Last week, Acton welcomed Lawrence Reed to the podium of the Mark Murray Auditorium for his Acton Lecture Series address, entitled American Presidents: The Best and the Worst. Reed, the President of the Foundation for Economic Education, tackled the subject with his usual grace and an evident (and praiseworthy) passion for the protection of the individual liberties of average citizens from the ever-expanding power of central government. Reed’s address is now available in full on YouTube, and is posted below. Additionally, we have a bonus edition of Radio Free Acton for you, as Paul Edwards took some time following the lecture to speak with Reed; you can listen via the audio player below the YouTube window.
Given in the middle of the 1912 election, in which Taft competed (poorly) against Woodrow Wilson and former President Teddy Roosevelt, the speech focuses on the predominant themes and schemes of his opponents, handily highlighting their limits.
In a particularly snappy swipe at Roosevelt, who had just recently split from the Republican Party, Taft notes that despite various efforts to form new parties, any rumbling therein is largely driven by the “promise of a panacea,” a top-down fantasy “in which the rich are to be made reasonably poor and the poor reasonably rich, by law.” Instead, Taft argues, we should seek solutions that “bring on complete equality of opportunity,” unleashing individuals and communities to work, create, and collaborate. The bones of civilization are not built, first and foremost, by the bidding of the policymaker’s baton. (more…)
Below is an excerpt from an early speech given by Calvin Coolidge to the Algonquin Club in Boston, Mass. in 1915. These remarks are included in a series of speeches Coolidge published in the book, Have Faith in Massachusetts. The speeches primarily deal with his philosophy of government, which because of his emphasis on foundational beliefs, remained consistent.
In the excerpt, Coolidge quotes a “Dr. Garman,” who was a professor at Amherst College, in Amherst Mass. Coolidge graduated from the school in 1895. Coolidge’s political rise certainly coincided with a rise in popularity of the social gospel and the progressive movement. Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were progressive presidents that preceded Coolidge. The rise of the progressive era saw the belief that the ideas and ideals set forth in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence could be improved upon. Coolidge would later masterfully pick that kind of thinking apart in his presidential address on the 150th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1926.
As stated before on the PowerBlog, Coolidge is receiving considerably more attention today. Amity Shlaes, interviewed in the Fall 2009 issue of Religion & Liberty, will release a new biography of the 30th president in June. If you are in the Grand Rapids area, I will be hosting an Acton on Tap on Coolidge’s philosophy of government on May 10.
Coolidge uses the backdrop of a lecture that mentions the purpose of Christ and his coming to earth, the value of work, service, and human nature, to check the social gospel and the progressive utopian ideal. In his remarks, he strongly posits progressive and social justice schemes within the materialist worldview.
Coolidge believed that America’s founding principles could not be improved upon, and that they were in fact the real progressive view. He believed that there were fundamental truths about man and his relationship to the state. Furthermore, he held those views because of his understanding of the fall of man. Below is the excerpt from his remarks “On the Nature of Politics:”
The State is not founded on selfishness. It cannot maintain itself by the offer of material rewards. It is the opportunity for service. There has of late been held out the hope that government could by legislation remove from the individual the need of effort. The managers of industries have seemed to think that their difficulties could be removed and prosperity ensured by changing the laws. The employee has been led to believe that his condition could be made easy by the same method. When industries can be carried on without any struggle, their results will be worthless, and when wages can be secured without any effort they will have no purchasing value. In the end the value of the product will be measured by the amount of effort necessary to secure it. Our late Dr. Garman recognized this limitation in one of his lectures where he says:
“Critics have noticed three stages in the development of human civilization. First: the let alone policy; every man to look out for number one. This is the age of selfishness. Second: the opposite pole of thinking; every man to do somebody’s else work for him. This is the dry rot of sentimentality that feeds tramps and enacts poor laws such as excite the indignation of Herbert Spencer. But the third stage is represented by our formula: every man must render and receive the best possible service, except in the case of inequality, and there the strong must help the weak to help them selves; only on this condition is help given. This is the true interpretation of the life of Christ. On the first basis He would have remained in heaven and let the earth take care of itself. On the second basis He would have come to earth with his hands full of gold and silver treasures satisfying every want that unfortunate humanity could have devised. But on the third basis He comes to earth in the form of a servant who is at the same time a master commanding his disciples to take up their cross and follow Him; it is sovereignty through service as opposed to slavery through service. He refuses to make the world wealthy, but He offers to help them make themselves wealthy with true riches which shall be a hundred-fold more, even in this life, than that which was offered them by any former system.”
This applies to political life no less than to industrial life. We live under the fairest government on earth. But it is not self sustaining. Nor is that all. There are selfishness and injustice and evil in the world. More than that, these forces are never at rest. Some desire to use the processes of government for their own ends. Some desire to destroy the authority of government altogether. Our institutions are predicated on the rights and the corresponding duties, on the worth, of the individual. It is to him that we must look for safety. We may need new charters, new constitutions and new laws at times. We must always have an alert and interested citizenship. We have no dependence but the individual. New charters cannot save us. They may appear to help but the chances are that the beneficial results obtained result from an increased interest aroused by discussing changes. Laws do not make reforms, reforms make laws. We cannot look to government. We must look to ourselves. We must stand not in the expectation of a reward but with a desire to serve. There will come out of government exactly what is put into it. Society gets about what it deserves. It is the part of educated men to know and recognize these principles and influences and knowing them to inform and warn their fellow countrymen. Politics is the process of action in public affairs. It is personal, it is individual, and nothing more. Destiny is in you.
Revive is a word commonly associated with the efforts that paramedics and other medical personnel make when someone has stopped breathing. Whether that’s due to slipping beneath the pond ice or being pulled under by a nasty California rip tide, the consequences of inaction will be fatal.
So it’s an appropriate word for Hillsdale College to use in titling their townhall last Saturday – “Reviving The Constitution” – that was broadcast online from the Michigan college’s Washington D.C. annex, The Kirby Center.
A hat tip for their extraordinary effort.
“Through teaching the principles and practices of American constitutionalism,” Hillsdale’s Kirby Center “seeks to inspire all Americans to act worthy of the blessings of liberty.” And that’s a needed ingredient these days if our body politic is to avoid what can seem like its last gasps amid the Obama presidency.
The online presentation coincided with so many parallel themes that The ACTON Institute supports that I will not recite them here. But as a student who lived during the years following WWII and graduated from the kind of schools most Americans attend I will tell you that some of the information presented on Saturday shocked me. Nothing more so than the history of The Progressive Movement in America and the extent to which their heresy has permeated our civic life since the early parts of the last century.
Whether it’s Woodrow Wilson’s claim that Thomas Jefferson’s words in The Declaration of Independence, “and of Nature’s God” was an afterthought; or Wilson’s plea that “All progressives ask or desire… is … to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle; [and the] recognition of the fact that a nation is a living thing and not a machine,” and “accountable,” according to Wilson, “to Darwin, not to Newton” – there is no denying that the 28th President was a man other than what’s advertised in the tomes of Houghton-Mifflin that sit in the classrooms of almost all the public schools in this nation. The “reader” that Hillsdale supplies participants to the townhall made that most clear.
It’s not hard to see how Wilson’s contortion, blended with a rejection of Newton’s “laws” became for theologians what we have experienced as the “living” Bible; and the Relativism that has taken places like Wilson’s Princeton University, originally founded as a divinity training ground for the country, and mainline Christian churches; and planted the seeds for our nation’s institutional collapse. The result: we’re currently living with a country on life support.
But there’s a plan at work. And like anything involving individual freedom, it will take our individual efforts. It’s like the verse from Luke 4:23 “And he said unto them, Ye will surely say unto me this proverb, Physician, heal thyself: whatsoever we have heard done in Capernaum, do also here in thy country.”
I strongly suggest you thoroughly review the five lectures and Q&A sessions. The message Hillsdale College is sending and our continued efforts at ACTON will save your civic soul.
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, of which I feel sure some readers are not aware.
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 perception 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 administrator, 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.
John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."