Sunday, February 14, 2010

"Modern" American Idols Part I: Weird Presidents' Day

I’ve had scattered ideas about posts recently, but nothing gelled. However, I’ve found that numerous conversations, class discussions and so forth keep coming back to a common theme---the importance of understanding the radical shift in American culture, economics, and religious practice due to the overlapping forces of modernity, extreme rationalism, and Progressivism. The thing that finally got me motivated was thinking about President’s Day, and about one of our most complex Presidents, Woodrow Wilson.

Although Teddy Roosevelt served first, Wilson was the greatest example of American Progressivism, the “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you unwashed people” school of politics and economics. Wilson’s administration expanded the economic and political reach of the government through such things as the Federal Reserve System, the Federal Trade Commission, the Clayton Antitrust Act, the progressive income tax, and (unsuccessfully) The League of Nations. Wilson also presided over what arguably was the most racist post-Civil War administration in American history. Under Wilson’s administration, segregation and Jim Crow came to Washington, D.C. and to the Federal government. Just to give one example, Wilson’s second Treasury Secretary Carter Glass is quoted as saying, “Discrimination! Why that is exactly what we propose…to remove every negro voter who can be gotten rid of legally, without materially impairing the numerical strength of the white electorate.” Glass was also the architect of such Progressive touchstones as the Federal Reserve System (under Wilson) and the Glass-Steagell Act and the FDIC under FDR. In combining economic interventionism with racism, Glass was not an aberration in American Progressivism. If it surprises you that Progressivism and Jim Crow go hand in hand, read the works of historian J. Morgan Kousser or the review “When Bigots Become Reformers.” A government that is big enough and paternalistic enough to make it illegal for a firm to price “unfairly” is big enough and paternalistic enough to make it illegal for railroads to allow African Americans to sit in certain places on railroad cars.

Such a government is also big enough to do a lot of other things, and after campaigning for re-election on the platform that he had kept the U.S. out of the World War, Wilson joined America into the War with a totalitarian excess that we can scarecly imagine when we feel inconvenienced by taking our shoes off at the airport. The Wilson administration enacted a Sedition Act, it jailed political opponents, it nationalized huge swaths of private industry “for the war effort,” it shut down unfriendly newspapers, and it operated an official propaganda bureau that specialized in racist inflammations. I remember growing up in Oklahoma hearing older people telling me about having to hide German Bibles from their own government.

The disquieting thing for me to remember is Wilson's personal background. By calling, he was an academic and a college professor (in political science). He was also a devout Presbyterian, an Elder in the Church who read the Bible daily. But he represented not just any kind of Presbyterian. He was the Presbyterian who secularized Princeton University away from its roots in the Presbyterian Church and put it on the path to being a "modern" research institution. He typified the Social Gospel reformers who fervently believed that they carried the message of Jesus as a guide to practical economics and statecraft, but who in the end laid the groundwork for government to crowd out the community of Christ as primary conveyors of justice. To explore this paradox more, in the next part of this discussion I will turn to the fissures that, at about the same time as this paradox we know as Woodrow Wilson, were dividing the Presbyterian Church. This was the so-called Modernist-Fundamentalist split in the American church.

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