Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Visible School Commencement Address

Visible School Commencement Speech
The letter to the Hebrews chapter 11 tells us of a pilgrimage to a better city, a better world. It is a mission that all humans should be on. For this mission you have been given a gift - an education. This is a tool to use as you continue on a journey to the ultimate destination - one that will never be fully reached in your lifetime. You enter into a pilgrimage that is a multi-generational one. A pilgrimage that will last through your life and your children’s lives and those of your grandchildren. They are counting on you to do it well.

Challenges, however, lie ahead of you - you face a historic level of social fragmentation - but the world has been here before. Karl Marx speaking of this kind of fragmentation in the middle of the 19th century referred to it as a time where “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.” But, lest I be accused of only quoting from Marx - I quote British conservative philosopher Phillip Blond who in a recent article in The American Conservative stated that today “A vast body of citizens has been stripped of its culture by the Left and its capital by the Right, and in such nakedness they enter the trading floor of life with only their labor to sell.

We are facing a historic breakdown of the foundations of the fabric of our civil society. This is a rare and historic time for the world you live in. Your society is in a crisis and you are called to help fix it. It is a time of revolutionary change. You are called to live in it but we do not yet see what kind of new world will be born from the wreckage of this old one. You should feel some excitement, however, as this is a time of great opportunity for those of you with the tools of an education, a willingness to continue to learn and a vision for the pilgrimage that you are on, one that looks for a city, a world that has foundations whose author and builder is God.

I like to leave my students at MSU with some final thoughts on the last lecture of the semester.
I speak to them in secular language which I will not need to do with you being that this is a religious college. The general outlines of that talk are as follows. History and culture do not follow nice neat lines. Providence has a plan but we are not always privy to it. There are constant contradictions of truth colliding with truth. We need to learn to let the truth live at peace - Justice and Mercy are intended to be at peace not war. People around you lack self awareness and behave hypocritically without even realizing it. You will do well to learn to be aware of your own tendencies to hypocrisy and then you may humbly take the speck from the eye of the world around you.

You are living in an increasingly Balkanized world. For a classic liberal like myself this is troubling. For a Christian it reminds me that my hope is higher up than the institutions of this world. All around us truth and civility are being murdered by those climbing on the ladder to power. Those around you have come to hate the other side (whomever they may be) so bad it doesn’t matter if they are saying something true. And, on a more earthly plane my deep concern for American society, and also for the world, is the zero sum game that threatens our civil society. This is perhaps the most apparent in the issues that surround faith. There is currently a deep angst and intolerance about religion - matched by the equally intolerant atheist fundamentalism of men like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. The collision of these fundamentalist intolerance-es threatens to do violence to you and the world you are called to care for.

It does violence politically as well. In the past we had conservative liberals and liberal conservatives. There was a sense in which the middle consensus worked, even as it produced conflict. But, even the conflict worked. Today that system is failing - but you can help to fix it.

As you claim to be followers of Christ I hope for better for you. You, followers of a better calling, can help this world by trying to understand why people believe what they believe. To understand their fears, worries, aspirations and bring good news of a better age. One that they can experience in their life, society and culture now.

My hope is that you will go out from Visible School and whether you choose to be political liberals or conservatives, that you will recognize the right of your fellows to exist, to live in peace, and to be free and prosper. That you will understand the power of the love of God, the power of gentleness and the joy of being an agent of reconciliation.
That you will truly make the world safe for God’s kind of diversity. Even diversity that you do not personally like.

If you are to be suspicious of anything I hope you will be suspicious of accrued human power, be it right or left, religious or atheist, government or private enterprise. Only one power can ever be absolute, only one system is without error and that one is presided over by the one who was crucified and now sits upon the throne of God - who will one day come to judge the earth.

Humanity, on the other hand, has a bad history with power.

I hope you will change all this. Resist fundamentalisms wherever they come from. Resist them gently if possible - trying to understand why they are there in the first place.
They are usually a product of the fear of people worried about losing their own place.
If you try to understand perhaps you can persuade your circle of society to do better.Become a good and caring citizen of God’s world.

The book of Revelation shows us a great big multi ethnic crowd - from every nation tongue and tribe all united around the throne of God and the lamb. We have a unity that comes from an obedience to Christ - we have a diversity that comes from the beautiful imagination of our eternal God.

As you go from this place - continue to learn - keep your humility - make the world safe for God’s kind of diversity. In 1952, American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote The Irony of American History. On page 63 of that book he wrote what I think may be some of the most beautiful lines in American literature: "Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness."
You are on a journey that only ends when it ends. It’s conclusion is wrapped up in God’s Providence and destiny for your life.

Konstantinos Kavafis a Greek Poet who lived from 1863 - 1933 wrote some beautiful poetry that explored life from the metaphor of Greek mythology. Leonard Cohen drew from his imagery for songs like Alexandra Leaving. He wrote a poem about the journey of life to its ultimate destination using the idea of Homer’s Odyssey. He titled it Ithaka Odysseus destination and it can be a metaphor for the journey God has called you on.
As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
angry Poseidon-don't be afraid of them:
you'll not find things like that on your way
so long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
so long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon-you won't encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,

Hope that your road is long.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with great pleasure and great joy,
you enter harbors that you're seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl, coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind-
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you're destined for.
But don't hurry the journey.
Better that it lasts for years,
so that you're old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you've gained on the way,
no longer expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
For Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn't have set out.
When you arrive she has nothing left to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.
You will have become wise, full of experience,
you'll understand by then what these Ithakas mean.

Keep Looking for the City that has foundations. Live gently and wisely in this world. Create a love for the beauty and diversity that God has called you to help him create here. And when you arrive at the Ithaka that God has called you to you will arrive there having grown wise.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Damned logic and stubborn facts, the application of patterns of faith to the international policies of the Wilson administration.

“I don’t give a damn for logic!” snapped a haggard and weary President Woodrow Wilson to an aide during the 1919 Paris peace negotiations. This statement highlights the challenge that historians of international relations face when trying to interpret the foreign policy of the 28th President of the United States. While Wilson had earned a doctorate from John’s Hopkins and claimed to prize the world of reason and facts, there was a deeper, intuitive, irrational, inner life that also influenced his thought processes. A failure to account for this creates difficulty for the historian who attempts to make sense of the President’s foreign policy decision’s.
Foundational to Wilson’s approach to policy was a pattern of religious thought. This was so pervasive that it existed even when the specifics of religion were absent. Among observers who noted this were French Premiere Georges Clemenceau and Queen Marie of Romania. The contemporary who documented this pattern of thought most clearly, however, was English economist John Maynard Keynes. Following the Paris Peace Conference Keynes wrote that Wilson thought like a Presbyterian minister, “with all the strengths and weaknesses of that manner of thinking.” As the chief economic advisor to the British delegation he had been present at many of the meetings with the president and condensed months of observation, personal interaction, and disappointment into this statement. He asserted that the foundation of Wilson’s thinking about the world and international affairs did not rest upon a secular ideology or definition of national interests. It lay instead in his personal religious faith, a faith so absolute and pervasive that it determined not only what he thought but, more importantly, how he thought. It shaped the language in which he thought and the meaning that the words had for him as he expressed his thoughts. Keynes argued that one could understand neither Wilson nor his policies without understanding his Presbyterian roots: intellectual, rhetorical, organizational and moral as well as theological.
This insight is missing, for the most part, from modern historical scholarship concerning US foreign relations during the Wilson presidency from 1913 to 1921. Indeed some historians dismiss it entirely, acknowledging only that religious feeling was present in the president but that it comprised little more than cultural evangelicalism. They fail to see how patterns of the faith that he had been steeped in from childhood influenced his practice of foreign policy. Existing professional literature portrays a president variously motivated by idealism, realism, “higher realism,” corporatism, ideology, personal ambition, or some combination of these. There has been no serious modern examination of Wilson in Keynesian terms: as a Presbyterian in politics, a twentieth century John Knox, a Christian statesman whose overriding motivation was his determination to do God’s work in a fallen world. Instead scholars of international relations history continue to explain in almost exclusively secular terms, the foreign policies of a man who himself insisted that faith was the foundation for his international actions.
Historians need to let Wilson be Wilson. The man who throughout his life used such terms as “covenant” and “freedom” not in terms of their modern secular definitions but in terms of a very specific Calvinist rhetorical tradition. A tradition largely unfamiliar today, especially among scholars of American foreign relations. Yet one who’s fertile soil has produced a foundation upon which modern American foreign policy has been built. Here the underlying assumption is that to understand Wilson it is necessary to resist the tendency to see him in terms of twenty-first century concerns such as corporate globalism or American unilateralism and seek instead to return him to his own historical context, that of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
An immediate objection to this project is the valid and necessary caution against over simplifying this very complex subject. Religion is not the whole story of Woodrow Wilson. It is one thread in the tapestry. But it is the part of the tapestry of this complex, contradictory man least understood by current historians and least well integrated into current scholarship on his foreign relations. The task of restoring the president and his policies to the religious context that helped to form them is difficult but not impossible. There is substantial literature in the field of American religious history on Princeton and Southern Presbyterianism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the tradition from which Wilson came and which would always remain an integral part of him. This literature is rarely cited in studies of his foreign policy, but is only one example of the resources that can be deployed profitably by the international historian. The eyewitness accounts of those who worked closely with the president, found in their public papers as well as Wilson’s private journals provide further evidence of the religious character of Wilson’s thought.
It is not easy for scholars trained in the secular, rational study of foreign relations to deal with a president who read his wife a poem – and effusively thanked its author – that compared him to David, King of Israel, and asserted that “His speech was voice of human man, His thoughts the words of living God.” Yet the poem and the correspondence concerning it are in volume 41 of Link’s edition of The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, available since 1983. Historians may find the language, tone and content of such material uncomfortable and, indeed, embarrassing. But they simply cannot continue to ignore it because it does not fit their own visions of a realist or an idealist or a liberal-capitalist or a progressive-internationalist or any of the other secular labels they have applied to Wilson.
To understand Wilson and his approach to foreign policy requires an awareness of the religious convictions that informed his world view, his ideals, his assumptions and prejudices. His religion was inseparable from the other aspects of his philosophy. His biographer, Arthur S. Link, stated that faith was a way of life for Wilson. It remained so throughout his life. He was unshaken by the theological storms of the later half of the nineteenth century. “Historical criticism and the evolutionary hypothesis, which he readily accepted, only strengthened his belief in revelation and the truth of scriptures.” God ordered the affairs of men after his own fashion. Faith was the means of making sense out of chaos. Faith in God gave ultimate meaning to the affairs of men. In December 1918, Wilson spoke to a group of Free Church leaders in London. “I think one would go crazy if he did not believe in Providence. It would be a maze without a clue. Unless there were some supreme guidance we would despair of the results of human counsel.” In times of crisis and physical breakdown the president retreated to this foundational world view. In his triumphs it was always an essential part of the tapestry of his thought. His belief that he knew what that guidance was that made him seem inflexible and at times irrational to his contemporaries.
Wilson’s religious background has been well documented. Born December 28, 1856, in Staunton, Virginia, he was the first son of Presbyterian minister Joseph Ruggles Wilson and Janet Woodrow Wilson. He grew to maturity surrounded by people who took their religion seriously. His ancestors on his mother’s side included several generations of Presbyterian ministers. Joseph Wilson was a restless and ambitious man who soon outgrew the smaller pulpit in Staunton and accepted a call to the more prestigious pulpit in Augusta, Georgia. This drive would keep the elder Wilson moving throughout his life - often following bitter conflicts over comparatively minor issues of principle. That example was not lost on the younger Wilson.
What has not been so clearly documented is how this faith tradition effected his manner of thought. Woodrow Wilson always believed that he held an orthodox evangelical faith even as the changing times forced him to negotiate other views. He held Charles Hodge, his father’s mentor and a chief defender of traditional American Calvinism at Princeton, in high regard, for his combination of intellectual strength and fidelity to the faith. Academic inquiry did not pose any obstacle to Wilson’s faith. On the contrary, he held contradiction explainable in mystery, drawing a distinction between the intellectual difficulties of faith and faith itself. In 1889, the 33 year old future president confided in his journal that; “I saw the intellectual difficulties, but I was not troubled by them: they seemed to have no connection with my faith in the essentials of the religion I had been taught. Unorthodox in the reading of the standards of the faith, I am nevertheless orthodox in my faith.” In this manner he distinguished practice of the faith from its specifics, which created in him an inner way of negotiating and simplifying complex ideas.
Critics of the idea that religious views influenced Wilson, point to the great comfort with which he used non-theological political language. They note that he rejected the ministry when it would have been natural and consistent for him, if influenced by his religion, to follow the path of his father, his uncle and so many of his Woodrow and Wilson forebears. This argument fails to take into account the degree to which his religion, like that of these ancestors, was at home in the world. Wilson’s language and career, that seem secular to most modern historians, in reality clothed the religious ideas that were his intellectual foundations. Theological ideas defined the essential character of the words he used and often the actions he took. The distinction between “secular” and “religious” that many modern historians attempt to make simply did not exist in Wilson’s mind, as a young man, as a scholar, or as president of the United States.
Religion robed in secular garb was not unique to Wilson. The Presbyterianism that he inherited from his father was equally comfortable with the world. There was very little sacred/secular division in this theological outlook. The elder Wilson’s sermons, like those of Calvin, Knox or Edwards, were as likely to touch on business or statesmanship as a way to demonstrate Christian faith as they were to speak of the more “spiritual” matters that modern secular historians would recognize as religious.
Wilson quite naturally synthesized his faith with what he believed to be his life mission: politics. In 1886 he explicitly compared the effective methods of politicians with those of preachers. The “success of great popular preachers contains a lesson for the students of politics. . . . ” A political leader should take the example of the great preachers by adapting their methods to politics, bypassing official channels and identifying directly with constituents to win them to the cause. It is not enough, however, to prove that Wilson was religious. The evidence is strong enough on that. What is more important is that he was religious in a more deeply intellectual and fundamental way than most other religious politicians. This specific approach to truth created in him a way of visualizing principles that fused conflicting ideas in what seemed a coherent pattern in his own mind. Complex problems were simplified by faith.
The root of his approach to truth was the theological idea of antinomy, the idea that seemingly contradictory truths are not in fact contradictory but united in Providential mystery. Scripture was by definition infallible and could not be contradictory. Antinomy made sense of the seeming contradictions of scripture by attributing them to the limitation of human understanding. As a respected modern Calvinist theologian explained this concept: “The whole point of an antinomy . . . is that it is not a real contradiction, though it looks like one. It is an apparent incompatibility between two truths.” Theological antinomy provided the president with a pattern of thinking about faith that made it easy, even natural to develop the habit of intellectual antinomy in regard to other subjects. He could thus be “unorthodox” in the standards of the faith while “orthodox” in the faith itself. Antinomy allowed the feeling of objectivity while subjecting the contradictory facts to an internal mental referee. Criticism of the conclusion was viewed by Wilson as an attack on “principle.” Ultimately Providence held the answer. The appearance of contradiction, in foreign policy or in theology, merely pointed to a truth that required the simultaneous holding of both points of view. It was a “living” truth which required the believer to grasp its “spirit.”
Wilson demonstrated that he understood this concept of antinomy in his father’s inaugural address which J. R. Wilson was to give upon his installation as president of Southwestern Presbyterian Seminary. Father and son collaborated on this project with Woodrow providing the outline and recommending content. The speech referred to the essential theological antinomy upon which their system was founded: the conflict between human free will and God’s sovereign election. The address asserted that a believer must follow these two seemingly incompatible truths, human responsibility and divine predestination, but need not reconcile them, only believe them. This basic intellectual tension provided a cornerstone upon which other apparently contradictory ideas could be accommodated.
Once embraced, antinomy did not confine itself merely to the sphere of religion. The elder Wilson applied it to the workings of God in society. Believing that Providence ordered the affairs of men, he was forced to grapple with the terrible contradictions to Providence that he saw in the great tragedies that had engulfed southern society following the Civil War. He explained the apparent failure of God’s providence to his congregation as a failure of human understanding of God’s purposes: “However God may sometimes appear to have forgotten you. This which troubles you is nothing more than an appearance. Providences are often seemingly adverse, as you for the moment and in piecemeal look at them, but they are never really adverse.” Scripture and Providence could not fail in reality, though they might appear so. The only real failure was flawed and limited humanity’s inability to comprehend God’s ultimate unified purpose.
The lessons of the father were not lost on the son. Antinomy turned the strict legal sense of covenant into an order of the heart. It became a spiritual, not a human legal, “structure.” It owed ultimate allegiance only to the moral authority of God himself. It created an inner sense of order that often compelled President Wilson to act upon his sense of duty to God, then find a secular rationale and “legal” justification later. This act toward God was concurrent with human law but superceded it. Personal channels which were organic and relational and which bypassed legal structures appealed to Wilson. He could honor his allegiance to God and fulfill the “spirit of the law,” while avoiding the complications that law, as others interpreted it, presented. And he could do this with confidence in his heart that he was never in actual violation of the law. This pattern of thought toward political matters caused contemporaries to see in him inconsistency, or worse, hypocrisy. He, on the other hand, remained certain that he acted from a single set of principles. Contradictory ideas coexisted comfortably in his mind, balanced in a tension that he accepted as God’s will. “Logic is no fact: it is thought given straight air lines, elevated above fact.”
Antinomy created an inner, personal, and subjective picture of truth in Wilson’s mind. It explains, in part, the statement by Wilson that he “was not orthodox in his reading of the standards of the faith but orthodox in” his faith. To a Calvinist who wrestled with theological antinomy in the conflict between justice and mercy, for example, the intellectual balance that the person finally arrived at, the point that seemed to be the appropriate point of truthful tension between the two, determined whether the action that person took in a given situation was to call for punishment or forgiveness. This does not mean that the individual would have recognized that he or she was acting subjectively. To the individual holding this truth, though it may be personal and subjective, it seemed as if it should be as clear to others as it was in his or her own mind. Since the scripture and historic creeds had spelled out the principles which were in tension, and since others within the church generally agreed upon those principles, the subjective point of balance between the two seemed to be self-evident. When Wilson was fully engaged with conflicting points of view, physically and emotionally well, he would often use this pattern of analysis to compromise or add another perspective to his thinking process. When he was in crisis, or ill, and kept away from intellectual complications, he often became intransigent and morally simplistic. In either case he remained fully convinced that he was acting in accordance with “principle.”
Wilson’s antinomy in approaching principle conveyed the conviction that the truth he obeyed was, in part, beyond human language or human ability to express fully. The words themselves were expressions of contradiction held together in mystery. On the other hand, the truth behind the words was self-evident to him. Wilson could negotiate the difficulties of his faith with the confident assurance of his own inner clarity. Puzzled that others had difficulty finding this clarity, he commented on this inner place of faith he had reached. “I am capable, it would seem, of being satisfied spiritually without being satisfied intellectually.” Yet this was not altogether true. Wilson was both intellectually and spiritually satisfied with the resolution of these contradictions in this mystery. He was able to move between disparate thoughts with a confidence that they were not really inconsistent. Despite mystery, the principles remained clear in their essentials to all believers. One needed only to do one’s duty, be faithful, work hard for divine principles and all would work out in the end as God intended.
And these “mysteries” were a constant in Wilson’s foreign policy. He waged war to get peace. He fought the war to win in order to get “peace without victory”. He advocated polices that resulted in starving German mothers and children in the name of humanity. He sent US troops into Russia to protect Russian self determination. He intervened in Mexico and other Latin American countries to enforce democracy and “teach them to elect good leaders.” None of these posed problems to Wilson. Scholars dismiss these contradictions or see them as evidence of Wilson’s stubbornness or ignorance. They do not see that they were a direct outcome of his thinking process. Wilson would have seen no contradiction at all.
This process of intellectual antinomy, when combined with a belief in divine Providence, effectively elevated Wilson’s opinions to the significance of divine utterance. The equation of personal opinion with divine decree would not have been conscious to Wilson. Indeed the thought of doing so would have been blasphemous to him. It was, however, the way he increasingly treated his opinions when challenged. He could argue over “principle” as if it were the revealed word of God, rejecting compromise as immoral. The truth was a matter of the heart but it was itself based upon absolutes and could be treated as an absolute.
This antinomian pattern of thinking that lead to uncompromising stances on “principle” had been evident in Wilson’s academic career, in his political career and it emerged most clearly in regard to his foreign policy. Upon taking office in 1913 Wilson’s approach to decision making quickly became evident in the specifics of his foreign policy decisions. His theological instinct infused him with an ideal of what the world should look like and what America’s role should be in that world. In one of Wilson’s stock speeches, Leaders of Men, delivered at various locations from 1889 until 1900, he expanded upon the idea of the universal application of the moral law of God. Highlighting the way in which he applied his theological views to his vision of America and leadership overall, he quoted from both the King James Bible and the evangelical minister of the Presbyterian Church of which he was a member while teaching at Wesleyan. He applied his religious understanding of God’s moral law to the idea of national and international leadership. “Moral law was not written for men alone . . . . it was written as well for nations, and for nations great as this of which we are citizens. If nations reject and deride that moral law, there is a penalty which will inevitably follow.”
Wilson argued that the statesman is the mouthpiece, the minister of the nation he serves who must arouse the awareness of the community of itself. He must make the nation aware of its destiny. Since Providence had made Wilson the servant of the nation, the nation must also be predestined. The concurrence of the Providential leader at the Providential time was critical to Wilson’s concept of historic change. England and Germany became protestant, he argued, because their leaders came at God’s right time. America would have its leaders at the right time as well. The proclaiming of truth to the nation at the right time in its history by the right messenger would create a society formed around an idea, indeed around a “word.” That society would then become a reflection of the perfect law written on the hearts of men, a “New Covenant”. Believing politics were “relationships,” but finding the office of the presidency an impersonal duty, Wilson set out to reorder it according to a pattern he was familiar with: the leadership learned from his father. The job required that he be an effective messenger, that he personalize the organization, that he focus it on the task. He would call the American people to labor in the mission field of the world with him.
An antinomy between the importance of the task versus that of the organization appeared in Wilson’s rhetoric from the start of his campaign for the presidency. At Atlantic City in September 1912: “I respect a political party merely as the means of banding men together for a service [after] which, when they have done to the uttermost [sic], they have forgotten parties in a common service.” In his Inaugural Address he spoke of his party, which now had a majority in Congress, as meaning “little except when the nation is using [the party] for a large and definite purpose.” And shortly after taking office, in Jersey City he said: “I am not a servant of the Democratic party. I am a servant of the people acting through the Democratic party.” To call his political group the “party of the people” could be viewed as typical partisan rhetoric, but it was rhetoric he believed. He had to believe it. It was the only way he could also believe his mission was approved by God. The organization was only valid if it served the people’s purpose and was not an end to itself. He continued to operate on the philosophy that “if one sets out to make a by product by itself for itself he spoils the main product.” The task he was called to must remain the central focus and “product” of his administration.
One of the early areas in which Wilson’s faith based approach to foreign policy became explicit was China. He believed it held great potential as a laboratory for democracy. It mattered little that he was not well acquainted with Chinese culture - he knew his Providential mission. The administration of President William Howard Taft had embraced the idea of civilizing China through expanding trade, the idea embodied in “Dollar diplomacy.” Wilson despised this approach. As historian Michael Hunt has pointed out: “Wilson’s own clear conception of the obligation of the United States [was] to promote the modern trinity – democracy, the rule of law, and Christianity.” He would be an evangelist, a missionary, for the export of Christian democracy. The United States would offer the gospel of democracy to the world. Business would have to conform to this gospel.
Adding further evidence that Wilson wanted to project this missionary image of the United States to the world is supported by his attempt to appoint John R. Mott Ambassador to China. Mott was an American missionary icon. He had devoted his life to mission work. After finishing a degree in history at Cornell, Mott became National Secretary for the YMCA in the United States and Canada, chairman of the executive committee of the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, presiding officer of the World Missionary Conference and chairman of the International Missionary Council. He had organized the World’s Student Christian Federation, and at the time Wilson was looking to fill the post in Beijing Mott was also general-secretary of the International Committee of the YMCA. Mott was a missionary’s missionary.
The first choice for China, one that may have been merely symbolic, had been Dr. Charles Eliot, president of Harvard. Eliot declined for health reasons as the administration must have known he would. Wilson quickly turned to his real choice - Mott. Mott represented Wilson’s vision of America’s mission to the world. The clear lines between good and evil that missionaries represented appealed to the President. The president believed America’s role in the world was compatible with, and could work in parallel with, Christian evangelism. He united the goals of missionaries with the aims of the United States government.
The president became personally invested in Mott’s nomination. The lengths to which the new president went to recruit Mott and the language he used in his attempt to do so are telling. Two weeks before the inaugural Wilson wrote to his chosen Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan regarding China and Mott: “The Christian influence, direct or indirect, is very prominently at the front and I need not say, ought to be kept there.” He asserted that Mott possessed the qualities of a statesman and the “confidence of those throughout the Christian world.” Mott was the face of the American mission that Wilson was looking for, a true Christian statesman. When his nominee turned down the appointment the president refused to accept it and began to lobby friends to pressure the missionary to accept. In the following weeks Wilson enlisted any friend of Mott’s he could find to bring pressure to bear on him. He refused to accept Mott’s rejection of the post twice, stating that the “interests of China and the Christian world are so intimately involved.” He even went to the extraordinary step of suggesting that Mott keep his missionary post while acting as ambassador. The president would grant him leave of absence to do missionary work as necessary. “I am eager to unite what you represent with what this government means to try to represent.” Foreign Policy and evangelism could be done at the same time. Mott was finally able to turn the China post down on April 1.
Mexico provided Wilson with an even more explicit opportunity to exercise American missionary foreign policy. As the Latin American nation collapsed into Civil War Wilson felt he could bring a new and better order. He applied antinomy to the facts as he saw them and arrived at what he sensed was the right balance between force and encouragement. On March 12, 1913, the White House released a general statement on U.S. Relations with Latin America. The Cabinet had devoted an entire day to its preparation. The importance that he put on the document itself showed the degree to which he saw word as action. The time spent by the entire cabinet discussing this single short statement, along with the great hope he held that it alone would “stop those who foment troubles,” was revealing.
To Wilson, words were acts. He was the divinely appointed messenger, now addressing an international as well as a national congregation. His view concerning the power of the spoken message was outlined in a speech he had given on December 17, 1912. Nothing was permanent he remarked, “except the thoughts which you spoke to your neighbors.” “Thoughts which you spoke” were in themselves a permanent thing. Thoughts embodied in words were substance. They held ideas which would continue to create a reality when the material body was gone. His December 17 speech, the Latin American statement, and the care with which it was prepared, were one demonstration of how the president translated this high view of language into political practice.
The situation in Mexico was a demonstration of the end product of Wilsonian antinomy in foreign policy decision making. The president had developed his thinking about intervention in foreign countries in a manner that highlighted the way he balanced the contradictions the country faced in international politics. He had been critical of American action in the 1846 Mexican War. In A History of the American People, he called the war “inexcusable aggression.” He had rejected Taft’s formulation of “dollar diplomacy” as a violation of the national sovereignty of weaker nations. Regarding the 1898 war with Spain, however, he held a different point of view. Though he called it a war of “impulse” and acknowledged the sensational, exaggerated, newspaper accounts and the personal ambition and desire to aggrandize American power that motivated some participants, he also felt the war was justified by the intransigence and evil of the Spanish government. Spain forced American action by sinking the battleship Maine. The war was also just because it was fought to liberate the oppressed and suffering subjects of Spain in Cuba. This made the war an “unselfish thing.” Doing the right, unselfish thing allowed Providence to bless America with unintended but good consequences. The “selfless” sacrifice of the soldiers in the Spanish American War had created an environment in which healing had come to the sectional divisions left following the Civil War. This logic followed Wilson’s Presbyterian view of human nature as flawed by sin yet still able to act righteously when called to serve a higher purpose. A righteous cause would have unintended righteous, Providential, consequences. When antinomy made logic unclear the right course of action was to determine the righteous cause. Once the right thing to do was settled, a righteous leader simply did his duty. In time the mystery would be clear. Though he might for a time “see through a glass darkly,” Providence would work out the details for the righteous.
The president’s information on Mexico was confusing and spotty, but he paid more attention to it than he would during later international challenges when forced by health and the convergence of multiple crises to make snap judgments on superficial information. As later decisions would also highlight, however, information need not be complete once the President knew the right thing to do. The right thing took precedence over the confusing and often competing claims of fact.
In keeping with his pattern of “personalizing” the mission, the president commissioned friends to go to Mexico on his behalf. He first asked a journalist friend, William Hale, to go so that he might get “unofficially and through the eyes of an independent observer” reports about what was going on down there. Hale spoke no Spanish and had to rely on translators to gather his information. This was, however, the type of “unbiased” information Wilson preferred. His own government was an organization that might or might not be advancing the higher purpose for which it was intended. He wanted a personal messenger. He also wanted someone who knew as little as possible about Mexico, to see the situation with fresh eyes. It was a common joke in Washington at the time that “among the people who came to Washington eager to lay their knowledge of Mexican conditions before him that the only way to get to him was to tell [Wilson’s personal secretary, Joseph] Tumulty that you had never been in Mexico.”
Wilson perceived the situation in Mexico in personal terms. He applied his beliefs about individual morality to this international situation. In his antinomy between the individual and government he saw the government as a group of individuals and, as an organization, subordinate to the service and mission of those individuals. His illustrations as to why the nation might have to go to war were individual. To the National Press Club in May 1916, he said; “If I cannot retain my moral influence over a man except by occasionally knocking him down, . . . then for the sake of his soul I have got to occasionally knock him down.”
The rhetoric from the president had indicated that he was committed to both non-intervention and the forces of constitutional democracy in Mexico. Despite the rebels’ rejection of what Wilson said the United States was supporting, he directed Bryan to affirm strong U.S. support for them as early as December 1913. Rationalizing that he had picked the side that supported the spirit of democracy, if not yet its form, and believing he was acting in his role as God’s chosen agent, he tailored his policy decisions to negotiate the antinomy between what his principles espoused and the reality in Mexico. The will of God (the right thing) would ultimately happen so long as his acts were righteous. He was confident that his conscience was qualified to determine what those righteous acts were.
By February 1914 the U.S. was fully supporting the Constitutionalist forces. This decision was made despite their use of unconstitutional means to gain power. By November it had become clear to Wilson’s representatives that the Constitutionalists had other priorities than democracy. They would not allow democratic processes until they had achieved military success and broken the power of the church, wealthy landowners and Huerta’s military. This mattered little to the president, who had made up his mind that the Constitutionalist cause was righteous.
British Ambassador Cecil Spring Rice reported the president saying the Mexican people must “find their own salvation.” In fact Wilson most likely said “They must work out their own salvation” a biblical quotation he often used indicating that they needed to do the hard work of bringing their own society into order. He made it clear that he had no interest in helping the wealthy retain their position, but he did want to work to help the poor of Mexican society, those who could not help themselves. For them, and for their instruction, he was willing to find a way to bring about “salvation,” to create conditions in which the poor could save themselves.
Wilson again seems to have demonstrated a blind faith in Providence in his approach to Mexico. Neither he nor Bryan had a clear idea of how to handle the chaos that would follow the collapse of the Huerta government, but they had no particular worries about it either. The fall of Huerta was a “moral duty,” and as such the situation would right itself if America did the right thing. Wilson continued to base United States policy on the mystery of Providence. Obey God, work hard and all would work out in the end.
With all else in place Wilson needed to wait until the right time, a Providential moment, to act in Mexico. All other elements were present for righteous action: an oppressed people, an aggressive evil power, a “selfless” motive to intervene. The only thing left was an incident of aggression by the evil power that would force America to defend the righteous. The point for domestic reform had come to America with Wilson’s election. The time to act in Mexico needed that moment as well. That point was the Tampico incident, which Wilson himself called the “psychological moment.” It provided him with the rationalization for action.
Tampico was a comparatively minor incident between American sailors and Federal forces loyal to the Huerta government. Its only significance was that it gave Wilson justification for his already determined righteous action in Mexico. It also demonstrated his preferred methodology for handling complicated foreign policy matters. On April 9, 1914, a small squad of U.S. sailors in a whaleboat entered the mouth of the river in the port of Tampico, a point contested by the opposing sides in the Mexican conflict. The American forces had not notified the Federal commander of their intentions to land at that point. Federal troops arrested the crew when they discovered the Americans loading gasoline into their boat from a dock near the battle line. The Mexican soldiers took their prisoners to police headquarters, where the Mexican commander promptly released them with an apology to the American commander, Admiral Henry Mayo.
Mayo, however, demanded more than the apology given, thereby taking what could easily have been a minor incident of no international consequence and turning it into a major crisis. He demanded a further, formal, written apology, with a guarantee that the officer responsible would be punished followed by a twenty-one gun salute to the American flag. Since the United States had refused to recognize the Huerta government, this demand constituted an unbearable humiliation.
The Admiral’s dispatch, with sparse and misleading information about the incident, arrived in Washington on April 10. Bryan forwarded it to Wilson with the comment: “I do not see that Mayo could have done otherwise.” The president, on vacation and deeply concerned about his ailing wife, fired back a message to Bryan escalating the incident. He demanded that the U.S. chargé d’affaires, Nelson O’Shaughnessy take up the matter of Mayo’s demands with Huerta in Mexico City and press it with the utmost earnestness, “representing to them its extreme seriousness.” This took the comparatively minor incident to a much higher level as Wilson fully intended. He had already decided that this was the moment to engage in a righteous fight. The president directed that Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels “impress upon his officers the absolute necessity of being entirely in the right,” and added as an afterthought that State Department Counselor Robert Lansing “can of course supply you with precedents.”
The president had made up his mind, without making any effort to confirm Mayo’s report, much less to confirm whether the admiral’s action was appropriate under international law. The process of decision-making which he demonstrated in this incident set a pattern for future issues. Lansing’s expertise in international law was to serve the president by finding the right precedent to support the course Wilson had already determined to take. International law was to serve the righteous purpose, not to determine if the purpose was indeed righteous. Lansing did not disappoint the president, though it took him four days of searching and he had to go back sixty years to find a legal precedent which would justify unilateral American action. Charles Thompson, an observer during this period, commented that “Wilson never distrusted himself about anything, being more positive that he was invariably right than any man I ever saw” When the president later privately asserted that he always sought others’ advice, his friend Colonel Edward M. House managed to keep a straight face but noted that evening in his journal that he nearly laughed out loud.
The American hard line in Tampico created a political impasse for Huerta. The weakened Mexican Federal government could not afford to appear to capitulate to humiliating American demands. Thus Huerta was not able to respond to Wilson’s call to repentance. He had read the mood of his citizens correctly and knew that an American invasion would do more to help him in their eyes than it would to hurt him. In the end Huerta chose to defy the president, refusing to sacrifice his honor or that of Mexico for such a minor incident.
In Mexico as elsewhere, the president believed the outcome was in the hands of Providence and would work out for a better world. All the evidence thus far in his career seemed to prove that this was the path to success. His apparent setbacks, such as the losing battle with the Princeton board of trustees, had resulted through the mystery of Providence in his rise to the presidency of the most powerful nation in the world. Sticking to his principles would continue to work, so he saw no incentive to change his methods.
American sailors and marines landed in Veracruz. They were greeted with bullets rather than open arms. The local population joined the Federal soldiers in armed resistance. At least two hundred Mexicans were killed and many more wounded. Nineteen American soldiers and sailors were killed and forty-seven wounded. What was worse for Wilson’s hopes of tutoring the Mexicans in good government was that after Veracruz was captured few municipal officials were willing to work for the United States. They cited their sense of patriotism as well as fear of reprisal from Mexican authorities when the territory was returned to Mexico. The U.S. military was forced to occupy the entire city and establish martial law. Veracruz proved a diplomatic disaster for the United States. The warring factions in Mexico united in anger at the invasion of their sovereign territory. Rather than being treated as a helpful neighbor by the owner of a burning house, the Americans were looked upon as burglars breaking into the house while the owners were involved in a domestic dispute. Huerta expelled United States chargé d’affaires, Nelson O’Shaughnessy, following the seizure. Wilson’s policy met severe opposition in the Senate. Henry Cabot Lodge complained: “any man who did not think the facts ought to be made to suit his will would have known that the people of Veracruz would fight.”
Wilson refused to alter his principles or change his view of the international situation to conform to these developments. He still saw no place for compromise. As he had written in an article Christ’s Army for his Father’s Presbyterian newspaper years earlier, “there is no middle course, no neutrality. Each one must enlist either with the followers of Christ or those of Satan.” Though the truth may be an intellectual antinomy, clear to God but not to man, it was still truth and any resistance to its “principle” was opposition, not just to the idea of truth, but to Christ himself. Wilson was determined to instruct Mexico in the right way to govern. He explained his policy to Sir William Tyrell, the private secretary to British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey who was acting on behalf of the British Government in Washington during the illness of Spring Rice; “I am going to teach the South American Republics to elect good men.”
Resisting pressure from both those who wanted to order the military to push on to Mexico City and end the crisis by force and those who wanted to remove the troops in order to seek a diplomatic solution, the president hovered between peace and war. He instructed the military to put Veracruz in order. They set about the task with zeal. The market was cleaned up, a police force was organized, the courts put in order, streets were cleaned and sanitary measures imposed. Veracruz was an apparent model of Wilson’s view of an ordered world. In a manner that would have both honored and satirized Calvin’s theocratic Geneva, Veracruz became, as a historian of the affair has written, “the cleanest, most efficient, most honest and just” despotism in Mexico.
With the outbreak of the First World War Wilson’s approach to neutrality and war exhibited these same tensions. Wilson’s foreign policy was complicated further by the way he approached the meaning of language and written texts. Much of his apparent contradiction when it came to language was derived from his understanding of the nature of written documents. Finding the correct internal antinomy was to find the greater truth behind the language. This meant that there was a meaning that was beyond the simple reading of the text. Even when he acted contrary to the words of a written document, however, he remained convinced that the document itself was important. If he was acting in seeming contradiction to the reading of the text by others he remained convinced that he was holding to the true meaning, to the spirit of the language. In the same way, it would be inconceivable to disregard the Bible as a text, though those who understood how the antinomies within it worked could act according to the true meaning. He failed to see the difference others saw between letter and spirit. This often caused confusion in his communication with both subordinates and other heads of state.
Wilson believed that the true meaning of a written constitution was to be found not in the letter of its text, but rather in some agreed-upon interpretation. Interpretation, and thus true meaning, could change without any change in the text. There was a living, spiritual, truth behind the text itself. That meaning united the contradictions created by limited language. The meaning was created by those who interpreted the text. House noted this in his diary: “He [Wilson] began to speak of a flexible or fluid constitution in contradistinction to a rigid one. He thought that constitutions changed without the text being altered, and cited our own as an example.” The president argued that the Constitution had granted the states primacy over the union until Andrew Jackson’s presidency because the people interpreted it that way. However, during Jackson’s presidency the view of the people changed. The importance that they placed upon the union established its predominance and preempted the right of a state to secede. He tied this to the concept of the power of a messenger to persuade people of the meaning. Wilson also wrote about this Jacksonian change of Constitutional interpretation in his History of the American People. Change in the Constitution was achieved without any change in its text. Wilson was sentimentally attached to the south, an advocate of states rights on many issues, but committed to a flexible meaning of the Constitution and thus willing to accept that the meaning of the U.S. Constitution had changed.
In another example of this approach to language, during the maritime crisis at the beginning of the First World War, the administration worked to secure general adoption of the Declaration of London, an unratified 1909 convention on international maritime law. Wilson insisted that Britain publicly endorse the unratified Declaration. The British refused to do so, as they did not intend to follow it. Wilson’s position, however, was that if they would publicly honor the text of the declaration they would be free to make supplementary statements of interpretation that would loosen the restrictions they found objectionable. Lansing made it quite clear to American Ambassador to Britain, Walter H. Page, that if the British publicly adopted the Declaration, they would be left free to interpret it in accordance with circumstances as they arose. The text provided the basis for agreement, the interpretation of the text was flexible. While texts were fixed and certain, a safety net against too great a drift of meaning, the meanings themselves were progressive and flexible.
The president grew more confident in his role as divine messenger as he continued to face the challenges of the war in Europe. He was not hesitant about blending faith with his position, and had no worries about separating his personal religion from his actions in office. When a report circulated in the press that he had led the Cabinet in prayer seeking divine guidance in the difficult times, he responded: “I am sorry to say that this incident is not true. I wish that it were.”
House was a master at reading Wilson and adapting his ideas and language to reflect changing presidential views. In November 1915 he spoke of the great role Wilson had the opportunity to play upon the international stage. “This is the part I think you are destined to play in this world tragedy, and it is the noblest part that has ever come to a son of man.” House employed the language of predestination, mission and duty that Wilson used about himself. The phrase, “son of man,” was normally used in Scripture when a prophet was referring to himself. In the New Testament, in all but one passage, it referred to Christ. Wilson had appropriated this language, in the prophetic sense, about himself. In response to a challenge to his stance on American preparedness a few days before the House “son of man” letter, the president quoted Ezekiel: “Son of man, speak unto the children of thy people. . . .” He explicitly compared himself to the prophet and the watchman described in the passage. House used similar language, unusual for him, because it would register with Wilson.
Wilson increasingly equated the United States with God’s chosen people in his speeches. He extrapolated from that equation an American mission to evangelize the world politically. He equated patriotism with Christianity. “Patriotism in its redeeming quality resembles Christianity. . . . It makes [a man] forget himself and square every thought and action with something infinitely greater than himself.” To the Chamber of Commerce in Columbus, Ohio, he had spoken about the “peaceful conquest of the world,” through “spiritual mediation.” He clarified this assertion in a speech to the Gridiron Club on December 11, 1915. That conquest was to be accomplished by conquering the “spirit of the world.” He was a preacher calling the nation and the world to repentance. The United States would initially remain neutral in the European conflict, but neutrality as defined by international law was too passive a concept to express what Wilson meant. The neutrality of the United States would conquer, convert, and change the world: “the world cannot resist the moral force of great triumphant convictions.”
Wilson negotiated the antinomy created in his mind by this active neutrality with a series of initiatives and statements that seemed to bounce between preparedness and pacifism. He criticized Germany for building a military machine ostensibly in the name of peace. “What a foolish thing it was to create a powder magazine and risk someone’s dropping a spark into it.” He resisted pressure to prepare for possible military conflict, especially by building a “large army.” But the more passive, defensive neutrality that Bryan advocated, irritated Wilson. He said it was “unreasonable.” The president’s active neutrality was a peacemaking endeavor, not pacifism. He sought to find ways to “increase” the military, short of building this “large army;” ways that would make the United States more effective in its peacemaking mission. He supported measures designed to beef up reserve forces and modernize the military, such as the Navy bill approved by congress on August 29, 1916.
Looking for avenues to use the mediating offices of the United States, Wilson sent a diplomatic communique requesting that the belligerent nations declare their war aims. What specifically would it take for them to be able to determine that the war was over? The antinomy in regard to American neutrality finally found expression in his “peace without victory” address to the Senate. On December 14, 1914, he had said that “the chance of a just and equitable peace, and of the only possible peace that will be lasting, will be the happiest if no nation gets the decision by arms. . . .” But to the Senate on January 22, 1917, he spelled it out more clearly when he said:
. . . it must be a peace without victory. It is not pleasant to say this. I beg that I may be permitted to put my own interpretation upon it and that it may be understood that no other interpretation was in my thought. I am seeking only to face realities and to face them without soft concealments. Victory would mean peace forced upon the loser, a victor’s terms imposed upon the vanquished. It would be accepted in humiliation, under duress, at an intolerable sacrifice, and would leave a sting, a resentment, a bitter memory upon which terms of peace would rest, not permanently, but only as upon quicksand. Only a peace between equals can last.
World events forced Wilson to renegotiate his inner providential picture. On January 31, 1917, Germany announced unrestricted submarine warfare. On February 3, the United States broke diplomatic relations with Germany. On February 28, the Zimmerman telegram encouraging Mexico to retake its land in the southwestern United States and promising German support, was published. Public outcry against Germany in the United States was overwhelming. The president’s sense of justice could no longer support even active neutrality. On April 2, 1917, before a joint session of Congress he asked for a declaration of war. Convinced that he was still holding to his original course he continued to speak of the same principles that he had espoused up to this time, only now the “spiritual mediation” of the United States would work in concursus with the steel and lead of the military. The United States would still seek peace without victory even as it worked to ensure a victory. He closed the speech with a phrase reminiscent of Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms: “America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave here birth and the happiness and the peace which she has treasured. God helping her, she can do no other.” For Wilson, this war was still about peace. It was still about a new order. He continued to believe that America was above the fray even as American soldiers were killing and dying in Europe. If not literally neutral, the United States remained neutral in spirit, which to Wilson always represented the higher reality.
Finally, at least for the purpose of this article, the negotiations at Versailles demonstrated Wilson’s faith based approach to foreign policy. Both House and Lansing felt that the president’s decision to go to Paris in person was a mistake. House was concerned about a loss of prestige, as the president would be reduced to just one member of the committee. Lansing privately mused that Wilson would find it difficult to “step down from his pedestal” and negotiate as an equal with European leaders. Yet the president was determined to see his project through. He had grown increasingly frustrated at the failure of those around him to see the antinomy of his internal logic. A year earlier he had assured House that of all his administration only the Colonel could represent him: “No one in America, or in Europe either, knows my mind and I am not willing to trust them to attempt to interpret it.” He had been willing to send House as his representative to the early Armistice negotiations, telling Sir William Wiseman head of British intelligence in the United States, “He knows my mind entirely.” He subsequently changed his mind. Even House seemed to the president incapable of grasping the principles, much less reconciling these principles with each other as Wilson’s internal antinomy was capable of doing. The president was personally called by God to a mission. He could no longer trust anyone else to do it correctly. Duty, spiritual and material, bound him to go to Paris. The dire predictions of some of his advisors about the dangers of his going in person did not concern him. His divine destiny would overcome any obstacles as it had overcome previous obstacles in his life.
World events conspired to create in Wilson a view of himself as not only a man on a divine mission but a man on the mission of his generation, the savior of his world. The president’s arrival in Europe was electric. The crowds were massive and emotional. This seemed to confirm the rightness of the decision to go. House worked on a publicity campaign which he convinced the president to launch with an interview in England. In conversation and in letter he assured the president about his historic destiny. He again referred to him as the “son of man,” sending articles which hailed Wilson as the hero of a new international order. An article by Gustave Hervé from La Victoire of March 7, 1917, enclosed in one note, referred to the president as one day presiding over the “Congress of Nations” which through his hard work was “founded as upon a rock.” Hervé called him the “shepherd of the people.”
This Papal and Christlike imagery clearly resonated with Wilson. A poem written by Edward Park Davis compared his second inauguration to the second coming of Christ;
He stood upon the eastern gate,
Behind him rose the pillared dome. . .
His speech was voice of human man,
His thoughts the words of living God;
The long poem was filled with comparisons to Christ and with Christian eschatological references. The president was “David,” the “High Priest,” “God’s voice” in the earth, the one “before whose march oppression falls,” and other Christ images. Wilson wrote Davis that his poem had “touched me more than I know how to say. I read it aloud to Mrs. Wilson and Miss Bones. . . . I owe you, my dear fellow, a real debt of gratitude for the encouragement you have given me.” Historian John Milton Cooper has written that Wilson’s clerical family background would have kept him from having any delusions about being a messianic crusader in politics. Yet there is little doubt that by the end of the war the relentless pursuit of his mission, the obstacles he had overcome, the encouragement of those around him and the influence on world events which his office allowed, caused him to entertain such views of himself.
Wilson’s policy was deliberately vague in regard to many of the particulars of the overall treaty. He had told Congress that “The [US] has no desire to interfere in European affairs or to act as arbiter in European territorial disputes.” The president was willing to stay out of the details of European squabbles, so long as he could determine the larger principles by which they would operate. Though vague in the details he was absolutely uncompromising in the larger principles - though it was not always clear just exactly what those principles were. They were often comprehended only by the president. Keynes considered this a fatal flaw in the president’s personality. “Now it was that what I have called his theological or Presbyterian temperament became dangerous. . . . Although compromises were now necessary he remained a man of principle and the Fourteen Points a contract absolutely binding upon him. . . . he would do nothing that was contrary to his great profession of faith. Thus without any abatement of the verbal inspiration of the Fourteen Points, they became a document for gloss and interpretation. . . the intellectual apparatus of self deception, by which . . . the president’s forefathers had persuaded themselves that the course they thought it necessary to take was consistent with every syllable of the Pentateuch.” Keynes was correct in this observation of Wilson’s attitude toward the Fourteen Points. So long as they were accepted they would be interpreted as a living, adaptable document, as the scripture and United States Constitution had been in the president’s tradition. The Fourteen Points would embody the spirit of the age. Like the scriptures, they would be interpreted by each generation, mixing its spirit with the principles of justice and right upon which the document was founded.
The League and the Fourteen Points must be agreed upon, at least in form. To Wilson this was all that really mattered. The details would work themselves out in time. Lansing noted that the president seldom forced the U.S. position into the treaty. He had no definite details for a treaty and allowed none of his advisors to put particulars together. The substance and detail of the Versailles settlement were largely authored by the British and French. Lansing was perplexed and, like Keynes, saw this as a failure on the president’s part. Wilson, who despised the technicalities of law, saw it as a strength. The Europeans could haggle over the trivia, the details of the antinomies, so long as the spirit and central structure of the League was adopted. The League would eventually resolve the contradictions and bring justice to the world.
Wilson’s providential hopes for the world, his whole divine mission in life, became reduced to this one scrap of paper. It became the focus, the convergence, of his convictions. His lifelong immersion in covenant theology and his cultural background in Presbyterian church life, coupled with his own personality and sense of mission, made this hope more intense. To Wilson the principles were clear and simple. They defined the ultimate form that detail would take. When Lansing commented that the president’s ideals blinded him to the material aims of the Europeans, he failed to grasp that to the president it was not blindness. Wilson cared greatly about the ideals and very little about material aims. The task was embodied in those ideals which he believed would eventually exert control over the details of the organization and the final form it would take in the material world. That organization would then serve to define the righteous settlement of all international claims.
The treaty was finally signed. The League of Nations was part of the agreement, as was a battered version of Wilson’s other Fourteen Points. He was certain that the treaty spelled out the first steps toward decolonization, a moderation of the claims of the victors, an agreement in principle to conduct international business in a new way. Most importantly, the League of Nations and the World Court would fix the flaws of the treaty with the help of the United States. His job was done. The Senate would have no choice but to see the divine logic of this treaty and would be honor bound to ratify it. Should he have to, he was willing to force the Senate to see their duty. He worked on his message to the Senate while traveling home on the George Washington, believing his work was nearly done.
“The only legitimate object of organization is efficiency,” Wilson said early in his first term in office. An organization was only as good as its ability to achieve its task. In Wilson’s mind, Article 10 of the League treaty made the new organization efficient. It required all nations connected to the League to “respect and preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all Members of the League.” It was also the poison pill that Lodge and many in the Senate would refuse to swallow.
The ensuing treaty fight is well documented. Wilson’s failing health and single minded obsession with ratification provides a wealth of further evidence of his faith based approach to political realities. This faith transcended all. Even after the fight was lost, with the president out of office, he retained his faith in a apparently failed policy. On Wilson’s last Armistice Day, November 11, 1923, a crowd gathered outside his house on S Street. Looking weak and old, the former president was helped onto the steps where he stood to greet the crowd and make his final public address. Breaking down with emotion repeatedly, he spoke to the crowd in the same confident words that he had always used, though in a much weaker voice, about the triumph of the mission that he believed God had called him to accomplish. In the language of his Presbyterian father he closed his speech with a continued determination that Providence would yet vindicate him. “I am not one of those that have the least anxiety about the triumph of the principles I have stood for. I have seen fools resist Providence before and I have seen the destruction, as will come upon these again – utter destruction and contempt. That we shall prevail is as sure as that God reigns.” Less than three months later on February 3, 1924, Woodrow Wilson died at his home.
Herbert Hoover, who served as head of the famine relief program in war torn Europe, said that Wilson’s presidency “was a Greek tragedy, not on the stage of the imagination, but the lives of nations.” Wilson’s “tragedy,” however, had more to do with Jerusalem than Athens. It was a tragedy of faith. Arthur Link rightly observed that Wilson had an “absolute conviction that God had ordered the universe from the beginning, the faith that God used men for his own purposes.” From this came his “sure sense of destiny and a feeling of intimate connection with the sources of power.” “Faith in God and submission to the Christian ethic underlay most of Wilson’s political assumptions and fired his ambition to serve the Almighty by serving his fellow men.” In the end Wilson’s faith in Providence became inextricably entwined with his own inner voice. Faith inspired the best and the worst of Woodrow Wilson, his rise and his fall. It caused him to imagine a better, more just, more noble world, a vision that inspired the loyalty of those who followed him. It also caused him to deceive himself into believing that his personal quest for political power was a selfless act of obedience to Providence. The threads of Wilson’s faith are the brightest and the darkest antinomies in the tapestry that was his life.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Coffee and Marriage

A thought on coffee and marriage: Ominous Comma

Sunday, January 25, 2009

David Warsh compares Wilson to Bush

I just discovered this site and since it quotes my recent book AND gets it right I feel I must share it.

David Warsh writes:

For years now, persons close to Bush have been advertising him as resembling Harry Truman (1884-1972), thirty-third president of the United States, meaning that however unpopular he might be upon leaving office, they expect Bush to be viewed in historical perspective as having been a pretty good leader.

A more apt comparison is to Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) twenty-eighth president, about whom ambivalence remains great even after ninety years. Bush may be remembered with the same tincture of admiration and regret.

The full text can be found on the site Economic Principles

Friday, January 23, 2009

Review of Christian Smith "American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving"

Posted on H-AmRel reviews 1999

Resurgent Evangelicalism

Christian Smith, working with Michael Emerson, Sally Gallagher, Paul Kennedy and David Sikkink, has produced an exceptionally insightful analysis of the current state of American evangelicalism. Basing his findings on a three year study of evangelicals and other religious (and non-religious) respondents, Smith provides evidence that evangelicalism is thriving as it interacts with modern American society. Far from weakening and fading away in the face of modernity, as some have theorized, evangelicalism has derived its strength directly from its interaction with modern society. Modern society has strengthened evangelical groups, yet this has not been the result of uncritical adaptation by evangelicals to modern social norms. Indeed, evangelicals have responded to modern challenges by constructing strong sub- (and in some cases, counter-) cultural communities as a means of differentiating themselves from modernity. . .

Text of entire review is at:

Citation: Malcolm Magee. Review of Smith, Christian, American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving. H-AmRel, H-Net Reviews. March, 1999.

Copyright (c) 1999 by H-Net, all rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact H-Net@H-Net.MSU.EDU.

Talk, Richard Gamble, ISCC Conference, October 15, 2005

The following is a short talk given at the ISCC Conference in Lansing, MI, October 2005.

Details can be found on the ISCC site.

The Americanization of the World: William T. Stead's Vision of Empire
Conference Paper by Richard M. Gamble

If you had been alive in 1901, would you have greeted the new century with hope or fear? Philosophical optimists and pessimists would have competed for you attention. Ideologies of presumption and despair would have vied for your allegiance. Was Western humanity on the threshold of a secular millennium of enlightenment and civilization, or on the brink of spiritual and cultural catastrophe? By measures of material wealth, power, and technological innovation, there was every reason for optimism. The sparkling Paris Exposition of 1900 had displayed the technological wonders of the age, especially the marvelous applications of electricity. But the mood was also somber. Queen Victoria had died on January 22, 1901, after a remarkable reign of nearly sixty-four years. An unpredictable Kaiser Wilhelm II ruled a rising Germany unified only thirty years before. The elderly Franz Joseph, emperor of Austria since 1848, grieved over his wife's assassination in 1898 by an Italian anarchist. Nicholas II was Czar of Russia; his grandfather Alexander II had been killed by a terrorist's bomb. American president William McKinley died on September 14, struck down by an anarchist's bullet in Buffalo, New York. The whirlwind Teddy Roosevelt now occupied the White House. Just three years ago, the United States had startled the world by gobbling up the last bits of Spain's once vast global empire, and British poet Rudyard Kipling had invited America to "take up the White Man's Burden" - to his mind a thankless task of humanitarian service and liberation of the world's captives. America's bloody war to subdue the Philippines was still underway. Europe pondered why the American republic has taken the plunge. Just what did this departure and transformation portend for Europe's precarious balance of power? Did America grasp an overseas empire for resources, for security, for power, for prestige? Europe buzzed about the menace at home of militarism and armaments. A whole literary genre future wars filled the bookstalls, sensationalist fiction and non-fiction titles predicting likely war between Britain and France, or more presciently between Germany and France.
Into this nervous world, British celebrity journalist and editor William T. Stead launched his best-selling book, The Americanization of the World, subtitled "The Trend of the Twentieth Century" - his prediction of America's inevitable, indeed Providential, military, economic, cultural, and ideological domination of the world. Stead, a tireless champion of Anglo-Saxon expansion, offered his prediction not in fear but in hope. Together, the United States and Britain would rule the world. . . .

(Full Text of Richard Gamble's Remarks and My response)

Monday, January 19, 2009

What the World Should Be - first reviews

What the World Should Be, Woodrow Wilson and the Crafting of a Faith Based Foreign Policy was released by Baylor University Press in July, 2008.

Here is the first review of the book, a comparative review by Paul Harvey from "Religion in American History" and excellent site for current trends in American Religious History.

Another Review by Fred at Library Thing