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War: The Most Dreaded Enemy of Liberty

During the course of my lifetime (b. 1949) America has fought many wars. In fact, we have been engaged in foreign struggles and combat for almost the entirety of my lifetime, with the exception of the four years of President Carter’s administration (1977-1981). This simple fact got me to thinking recently about an anniversary of a historic document in American history that is 222 years old tomorrow, April 20.

This statement goes as follows:

 

Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.

War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.

In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people.

The same malignant aspect in republicanism may

How Could Tyranny Destroy Our Democracy?

Political scientists and historians are increasingly expressing profound concerns about the future of democracy in the West. I have been asking, as an amateur historian of America, “How and why do democracies die?”

The study of democratic backsliding, though around for a long time, is becoming more urgent as we watch events unfold so rapidly it creates deep concern in many of us. In the mid-2000s, the global spread of democracy, after 200 years of expansion, clearly began to stall. Perhaps it was the Iraq War and the events in the Middle East but however we understand what happened since 9/11 populist movements in the West began to arise and grow in number. This new form of Western populism, joined with a growing passion for nationalism and a seriously distorted form of exceptionalism, are now impacting America on a daily basis. This feels a lot like something we’ve seen before, in other places, but I do not think mosts of us are paying attention.

This new expression of Western populism bears more than a passing resemblance to Latin American populist waves that turned authoritarian very quickly. (Perhaps this

Should Ecclesiastes Be in the Biblical Canon?

iuMy question will likely startle some. It seems obvious to others. Count me among the latter group. I have read the book many, many times but it has never seemed clearly apparent to me that it belongs, even among the books that we call the “wisdom literature.”

I recently read Ecclesiastes again, this time in The Message. Same question: Why is it here? How does it belong?

The writer undertakes an investigation of experience at all levels. He asks questions about creation, justice, the wise versus the foolish, and the just versus the unjust. He insists that though God is sovereign over all things we cannot know exactly what God is doing or why he is doing it. What then is our proper human response? To take what we get now and use it as best we can. (Here is the observation that I wish I had learned much sooner! I tried to connect the dots of providence in my life overmuch and quite often I did so way too simplistically.)

So when various theologians and preachers tell you

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is an international Christian ecumenical observance kept annually between January 18 and 25. It is actually an octave, which means the observance lasts for eight days.

The observance began in 1908 and was focused on prayer for the church unity. The basic idea, and the January dates, were suggested by Father Paul Wattson, co-founder of the Graymoor Franciscan Friars. Watson conceived of the week beginning on the Feast of the the Conversion of St. Paul and concluding on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Peter. The dates and ideas actually were a variant of the Protestant version of these Catholic celebrations. (Wattson was himself a former Anglican priest.) In the mid-1920’s Protestant leaders proposed an annual octave for unity leading up to Pentecost. (Many local communities also celebrate this time and offered joint prayers for unity.) Pope Benedict XVI “encouraged its observance throughout the entire Roman Catholic Church.”

What is interesting is that this observance began in Catholic circles but once it jumped boundaries it took new forms and meanings. Abbé Paul Couturier of Lyons, France, who has been called

The Signs of Love Should Not Be Obscured

The world roils in bad news and the story of immense tragedies. These painful realities are quite real. But the great danger we Christians face in 2016 is to focus our attention on this “bad news.”

1a77db114580488fb177b512c0a7a377In his final public utterance of 2015, Pope Francis on Thursday, December 31, insisted that the horrors of the past year are often “weighed down by private interests, by an insatiable thirst for power, and by gratuitous violence.” But Francis stressed that the reality of true goodness should not be lost in 2016. Indeed, I believe this true goodness should be stressed, certainly not in a pollyannaish way, but in a distinctly Christian way. Christ has overcome evil and his peace has changed the world. During these twelve days of Christmas let us remember that the evil of sin remains, but only for the time being. (Sin too will finally be put down completely on the “Last Day!”) This is why we should not entertain false notions about world peace.

Pope Francis added, “How many great gestures of goodness, of love

Jimmy Carter: A Full Life

Jimmy-Carter-headshotLike so many I have had a mixture of feelings and responses to President Jimmy Carter over the years. It seems to me that most critics, left and right, have freely attributed to him the label of “poor president” or “political failure.” I wonder what history, long after his death, will actually say. Many thought that Harry Truman was a failure until after his death. Maybe Carter’s legacy will meet a similar fate but I have my doubts. If a president is known for his legislative accomplishments then Carter will always be seen as mediocre at best. Among conservatives he is loathed and even seen as the definition of failure and disappointment. (This was true at least until we elected President Barack Obama, who is now classed as lower than Jimmy Carter ever was by the same critics.)

It is ironic, perhaps, that Jimmy Carter is the only U.S. president I actually met in person. (It was brief and not memorable.) I have been to most of the presidential libraries and museums and read a great

Reading Maya Angelou

IMG_5286I owe a debt of profound gratitude to my friend Vill Harmon (second from left in this photo with my good friends and two ACT3 board members). Vill is the secretary in the office of Ecumenical and Interreligious for the Archdiocese of Chicago. In July (2015) Vill and I shared a conversation about our background, especially in terms of race and the South. Vill is African-American, and a great friend. I have come to cherish her advice and joyful spirit. When Vill encourages me to think about my past, and the present issue of race in America, I try to listen. In July she told me I should read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), written by the famous Maya Angelou (born Marguerite Annie Johnson; April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014). (Maya’s first name came from her brother Bailey when she was a child.)

9780812980028Maya Angelou was an author, poet, dancer, actress, and singer. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, and several books of

Nature’s God: The Origins of the American Republic and Why It Matters (Part Two)

Unknown-4Matthew Stewart’s Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic is, at least to my mind, one of the most interesting, readable and important books I have read in 2014. I could hardly put it down. It reads easily and demonstrates quite convincingly most, though not all, of the author’s claims.

Stewart argues that the ideas which directly shaped the American revolution were largely ancient, pagan and continental (i.e., European not English). The Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius, and the natural divinity of the Dutch Jewish heretic Benedict de Spinoza (photo at right), largely shaped the views of most of our American founders.Unknown-5

Stewart draws deeply from a study of European philosophy, without becoming bogged down in ideas that you cannot comprehend. He shows how the philosophical ideas of the founders were shaped by thinkers that were anathema to the clergy of the time. These American revolutionaries hated the idea of God’s law and rejected supernatural revelation.

When you read the Declaration of Independence you should ask questions: “What is

Nature’s God: The Origins of the American Republic and Why It Matters (Part One)

Unknown-3The American patriots who were directly responsible for the founding of our nation were considered, by almost all orthodox Christian ministers at the time, to be “radicals” and “atheists.” So goes the essential claim of philosopher/author Matthew Stewart in his exciting new book, Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic (W.W. Norton, New York, 2014). His claim is, at least to my historical mind, beyond reasonable doubt. What is more intriguing to me is why and how we have lost our collective awareness of the real philosophical and religious origins of our nation.

The standard narrative goes something like the following as I understand it:

American was founded by deeply religious men. Some of these men were deists but even these deists respected Christianity. For this reason they favored it, at least in terms of the dialogue about the nation’s political and religious future. Most of the framers and founders were members of churches and most all of them were honest, Bible-believing, orthodox Christian men. Yes, they used ideas they borrowed from men like John Locke but even

Westminster Theological Seminary – Can Institutions Respond to Controversy in Radical Love (Part Three)

There have been a number of previous controversies at Westminster Theological Seminary (PA). In the middle of the last decade there was one that many believe is linked (in some way) to the “retirement” issue of Doug Green. The Enns debate surrounded the teaching of Dr. Peter Enns, an Old Testament professor who left the faculty six years ago. It is widely believed that some of the issues regarding the teaching of Pete Enns, according to people on both sides of the current 2014 Douglas Green controversy, should be understood in the broader context of the seminary’s debate over hermeneutics. Dr. Enns resigned, under considerable duress, in 2008. The issue surrounding Enns’ teaching grew out of the publication of his book, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Baker, 2005). Unknown This book was unfavorably reviewed in the magazine of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. A battle about what Enns wrote followed. Articles appeared in academic journals and many people beyond the school were hard pressed to understand the central issue. I recall reviewing the book myself and then reading the review published in