I spent another wonderful day in Washington, D.C. today. It was a gorgeous fall day in every way. I had an opportunity to spend several hours with Rev. Dan Claire, who works with the Anglican Mission in America (AMiA) and also pastors The Church of the Resurrection, a fine young church on Capital Hill. (I hope to preach there in 2007.) Dan is an unusually gifted Christian leader with a real vision for a missional church in an emerging context. He, and two other ministers who work with him, have seen rapid growth and exciting response to the gospel over the past four years. Dan is also completing a doctoral program in biblical studies at the Catholic University of America, which we toured following lunch. We also visited the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, one of American Catholicism’s greatest buildings. (It is truly gorgeous and reverential place, though the Marian elements did not move me. Some of the more clearly biblical elements, expressed in various mosaics, are breathtakingly beautiful.)
During the morning hours I made two sight seeing stops. The first was at the National Zoo where I saw the most famous guests in Washington, two panda bears from China who grace the newly opened Asian Trail. Then I found a historical site that few know even exists, the Woodrow Wilson House, located at 2340 S Street NW. This historic home is the only presidential museum in the District. (The 28th president, Woodrow Wilson, is buried in the District, near the National Cathedral.) I am interested in Wilson for several reasons. His presidency, in so many ways, was the first "modern" presidency. Our role in the world changed under his leadership more than under any previous president. I am also interested in Wilson because of his deep devotion to a thoughtful version of Reformed Christianity, which some readers are not aware of I feel sure.
Wilson’s father was a devout Presbyterian minister. At one time Wilson thought that he would pursue the ministry but eventually he chose to become an educator, finally serving as president of Princeton University. After this call he was elected governor of New Jersey. This political turn led to his being elected president in 1912. His ability as a teacher was apparently unique and his students loved him. An introvert, he loved to study and write and was often misjudged because he did not enjoy long conversation and small talk. This hurt his public peception as president, especially following Teddy Roosevelt as he did.
At the Wilson House there is a display that was created to celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth. In that display there is a reference to Woodrow Wilson’s faith. I wrote the quote down in order to keep it. Here is what Wilson wrote:
"Never for a moment have I had a doubt about my religious beliefs. There are people who believe only so far as they can understand—that seems to me presumptuous and sets their understanding as the standard of the universe."
Wilson was a historian and college adminsitrator, as well as one of our most gifted presidents. He was a keen intellectual. He was not saying, by the above statement, that he never found problems in his study of the Bible or in his thoughts about Christian faith. It is evident to me that what he meant was that these problems never caused him to have real doubts about his beliefs because he knew his mind was not the final judge of truth in the universe. Not a bad expression of faith at all coming from a serious intellectual, or anyone else for that matter. I think it could be said that Wilson reflected the ancient Christian understanding that one believes in order to understand, not vice versa.
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I’ve enjoyed browsing on your site. And I am one of the readers who did not know about Wilson’s background in the Reformed faith.
Nonetheless, I was impressed recently when I ran across his first inaugural address. His words in the third and fourth paragraphs are a message for our day:
“Our life contains every great thing, and contains it in rich abundance. 3
“But the evil has come with the good, and much fine gold has been corroded. With riches has come inexcusable waste. We have squandered a great part of what we might have used, and have not stopped to conserve the exceeding bounty of nature, without which our genius for enterprise would have been worthless and impotent, scorning to be careful, shamefully prodigal as well as admirably efficient. We have been proud of our industrial achievements, but we have not hitherto stopped thoughtfully enough to count the human cost, the cost of lives snuffed out, of energies overtaxed and broken, the fearful physical and spiritual cost to the men and women and children upon whom the dead weight and burden of it all has fallen pitilessly the years through. The groans and agony of it all had not yet reached our ears, the solemn, moving undertone of our life, coming up out of the mines and factories, and out of every home where the struggle had its intimate and familiar seat. With the great Government went many deep secret things which we too long delayed to look into and scrutinize with candid, fearless eyes. The great Government we loved has too often been made use of for private and selfish purposes, and those who used it had forgotten the people.”
I hope that in your friendship with the Acton Institute that you might keep reminding them of these same faults even more evident in our economic system today — a system that Wilson said elsewhere is “heartless.”
I fear that Acton too often assumes that it was our capitalism that made America great, when it was in reality the Christian faith — or maybe better stated, its Judeo-Christian worldview and morality.