Thinking In Public

April 29, 2020

Land of Hope: A Conversation with Professor Wilfred McClay about the Great American Story

Transcript

Albert Mohler:

This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversations about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I'm Albert Mohler, your host and President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Wilfred McClay is the GT and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma, where he is also Director of the Center for the History of Liberty. Over the past year, he's also served as the Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University in California. Dr McClay earned his PhD from Johns Hopkins University and is a renowned historian and award winning author.

Albert Mohler:

His first major book was The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America, which won the Merle Curti Award of the Organization of American Historians. It was recognized then as the best book of the year in American intellectual history. His most recent book is Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, which has already won the Intercollegiate Studies Institute Conservative Book of the Year Award. In addition to his academic work, Dr McClay currently serves on the US Commission on the Semiquincentennial, that is the 250th anniversary of the United States. That will come in the year 2026. Professor Wilford McClay, welcome to Thinking in Public.

Albert Mohler:

Dr. McClay, for several decades now of scholarship and public influence as well as teaching, you've been in one way or another telling the American story, but, in one sense, even to say the word ‘story’, much less the American story, is to enter into an argument. Why is that so just as we get started in this conversation?

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Well, I think that part of the reason why it has... The use of term that academics really liked to use, that the American story has become contested, is that the writing of history especially by professional historians, academically trained PhDs in our leading research universities, has become politicized, and hyper-specialized--two things which are not always the same. Some very respectable academic historians, their work isn't necessarily ideologically tainted or distorted, but because they are so specialized, and they deal with aspects of history in ways that are outside the context or hard to relate to the context of the larger public meaning of our history, they just don't go there. So, the notion of a larger American facility, which is to use the term I just used, a public meaning of our collective lives together as Americans, our political lives, is less and less available to people.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Narrative is the way that most of us understand our place in things. It's a way that our memories are lodged. It's the way that our identity is forged, and our collective identity particularly, the things that we have experienced together both in the present day and our forebears. It's a very different thing. I'll give you an example of what I'm talking about. I have a friend who is actually a very wealthy man, who believes that what's wrong with America is that young people are not being taught the principles of the founding, and he's right about that. But, if you teach abstract principles, all men are created equal, the consent of the governed, whatever, things coming from the declaration of independence, outside of any context, then those principles metastasize into something that's actually the enemy of liberty. It's that we have the right to define... All men are created equal means we have the right to define the terms of our existence. Anything that impedes that is an illegitimate suppression of our individual rights.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

We've lost that sense of the location of those principles within the concrete context of historical development, and development of our lives together in a specific and real history. So, I'm all for the principles of the founding, but I'm also for teaching about the founding.

Albert Mohler:

Right. Well, the fact is that your very use of the category ‘story’ reminds me of the fact that, and you spoke of it being fundamental or basic. Indeed as a theologian, I've insisted that homo sapiens has also homo narratus.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Yes.

Albert Mohler:

We are the creature who storifies. We only know our identity in the context of story. Understanding that, we're in a constant conflict of narratives in the modern age. A part of the problem I want to say as a conservative is that, those narratives have been, I will say subverted in two ways. One is by suggesting that there can't be a narrative. The other is by applying a very different narrative. So as a teenager, I came upon, actually I was assigned, Daniel Boorstin's three volumes of The Americans.

Albert Mohler:

I was captivated by it. I'd read as a boy, I'd read every book of history I could get my hands on. But, that was the first time that I was really introduced to that majestic telling of the American story. But then just a few years later, out comes Howard Zinn's book in 1980, A People's History of the United States. I'm appalled, but nonetheless I have to mention that is now the best selling book in American history in the modern age.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Oh yeah.

Albert Mohler:

But, it's telling a story. That's that second verse, that's that second subversion. On the one hand you have people saying there are no master narratives, there are only micro narratives. But then, Howard Zinn comes along and says, "Yes, there's one giant narrative and it's that everything America's ever done or been is bad."

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Yes. There's even a subset of that. I just published this very week on Monday, a piece about a very good book about Howard Zinn's about history and just taking it apart brick by brick. It's really quite magnificent, by Mary Grabar. I recommend it to your listeners, called Debunking Howard Zinn. That is what it is. Anyway, I got the usual parcel of irate letters from people, including a guy who berated me for calling Zinn a charlatan and said, "That's not the way an objective historian talks." So, the fool that I am, I wrote him back, you shouldn't do that. You should ignore people. We got into it. It turns out that his view of Zinn is that, well Zinn just offers an interpretation of American history. It's his narrative, it's his voice, and therefore is impervious to the usual standards of evidence-

Albert Mohler:

Facts.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

... And balance and perspective. It stands or falls on whether it is a cool narrative, a persuasive narrative.

Albert Mohler:

Well, Howard Zinn's narrative is very powerful. It was actually being taught to me when I was in college. I spent a year as a faculty scholar at a state university. I started as a 17 year old, and it was there through my 18th year. Anyway, just being fed this, and that was just before Zinn's book had come out, but nonetheless, the ideas were still very much out there, Noam Chomsky and others. But, it was a direct contradiction to what I understood American history to be. Only later but very quickly, my own graduate study did I understand that that's basically the same conflict of narratives that's found in looking at all of a Western civilization. The Howard Zinn version of American history actually followed the revisionist histories of Europe, Western civilization that came out especially in the '60s. So, history's contested territory and you're a contestant.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Yeah, I am. I am. There's another element that you and I can talk about, and it's harder to talk about it in the public arena, and that is that, it's not a coincidence that this has arisen and become a problem in a public sphere that has been... They rendered it not entirely naked, as Richard Neuhaus said, but de-Christianized in certain ways. Let me put it this way though. I think that some of the scholarship that arose in the '60s, brought to the fore aspects of our history that are uncomfortable, that are unpleasant, that are deplorable, damnable. I don't want to start sounding like Reverend Wright here, but there are these things. The story of American treatment of the native population, the indigenous population, the story of slavery, these are all blots on our nationals integrity. Well, does that mean that there's no redemption to be had? Does that mean that we alone among the gallery of nations in human history-

Albert Mohler:

Are fallen?

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

... Are guilty? Yeah, are fallen and guilty? I think the great defense of the West more generally not just America is that, we're the ones who eliminated slavery, we're the ones who promulgated notions derived from Christianity ultimately, but of the fundamental equality of all people in the eyes of God. We've fallen, but we've been redeemed in some ways by our acknowledgement of our sins. So, I don't favor and I don't even in Land of Hope, favor an approach to the American past that is all gleaming and perfect and without fault, without Zinn as he wags it. But, there's a context, there's a perspective. I think being a Christian helps a lot in seeing that in the proper light-

Albert Mohler:

Right, because we're looking for two things as Christians. We're beginning with the presupposition that human beings are fallen and that human societies, humanity at large will reflect the effects of the fall. At the same time, we understand that there's common grace, and that common grace appears in history. That common grace is demonstrated where there's a greater preservation of human dignity, a greater respect for human liberty, and a moral correction or a capacity for that moral correction that unfolds over history.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Yeah. I mean, that's why Christianity is a religion of redemption. It's not a religion of perfection, the perfection that we can never achieve apart from Christ, from Christ himself. It's interesting Dr. Mohler, when I teach about slavery, my students are always astounded by being told that slavery is the norm of human history, not the exception, that really until the 18th Century, there was not consistent... You couldn't imagine a consistent anti-slavery movement coalescing. Even in the 19th Century, our abolition movement was a religious movement, 95%. That 5% would not have been enough of its own to start a secondary anti-slavery movement. There's so much misunderstanding.

Albert Mohler:

It doesn't make a slavery any less heinous or any sin. It doesn't make any sin less sinful. It does, just to remind us that there's number one, out there and has been for some time, especially after the enlightenment, this myth of civilizational innocence that exists among some. There is also just a failure to know history. This is where, as you said, a part of it's just facts. I was confronted with someone who threw at me not long ago, the accusation that the United States was beyond redemption. This person was British, because of the American experience of slavery. I said, "So, the fact that Britain was a few decades before the United States in ending the slave trade means a difference of that quantity, of that magnitude over against the canvas of history?" He said, "Well, I hadn't thought of it that way." I don't mean just to throw him under the bus, it's just a simple lack of awareness of history, and by the way, of the present. There's a huge slave trade, we call it human trafficking now.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Absolutely, absolutely. Why? Let's pick on the New York Times for a minute here. Why the New York Times chooses to come out with this really indefensible “1619 Project,” to negate the American founding of 1776 to 1789, and would say that this very obscure episode and landing of some 20 Africans, who may or may not have been slaves by the way, a lot of historians think they were indentured servants, but still, I'm not going to quibble about that. But, to make that the American founding over and against the work of the people we call the founders and framework, why they would do that is just beyond my understanding.

Albert Mohler:

It's not beyond mine, professor. It's actually not beyond yours either. You're just being kind.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Well, it's not mine either but I don't like to tell what I think.

Albert Mohler:

You're being kind and gracious. What I think is that ever since, and it's not just in the 1960s with the movements in both Europe and the United States, it's older than that, but it's the understanding that, if you're going to have a rationale for absolute revolution, then you've got to say the project was poisonous at the root. I think that's what's going on.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Well, I think so although I don't think that even the people at the Times quite understand how powerful... I think Zinn did, but I'm not sure these, the current crop of New York Times liberals understand just how corrosive a project like this can be. Fortunately, and I think all honor to those who've done this, there are eminent historians, all of them liberals except for me, I've actually gotten out there on this too, but John will answer, Princeton, Gordon Wood, probably the greatest living historian in the United States, have come out very strongly against the “1619 Project.” I think this has had an effect.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

What's interesting though is the historical profession as a whole, isn't touching a thing. You would think this would be, every historical meeting people would be buzzing about, what do you think about this? What do you think about that? No, they don't want to touch it. The reasons I think, I don't have to speculate, I mean, I think most people know that the claims being made are not historically valid, but they fit with a certain contemporary political agenda.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah, that's a continuing problem. I think of Allen Guelzo, and he's pressed back on this some. I've done at least a couple of these things in the public conversations with him, but I'm paraphrasing him here. But at one point, he interjected into the 1619 controversy. He simply said, "Which is the more interesting historical question, why slavery continued or why it didn't?" I'm paraphrasing here, but that to me is a crucial issue. You have to... The more interesting, given the span of human history, the more interesting question to be answered is how did it end anywhere?

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Yes, and why. What changed in the human sensibility in the West? Actually up until when I was a graduate student in the '80s, and then on into early '90s when I was a junior professor, one of the most interesting controversies I've ever seen in the historical profession, and was conducted on a very high level, was over the role of capitalism in producing what one scholar called the ‘humanitarian sensibility’. Which was not just in anti slavery, but reflected in the treatment of poverty, of insanity, insane asylums and so on, penitentiaries, all this rethinking that goes under the rubric of humanitarianism. Why did this happen? Thomas Haskell, the late Thomas Haskell of Rice, wrote a couple of brilliant essays connecting them to the rise of capitalism.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Then, David Brion Davis, probably the greatest historian of slavery in our time, wrote back cordially but somewhat testily, and wrote a series of articles in the American Historical Review contesting Haskell, and went back and forth. It was eventually published as a book. When I used to have graduate students, I had always had them read that as an example of a very high level discussion. But you're right, Allen is right, his question, why then?

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

One of the things Historian wants to try to do with let's say a great historical event like the French Revolution, the Reformation, why, why then? Why does it happen at that time rather than another? Slavery is as much the same why. One of the things I tried to stress in Land of Hope is, and I'm very careful to express this in a way that is not endorsing any moral relativism, but I say that, "Look, we live on the other side of this great change of moral sensibility. The question is why did it happen?" So, I actually asked that very question in my Land of Hope, and pose it as something for us to think about, and to be aware of when we look at characters in the past. Jefferson is a very special case because in fact, he was anti-slavery, even though he owned slaves-

Albert Mohler:

Of a sort.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

... He, unlike George Washington, never could quite bring himself to manumit them. Jefferson's extremely, Jefferson's right on that cusp transformation. But, there are many others who for the longest time really couldn't make that adjustment and they looked for biblical warrant, they were great Presbyterian divines [like] South Carolina’s Thornwell and others who founded-

Albert Mohler:

Dabney.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Yeah, Dabney, who found biblical warrant. These guys were really quite impressive theologians. I think you'd agree, but, Eugene Genovese always used to say, he thought that those guys had the better of the argument theologically compared to the northerners. I don't know I'd go that far but-

Albert Mohler:

What Genovese was right about was where he said that, where Thornwell and a Dabney argued theologically, they were at least arguing on the basis of a serious theological engagement. Whereas, Genovese for most of his life was an agnostic. It was he who said reading a lot of the liberal theologians, he said, "Look, it takes one to know one. I'm an agnostic and so are they. The difference is I know I am."

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Right. When he came back to the church, he came back to Roman Catholicism of his youth, and of his wife Betsy. But, I think it's terrifically important with something like slavery, and this where I think the 1619 Project could have been a great thing. It could have been a great thing if they had said... W.E.B Dubois in his wonderful chapter of Souls of Black Folk about the slave songs, he says, "Before the pilgrims came, we were here." It is a year before 1620. "Before the pilgrims came, we were here." African Americans have been, they're not just some add on, odd little appendage to American history. African Americans had been part of our history-

Albert Mohler:

Absolutely.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

... From the beginning. This something that needs to be said. It needs to be red-marked, learned and inwardly digested. So, they could have done that. They could have done it that way and said, "Look-

Albert Mohler:

Right. We as Christians believe in the necessary correction of history.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Yes, yes, yes. So, it could have been a way of saying we're yet to follow... One of the great things about Martin Luther King, who was the greatest oratory, is that it affirms the most fundamental American institutions, the foundational institutions in a way, the “1619 Project” negates, but King affirmed those things. He said in the great speech at Washington in August of 1963 that, the Constitution and the Declaration, they were a “promissory note.”

Albert Mohler:

Yeah, that's exactly right.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

We're coming here to present an IOU to the government.

Albert Mohler:

Exactly.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

A wonderfully pissy way of putting it, that's something everybody can understand.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah. One way to put it professor is that, if you look at most say 17th Century writings in the English speaking world and in the European world, there's very little defensiveness about slavery. It seems to be taken as a matter of fact. By the time you get to the late 18th Century and the American founding in particular, it is clear that the founders understood slavery to be indefensible, and they embedded even in the constitutional order both a continuation of slavery and something of an argument against it.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Yes. I think that transformation sensibility is happening. Even the southerners who for economic reasons felt that they just didn't want to have any discussion of it at the constitutional convention, were not rigorously opposed, or they weren't rigorously in favor of defending the institution on moral grounds. The way that they began to after, particularly after the Nat Turner Revolt in 1830, '31, when there was a discussion at Virginia, I talk about this in the book, Virginia had a discussion about the issues relating to slavery and they ended up deciding to table the matter. That was really the last chance. But, there was very little coming out of that convention, of the oratory, that suggested any pro-slavery arguments such as you will begin to see it later in the 1830s and 1840s and '50s. So, it was a gradual corruption that sat in certain aspects of Southern life, driven in my view by the people who'll defend economic necessity as moral necessity. They can convince themselves, it's part of our fallen nature, and authority to do that.

Albert Mohler:

It was an ex post facto argument, and embarrassing and horrifying arguments made not only by Presbyterians, but by many Baptists in the South as well, and to our shame. We're talking most importantly about Professor McClay's latest book, Land of Hope: An Invitation To The Great American Story. We've talked about how that story begins. Just a little footnote here that's just important to me Professor McClay. You start, I think very helpfully by the way in a European context, and as Winston Churchill would appreciate especially in the context of the English speaking peoples. But just in that opening part, you say one thing that perplexes me just a little bit. You say that, and you rightly, I think as a historical theologian, I appreciate the fact that you take us into the English Reformation, where I think so many of the issues that are essential to the American mind emerged in the American experiment in ordered liberty.

Albert Mohler:

You make one statement, you speak about, of course, Henry VIII and the English Reformation, and then you say that, "He never managed to obtain the male heir he sought." You go from Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn. As a partisan for Edward VI, why did he get left out?

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Yeah. That was an error. That's an out and out error that I allowed to slip in. So, there's not an interpretive problem there, that's an error.

Albert Mohler:

Well, I appreciate you correcting this on behalf of Edward VI.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Actually, I corrected it. I have a copy of the book that I carry around with me for errors, and that's one of the biggies, but I have corrected it. Something I wanted to mention for your listeners, those who are teachers, we are about to publish a teacher's guide.

Albert Mohler:

Oh, very good.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

The teacher's guide corrects this error quite, I hope not overly visibly. It's something that happened in the editing, that's all I can say.

Albert Mohler:

I didn't mean to draw attention to it in that sense other than, I actually thought it was interpretive in one sense, because of course Edward's rule was so short. But, on behalf of the English Reformation, I just went to champion the boy King.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Yeah. You're right about that, and that was it. That's actually the worst error that so far has turned up. There's a chart or a table of economic data towards the end that gets a billion as a million.

Albert Mohler:

Well, that's the intellectual honesty I really appreciate it. By the way I was going to say, I have a more than life size portrait of Edward VI in my personal library.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Oh wow. Yes, okay.

Albert Mohler:

I'm one of the few people who would be on the lookout.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

I'm glad you touched that.

Albert Mohler:

I'd be one of the few people.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

This is one of the things about writing this kind of book, I'm not yet past the point of fearing every day I open my email and some reader will say, "You know, you got this bone-headedly wrong."

Albert Mohler:

Well, but that's an argument in many ways. History's an argument. So again, I appreciate that clarification, but I just want to tell you, I think your book, Land of Hope is the most important book, telling this to the American story as a learned academic historian in decades. I'm more than anything else, I'm just thankful for this book. I want to tell you that, as someone who's read, I don't know many hundreds of volumes of American history, I really, really enjoyed reading your book. By the way, my copy if you could see it, it is completely marked up, which is the way I read a book that I enjoy.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

That's good, that's the way. It's like John Locke says, something becomes your property by it being mixed with your labor.

Albert Mohler:

That's right.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

That's how you appropriate a book is by marking it and interacting with it, and arguing with it and throwing it.

Albert Mohler:

Absolutely.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Many types of other things.

Albert Mohler:

Well, I didn't want to throw it. There were so many paragraphs that I wanted to continue.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

I will tell you, I want to say before you get off of that, one of the things since you mentioned then, one of the things that my publisher more than me, but my publisher wanted to think of this book as a counter to Zinn. I didn't consciously write it that way, except in the sense that where Zinn oversimplifies and presents a negative and comic book view, it's really a comic book view of American history. It's a very fun narrative, and you'd see why kids like it, but in place of that, I wanted an objective, loving, nuanced view. The view that again, that presupposes love, the love that a citizen rationally and rightly gives to his country. No more than that, but no less than that.

Albert Mohler:

I really, I think that comes through. I really appreciate that. Of course, as we get to the end of the conversation, we'll talk a bit about a proper patriotism in a historical perspective. That's incredibly relevant at the current time. I am a theologian, and a historical theologian. So when I read a book like this, and as a historian, I'm looking at it thinking primarily about the intersection of historical events and ideas. I can't help but to think about the ideas. I think that's one of the great benefits of your book is that, you deal so seriously with ideas as you have throughout your academic life. But, you also deal with what even many well-intended theologians just don't get, and that is a lot of the theological content of these ideas. I just want you to know I appreciated that.

Albert Mohler:

In that sense, there were two parts of your book that were the most fun for me, along these lines. One of them had to do with the early American period and the rise of transcendentalism, and then that entire movement. You pointed out that it was a rejection of Unitarianism, that it was a rejection of Christian Orthodoxy.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Anti-anti. It was anti-anti.

Albert Mohler:

Right. But, the interesting thing about it is that, I've always thought as a 20th and now 21st century American, that people are attracted to the transcendentalists while basically, never even attempting to inhabit the world they actually inhabited.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Oh yeah. Well, and you could say that even of Emerson. Emerson really lived a very bourgeois life while racing in all every direction in his imagination. But, I mean, I think I understand what you mean by that, is that-

Albert Mohler:

Well, they're treated as counter-cultural, but Thoreau came into town several times a week. In other words, they were... I see them as ideological and cultural hobbyists.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Yes, yes. No, that's right. That's right. Hawthorne, one of the many great things about Hawthorne is that he was part of that circle, but he was skeptical. His novel, Blithedale Romance is a thinly veiled account of his own involvement in Brook Farm, the utopian experiment that George Ripley and some other of these transcendentalists put together. We're old enough to remember the hippie communes of the '60s and '70s, and it always degenerated. I remember when I was in college, people who were inclined this way, they would always get into arguments about who took out the trash on Tuesday night, task divisions. It always would degenerate into this fracas, while beginning with a small ‘c’ communistic warmth, and sometimes religiously motivated.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

So, Hawthorne was the diagnostician of the frivolity and blindness, blindness to sin, blindness to the sinful nature then in the transcendental movement, and in much of American, northern whig culture. The very people who involved themselves in anti-slavery, they were what  would Reinhold Niebuhr call the “children of the light.” Yet, he diagnosed their blindnesses and their falling.

Albert Mohler:

With that, and with the transcendentalists, and even before them the Unitarians that they were seeking to counter, Unitarianism was in so many ways an elitist effort to try to maintain some kind of Christian morality without Orthodox Christianity. It didn't last.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Yeah.

Albert Mohler:

So, you really can't have any lasting Christian morality without orthodox Christian theology. Unitarianism I mean, it became so dominant and you indicate this, but it really became so dominant in the East coast elites, that even by the time you come to a Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the middle of the 20th Century, even though theologically he wasn't really a Unitarian, his religious worldview is still Unitarian.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Yeah, I think it is. I mean, he was an Episcopalian and-

Albert Mohler:

Officially.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Crosscutting in a variety of things in the '30s as it does now. There are a few orthodox people in the Episcopal church, a few of them. I think It's interesting how dominant it was, and yet how feeble it was, how easily it was dislodged. Emerson, the great bulk of his career comes in 1837 where he gives the Phi Beta Kappa speech at Harvard, “The American Scholar.” It's basically an extended middle finger to the people who had educated him, and everybody in the audience, which included the governor, political dignitaries of various sorts. He did the same thing in his divinity school address in 1838, which again, is really an effort to puncture the self-satisfied complacency of the Unitarian elite that ran Harvard Divinity School at that time.

Albert Mohler:

I heard the-

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Because the Harvard Divinity School then, it was a hotbed of fidelity but it could've been a hotbed of infidelity among real believers.

Albert Mohler:

Absolutely. I mean, it went Unitarian so early and Unitarianism became the basic structure. I had the experience of giving a talk in the very room where Emerson gave his Divinity School address. I just said that what Emerson was calling for is exactly what I've committed my life to trying to prevent.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Yes, exactly.

Albert Mohler:

He spoke to those divinity students and said he wanted them each to understand himself, to be a new born bard of the Holy Spirit. In other words, a new religion coming out of every single one of you. The entire adult phase of my life, it has been committed to my life's calling to saying to young ministers, you are not a newborn bard of the Holy Spirit.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

That's right.

Albert Mohler:

You are to be a minister of the word. That's a very different thing.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Yes. One thing I want to say just in passing though is, it is interesting how much Daniel Walker Howe, a friend of mine, he's one of the great historians of Unitarianism, he is among other things, he wrote a terrific book that was a history of this whole period for the Oxford history of the United States. But, he always defends what he calls the Unitarian conscience. He's right in the sense that, there's a residual moral reflex coming out of Trinitarian Christianity, coming out of Calvinism ultimately, out of the Calvinism of the first settlers of that region, that continues on even into Unitarianism. I like to collect hymnals and periodically pull them out and play them on the piano and look at different arrangements. I have a Unitarian hymnal from I think it's post-Civil War, maybe 1870, something like that.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

But, it's interesting how Trinitarian, I mean, it has “Holy, Holy, Holy” in it for example, which is maybe the most Trinitarian of all commonplace hymns. You read some of these guys, even Emerson, Emerson gave famously... He started out as a Unitarian minister, then he resigned conveniently after his wife's death and his inheritance from her family. He quit the ministry and decided he was going to be a freelance intellectual of some sort. But, he gave a final sermon in which he explained himself, why was leaving the ministry. His issue was he couldn't... What he claimed was his issue was, he couldn't administer the Lord's Supper in good faith. Well, really for a unitarian, this should not be an issue.

Albert Mohler:

Right.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Why are you doing it in the first place?

Albert Mohler:

Yes, absolutely. Yes. Right.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

If it is not even a memorial let alone sacramental in the Roman Catholic or Anglican way.

Albert Mohler:

Well, the Unitarians were quite-

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Why are you doing it? As you're doing it, why are you attributing any significance to it at all?

Albert Mohler:

Right. Well, I think the traditional answer would be that the Unitarians in the 19th Century were okay with anything being expressive, but nothing being metaphysical or ontological.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Yes, yes. Well, that's probably right, but he is... It's actually quite a beautiful sermon in its own way.

Albert Mohler:

Well, he was very gifted. I mean, the world is rarely changed by people who can't make a good argument, and Emerson can make a good argument.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

No, his argument which really I think, if he had not been so hell bent on reacting against authority at the time, I think it could have been put to constructive use, was against a kind of nominalism, a tendency to take the symbol of the thing as the thing itself, to see as William Blake would say, "To see with the eye and rather than through it." I think what he was straining for it was, and maybe his tradition didn't give it to him, was some larger sense of sacramentalism of the way that the things of this world point beyond themselves. It's interesting, Perry Miller, the great historian who nobody but me reads anymore, but great reviver of Puritan thought in America in a lot of ways, he wrote an essay called “Edwards To Emerson”, which if you've never read it, you might find very interesting, because he really tries to-

Albert Mohler:

I have.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Oh yeah, okay.

Albert Mohler:

I'm glad to be reminded of it.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Well then, you know the argument that he pleads there being a straight line connecting Edwards' view of the universe as being full of signs, a semiotic universe with Emerson's. Emerson naturalizes this, which is a key heretical move.

Albert Mohler:

Absolutely.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

But epistemologically, there's a lot of similarity between... There's a strain there. Nobody's really followed up on that-

Albert Mohler:

They're certainly both indispensable parts of telling the American story, which is your purpose in Land of Hope, subtitled an Invitation To The Great American Story. By the way, just a tiny little footnote here, you mentioned the New York Times and what could have been in their “1619 Project” and isn't. I said, well, the part of the problem is that, if you follow the logic that is behind the historiography and what they did do, it not only makes the founding of the United States to be a great historical error, it also undermines the authority and rationale for something like the New York Times. It reminds me of a cartoon from the '70s, where it showed a group of people and they had long hair. It was the hippies of the age. Anyway, they were saying, "Down with the man, down with the man, down with the man." The guy who was saying, who had the megaphone and they said, "Aren’t you the chairman of this thing?" And he said, "The revolution ends now, the revolution ends now."

Albert Mohler:

I think that's a part of what's going on. It's like the Marxist professor or even worse, an outright communist professor who's got investments in the stock market for his or her retirement account. It's just a very interesting thing to watch, but rarely do you get to see it played out on the great tableau of history as we do right now.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Yeah. Well, and of course if you start thinking about the New York Times, the family, I lived in Chattanooga for a number of years, so I'm well aware of the Ochs Family, the Ochs-Sulzberger Family that actually runs the Times and has since Adolph purchased it, this was a man who was a strong supporter of the racial policies of the Southern Democrats, well into the 20th century. Woodrow Wilson, who was... Certainly, if there's any president of who we could say he, without asterisks or scare quotes, that he was a racist, we could say it about Wilson.

Albert Mohler:

True.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

I'm a virulent non-admirer of Wilson. But, I'm not going to-

Albert Mohler:

I share that with you.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

I try to bend over backwards to be fair to him and people have complained to me, "Why are you so nice to Woodrow Wilson?" And I go, "Thank you," because I didn't want-

Albert Mohler:

Then one thing, and I actually want to turn to that chapter in American history, the one thing that I was looking for in your treatment of Wilson is the recognition of his basic Hegelianism, his understanding of history and this unfolding progress.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Yes, yes, that's right. Well, he was similar to Dewey, John Dewey the philosopher in the sense that, Dewey started out as a Hegelian and then discovered Darwin, and he could have transposed a Hegelian way of thinking about the way historical change occurs and applied it. Wilson really ran with the Darwinian thing, the same way that Dewey did, actually, around the same time Dewey was running with it.

Albert Mohler:

Well, I thought your treatment of progressivism was very fair, but I really appreciate the fact that you dealt with it, again understanding its theological undertones as well. You can't take that away from Wilson. I mean, I gave a series of lectures just recently in Columbia, South Carolina, the first Presbyterian church there. Right in the right in the church yard are Wilson's parents buried. He was raised a Presbyterian man. By the way, his father was a fairly theologically liberal Presbyterian in the South. Also he, and the man from whom Wilson took the name by which he wanted history to know him, Woodrow rather than what his mother wanted to call him, that's Thomas. He took that, he again, evolutionists. So, Darwin's in the background there constantly.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Yes, yes. That's good. That's a good, good point. By the way, I have my PhD from Johns Hopkins as Woodrow Wilson did, and I was raised as a Presbyterian in the old United Presbyterian Church, which was pretty liberal. It was liberal enough that, although I had wonderful Sunday school teachers, I really didn't learn anything. I've summarized the theology I learned as: Jesus was a very nice man who died, therefore we should be nice too. I got to confirmation age and I said to my parents, "This doesn't make any sense to me." So, my parents said, "Well, we're not going to have you be confirmed if you can't in good conscience," bottom line. So, I wasn't against liberal theology even before I knew what it was. I recognized there was something insubstantial about it.

Albert Mohler:

You recognize it in your book as having a driving impulse in the progressivist movement.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Yes.

Albert Mohler:

Again in one sense, political progressivism was a channeling of what in other times would have been a religious theological energy into public policy.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Yeah. Well, not unlike abolition, which I think was in many respects a worthy cause. I mean, obviously a worthy cause. One mistake I hold against the abolitionists is: they took no responsibility for what came afterward. That's really an appalling lapse on their part with a few exceptions. But, one thing I wanted to say about progressivism too is that, I try very hard... A lot of my friends, conservative friends who don't like progressivism as I don't, and see it as a really reducing of the constitution and all of that, I think all of that's correct. But, you cannot leave out of the picture, one of the things that history ought to, this goes back to your question about ‘story’, that history ought to be able to see that there's a reason why people were drawn to these ideas.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

The transformation of American life that took place in the aftermath of the civil war, industrialization, urbanization, immigration on mass scale, the communication and transportation revolutions, all these things going on at once. A little bit like the times we've been living through in the last 20, 25 years or so, but utter transformation of things. It's a small wonder that some people started thinking, "We really need different kinds of political institutions to cope with this, to cope with the problems of the city. These are unlike any cities we've ever had in America before."

Albert Mohler:

It's fair to say that we're thankful for many of the progressivist aims and policies. I admit I am.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Yeah.

Albert Mohler:

I don't want to be intellectually dishonest there, but the basic motivation... Furthermore, what I saw was more dangerous in Wilson, I end up talking about Woodrow Wilson a lot, both in my talks and in my writing.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Have these been published? I'd be very interested to read them, if you have any for-

Albert Mohler:

Well, yes. As a matter of fact, I'm working on something about that right now. But, the point that I seek to make, and it's more been in my lectures and talks than anything else at this point, is that, when you look at Wilson, you're looking at someone who saw and said long before he was elected president, that he saw the United States Constitution as something that needed to be sidelined in national life.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Yes, very clear about that.

Albert Mohler:

Absolutely. And so, throwing off all restraints. Now, I think in honesty, I have to admit that I've got a bust of Theodore Roosevelt also in my library, because I admire so much about Roosevelt's character, but I do not appreciate Theodore Roosevelt's rejection of enumerated powers.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Well, his constitutional views were awful.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

In a way, Wilson was methodical about it. TR being TR was slapdash kind of, "Well, to hell with the constitution when people need coal." Do I have that right?

Albert Mohler:

Yeah.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

I think the Anthracite Strike, he was very much a man of action, and the whole messiness of our constitution. I mean, it's an institutionalized form of messiness, particularly if you think of the conflicts, not only on the federal level between the three branches of government, but between the national government and the states and localities. We're going through some of this right now with the way that President Trump is trying to reopen the country, which I think is commendable. We've never really done it this way before. We've never done a decentralized action on a national scale, but that's administered by local officials who are accountable to their constituents, and who can take into account the particularities of their circumstances. This is a great thing. I hope for all sorts of reasons that it succeeds, because I think it's this the great strength of American federal institutions. That's small ‘f’  federal institutions, or subsidiarity to use the Catholic, European Catholic term. But, the idea that political affairs are best handled and managed by those who are closest to them.

Albert Mohler:

That's right. I think Christopher DeMuth made that argument in the Wall Street Journal just this week-

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Yes, yes.

Albert Mohler:

That this kind of crisis is remarkable in the United States because of the lack of all of a sudden a federal government seizing control of everything, which it would not be competent to do anyway.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Yeah, yeah.

Albert Mohler:

So, I think that's a reassuring reality in the midst of this. I've appreciated this conversation so much.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

This has been fun.

Albert Mohler:

I'd want to talk about every page in your book, frankly, but I want to come to the end of your telling of the story, and raise an issue that you actually raised in the beginning of your book. That is the difficulty of writing about events and times closer at hand.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Yeah.

Albert Mohler:

By the time you get to the last couple of chapters of your book, decades are compressed into much less space and analysis than what we found earlier. But, you explained that early on. So, how long does it take before you can write an adequate history of a time?

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

That is a great question. I think that, because even when you reach a point where the issues that will be engaged at the time become moribund or that the embers cool and die, well then, you actually don't bring a vitality of interest to the subject. So, there's a trade off there. There's a sweet spot I think in the middle of somewhere, where you're remoting off such that you're not completely taking up with getting even or with this fact or that fact or justifying this or that, but you could step back, but not so far back as that you're writing about ancient Rome. Although, even there people have part decree that they take to a discussion.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

I do think for example in American history, that Nixon's presidency it seems to me is one that is still, the jury is, and I say this in the book, I mean, in some ways the jury is still out. It's been 50 years, roughly a little more well actually less, since he was elected, it's a little over 50 years, but I don't think we're yet at a point to really being able to-

Albert Mohler:

Nixon said that himself.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

... Evaluate that presidency.

Albert Mohler:

I mean, Nixon himself as I recall said, it'd be 50 years before there could be any adequate understanding of his administration. Then, it was president George W. Bush who what? I think it was Bob Woodward who asked him, "How do you think history is going to deal with you?" He said, "I don't know and I don't care. By then I'll be dead." There's some truth in that, but history doesn't wait.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Yeah, yeah.

Albert Mohler:

I mean, it is being written right now.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Yeah. I think there's an interesting way of approaching this topic is that I've been doing a lot of writing lately. I had to do this teacher's guide which preoccupied me, along with my teaching, and finally got that out. I had this great pile of essays and book reviews and things that I owe to people. So, I'm working through that pile. Of course, there's the temptation to make everything about the Coronavirus, because everything you're reading is sort of love in the time of Coronavirus, fruit in the time of Coronavirus, it's just ridiculous.

Albert Mohler:

The Pandemic Cookbook.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Yeah. I think these articles are going to look ridiculous in maybe even a few months, but certainly in a few years, and will be more assigned to the pathology at the time, and the freakouts, the general freakout intellectuals then of anything more substantial.

Albert Mohler:

Doing The Briefing every weekday, and look, I understand something about how this comes about, but I pointed out that in a newspaper like the Washington Post, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, you can find major articles making opposite points in the middle of this pandemic within a few days now. Everyone just depends upon the fact that no one's going to read last week's Los Angeles Times. So, they can get away with it but as a historian, you can't get away with it.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

No, and you shouldn't try. You should be prepared for the possibility that people are going to look at what you're saying with a rather blank expression, because it'll be expressed in terms that are completely alien to what they're thinking about. The first book signing I did in Oklahoma City, we all went swimming, and then this elderly gentleman stood up and said, "Well yeah, but what about Trump?" I said, "Well, what do you mean what about Trump?" "Trump negates all of this." I said, "Are you crazy?" Actually, I think he was crazy, but I said, "This the whole point of the exercise of writing and reading and thinking about history, is to place yourself, to free yourself from the prison house of the present. The present is a prison house. To have our consciousness completely dictated by what's in front of us, by the flow of daily news, much of it lies in conjurings, instead of recurring to things that are more enduring, things that are more permanent, perspectives that have deeper roots and longer horizons." That's what it's all about.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

By the way, I mean, that's part of what we try to do and try to teach others to do as Christians, is we walk by faith and not by sight. We walk in the light of a Word that was given to us, with a Word that was the beginning. We walk in the light of a knowledge that was revealed thousands of years ago and yet is enduring.

Albert Mohler:

I'll leave that as the last word of our conversation. Many thanks to my guest, Professor Wilford McClay for thinking with me today. If you enjoyed today's episode of Thinking in Public, you'll find more than 100 of these conversations at Albertmohler.com. Just look under the tab Thinking in Public. For more information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, go to boycecollege.com. Thank you for joining me today for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I'm Albert Mohler.

 

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