Monthly Archives: June 2014


So this is an unusual title for a blog post, don’t you think? If you know anything about Warren G. Harding (don’t be embarrassed if you don’t; he was eminently forgettable), you’ve got to be shaking your head and wondering.  What in the world does Warren G. Harding have to do with the leading lights of the revolutionary generation?

The group that we normally refer to as “the Founding Fathers”—Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, and Madison, to name the most prominent—were individuals of remarkable character, courage, intellect, and vision.  No one, not even his closest friends, ever accused Warren Harding of any of these traits.

In the public realm, Harding’s administration became synonymous with scandal and corruption. His attorney general (a close friend and political adviser whom he rewarded with a cabinet post) was twice indicted for fraud. The director of the Veteran’s Bureau (forerunner of today’s Veteran’s Administration) went to jail for diverting medicines from hospitals to narcotics dealers. The Secretary of the Interior served time for accepting bribes from oil companies in a scheme now remembered as the Teapot Dome scandal.

Behind the scenes, Harding’s private life was decadent, if not depraved. As president he drank heavily. (And illegally I might add. It was the middle of Prohibition, after all.) He also held twice-weekly poker games in the White House, and he liked to keep “late hours,” a 1920s euphemism for enjoying the company of women other than his long-suffering wife. Harding engaged in at least two prolonged adulterous affairs during his political career. The first, with the wife of a good friend, culminated around the time of his election to the presidency, a termination facilitated by hush money paid from the coffers of the Republican National Committee. The second, involving a bright-eyed blonde thirty years his junior, continued until his death of a heart attack in 1923, and included liaisons in the Oval Office.

Not surprisingly, this one-two combination of public and private dishonesty has won for Harding a consistently poor reputation among historians. In 2009, for example, C-Span surveyed sixty-five prominent presidential historians and asked them to rank the forty-two men who had served as chief executive between 1789 and 2008. The survey asked respondents to give each president individual scores for ten separate leadership categories, including public persuasion, administrative skills, international relations, and “moral authority.” Harding ranked thirty-eighth overall and thirty-ninth in moral authority. The only presidents deemed less effective as moral leaders were Andrew Johnson, who was impeached; Richard Nixon, who resigned to avoid being impeached; and James Buchanan, who did little more than wring his hands while the nation careened toward civil war. This is not auspicious company.

Warren G. Harding (1865-1923), 29th President of the United States

Warren G. Harding (1865-1923), 29th President of the United States

So I’ll ask again. What possible connection links the Founding Fathers to this disgraced twentieth-century president? It’s simply this: according to the Library of Congress’s Congressional Research Service, it was Harding who actually coined the term “Founding Fathers.” He first introduced it when, as U. S. Senator from Ohio, he delivered the keynote address to the Republican National Convention of 1916. He repeated the phrase two years later in a speech on Washington’s Birthday, employed it twice when he accepted the Republican nomination for president in 1920, and returned to it a final time in his 1921 inaugural address on the steps of the U. S. capitol. Here is an excerpt from the address:

Standing in this presence, mindful of the solemnity of this occasion, feeling the emotions which no one may know until he senses the great weight of responsibility for himself, I must utter my belief in the divine inspiration of the founding fathers. Surely there must have been God’s intent in the making of this new-world Republic.

As is so often the case, the new phrase passed quickly into common use, and pretty soon no one could remember where the term came from. Not recalling a time when the term wasn’t popular, most folks probably assumed that it was a lot older than it really was.

So how is this piece of historical trivia significant—if it’s significant at all? Does it somehow reflect on the Founding Fathers that they owe their honorific title to a hard-drinking philanderer who exploited them in a partisan speech nearly a century after they had passed from the scene?

It shouldn’t. Washington and Adams and company can’t be held accountable for how subsequent generations manipulate their memory. Being hijacked from the grave for any number of causes is an occupational hazard of political prominence. (Although Winston Churchill, at least, claimed that he would be immune. “History will be kind to me,” the statesmen/historian predicted, “because I intend to write it.”)

But if this story shouldn’t affect what we think about the Founding Fathers, it should inform how we think about them. To begin with, it reminds us that what we call “history” is not the past itself but rather the remembered past. History is a form of memory that exists not in the past but in the present.  Historical memory, like memory generally, is always influenced to some degree by our current vantage point.  In the self-satisfied 1920s, praise of the Founders was simply good politics, but it has not always been that way.

While the Founders were still living, Americans regularly denounced one or more of them (while the Founders themselves were regularly denouncing each other). Republican newspapers condemned Washington as “the scourge and misfortune” of the country while they mocked and ridiculed “the blind, bald, toothless Adams.” Federalists fired back in kind, condemning Jefferson for his infidelity, hypocrisy, and radicalism. They repeatedly predicted (and perhaps hoped for?) the “just vengeance of heaven” should he be elected president.

By the 1820s the Founders’ stock had begun to rise, however. The country was approaching its fiftieth birthday, and the generation that had led the way to independence was passing from the scene. Like a youngster now old enough to have memories, Americans became more interested in their collective past. (They were also more willing to ascribe sainthood to the dead than to the living.) More or less continuously since then, Americans have imputed great significance to the Founders, although they have defined the Founders’ legacy in numerous and often contradictory ways.

This leads to a second insight imbedded in the story of President Harding’s christening of the “Founding Fathers.” Harding’s veneration of the Framers may have been sincere—it’s hard to know—but what is certain is that he was remembering them in a particular context and for a particular purpose. In this particular instance, Harding wanted his audience to understand that the “divinely inspired” Founding Fathers would have been opposed to American entry into the League of Nations, which was coincidentally the position that he held as well.

In doing so, Harding was far from unique. The British historian Catherine Wedgwood once observed that what most people want from history “is not the truth about the past—which only interests a very small minority—but ideas and directives for conduct in the present.”

I don’t entirely agree with Wedgwood. I think a lot of people view history purely as a form of entertainment. (That’s certainly how the so-called “History Channel” portrays it.) But I agree with her in this respect: among the minority who believe that history is truly important (or pretend to believe so at any rate), it’s the rare bird who thinks of history as truly important for its own sake. Academic historians will debate the past endlessly for all kinds of esoteric reasons, but when normal people debate the past, more often than not it is because they believe something important is at stake in the present.

This is why popular historical debates are almost always debates about contemporary policy in disguise. This is all the more true when the disputed question is something like the vision or values of the Founding Fathers. Few questions about our nation’s past are more morally charged. A minority of Americans are willing simply to dismiss the Founders as a bunch of irrelevant dead elitists, but most of us would rather have them on our side when we do battle in the public square.

As a historian, I would say that there is both good news and bad in this mindset. The good news is that it spurs us to pay more attention to history than we might otherwise. The bad news is that it predisposes us to discover in the past whatever our present agendas make it convenient to see.

POSTSCRIPT: The surprising history of the phrase “Founding Fathers” comes from The Founding Fathers Reconsidered, by R. B. Bernstein (Oxford University Press, 2009). Bernstein, a Professor of Law at New York Law School, has written a brief and accessible introduction to the Founding Fathers—“who they were, what they did and failed to do, and why we care.” It’s far from the last word on these questions, but not a bad place to start if these are questions that interest you.


Yesterday, for the first time in a long time, I got to do again one of my favorite things in all the world.  I sat in the warm, bright sun on a bench by a small lake near my house, and for four glorious hours I read an engrossing book.  It was a mini-vacation.  My wife and I, following C. S. Lewis, call such times “pleasant inn” moments.  (“Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns,” Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain, “but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”  See here.)

Lake Ellyn Park, Glen Ellyn, Illinois

Lake Ellyn Park, Glen Ellyn, Illinois

The book I was reading was Why Teach? In Defense of a Real Education (Bloomsbury, 2013) by Mark Edmundson.  Edmundson is a distinguished professor of English at the University of Virginia, where he has taught since the 1980s.  Edmundson is not a Christian (by his own acknowledgment) and my guess is that he is considerably to the left of me politically, but he has a conviction that “real education” is supposed to change who we are, and I couldn’t agree more.  The book is a series of loosely related essays, some more interesting to me than others, but I found a lot to think about throughout.  And Edmundson is a a delightful writer: passionate, engaging, humorous at times, and relentlessly candid.  I disagree with him on some points–including some major ones–but I also found some powerfully keen observations that went straight into my commonplace book.

Here, without commentary, is a sampling:

Some measure of dislike, or self-discontent . . . is a prerequisite for getting an education that matters. My students . . . usually lack the confidence to acknowledge what would be their most precious asset for learning: their ignorance.

All good teaching entails some kidnapping.

The great enemy of knowledge is knowingness.

Why Teach

My favorite passage from the book is actually one that articulates, better than I have been able to on my own, the value of keeping a commonplace book.  In a previous post (see here), I explained how writing in my commonplace book “helps me, imaginatively, to think of myself as entering into a grand conversation about enduring questions, something far bigger than the transient fads and obsessions that so easily steal the best days of our lives.”

Edmundson tells of a friend who has kept a journal for more than forty years and refers to it as a “life thickener.”  The observations, reflections, and questions that his friend records, in Edmundson’s words, collectively “give dense meaning to the blind onrush that unexamined life can be.”  What a marvelous sentence.  I found myself saying “Yes!  That’s exactly what I long for.”

Edmundson goes on to explain how it is that contemporary culture works against this kind of goal.  There are surely many factors, but a chief culprit, he believes, is technological.  The students he meets at the University of Virginia are children of the Internet.  It was born in their infancy, and they can never remember a time when the word “chat” referred primarily to face-to-face conversation.  Technology allows them (and us) to be multiple places at once–watching a U-tube video, checking Facebook, answering e-mail and texting friends, all while interacting in a coffee shop (or “taking notes” in a lecture hall!).  And as Edmundson rightly observes, the person who thinks he can be in a half dozen places at once is not wholly anywhere.

“An Internet-linked laptop,” the author notes wryly, “is not a life thickener.”  Of course it has its uses, but the promotion of deep introspection does not seem to be one of them.  “To live well,” Edmundson writes, “we must sometimes stop and think and then try to remake the work in progress that we currently are.  There’s no better place for that than a college classroom where, together, we can slow it down and live deliberately.”


The current (June 2014) issue of Christianity Today includes my review of a new book by prominent Christian historian Philip Jenkins.  The book, timed to coincide with the one hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of WWI, is titled The Great and Holy War: How World War One Became a Religious Crusade.  It is a wonderful work of history.  Written for a broad audience, it casts new light on a familiar story and raises big questions of vital importance to people of faith.  I recommend it highly.

great and holy war

I offer a pretty thorough assessment of the book in CT, so here let me just share some of the things that struck me most as I read.  First, I gained a renewed sense of awe at the sheer magnitude of the conflict.  No wonder contemporaries referred to it as the “great” war.  Between 1914 and 1918 some sixty million men from approximately two dozen countries took up arms.  Bear in mind that the world’s population in 1914 was barely one fourth of what it is today.  A global war today proportionately equal to WWI would involve the mobilization of roughly a quarter billion troops.  Who can even imagine such a cataclysm?

Second, I was reminded again of the almost unfathomable human suffering that the war unleashed.  To begin with, there were approximately ten million military fatalities, a bloodless statistic that only hints at the millions more who were permanently maimed and the tens of millions of widows and orphans who mourned behind the lines.  On a single day in the war’s opening weeks–on the 22nd of August, 1914, in what was known as the Battle of the Frontiers–the French Army lost 27,000 killed.  That’s a death toll in twenty-four hours fully half as large as American losses during our eight years of involvement in the Vietnam War.  The mind reels.

The cemetery at Verdun, France, where French and German troops fought for much of 1916.  Casualties exceeded 700,000.

The cemetery at Verdun, France, where French and German troops fought for much of 1916. Casualties exceeded 700,000.

But the human loss triggered by the conflict was not limited to casualties within the ranks of the contending armies.  Perhaps seven million civilians also died during the conflict.  Some of these fell victim to the unintended and unavoidable “incidents of war,” but millions more were the intentional objects of premeditated national policies, most notably the genocidal “relocation” of Armenians in Turkey, but also including seemingly more innocent naval blockades aimed at starving civilians populations.  Jenkins also makes a persuasive case that the exposure and malnutrition that was rampant during the war rendered already reeling populations more susceptible to influenza when it struck just as the war was concluding.  The worldwide flu epidemic of 1919 would claim a minimum of fifty million lives, or roughly twice the cumulative death toll from AIDS over the past three decades.

Another thing that struck me was Jenkins’ description of WWI as a kind of “civil war.”  It was not a civil war in the sense that men of the same nation were fighting each other, as was the case in the United States when Americans squared off against Americans between 1861 and 1865.  But it was a civil war among Christians, Jenkins reminds us, a civil war “within Christendom.”  Is that not at least as great a tragedy?  One of the strengths of Jenkins’ account is to underline just how important religion was to each of the major warring nations.  As he puts it,

“The First World War was a thoroughly religious event, in the sense that overwhelmingly Christian nations fought each other in what many viewed as a holy war, a spiritual conflict.  Religion is essential to understanding the war, to understanding why people went to war, what they hoped to achieve through war, and why they stayed at war.”

One of Jenkins’ most important points is that in all of the major warring nations, popular opinion quickly came to see the conflict not merely as a “just war” but rather as a “holy war.”  The distinction is important.  From the time of Augustine onward, Christian theologians have argued that war is sometimes justified as a kind of necessary evil, an unavoidable last resort to prevent even greater evil.  Over the centuries, just war theory has evolved to develop a list of criteria that must be met before war can justly be inaugurated, as well as a set of constraints that must be observed in the way that war is waged.

“Holy war” goes far beyond the concept of just war.  Participants in holy war are not engaging in a necessary evil as a last resort; they are engaging in a crusade, consciously thinking of themselves as God’s instruments in a divine struggle between the forces of darkness and light.  Allowing for differences in degree, Jenkins demonstrates that the rhetoric of holy war predominated in each of the warring nations, including the United States.  (Evangelist Billy Sunday famously characterized the war as “Bill [Kaiser Wilhelm] against Woodrow.  Germany against American.  Hell against Heaven.”)

The irony, of course is that with the exception of Turkey, all of the major warring powers had predominantly Christian populations.  History shows that humans often demonize or dehumanize their enemies in wartime.  As Jenkins rightly points out, when warring countries profess the same religious faith, “dehumanization must also include dechristianization.”

This just scratches the surface of a book that is full of interesting and often provocative insights.  Most notably,  Jenkins also discusses at length the numerous ways that WWI helped to draw “the world’s religious map as we know it today.”  Like the best histories do, The Great and Holy War illuminates the present by shedding light on the past.


The 4th of July is rapidly approaching (is that really possible?), and I want to spend most of my energies these next few weeks thinking out loud with you about Christian faith and the American founding.  When I refer to “faith and the founding” I have two interrelationships in mind.  On the one hand, it is good to explore the role that Christian belief and principles played in the unfolding of the American Revolution.  But as Christians called to “take every thought captive to obedience to Christ,” we also need to consider what it means to let our faith inform our understanding, today, of the events that led to American Independence more than two centuries ago.  What does it mean to think Christianly, in other words, about this critical chapter in our national story?

As I have spoken to churches, Christian schools, and Christian home-schooling groups over the years, the question of whether America was founded as a Christian nation has regularly been the single most common question that I am asked.  If they are interested in history at all, the Christians that I meet outside the Academy keep coming back to the same basic question: Was the United States founded as a Christian country, by Christian statesmen, guided by Christian principles?

When I hear the question, the first thought that pops into my head is another question, namely “Why do you want to know?”  I don’t mean to be flippant or disrespectful.  Part of thinking Christianly about the past involves examining our motives for studying the past in the first place.  And when it comes to a question like the relationship between Christianity and the founding of the United States, there are all manner of motives other than simple curiosity that can get in the drivers’ seat.

The question has become enormously politicized in the last generation, as Christians square off against secularists, both sides appealing to the past to support their respective policy position regarding the proper place of religion in public life.  Historical truth  is commonly a casualty when  political agendas get entangled with debates about the past.

I have already written about how individuals such as Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel, Francis Schaeffer, and Doug Wilson and Steve Wilkins each erred tragically by grounding essentially religious arguments about the present in historical assertions about the past.  (See here, here, and here.)  What is more troubling is the degree to which well-meaning Christians have allowed their very identity as believers to become intertwined with particular interpretations of American history. I cannot tell you how many times I have spoken with Christians who seem to see any denial that America was founded as a Christian nation as an attack on Christianity itself.

One of the very first quotes in my commonplace book is an observation from G. K. Chesterton that speaks to this mindset.  In his 1908 classic Orthodoxy, Chesterton makes a brief observation in the midst of a lengthy (dare I say rambling?) aside as part of an even longer reflection on optimism and pessimism.  Here it is:

“Only those will permit their patriotism to falsify history whose patriotism depends on history.”

G.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton

If we are truly devoted to our country, in other words, Chesterton is telling us that we will not insist on a particular interpretation of its past if the evidence leads us in another direction.  True patriotism may require us to acknowledge aspects of our national history that are contrary to the story that we would prefer to tell.  We will do so, however, because patriotism is a particular form of love, and as Chesterton reminds us on the very next page,

“Love is not blind; that is the last thing that it is.  Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind.”

But Chesterton’s observation doesn’t only help us in thinking about the relationship between history and patriotism.  Its inner reasoning can be just as helpful to us in thinking through the relationship between history and our Christian faith.  In one sense our Christian beliefs are absolutely grounded in history.  Ours is a historical faith.  Christianity’s core doctrines rest on theological interpretations of historical events: creation, fall, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection.  Deny these historical events and eviscerate the faith.

But Christianity does not rest on any particular interpretation of American history.  Let’s take the first Chesterton quote above and modify it in two key respects, giving us the following:

Only those will permit their Christian faith to falsify American history whose Christian faith depends on American history.

Who among us who aspires to follow Christ would readily accept a Christian faith dependent on American history?  Of course none of us would wish this consciously, and yet our identity as Americans and our identity as Christians are so easily intertwined.  As we think about faith and the American founding in the weeks ahead, it wouldn’t be a bad thing to keep Chesterton’s observation in mind.



It’s time to head back to my commonplace book. So far, I’ve shared reflections from two early nineteenth-century writers: Alexis de Tocqueville and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Let’s jump forward several generations and listen to a writer whose career was concentrated in the early decades of the twentieth century.

The figure I have in mind is Gilbert Keith (G.K.) Chesterton. If you are interested, as I am, in the intersection between Christian faith and the life of the mind, chances are good that you’re already familiar with this remarkable individual, and if you’re not you might want to get to know him. I’m not the best person to make the introduction, and indeed, I’ve struggled trying to figure out how best to describe him. No single label will suffice. It would be a true statement simply to call him “a Christian writer and apologist,” but that would fail to capture the staggering breadth of his intellectual interests. As one biographer puts it, Chesterton won fame “as a playwright, novelist, poet, literary commentator, pamphleteer, essayist, lecturer, apologist, and editor.” A tabulation of his writings would include eighty or so books, hundreds of poems, several plays, a couple hundred short stories, and somewhere in the neighborhood of four thousand essays (most of the latter written as a regular columnist for the London Daily News). To call him “prolific” would be an understatement.

G.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton

I’ve read a grand total of three of these works, and I’ll confess that I find Chesterton to be an acquired taste that I haven’t fully acquired. What little I’ve read of his apologetics (Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man) strikes me as unnecessarily confusing. Chesterton was a non-linear thinker if there ever was one. Both works are full of digressions and interesting but often puzzling asides that make following his overall argument—for me, at least—hard going. And yet both books are packed with specific, discrete observations that are both insightful and memorable, for example, “Thinking in isolation and with pride ends in being an idiot.” (I love that one.) In sum, Chesterton is eminently quotable, which is why he takes up a lot of space in my commonplace book.

In this post I’ll focus on a single quote from his 1908 book Orthodoxy that I’ve found useful for thinking through my calling as a Christian and a historian. It is not a quote explicitly about history per se, but I still find it wonderfully applicable.


I have in mind an extended passage in which Chesterton is meditating on the relationship between democracy and tradition, and in particular, the idea that “democracy was in some way opposed to tradition.” (Although I don’t have time to develop the point now, this is a view that David Barton’s hero, Thomas Jefferson, certainly flirted with.) In contrast, Chesterton insists that “tradition is only democracy extended through time.” Hear as he explains his reasoning:

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”

By “tradition,” Chesterton has in mind an appreciation for the values and beliefs of those who have gone before us. The widespread denigration of those values and beliefs is a hallmark of our age and one of the primary reasons why Americans are, overall, so dismissive of history. Boston University professor Robert C. Bartlett spells out the connection in his essay “Souls Without Longing”: “To be convinced of the progressive character of human life,” Bartlett writes, “is to be convinced of the superiority of the present to the past: When the achievements of another era are considered by definition deficient in comparison with what we can do here and now, they shrink accordingly in importance. Thus the belief in progress saps the only serious incentive to study the past—to learn from it how to live in the here and now—and history becomes boring.”

We are bored by history, Bartlett observes, in part because we don’t expect to learn anything truly valuable from it. We don’t expect to learn anything valuable from it, Chesterton suggests, because we are anti-democratic elitists. (C.S. Lewis similarly condemned what he called “chronological snobbery.”) When we dismiss history we cut ourselves off from 94 percent of the human race, merely because they were born in a less “enlightened” age. We may deny the charge, but there’s an element of arrogance at the heart of such present-mindedness.

As a Christian historian, one of my favorite verses from the Old Testament is found in Job 8:9, where Bildad the Shuhite counsels Job not to limit his search for understanding to his own generation. “We were born yesterday, and know nothing,” Bildad reminds his friend, “because our days on earth are a shadow.” At its best, the study of history begins with such a posture of humility, a recognition of the fleetingness of our lives and our need for wisdom.

Paraphrasing Chesterton, I would say that when we take history seriously we purpose to listen “to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors.” When we take history seriously, we participate in “the democracy of the dead.” And as Chesterton put it in The Everlasting Man, “the brotherhood of man is even nobler when it bridges the abyss of ages.”