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Reagan, Whittaker Chambers, and the Threat to Freedom

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Over at the Liberty Law Blog, there is an excellent post titled “Ronald Reagan, Whittaker Chambers, and the Dialogue of Liberty” by Alan Snyder. Snyder delves into the influence Chambers had on Reagan and how their worldviews differed as well.

Many conservatives and scholars felt Chambers’ prediction that the West was on the losing side of history in the battle against Marxism collapsed after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Union. For many, the ideas of Chambers and his pessimism about the future of freedom seemed dated. Snyder elaborates on the relevance of Chambers and that the testimony of his witness still stands:

One of Chambers’s closest friends, Ralph de Toledano, noted that when the “evil empire” collapsed, people asked him: “Would Whittaker Chambers still believe that he had left the winning side for the losing side?” He replied that Chambers, long before the collapse, had already seen “that the struggle was no longer between Communism and Western civilization, but one in which Western civilization was destroying itself by betraying its heritage.” In essence, “Communism had triumphed, not in its Marxist tenet but in its concept of man—a concept which the West has accepted.” It goes back to Chambers’s insistence that there are two faiths and the West must make a decision: God or man? As he wrote in Witness:

God alone is the inciter and guarantor of freedom. He is the only guarantor. External freedom is only an aspect of interior freedom. Political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible. Religion and freedom are indivisible. Without freedom the soul dies. Without the soul there is no justification for freedom. …

… There has never been a society or a nation without God. But history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that became indifferent to God, and died.

For more on Chambers and the impact of his witness, read my review of Richard Richard Reinsch’s Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary. This exceptional book is a must read.

Ray Nothstine is opinion editor of the the North State Journal in Raleigh, North Carolina. Previously, he was managing editor of Acton Institute's Religion & Liberty quarterly. In 2005 Ray graduated with a Master of Divinity (M.Div) degree from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. He also holds a B.A. in Political Science from The University of Mississippi in Oxford.


  • RogerMcKinney

    “Communism had triumphed, not in its Marxist tenet but in its concept of man—a concept which the West has accepted.”

    Wow! What brilliant insight! Alexander Solzehnitsyn made a similar point, as did Francis Schaefer and others. But few people get it.

    I am very pessimistic about liberty and economics in the US. I have come to realize that modern liberty and economic development (they go together), were born in Christianity, beginning to a large degree with the scholars of Salamanca. As people abandoned traditional Christianity they automatically embraced socialism. There will be no change in the US until there is revival.

    Also, my reading of US history shows that most opponents of communism were convinced that it offered a superior system of economics until 1989. Paul Samuelson proclaimed the USSR the winner in the development race in the edition of his textbook that came out just before 1989. As a result, the US decided that the best way to fight communism was to become as much like them as possible short of adopting a dictatorship.

    That’s what FDR tried. Eisenhower contributed with is interstate highway system. Kennedy’s contribution was the space program. Johnson gave us the “Great Society” welfare state. Nixon gave us price controls and began the process of destroying our currency by taking it off the gold standard. Reagan unintentionally advanced socialism with his military build up and massive deficits. Clinton was too busy chasing skirts and so was a pretty good president. W Bush helped the socialist cause with war, massive deficits, expanding Medicare, his “No child left behind” and stimuli. 

    • Yes, indeed. Over at, Fr. Hans Jacobse developed the anthropological question in light of Solzhenitsyn in a 2007 essay titled, “Orthodox Leadership in a Brave New World,”


      Mankind, said Solzhenitsyn (and here he means Christendom — the culture that drew from the well of Judeo-Christian morality), stands on an anthropological threshold as significant as the shift from the medieval to the modern period:

      “If the world has not come to its end, it has approached a major turn in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge, we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the Modern era.”

      “Anthropology” comes from the Greek word anthropos, which means “man.” In theological terms, anthropology means what we understand the human person to be. It encompasses who he is, what he was created for, how he should comport himself — all the constituents of man’s existence that raise him above the animal, that define his purpose, that make meaning out of his relationships.

      [ … ]

      For Solzhenitsyn, spiritual development and self-awareness work hand-in-hand — clearly a Christian value self-evident to any Orthodox Christian. But he also warns that because Western culture has been sidetracked into a philosophical materialism that has dimmed man’s spiritual awareness, its future is threatened. The only way out of the present morass is spiritual renewal.

      Solzhenitsyn experienced the ravages of the spiritual darkening firsthand, particularly during his eight years in a Soviet prison. There he received the fundamental insight that would propel his groundbreaking work: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between political parties — but right through every human heart.”

      The timing of his Harvard speech couldn’t have been better. His words fell on the ears of a nation that was already experiencing the wrenching dislocations of a cataclysmic shift in moral values and social order — from the sexual revolution to riots in its cities — in ways unprecedented in its history. At the same time, the wondrous — and fearful — unlocking of the deep mysteries of human nature was moving into full swing. America had entered a culture war.

      • RogerMcKinney

        Solzhenitsyn was amazing! It’s a shame we have forgotten hims so quickly.

        As Hayek points out in “Counter-Revolution in Science”, the founder of modern socialism, Saint-Simon, changed the concept of human nature. He was just following in the footsteps of earlier atheists.

        The original liberals, such as Adam Smith, held to a Biblical view of human nature as fallen and therefore prone to evil. Saint-Simon said no: humans are born innocent and turn evil only because of oppression. Get rid of the oppression and mankind will return to innocence and create a perfect society without evil. Private property and religion are the greatest oppressors.

        Marx and Lenin understood that getting rid of private property and religion would not be sufficient. Human nature remained stuck in its old habits and socialism could not succeed unless human nature changed. More than an economic experiment, the USSR was socialism’s grand experiment in changing human nature by force of the state.

        Of course, Americans attempted the same thing with prohibition and the war on drugs.

        Progress will be possible only with a return to a Biblical view of human nature, the prospects for which are dim barring a miracle.

        • Ed Ericson is lecturing on Solzhenitsyn at Acton U this summer. Very much looking forward to it. Here’s the description (still time to register Roger!):

          “Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was one of the most famous and courageous Russian novelists, historians and social critics of the twentieth century. While he is well-known for his outspoken opposition to Communism, Solzhenitsyn also wrote extensively on themes of freedom and Western
          culture. This lecture examines Solzhenitsyn’s thinking on these matters, especially his understanding on the place of religion in free societies, and the insights that are relevant for our own time.”