Day of Decisions: Presidential Election 1968


The American electorate is rapidly approaching Presidential Election Day. The delegates to the national party conventions have had their say. Finally, the American people will have some choice in the selection of the next President. The two major parties offer the public little choice. Both are committed to similar principles, programs and policies. Just because the major parties are nearly identical does not mean that they are non-ideological parties. As it looks now, a month before the election, Nixon is widely considered a likely winner. As such, we shall concentrate our attention, but not exclusively, on his politics and vision. What is his perspective? From which source does he seek spiritual strength and inspiration? In his Acceptance Speech, he told the American people that he accepted “the challenge and the commitment to provide that new leadership for America,” leadership that is committed to the truth, “to find the truth, to speak the truth, and to live the truth. That’s what we will do.” To which truth is he committed? He believes deeply in the meaning of the American Revolution. He dreams that the ideals inherent in the American Revolution will finally begin to be fulfilled when we, and he in his second term as President, celebrate the 200th anniversary of the American Revolution. Let us take a close look at the truths embodied in the American Revolution.

Meaning of the American Revolution

America was the first newly independent nation. It has a long revolutionary history. In the opinion of the editors of Fortune:

The history of the U.S.A. begins with a revolution and the merest glance at the fundamental documents of the time shows that, in the eyes of its leaders, it was not merely a revolution against Britain but a revolution in human affairs. It had, indeed, been in preparation for many hundreds of years; but the opportunity to realize it came in eighteenth-century America, and it has been carried on ever since. It was—and is—the revolution of the human individual against all forms of enslavement; against all forms of earthy power, whether spiritual, political, or economic, that seek to govern man without consulting his individual will…it was not merely a proposition for Americans; it was universal: a proposition for mankind, signalizing not merely an American revolution but a human revolution.1

The American Declaration of Independence, according to the late E. Cassirer,

“had been preceded and prepared by an even greater event: by the intellectual Declaration of Independence that we find in the theoreticians of the seventeenth century. It was here that reason had first declared its power and its claims to rule the social life of man. It had emancipated itself from the guardianship of theological thought; it could stand on its own ground.”2

This emancipation meant that modern man accepted his own Reason as the final authority. He rejected the superior authority of King, Church and Scripture. The human individual had emancipated himself from such forms of enslavement. Man was to be autonomous, his own Lawgiver. He desired to live by the light of Reason, “divine reason,” not in the Light of the Divine Word. Man’s Reason, not God’s Revelation, is to give meaning to man and society.

This modem man also declared that he possessed certain rights, such as the right to life, freedom and property. One need not quarrel with these rights as such, but one must question the meaning given to them. Our founding fathers shared the belief of the political philosopher John Locke (1632–1704), that these are natural and inalienable rights; that is, man possesses these rights by virtue of being man; not even God can alter this truth. Private property, “the greatest engine of progress ever developed in the history of man,” according to Nixon, is one of these natural rights. Locke reasoned: “Man in the state of nature is absolute lord of his own person and possessions!” “Man, by being master of himself and proprietor of his own person and the actions or labour of it, [has] in himself the great foundation of property.”3 Is this absolute right of “private” property a Christian view? Is the individual, motivated by self-interest, the originator of property? Is this a Christian view of the nature and life of man? Eugene Rosestock-Hussy once wrote that revolution “brings on the speaking of a new, unheard of language, another logic, a revaluation of all values.”4 Reason takes the place of Revelation. Man’s freedom is substituted for God’s grace. Nature is like God. Political authority is no longer derived from God, but from the consent of the individuals. A man-centered life takes the place of a God-centered life. Indeed, John Locke was the pathfinder of modern humanism and our founding fathers embodied optimistic and humane political ideas of the Enlightenment in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Not the Reformation, but the Revolution becomes the wave of the future.

Reason and violence are closely related to revolution. Modern revolutions in the name of Reason constitute a violent overthrow of the established, Christian world order of the Middle Ages and the Age of Reformation. Machiavelli (1469–1527), the spiritual father of the secular nation-state, advised princes to build a new nation on the basis of reason and violence. The art of rational warfare was an essential component of the art of rational politics. Robespierre could assert 220 years later that “the plan of the French Revolution was written large in the books…of Machiavelli.”5 It is often asserted that Machiavelli separated religion from politics, because the medieval political system ceased to be meaningful for him. True, he separated Christianity from politics but substituted a civic religion as a foundation for the new secular nation states.

The inscription of the Great Seal, reproduced on the dollar bill, states that America is Novo Ordo Saeclorum, new secular state. Under the disguise of separation of state and church, the founding fathers separated Christianity from politics. But religion was indispensable for the new republic. Most of them were deists, who spoke of Nature’s God, Supreme Legislator, and placed Reason on the level of God. “We hold these truths to be self-evident…presupposes a common commitment to Reason, that holds certain truths as self-evident; that is, they are pre-rational, beyond need of argumentation or demonstration. They are accepted on faith, faith in the power of Reason. Our founding fathers turned their backs on the medieval world, and sought their inspiration a?d model for constitution-making in antiquity, the glories of the Roman Republic. The problem whether the founding fathers were conservatives or revolutionaries is not a real problem: originally the word revolutionary implied restoration. They sought to restore the ideals of Roman constitutionalism.6 Even though most of them received liberal arts education in colonial Church colleges, they knew the writings of the classics better than the writings of the church fathers.

The essence of the American Revolution “can be understood only against the long religious history of mankind that preceded its formulation. Man first discovered the fatherhood of God, then the brotherhood of all men in Christ.”7

Governor Rockefeller tried to revive this truth in his 1964 presidential bid when he used “BOMFOG” as a campaign slogan. (The idea seems rather foggy to us.) This religious language is not Christian in spirit, but Stoic in origin. This is the language of a humanistic spirit, not the Holy Spirit.

It is the rationalistic, revolutionary spirit upon which the political and party system of the first new nation are founded. “Parties could emerge as political formations which were ‘modern’ or even ‘popular’, because the nation was becoming ‘modern’ and ‘democratic’. At the same time, they could help it on its way.”8 Party politics came to be based on a rational-humanistic ideology. The Republican Party is the Party of “The American Way of Life.”9 The American democratic way of life is a road of Revolution.

The American Revolution is not understood as a temporary event, but an on-going affair. Upon hearing the news of Shay’s rebellion i? Paris, Jefferson greeted it with optimism and enthusiasm: God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion!” H. Arendt adds:

It may seem strange that only Jefferson among the men of the American Revolution ever asked himself the obvious question of how to preserve the revolutionary spirit once the revolution had come to an end, but the explanation for this lack of awareness does not lie in that they themselves were no revolutionaries. On the contrary, the trouble was that they took this spirit for granted, because it was a spirit which had been formed and nourished throughout the colonial period.10

According to the American historian, D. Lacy,

So long as this ferment of its fundamental Ideas continues the meaning of the American Revolution, of those long-dead events and men, will continue to grow and find new expression.

It is looked upon as a “permanent revolution,” the meaning of which has received new expression in the political confession of presidential candidate Nixon:

“My friends, we live in an age of revolution m America and in the world. And to 6nd the answers to our problems, let us turn to a revolution—a revolution that will never grow old, the world’s greatest continuing revolution, the American Revolution.”

Relevance of American Revolution

To find solutions to contemporary American and world problems Nixon turns for inspiration and vision to the enduring meaning of the American Revolution. “And so it is time to apply the lessons of the American Revolution to our present problems.” There are leading opinion-makers who say that America faces a fundamental crisis of belief in its political party system. True, basic questions are raised about existing institutional practices, such as national party conventions and primaries. However, a faith in the permanent revolution continues mainly unshaken, accepted as a self-evident truth. True, basic questions have been raised about the Administration’s Vietnam war policy, by leading contenders for the Democratic Party’s nomination, but both Humphrey and McCarthy share a common commitment to most other policies. They, too, are committed .to the relevance of the spirit of the American Revolution for the future of mankind. McCarthy has written a book entitled The Limits of Power (1967) in which he talks about the limits of America as a world power, but not about the limits of the power of Reason. He has unlimited faith in Reason. Iowa’s Governor H. E. Hughes, the man who nominated Sen. McCarthy, is running for U.S. Senator. Recently he campaigned in the northwest part of Iowa, “preaching an ‘evangelism of Reason’” (Telegraph-Herald, Sept. 22, 1968). Presidential candidate Humphrey also appeals “to reason and your good judgment.” He is a liberal humanist at heart, committed to a cause and program of mankind.12 “The American Revolution of 1776 was the 6rst permanently successful revolution…It represented the culmination…of centuries of struggle…and it was also the beginning of a new era in history.”13 In his Acceptance Speech on “The End of an Era-The Beginning of a New Day,” Humphrey reminds his fellow Americans that the Democratic Party, too, is within the mainstream of the American revolution. Talking about the revolutionary foundations of a new Democratic Party, he said: “that revolution is in the proud tradition of our party. Throughout most of its history the Democratic Party has sought to identify itself with the humanitarian philosophy of life. But so has the predominantly conservative Republican Party. According to the historian, P. Viereck: ”The core and fire-center of conservatism, its emotional elan, is a humanist reverence for the dignity of the individual sou!.”14

Conservatism and liberalism start from a belief in the autonomy of human reason, assigning divine meaning to Nature or History, or America as a “new” nation. Both seek progress and restoration, but for and to what end? In the 1968 presidential election, both candidates and parties are strikingly similar on issues and answers. Perhaps we witness a return to the one, original Democratic-Republican party. “But we are today nearly all Democrats or Republicans, because the Democratic-Republican party was the first and, in a sense, the only party this country has known.”15 According to others, 1968 marks the “end of our two-party world,” the “last stand of accommodation politics.”16 We challenge the dogma of the “two-party-ism.” We want to be free from the tyranny and traditionalism of the two-party system. We would welcome the establishment of a multi-party system in America as a healthy and democratic development. Even though we strongly condemn the views of Wallace and reject his appeal to fears and frustrations of Americans, the leaders of the two major parties have no constitutional right to block the national organization of the American Independent Party. Neither this third party nor the two major parties arc able to solve the paradoxical tension between freedom and order, revolution and violence.

Freedom and Order

The American Revolution, according to candidate Nixon, “was a shining example of freedom in action which caught the imagination of the world.” Candidate Humphrey reminded us that the promise of the American life is Freedom. “We hear freedom’s rising chorus. ‘Let me live my own life, let me live in peace, let me be free,’ say the people.” Freedom and Revolution arc integrally related. The Frenchman Condorcet said what every enlightened statesman knew: “The word ‘revolutionary’ can be applied only to revolutions whose aim is freedom.”17

Freedom as the goal is the humanist’s religious ideal. Modern man’s Reason told him that he must emancipate himself from the belief in divine authority of kings, the authority of the Church, both of which provided order in the medieval world. In essence it was a rejection of the authority of God’s Word, and God as the Creator of the world order. As a humanist ideal, freedom is anti-authority; that is, opposed to any authority superior to the individual’s Reason. Hence the tension between freedom and authority, the paradox between freedom and order. The humanist’s inability to reconcile these two is acknowledged to be perhaps “the biggest obstacle to the spread of democracy” in the world.18

Reason and Violence

Reason, revolution and violence are integrally related. Revolution is the rationally calcubted violent overthrow of the established order.19 According to sociologist L. Coser: “The act of violence commits a man symbolically to the revolutionary movement and breaks his ties with his previous life. He is, so to speak, reborn.”20 How can Nixon and Humphrey in good conscience condemn violence and inspire revolutionary mentality at the same time. The New Left makes no secret of having put its faith in Revolution, too. According to liberal historian A. M. Schlesinger, the New Left “represents an assault on rationality in politics.”21. It is not an assault on rationality or intelligence, but on the “Life of Reason” in American society. Rationalism in politics is unmasked as a myth to be destroyed. The New Left is against all forms of enslavement, including the goddess of Reason, which must be dethroned. At any rate, the New Left is committed to a revolutionary creed with body and soul. It is against the enslavement of individuals by technology—America’s modern theology.

This is not to deny that there is a marked difference between the Old and New Left with respect to violence. The violence Machiavelli advocated was restrained by Rationalism, much like the violence during the American Revolution. The Rationalism of t he Puritans has had a restraining influence on the American Revolution. Perhaps that is why it was the least violent of the three major revolutions in modern history: American, French and Russian Revolutions. But now that America is radically abandoning middleclass, “puritan” values,22 we may witness a more violent revolutionary change. By contrast, the Frenchman, C. Sorel, who wrote his Reflection on Violence at the turn of this century, was deeply distrustful of the Rationalism of the Enlightenment. He advocated action for the sake of action, violence for the sake of violence.23 Sorel inspired Lenin and (indirectly) the New Left. Are the revolutionaries of the New Left, rebels without cause? We would not say that their cause is correct or that they constitute a constructive course, but they have legitimate complaints. They may have better lessons for us than the Old Left. What we witness today in America is a revolution within a revolution. Who are the true believers in the Revolution? One thing is certain, the revolutionary ideology of the Old and New Left breeds violence and causes continuing disorder in America. American Society is not by “Nature” a revolutionary and violent society. Americans make it so by will of Reason and reason of Will.

Crusade Through America

The nation faces momentous decisions at home and abroad. Nixon has embarked on a Crusade through America promising “a new day for America, a new dawn for peace and freedom to the world.” His strategy, much like Lincoln’s, rests on a charge that others attempt to overthrow the principles of the American Revolution. He hopes that his revival of the Revolutionary creed will bring victory in November, for he appears to know that the “evangelical revival of the Revolutionary creed, however, adapted to new circumstances, is the key to these great shifts in the structure of political power in the community….Revolutionary parties have always moved toward the Left. Nixon’s recommitment to the revolutionary creed presents the Republican party as the party of the Left while the Democratic party appears to be conservative today. Nixon believes that under his presidential leadership, “the dark long night for America is about to end.” It is a possibility that under Nixon we may witness the beginning of the long day of darkness at noon. In his Keynote Address, Gov. D. J. Evans said that “The Republican Hour” is at hand.

It may be the hour beyond salvation, of saving the Union. Sen. E. Dirksen in his Platform Speech referred to Benjamin Franklin who was asked “What have we got—a monarchy or a republic?” and he replied, “A republic—if you can keep it.” If the Republican Party in power cannot keep the Republic, and one may have serious doubts that it, the American Independent Party, or the Democratic Party can, we may have anarchy. Before one can condemn violence one must forsake the commitment to revolution.

The Democratic Party under the leadership of Humphrey also promises the “beginning of a new day.” Former President Truman advised Humphrey to tell the truth and give ‘em h … . As someone said: “The truth is that under the Democrats we’re going to h . . ..” According to Humphrey, the Democratic Party has debated the great issues before Americans. “And had we not raised these issues—we would have ignored the reality of change. Had we just papered over the differences between us with empty platitudes instead of frank, hard debate, we would deserve the contempt of our fellow citizens and the condemnation of history.” Many democrats and delegates feel that the issues were not debated, but decisions were dictated under undemocratic conditions. And the Republican Party sought its greatest virtue in unity for unity’s sake, avoiding any serious debate to please every segment of the Party. No doubt, that is why both major parties do receive the contempt of many Americans, and, perhaps, will deserve condemnation in history. How can parties committed to permanent revolution promise permanent peace? How can parties that reject the creation order promise lasting order? How can parties that do not acknowledge Cod as Lawgiver promise to provide Justice in the nation? Both candidates promise the politics of hope, but will continue to bring the politics of hysteria.

It is ironic that an evangelical preacher, opponent of revolutionary theology, should inspire and encourage a presidential candidate who is committed to revolutionary politics. Is it not paradoxical that most evangelical Christians, committed to a theology of the reformation, endorse Nixon’s revolutionary political creed? Perhaps, this could be indicative of the irrelevance of protestant fundamentalism to cope constructively with the contemporary problems in America.25 But what about Christians of Reformed persuasion? How relevant is their message and education? In August this writer had a chance to chat briefly with important leaders of the Calvinist Cadets and Young Calvinists. They were deeply impressed with Nixon’s Acceptance Speech, in particular his use of religious language. They also expressed serious doubts about an organized Christian political movement. If so, is this consistent with leading a separate Calvinistic youth movement? Are they educating young Calvinists to become active young republicans and young democrats? Establishing young republican and young democratic clubs on the campus of the Christian Reformed Church’s institution of higher learning does little for the promotion of Christian political activity. In this critical hour of our nation’s history, America needs a “Back to God Hour” movement, a relevant message to the troubled world of politics. The two major parties promise action, action based on revolutionary principles. With respect to the American revolution, historian Lacy writes:

the force of those fundamental ideas has grown from generation to generation…no one today can afford publicly to deny their validity, and they constitute the core of the world’s and our own unsilenceable political conscience. As such, they and the Revolution that embodied them are constantly finding new meanings.26

Is there a remnant of Christians left in America which dares publicly to deny the legitimacy and validity of the revolutionary principles? Do we care enough to openly declare that these principles should not constitute the core of our political conscience? As Christians we must confess that the meaning of our politics is grounded in the Word of God. In the Light of this Revelation we tested Lockean Liberalism embodied in the Declaration of Independence and find it misleading and wanting. As a matter of fact, the meaning of the American Revolution has become obsolete.27

Many Americans do not take their voting responsibility seriously. Most of our people will probably vote for either Nixon or Humphrey. However, can they do so in good conscience? Remember the candidates are appealing for the voters’ commitment to the meaning of the American Revolution. Nixon. demands “nothing less than total commitment…of the American people if we are to succeed.” Humphrey from the bottom of his heart appeals to your hope and “to your faith” in America. A vote is but a final act of your faith in their ideals.

Liberal humanist Humphrey bases his “entire candidacy on the belief which comes from the very depths of my soul, which comes from basic, religious conviction that the American people…will respond to the call of one citizenship—one citizenship open to all—for all Americans.” We reject this ideal of one citizenship for all Americans irrespective of creed; that is. Americanism above Christianity. Americans are not “to be of one spirit,” the spirit of radical humanism. We confess that we are Christians first, then Americans. From the bottom of our hearts we say we shall stand up as Christian citizens in America. What America needs desperately is a nation-wide Christian Action Foundation, which lays the foundation for a genuine political movement. After presidential elections, Americans, tired of four months of name calling, usually retire from politics for another four years. They shy away from political responsibilities. Christian citizens should unite and begin to study, work, and plan action the day after the election.

Just as every revolution must develop from the explosive seeds of new ideas, so too, a Reformation of American politics can grow as a mustard seed from seemingly insignificant beginnings. Seeds have been planted. Do we have the faith to cultivate the soil?

1. R. W. Davenport and editors of Fortune, New York Prentice-Hall (1951), U.S.A.: the Permanent Revolution (1951), p. 32.

2. E. Cassirer, The Myth of the State, Garden-City; Anchor Book (1955) p. 210.

3. Quoted by L. Strauss, Natural Right and History, Chicago Phoenix Books (1965), pp. 227 and 236, respectively.

4. Quoted by C. J. Friedrich ed., On Revolution, New York: Atherton Press (1966) p. 4.

5. Quoted by H. Arendt, On Revolution, New York: the Viking Press (1963) p. 30. “Napoleon Bonaparte declared that of all political works those of Machiavelli were the only ones worth reading.” Cassirer, op. cit., p. 189.

6. Arendt, op. cit. p. 195–215

7. Davenport, et. al. op. cit., p. 34.

8. W. N. Chambers, Political Parties in a New Nation, New York: Oxford University Press (1963), p. 15.

9. C. Rossiter, Political Parties in America, New York: New American Library (1960) pp. 118–20.

10. Arendt, op. cit. p. 241.

11. D. Lacy, The Meaning of the American Revolution, New York: Mentor Book (1964) p. 288.

12. H. Humphrey, The Cause is Mankind: A Liberal Program for Modern America, New York: F. A. Praeger (1964) pp. 7–17, “I have never America and its people. And I have faith in the future of mankind. There is a common yearning for peace, for human dignity, for individual fulfillment that breaches the artificial barriers of nations. creeds, and political philosophies” (p. 170, italics added).

13. Ibid, p. 9.

14. P. Viereck, Conservatism Revisited, New York : Ch. Scribner’s Sons (1950), p. 6.

15. H . V. Jaffa, Equality and Liberty, New York: Oxford University Press (1965),p. 32.

16. D. Boorstin, “The End of Our Two-Party World,” Look, August 20, 1968, pp. 37, 40–43; A. J. Reichley, “The Last Stand of Accommodation Politics,” Fortune, Oct. 1968, pp. 124–27, 227–29.

17. Quoted by Arendt, op. cit., p. 21.

18. Time Essay on “The Worldwide Status of Democracy,” Time, April 23, 1965, p. 31.

19. C. Leiden & K. M. Schmitt, The Politics of Violence: Revolution in the Modern World. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall (1968).

20. Quoted in Time Essay “Violence and History,” Time, April 19, 1968, p. 45.

21. Jaffa, op cit., p. 40.

22. J. A. Mitchener, “The Revolution in Middle-Class Values,” New York Times Magazine, August 18, 1968, pp. 19–20, 85–99.

23. N. Wood, “Some Reflections on Sorel and Machiavelli,” Political Science Quarterly, vol. 83, 1 (March, 1968) pp. 76–91.

24. Jaffa, op. cit., p. 40.

25. At least, the theology of the National Council of Churches is consistent. At a meeting in Detroit, last October, a Committee on Church and Society, sponsored by the NCC, accepted violence as a valid means of attacking political problems. A theology of revolution calls for a politics of revolution.

26. Lacy, op. cit., p. 287.

27. M. Ways, “O Say Can You See? The Crisis In Our National Perception,” Fortune, October 1968, p. 204.

All quotations of Nixon and Humphrey without references are from their 1968 acceptance speeches.

Dr. Philip C. Bom is professor of Political Science at the University of Dubuque, Dubuque, Iowa.