicely, I did not think her health or energy level would enable her to ever be anything but “the first woman elected President.”  I was constantly surprised that few reporters commented on how little campaigning she did.  The “most qualified person for the Presidency” (as then-Pres. Obama called her) spent days and days preparing for three debates that she lost or at least failed to gain ground from.

I debated the also-ran candidates.  The Libertarian candidate was a nut and a man operating on no information.  Evan McMullin who ran on the “I am a little like Mitt Romney” ticket was not worth taking time for. The parties that are only on four or five ballots across the nation are not even considered.  So, I decided to vote for Vice President Mike Pence and his running mate.

A year and a half later, I am thankful for many changes I see in the government and the country.  I am surprised at many good decisions that President Trump has made.  I would not be surprised if future decisions are not agreeable.  Many of his tweets and comments are embarrassing and shocking.  I no longer tell kids to study hard and learn because they might be President some day.

Whatever the case is after four to eight years of President Trump, the election of 2016 will remain a puzzle for lots of reasons.  One of the parts I hope to understand better is what created “the evangelical road to Donald Trump.”

Other books from my library by John Fea:

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Very good book that I am currently reading.

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Post Script:  A word or ten concerning Hearts and Minds Bookstore in Dallastown, Pennsylvania.

I buy lots of books from Amazon and Books-A-Million.  But those are companies, not people.  Independent bookstores struggle to survive, but they offer a product that cannot be found in the big operations.  Byron Borger posts reviews every month or so highlighting a number of books that thinking and reading Christians should consider.  These reviews appear under the section called Booknotes.  

Often I will read about a book that Byron likes that I would never ever ever ever want to read.  Then right after that, I will read about a book he is recommending that I suddenly cannot live without.  If he and I were neighbors (along with being Christian brothers), we would always be going from delightful shared ideas to mean-faced arguments about differences.  That’s what I like about him.

Support independent bookstores.  You may end up paying a bit more in some cases, but you get better services and personal attention.  The big chains will sell Bibles if Bibles are hot items, but they will just as readily sell pornography.  Books are a number in a warehouse to them.  Independent bookstore owners are finding matching orphaned books on the shelves with homes where they will be loved.

I bought Believe Me from Hearts and Minds.  The service is fast.  If ever I end up going into Byron’s store, I fear I will never come out.

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Byron Borger, bookseller: He sells them if he believes what they say is good, true, and beautiful.