Woodrow Wilson, Part 2: The Book Review

Thursday, January 28, 2010

What the World Should Be: Woodrow Wilson and the Crafting of a Faith-Based Foreign Policy
by Malcolm D. Magee
Baylor University Press, 2008
ISBN 1602580707

The tragedy is that Woodrow Wilson was right. Wilson stood alone as the last best hope of staving off World War II. Of course, that just adds to the enormity of his failure.

In my last post, I mentioned that I was reading Malcolm D. Magee’s What the World Should Be: Woodrow Wilson and the Crafting of a Faith-based Foreign Policy. (Full disclosure: since my previous post, I have become Facebook friends with Magee.)

Forty pages into the book, I called it a “Woodrow Wilson biography,” but the book is much more focused than the usual biography. Magee gives us only enough biography to explain the mental processes that carried Wilson to his critical moment at Versailles, and there failed him.

The title uses “foreign policy” narrowly, but “faith” broadly. Magee makes no mention of Wilson’s dealings with Haiti, Panama, Nicaragua, or the Bolshevik Revolution (using the take-over of Veracruz Mexico as a sample of Wilson's interventionist policies), nor his reaction to the Balfour Declaration or Armenian genocide. I found myself turning to other sources to fill the gaps. This study’s concept of faith, however, goes beyond Wilson’s understanding of Biblical Christianity. The objects of Wilson’s faith included democracy, the power of his own mind, and a paternalistic sense that as both God’s Man for the Moment and a White American, Wilson could know better what would benefit other countries than the citizens could know for themselves.

Inside Wilson's Faith

From his father, Wilson inherited both a tradition of Presbyterian thought and a mantel of Presbyterian leadership. Young Wilson’s faith was heavy on Christian duty and the idea that in each generation, God picked a Moses or a David to lead society into greater conformity to God’s will. Early in life, Wilson developed a deep metaphysical appreciation for the power of Words in the hand of God’s Chosen Servant.

Wilson also grew up comfortable with a wide range of antinomies. Antinomies are those apparent contradictions within Christian doctrine: Jesus is 100% God at the same time he is 100% man, or salvation is by Free Will at the same time it is predestined. Antinomies require the faith that God can resolve these paradoxes at a higher level than man can presently see, and Wilson saw no reason why antinomies couldn’t exist in every area of life. For example, even with the great weight he placed on Words in the hand of God’s Servant, he saw no reason why subsequent generations could not reinterpret the meaning of such words, whether found in the Bible, the Constitution, a treaty to end a war, or a charter for his League of Nations. Wilson also saw no conflict between what our age would delineate as Creation and Evolution.

Magee makes only quick mention of the fact that 21st century labels like fundamentalism (or liberal and conservative) only confuse the issue when applied to late 19th century debates, or to Wilson’s early 20th century eschatology. I would have dwelt more on the sea-change in Christian thought brought on by the two World Wars: American leaders from Washington to Wilson believed mankind was getting better, that with advances in Christian institutions and education the world could be sanctified enough to make it ready for Christ’s second coming. Unfortunately, the carnage of civil war within European Christendom changed this. Post-war Christianity could no longer hope that man might bring in an age of righteousness on behalf of Christ. Only Christ’s physical return could solve mankind’s problems. True, this swerve came after Wilson left the stage, but somehow, readers need to understand how the stage itself has shifted.

A Failure to Flip-Flop

One of Wilson’s characteristics was an inability (or powerful unwillingness) to change his mind, either in the face of new facts, or of potent opposition. He was, after all, God’s Chosen Vessel. I find this interesting because so often we hear politicians criticized for their “flip-flops.” Wilson could have benefited greatly from some carefully nuanced redirection. Politics is the art of the achievable. In 1999 and 2007, I was first drawn to George W. Bush and Mike Huckabee over the issue of immigration reform (having already narrowed my field over abortion). In each case, I felt these men hoped to rearrange policy in a direction of mercy rather than retribution. However, after the 9/11 attacks, I recognized that Bush could not do this, and in the face of vocal opposition, Huckabee needed to retreat. Wilson, as described by Magee, could not bring himself to any such reevaluation. There were indications that the Senate might have approved Wilson’s treaty with the addition of only minor “reservations,” but Wilson refused to pursue the feelers.

Another Wilson pattern was to trust the reports of personal friends over those of State Department professionals, even when his friends did not speak the language or have any previous experience in the country. Eventually, the only friend he trusted was Edith, his second wife, and she only told him what she thought he wanted to hear.

The presentation is relentless. Seventy pages into the book, I found myself rooting for Wilson, hoping that he could do at least one thing right. Ninety pages into the book I began to wonder if I was being set up for an argument against Dominionism.

Perhaps I am primed to such a suspicion. A couple of years ago, an atheist I am close to challenged me with questions about this doctrine as if it was something to which I probably adhered. I had never heard of it. In poking around, I’ve come to the conclusion that Dominionism is the derogatory term used by opponents who largely caricature its teachings or exaggerate its influence. I found Magee’s page at the website of Michigan State University’s Department of Religious Studies, and indeed, Magee lists a “growing anti-intellectualism in much of modern American religion” as the impetus for leaving his earlier profession and pursuing the study of history, and mentions as his current project “a study of Christian Reconstruction’s influence on politics.” Christian Reconstruction is the term preferred by adherents of what the other side calls Dominionism.

By whatever name, this movement grows out of the writings R. J. Rushdoony and David Barton, and has been promulgated by media ministers such as D. James Kennedy. (Full disclosure: In the 1980’s I was given a book by Rushdoony, but couldn’t get into it. I soured on Kennedy when I wrote for his pamphlet on Thomas Jefferson, only to find lots of interesting tidbits, but no footnotes or bibliography. I finished at least one book by Barton. Though it was slanted in favor of the U.S. being a Christian nation, it was no worse than—and a health balance to—the state textbooks I had been given to teach from. The 8th grade text gave five pages to the Plymouth Puritans without ever mentioning that they had come to America looking for religious freedom. The 7th grade world history gave 124 words to Jesus, presented as a progressive Jewish rabbi; a full page to Paul, seen as the founder of Christianity; and four pages to Muhammad. Since the 80’s, my impression is that textbooks have improved greatly.)

Keeping History as History

In the end, though, Magee makes no attempt to tie Wilson’s failure to any current political debate. This is good, because it wouldn’t have worked. Rushdoony wasn’t born until the end of Wilson’s first term, and Rushdoony would likely not have claimed Wilson as the best example of what Rushdoony hoped to reconstruct. On the other hand, the ACLU—organized at the end of Wilson’s second term—might well claim to be in the tradition of Wilson’s Progressivism. The Fundamentalist Movement, which didn’t appear until Wilson was on his deathbed, would have been put off by Wilson’s relaxed attitude to reinterpreting both the Bible and the Constitution, and by his willingness to entertain the possibility of his own person fulfilling the promise of Christ’s Second Coming (Magee, 87-88).

The fact is, no one accomplishes admittance to the rarified heights of the presidency without some kind of faith, whether that be theistic, secular, or merely pragmatic. It would be fanciful to posit that someone might formulate a foreign policy divorced from any faith. Magee makes something of the same argument in a short epilogue. (Actually, the whole book is short: a body of 114 pages, four pages of epilogue, and 70 pages of appendices, notes, sources, and an index: I suspect this study served as a PhD thesis.)

It is always disappointing to realize how ordinary our giants are up close. We want our Great Men to be flawless, and we despise them for falling short of that mark. None will either be or bring the Second Coming. It is hard to imagine a different president leading us into World War I. Teddy Roosevelt? William Howard Taft? William Jennings Bryan?

I opened this book with some questions I hoped it might answer. I enjoyed the read, but finish up with only a longer list of questions. That, I think, may be the best measure of a good read.


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