The American Conservative, 23 February 2009

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

Daniel McCarthy chronicles the American Right’s shift from the skepticism about the office of US President that fueled the principled critique of excessive presidential power that thinkers like James Burnham and Willmoore Kendall sustained in the middle decades of the twentieth century to the abject presidentialism of the Bush/ Cheney Republicans.  McCarthy does not suggest an agenda for curbing the power of the presidency; still less does he express agreement with my favorite idea, abolishing the office.  He does not even hope for a return to the arrangement of the nineteenth century, when the Congress was the senior partner in the leadership of the federal government.  The wish he does express is that conservatives will once more express a wish for a return to those days.   

Richard N. Gamble, author of the magnificent book The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity The Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation and of a neat article about Irving Babbitt’s view of Abraham Lincoln, reviews several  recent books about Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy.  Most interesting to me were Gamble’s remarks about What the World Should Be: Woodrow Wilson and the Crafting of a Faith-Based Foreign Policy, by Malcolm D. Magee.  The key paragraph is this:

Magee gets Wilson largely right, but one further refinement of his analysis would have been helpful in connecting American Christianity and the “faith-based foreign policy” of the subtitle. It is not enough to say that Wilson was a Calvinist or a Presbyterian. Wilson, as Magee’s evidence makes clear, was a particular kind of Calvinist and Presbyterian. He adhered to a branch of Calvinism that tried to reorder every institution by bringing it under Christ’s dominion. Magee refers to “the Presbyterian tradition,” but it is doubtful there ever has been anything so unified in American history. Wilson owed his view of the church and the world not to confessional Presbyterianism but to the transformationist strand of evangelicalism that came to dominate mainstream Presbyterianism in the late 19th century. Wilson imbibed an activist faith that in many ways distorted historic Presbyterianism. He rejected creedal, confessional Presbyterianism. In order to understand his foreign policy, then, we must understand not his Presbyterian roots in general, but the fact that he emerged from a branch of Protestantism that had more in common with low-church, sentimental, meliorist evangelicalism than with historically Reformed Christianity. Magee fills in an important dimension of Wilson’s thought and personality, but finding the precise faith on which Wilson based his foreign policy requires that the story of American Christianity be told a bit differently.

Kirkpatrick Sale reviews a novel by Carolyn Chute, The School on Heart’s Content Road.  In a fictional town in a rural Maine, a commune full of aging hippies form an unlikely alliance with the local underemployed rednecks.  Forming a militia, they decide that the only way for Mainers to reclaim their freedoms is to secede from the USA.  Since Chute is herself a member of the real-life 2nd Maine Militia and an advocate of the dissolution of the USA, it is perhaps surprising that the militiamen are an unimpressive bunch whose revolt peters out into drunkenness and random fornication.  But not so surprising that she promises a series of four sequels. 

Bill Kauffman goes to his favorite gun show and reports that the American Left is missing a fertile recruiting ground there.  The attendees are “working and rural citizens who are pro-Bill of Rights, anti-corporatist, and open to radical alternatives.”

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2 Comments

  1. cymast

     /  February 28, 2009

    I sometimes get “right” and “left” confused, politically and well as directionally.

  2. acilius

     /  February 28, 2009

    Me too! It’s a problem directionally when someone says “Turn left” and you turn right, so I wish I had an easier time with that. But I’m glad about the political part.

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