John Kerry and the Dismissal of Legacy

"Most people," opined Secretary of State John Kerry recently, prefer to chunk the heritage of the past enshrined in 2,000-year old documents (like the Bible).

In a speech to the American embassy staff in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Kerry seemed to be fretting about the "different crosscurrents of modernity" stirring across Africa. In his defense, there are many spiritual and cultural "crosscurrents" that do indeed create a deadly tempest. But Kerry's remarks can too easily be generalized to encompass the age-old legacies that make freedom possible everywhere.

A characteristic of our age is disregard or even disdain for history. Deconstructionist academics, infused with nihilism at worst and existentialism at best have trained generations to see history as either meaningless or unimportant. For others, it is a past easily rewritten and squeezed into the profile of modern times.

"Life must be lived forward, but can only be understood backwards," said Danish theologian-philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Thus we need leaders with long-range focus who can link the future with the past and present. These must be exceptional men and women who can distinguish the historically trivial and harmful from the principles that are the very foundations of civilization.

Winston Churchill was an exceptional leader partly because he understood the link between the past and the present for the sake of the future.

A century before Churchill's generation, Voltaire, in France declared that "the history of the great events of the world is little more than the history of crime." "Crimes, follies, and misfortunes," is the way Oliver Goldsmith saw it. Carlyle saw history as a mere "distillation of rumor. None, however, was as blunt as Henry Ford, when he said, "History is bunk."

Churchill, though, was a historian. He was not content with history as nothing more than an assemblage of dates, places, and names. Churchill understood history as a repository of treasures. In the Battle of Britain, as he contemplated the defense of London, he termed it "this strong City of Refuge which enshrines the title-deeds of human progress and is of deep consequence to Christian civilization..."

More than perhaps anyone in his time, Churchill saw the searing difference between true civilization and the Reich Adolf Hitler wanted to impose globally. Several times, Churchill said that the Second World War was about the survival of "Christian civilization."1

Churchill's insight was formed through the knowing and appreciating of the roots of the best in society. He knew and wrote honestly about the flaws and injustices of his own nation's history, and he knew the evils carried out in the name of a pseudo-Christianity, but he did not lump all that legacy into a mass that should be thrown in the dustbin.

Churchill quoted approvingly Gladstone's view that "we rest with assurance upon 'The impregnable rock of Holy Scripture.'" On another occasion Churchill said, "We can find nothing better than Christian Ethics on which to build, and the more closely we follow the Sermon on the Mount, the more likely we are to succeed in our endeavours." In our times the loss of the vision for "Christian civilization" so central to Churchill's mind, has also resulted in the devaluation of history. Theodore Dalrymple, a British physician and cultural critic almost three-quarters of a century removed from Churchill, writes about the tragedy of a nation that has lost its awareness of history and of society itself. Civilization, he says, "needs conservation at least as much as it needs change."

Winning the contemporary battle for civilization mandates leadership that knows and respects the best of his or her nation's historical heritage, and thinks it is worth saving. We do not need in high position leaders who are hedonists, seeing their privileges as a lark, or nihilists, believing there is no lofty purpose or destiny for an entire civilization, or existentialists who act in the impulse of the moment at the sacrifice of the future.

Roger Parrot, in his book, The Longview, describes the leadership we need now when he writes,

"The short view doesn't work, but it will continue to permeate our society, direct our actions, and be the gold standard for 'success' until purposeful, visionary, and determined leaders pull us back to a longview outlook that seeks lasting value."

If one traces the logical outcome of Kerry's view that "most" of us don't want to live by "something that was written down a thousand plus, two thousand years ago," then all we have left is the "short view." And, as Parrot notes, we lose "lasting value."

Edmund Burke and others taught us to learn from the bad in our history, and commit afresh to the good. And, whatever the case, don't throw out the ancient wisdom that transmitted to us the best of what we are, have been, and can be.

Wallace Henley, a former Birmingham News staff writer, was an aide in the Nixon White House, and congressional chief of staff. He is a teaching pastor at Second Baptist Church, Houston, Texas. He is a regular contributor to The Christian Post.

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