“Evangelicals engaging American History” an address by Marvin Olasky given to the Jonathan Edwards Institute, July 6, 1999.
…I’ll describe how Biblical history suggested to me some new avenues for exploring the American past.
The Bible has much to say about the relation between personal values and societal events. Noah’s faithfulness preserves mankind. Sodomy and other sins doom a city. So it goes up to the time of David, when his adultery has tragic consequences for the entire nation. Look at the capsule histories of monarchs and consequences found in the second book of Kings. In Chapter 17, King Jehoshaphat is faithful, so the kingdom prospers. In Chapter 24, King Joash and his officials worship the fertility goddess Asherah, which means they followed the church growth strategy of bringing in shrine prostitutes, and the country loses a war. In Chapter 26, as long as King Uzziah “sought the Lord, God gave him success”—but when his pride becomes ascendant, the nation descends. In Chapter 33, when King Manasseh practices sorcery and kills his own children, he and the entire country suffer—but in his distress, he turns to God, and life improves for himself and everyone.
This is not to say that the connection of actions and results is always quickly evident. Sometimes immorality deserves punishment but God holds off. Sometimes a nation is so close to the bottom of the slippery slope that a righteous king like Josiah only delays the crash for a little while. Overall, though, false ideas and actions have terrible consequences in ancient Israel.
It’s possible for some evangelicals to push aside that Biblical, historical evidence. Maybe those connections applied to God’s chosen people—chosen for trouble, most often—but are not universally applicable. Look, however, at the general wisdom of the book of Proverbs. Adultery has consequences in Chapter 6: “Can a man scoop fire into his lap without his clothes being burned? … So is he who sleeps with another man’s wife; no one who touches her will go unpunished.” Lies have consequences in Chapter 10: “The man of integrity walks securely, but he who takes crooked paths will be found out.” Private sins have public implications in Chapter 11: “Through the blessing of the upright a city is exalted, but by the mouth of the wicked it is destroyed.”
Let’s look at Woodrow Wilson.
Until 1908, when he was 50, Wilson was known as a Presbyterian preacher’s kid who had grown into an upright professor and a long-married university president. Then he had an adulterous affair that he covered up with financial payoffs that allowed him to be elected governor of New Jersey and then president of the United States in 1912, both times running as a candidate of private and public morality. Because Wilson did not want to see himself as a sinner, he developed a sophisticated public theology in which his adultery was excusable because he was comforting a lonely woman. He also learned to lie in public: He won reelection in 1916 with the slogan, “He kept us out of war,” while privately telling Cabinet members that the United States would go to war. One month after his second inauguration, Wilson led the United States into World War I and enjoyed its successful—for the United States—completion in 1918.
Temporary success bred arrogance. A million Parisians chanted “Wilson, Wilson” as he rode through the city. French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau said there was no greater reception “in the history of the world.” Wilson began claiming direct divine inspiration for the League of Nations agreement he had put together: It came about “by no plan of our conceiving but by the hand of God who had led us into this way.” Wilson, however, was far from omniscient. He stitched together on maps countries like “Czechoslovakia” without having any understanding of ethnic divisions.
Wilson said he was “the personal instrument of God” in Paris, but after the 1918 congressional elections, when many of his supporters were voted out of office, he was barely the personal instrument of the United States. Still, he wanted to produce a newer testament: According to British Prime Minister Lloyd George, Wilson once said that “Jesus Christ so far [has] not succeeded in inducing the world to follow His teaching because He taught the ideal without devising any practical scheme to carry out his aims.” The League of Nations, according to Wilson, was the wise plan Christ had missed. Wilson, who had grown up with the Westminster catechism with its question about man’s chief purpose—“To glorify God and enjoy Him forever”—was working to glorify himself.
The Treaty of Versailles, signed in June 1919, represented the worst of both worlds. It was punitive enough to contribute to the German economic collapse that made possible the rise of Hitler. It was so high-minded that French and English leaders who put their hopes in it became lax about the military preparedness that could have forestalled the dictator’s early success. When the U.S. Senate refused to support the treaty, Wilson refused to examine his own arrogance, but instead traveled the country by train, hoping to rally voters to his side—only to find little trust in a man who had last stumped the country on a no-war pledge. Then came the crushing blow: Wilson suffered a paralyzing stroke, and his presidency effectively ended. Even then, the lying did not end. He refused to step down, and Wilson’s second wife was the real president during his last year and a half in office.
It’s a sad story of one who could have been great, brought low…
The personal history of a third Presbyterian president, Grover Cleveland, is different.
The knock on Biblical evangelicals is that we are looking for perfect people to become presidential candidates. Actually, however, we know that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and Cleveland shows the process of sin and redemption. In 1874, 10 years before he ran for president, Cleveland fathered a son out of wedlock. He made some restitution, giving the child his last name, financially supporting the mother, and then arranging for adoption. But his past practice became an issue after he received the Democratic presidential nomination in 1884. Republicans chanted, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha.”
Cleveland made sure the facts got out, but he never attacked his critics as President Clinton did. Perhaps he showed awareness of a good journalistic rule, “Never spit when on a roller coaster.” Cleveland won the election, and during his presidency you see him minimizing his own importance. One journalist, Frank Carpenter, noted that “The hall and the stairs that brought us to the President’s office are covered with an old piece of carpet which was good once, but which has been patched, sewed, and resewed. It would not bring fifty cents at an auction.”
Cleveland worked hard to glorify the country by sticking by the Constitution and vetoing special interest bills. You also see him glorifying God in many ways. He showed his need to listen with his choice of churches. Washington residents expected Cleveland to attend the famed and fashionable New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Instead, he attended the First Presbyterian Church even though—no, because—its fiery old Pastor Sunderland had opposed Cleveland’s election, saying he was morally unfit for the White House. Cleveland knew that he needed to hear not preaching that would tickle his ears, but that would discipline him when he needed it.