Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

Evangelicals engaging American history

With the plight of a couple of Presbyterian presidents as examples. The third in a series of “stump speeches”

Presidents Grover Cleveland (left) and Woodrow Wilson Associated Press (Cleveland) and Library of Congress (Wilson)

Evangelicals engaging American history

We’re publishing a monthly series of “stump speeches” I’ve given over the last 25 years. Last month, it was a talk I gave about Andrew Jackson and peer pressure. In April, we posted my speech about how concerns over corrupt Anglicanism helped spur American colonists to revolt. Here’s one I gave at a conference hosted by the Jonathan Edwards Institute on July 6, 1999.

It’s so hot today that I can’t resist telling you the story of the professor who flew to Austin—where it’s even hotter—for a conference and vacation. His wife had some last-minute business to attend to, so she planned to join him the next day. When he reached the hotel he decided to send his wife an email note but absent-mindedly typed the wrong address. The letter went to the wife of a man who had died the day before. When the grieving widow checked her email messages she took one look and let out a piercing scream. Here was the message on the computer screen: “Dearest wife. Just got checked in. Everything prepared for your arrival tomorrow. P.S.: Sure is hot down here.”

It’s hot sometimes for historians as well. I’d like to talk with you about how evangelicals should engage American history. I can start by describing the reaction to my latest book of historical writing, The American Leadership Tradition. The book profiles 13 American leaders, mostly presidents, by looking at the connection between their religious views and their public policy work. With the Clinton scandals as a backdrop, it also explores the relationship between faithfulness in marriage and faithfulness to the country.

As you might imagine, it’s a controversial book. Biblical evangelicals have responded very positively, liberal and libertarian secularists very negatively. I won’t quote here the positives, but let me give you a couple of the negatives. A New York Times reviewer complained that the book lacked “a sophisticated public theology.” Apparently, I made the mistake of implying that the Ten Commandments should be commandments rather than suggestions. So be it.

Attack comments don’t hugely bother me anymore because I have learned what any author needs to know: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say will be misquoted, then used against you.” But the negative and positive notices do illuminate the great divide between how evangelicals and secularists look at history. Or at least should look at history, because some evangelicals, faithful on Sunday, fall into the secularist mindset on weekdays. That great divide is my subject today, with my specific examples coming from The American Leadership Tradition.

First, I’ll describe how Biblical history suggested to me some new avenues for exploring the American past. Second, since we’re here under the auspices of an institute named for the great Reformed thinker Jonathan Edwards, I’ll look at two other presidents who went to Reformed churches, Woodrow Wilson and Grover Cleveland. Finally, I’ll talk about how to apply historical knowledge to the present.

Let’s begin at the beginning: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. To a Bible-believing historian, this first sentence of the Bible and all that follow it suggest that only God truly knows what His creation and we, His creatures, are made of. Only God could produce an objective history of existence, with objectivity defined as an accurate depiction of what has happened and why. And if we want to get as close as we can to an objective view, we need to read the Bible, written by men so inspired by God that their original writing was without error.

Only God could produce an objective history of existence, with objectivity defined as an accurate depiction of what has happened and why.

The Bible has much to say about the relation between personal values and societal events. Noah’s faithfulness preserves mankind. Sodomy and other sins doom a city. So it goes up to the time of David, when his adultery has tragic consequences for the entire nation. Look at the capsule histories of monarchs and consequences found in the second book of Kings. In Chapter 17, King Jehoshaphat is faithful, so the kingdom prospers. In Chapter 24, King Joash and his officials worship the fertility goddess Asherah, which means they followed the church growth strategy of bringing in shrine prostitutes, and the country loses a war. In Chapter 26, as long as King Uzziah “sought the Lord, God gave him success”—but when his pride becomes ascendant, the nation descends. In Chapter 33, when King Manasseh practices sorcery and kills his own children, he and the entire country suffer—but in his distress, he turns to God, and life improves for himself and everyone.

This is not to say that the connection of actions and results is always quickly evident. Sometimes immorality deserves punishment but God holds off. Sometimes a nation is so close to the bottom of the slippery slope that a righteous king like Josiah only delays the crash for a little while. Overall, though, false ideas and actions have terrible consequences in ancient Israel.

It’s possible for some evangelicals to push aside that Biblical, historical evidence. Maybe those connections applied to God’s chosen people—chosen for trouble, most often—but are not universally applicable. Look, however, at the general wisdom of the book of Proverbs. Adultery has consequences in Chapter 6: “Can a man scoop fire into his lap without his clothes being burned? … So is he who sleeps with another man’s wife; no one who touches her will go unpunished.” Lies have consequences in Chapter 10: “The man of integrity walks securely, but he who takes crooked paths will be found out.” Private sins have public implications in Chapter 11: “Through the blessing of the upright a city is exalted, but by the mouth of the wicked it is destroyed.”

Every historian views history through certain presuppositions. For materialists, history is the story of man’s production of better things for better living. Just up the road from us in Delaware is DuPont Company headquarters. I worked there for five years two decades ago, and I remember well the big, three-part mural that stood at the end of a concourse in the middle headquarters building. The left panel of the triptych depicted struggling peasants; in the middle, a shining, godlike creature dispensed technological progress; on the right, a happy family of citizens boldly claimed a brave new world.

I am not, by the way, knocking new products. They can help with better living if we don’t mess up our lives through sin. The problem is, we always do. I am pointing out that this religion of progress is one view of history, often implicit in The New York Times, and it is directly opposed to the Biblical view.

Another view of history, that of libertines on both on the right and the left, was well-critiqued a generation ago by the terrific Texas novelist Larry McMurtry. He said, “One seldom, nowadays, hears anyone described as ‘a person of character.’ The concept goes with an ideal of maturity, discipline, and integration that strongly implies repression; people of character, after all, cannot do just anything, and an ability to do just about anything with just about anyone—in the name, perhaps, of Human Potential—is certainly one of the most moderne abilities.”

A Biblical view of history emphasizes the importance of God-given character for both individuals and nations. That view opposes the perspective of both libertine materialists and high-technology progressives. I can’t resist playing off the famous verse in 1 Corinthians about the gospel being foolishness to the Greeks. Connecting personal morality to public prospects is foolishness to both Greeks and geeks. There is a great divide between history emerging from Biblical presuppositions and history that pleases The New York Times or the American Historical Association. This is true even though it’s not necessary to go to the Bible to prove the personal-public connection: the lives of American leaders show it.

A Biblical view of history emphasizes the importance of God-given character for both individuals and nations.

One of my presuppositions in writing about particular historical individuals is that we should turn upside down a common way to look at personality development. Some of you may be familiar with the work of Lawrence Kohlberg, the secular liberal who described the six or seven ethical stages through which he says human beings proceed. Mr. Kohlberg became famous for proclaiming that people should move from following the law to emphasizing social duty and then “duty to rules thought just.” The highest stage, rarely achieved, was that of “autonomous ethical thinking,” wherein a person makes up his own principles

Curiously, Kohlberg argued that such ethical autonomy should be the goal of human existence. He did not seem to see the irony of elevating this stage in which humans are in some ways the most selfish, virtually inventing a world totally apart from God. But I’d propose instead of Kohlberg’s six or seven stages just three, all of which surround the idea in 2 Corinthians 4:15 of offering “thanksgiving to the glory of God.”

Stage one of human development I’d call the glory stage, the I’m-the-center-of-the-world thinking within which we attempt to glorify ourselves. Second, comes the glory, glory stage, when we strive to promote not only ourselves but a collective entity as well, perhaps a nation, perhaps a business, perhaps an ideology. Our goal, however, should be to move to the third stage, where with God’s grace we may even sacrifice our own personal peace and affluence to bring glory to God. In the course of glorifying God, we may bring honor to ourselves and to our nation or business.

Progress through these stages is not easy. Let’s look at Woodrow Wilson.

Until 1908, when he was 50, Wilson was known as a Presbyterian preacher’s kid who had grown into an upright professor and a long-married university president. Then he had an adulterous affair that he covered up with financial payoffs that allowed him to be elected governor of New Jersey and then president of the United States in 1912, both times running as a candidate of private and public morality. Because Wilson did not want to see himself as a sinner, he developed a sophisticated public theology in which his adultery was excusable because he was comforting a lonely woman. He also learned to lie in public: He won reelection in 1916 with the slogan, “He kept us out of war,” while privately telling Cabinet members that the United States would go to war. One month after his second inauguration, Wilson led the United States into World War I and enjoyed its successful—for the United States—completion in 1918.

Because Wilson did not want to see himself as a sinner, he developed a sophisticated public theology in which his adultery was excusable because he was comforting a lonely woman.

Temporary success bred arrogance. A million Parisians chanted “Wilson, Wilson” as he rode through the city. French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau said there was no greater reception “in the history of the world.” Wilson began claiming direct divine inspiration for the League of Nations agreement he had put together: It came about “by no plan of our conceiving but by the hand of God who had led us into this way.” Wilson, however, was far from omniscient. He stitched together on maps countries like “Czechoslovakia” without having any understanding of ethnic divisions.

Wilson said he was “the personal instrument of God” in Paris, but after the 1918 congressional elections, when many of his supporters were voted out of office, he was barely the personal instrument of the United States. Still, he wanted to produce a newer testament: According to British Prime Minister Lloyd George, Wilson once said that “Jesus Christ so far [has] not succeeded in inducing the world to follow His teaching because He taught the ideal without devising any practical scheme to carry out his aims.” The League of Nations, according to Wilson, was the wise plan Christ had missed. Wilson, who had grown up with the Westminster catechism with its question about man’s chief purpose—“To glorify God and enjoy Him forever”—was working to glorify himself.

The Treaty of Versailles, signed in June 1919, represented the worst of both worlds. It was punitive enough to contribute to the German economic collapse that made possible the rise of Hitler. It was so high-minded that French and English leaders who put their hopes in it became lax about the military preparedness that could have forestalled the dictator’s early success. When the U.S. Senate refused to support the treaty, Wilson refused to examine his own arrogance, but instead traveled the country by train, hoping to rally voters to his side—only to find little trust in a man who had last stumped the country on a no-war pledge. Then came the crushing blow: Wilson suffered a paralyzing stroke, and his presidency effectively ended. Even then, the lying did not end. He refused to step down, and Wilson’s second wife was the real president during his last year and a half in office.

It’s a sad story of one who could have been great, brought low. Maybe we can relieve sadness with humor: When I think of Wilson, I’m reminded of the joke that everyone has a photographic memory, but some don’t have film. Wilson thought he had both, but he was wrong. He forgot that God has both, and that what leaders do in secret God eventually exposes before all. This is part of the pattern of Biblical history, and American history, as shown by the post-presidency revelations concerning another man who had the God-given gifts to be great, John F. Kennedy. Kennedy, at least, put himself at the center of things, and thought about the country as well, but apparently did not deal with questions of glorifying God. Wilson did and was given much, but, very sadly, went downhill.

The personal history of a third Presbyterian president, Grover Cleveland, is different. The knock on Biblical evangelicals is that we are looking for perfect people to become presidential candidates. Actually, however, we know that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and Cleveland shows the process of sin and redemption. In 1874, 10 years before he ran for president, Cleveland fathered a son out of wedlock. He made some restitution, giving the child his last name, financially supporting the mother, and then arranging for adoption. But his past practice became an issue after he received the Democratic presidential nomination in 1884. Republicans chanted, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha.”

Cleveland made sure the facts got out, but he never attacked his critics as President Clinton did. Perhaps he showed awareness of a good journalistic rule, “Never spit when on a roller coaster.” Cleveland won the election, and during his presidency you see him minimizing his own importance. One journalist, Frank Carpenter, noted that “The hall and the stairs that brought us to the President’s office are covered with an old piece of carpet which was good once, but which has been patched, sewed, and resewed. It would not bring fifty cents at an auction.”

Cleveland worked hard to glorify the country by sticking by the Constitution and vetoing special interest bills. You also see him glorifying God in many ways. He showed his need to listen with his choice of churches. Washington residents expected Cleveland to attend the famed and fashionable New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Instead, he attended the First Presbyterian Church even though—no, because—its fiery old Pastor Sunderland had opposed Cleveland’s election, saying he was morally unfit for the White House. Cleveland knew that he needed to hear not preaching that would tickle his ears, but that would discipline him when he needed it.

Cleveland knew that he needed to hear not preaching that would tickle his ears, but that would discipline him when he needed it.

If this information is new to you, it is because we often do not teach about the relationship of personal sin to public outcomes—but we should. Proverbs and many other books of the Bible note the repercussions of adultery, and what God emphasizes we should not consider it beneath our dignity to examine. We should desire presidents who have gone beyond thinking of their own glory to thinking of the country’s glory, and preferably beyond that to God’s.

Some people say it’s useless to examine sin in high places because such an examination will disqualify everyone for office. But this theory of immoral equivalence is not true. All leaders sin, but many are like Grover Cleveland, growing in grace as God works on them. Some statesmen have been libertines, but others have stood personally and philosophically for both liberty and virtue—and the choice of leaders makes an enormous difference. As Theodore Roosevelt, a good president and a pretty good historian, put it in his 1912 address as president of the American Historical Association, “The greatest historian should also be a great moralist. It is no proof of impartiality to treat wickedness and goodness on the same level.”

Evangelical historians need to be bold and courageous. Some may worry about annoying those who believe in the sinless Founding Fathers by noting the existence of sin. But I suspect that far more common in academia is a hesitation to make Bible-based assessments, even though the Bible regularly sums up the reigns of an entire king in one sentence: “He did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” We need to stress that those judgments are “in the eyes of the Lord,” lest we become arrogant. We are fallen and limited in our knowledge. We are not inspired as the authors of the Bible were. And yet, Biblically we are to make distinctions between right and wrong. It does not glorify God to treat wickedness and goodness on the same level.

I’ve just come from a July Fourth weekend in Philadelphia. My son and I saw terrific fireworks over Penn’s Landing, but two statements from one of my heroes, Samuel Adams, kept flashing before my eyes. Adams failed as a brewmaster, although you wouldn’t think that today, and succeeded powerfully as a Bible-based journalist and political organizer. His first statement, shortly after the Declaration of Independence: “We have fled from the political Sodom; let us not look back, lest we perish and become a monument of infamy and derision to the world.” Are we becoming such a monument? The second statement came when George Washington died in 1799, 200 years ago. Adams said about future presidents, “Perhaps the next and the next may inherit his Virtues, [but] the Time will come” when the worst takes over. As children say on a long trip, are we there yet?

I do believe we need to look hard at candidates’ personal values and practices. I am not proposing that journalists dig up long-buried dirty secrets about a candidate’s practices in the distant past. Ten years is plenty of time to see whether a person has changed. I am also not proposing, let me stress, that someone with a good marriage will automatically be a good leader. As the apostle Paul’s admonitions regarding the choosing of church officers show, monogamy is necessary but not sufficient. I do suggest, and I believe our history shows it, that someone who is repeatedly unfaithful in personal conduct is also likely to be unfaithful to his country. Once the biggest vow is broken, lesser broken promises readily follow.

Can I make such statements, or are they foolishness to both Greeks and geeks? To say such things, evangelical historians need to be willing to lose hope of favorable reviews in publications with sophisticated public theologies. We are unlikely to be well-received at academic associations and other clubs. But if the price of Biblical commitment these days is seeming like a hick—so be it. We need to make a stand. Thank you for hearing me out as I’ve tried to do so.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



Please wait while we load the latest comments...