Category: History

Stepping on the moon required a giant leap

Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most amazing events in world history. On July 20, 1969, my family and our neighbors watched via fuzzy gray images as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon with that famous “one small step,” which marked “one giant leap.”

My dad worked for Collins Radio/Rockwell and helped make the radio equipment that carried the astronauts’ voices over the many missions leading to Apollo 11 and afterward. It was one of his proudest achievements in life — right up there with catching 13 passes against Dallas Jesuit High School.

George Will says this of the US effort to put a man on the moon by hearkening back to President Kennedy’s 1961 challenge to do just that:

“Kennedy’s goal was reckless, and exhilarating leadership. Given existing knowledge and technologies, it was impossible. But Kennedy said the space program would ‘serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.’ It did.”

And, Will added this from Robert Stone and Alan Andres that made me think of my dad:

“The American effort to get to the moon was the largest peacetime government initiative in the nation’s history. At its peak in the mid-1960s, nearly 2 percent of the American workforce was engaged in the effort to some degree. It employed more than 400,000 individuals, most of them working for 20,000 different private companies and 200 universities.”

The US is a special place because of its founding principles and the people who have come from all over the world to throw in their lot with this grand experiment in democracy. The nation is indeed strong and powerful, but the things that hold us together seem so fragile right now.

It’s not popular any longer, but I still like the “melting pot” imagery of America as a place where different people come together to be something new and different — even better. My ancestors were mostly English, and I love to visit England, but I’m not English. I’m an American, connected to other Americans who come together to amazing things, like defeating fascism and landing people on the moon and bringing them home safely.

As long as humans write history, they will be writing about this thing called the US and all that we accomplished. Let’s not tear ourselves apart.

Shades of the past re-emerge

On a day when a man kills Jews in an American synagogue, I happen to be reading a novel in which the author speaks of Hitler and the countless people who “helped” him release his inner demons upon the Jews in Nazi Germany.

Hitler, the mouthpiece of hatred for Jews in his time and place, did not act alone.

“Oh they helped. Nearly all of them.” They were those “Who would not give visas and put barbed wire on their borders. Who threw stones through the window and spat.” And on and on went the list of accomplices — their names lost to history but accomplices of Hitler all the same.

“He could not have done it alone.”

Those who helped Hitler enact his hatred had long, maybe secretly, “dreamed” of destroying the Jews, the novelist wrote. Hitler “turned their dream into day.” His words of hate unleashed a storm of hatred against a people.

Hitler never spoke of the “barracks or the gas.” The “will to murder” was deep inside him and unspoken. The ruin of the Jews “was the air he moved in.”

“It was he,” Hitler. “With his scourge of speech and divining rod. His wrist breaking each time he passed her other men’s weakness. With his nose for the bestial,” Hitler’s “words made the venom spill.”

Such are the descriptions of the Holocaust in George Steiner’s 1979 book, The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.

Hitler espoused a philosophy of strength and power to overwhelm those he considered weak and inferior. He represented evil come to life. Hitler provided the words, the passion, the motive for hate. Six million deaths followed.

But evil still roams about seeking whom it might consume. Words of hate still spill into public discourse. Such words kill spirits, and such words sometimes lead to the killing of living persons.

Again, we weep. We think it cannot happen again. It can. It, the possibility for hate, is inside all of us.

May we all suppress the little Hitler inside us that wants to escape, that wants to despise, hate, and even hurt those who are different and are a perceived threat.

The way of hate and ridicule is not the way of the one I desire to follow — Jesus. Isn’t it strange that the Holocaust arose among a “Christian” people. Isn’t it sad; isn’t it disgusting.

Beware of “Christian” nations. Seek Jesus people. It is those people who seek to follow Christ who bring life and love to their neighbors.


Learning from Portuguese history

In the late 15th century and 16th century, the little nation of Portugal extended its reach halfway around the world as its ships plied the Indian Ocean.

Most Americans, including me, know little about Portuguese history. I’ve just picked up a snippet of it from Robert D. Kaplan’s book, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, so the following thoughts are a one-source product.

The Portuguese sailed around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, up the eastern coast of Africa, then to Arabia, India, and the Far East. It was a means for them to take Christianity back into the East and possibly stem the tide of Muslim advance. Their form of Christianity, however, bore little resemblance to the Christianity practiced by most of us in the West and the world today.

Kaplan quotes Joao de Barros, a Portuguese historian of the era, giving a justification for the killing of the local populations, in this case Muslims.

“The Moors … are outside the law of Jesus Christ, which is the true law which everyone has to keep under pain of damnation to eternal fire. If then the soul be so condemned, what right has the body to the privileges  of our laws?” (p.51)

It’s amazing what ungodly things “Christians” have done in the name of Jesus. I suspect many Christians of that time had never read Scripture for themselves, and apparently the religious leaders who did read either perverted it with their teachings intentional or were caught up in their own cultural jingoism. Of course, it’s easy to judge people from a different time.

In short, the Portuguese did a lot of bad stuff to indigenous people in the cause of bringing Christ to regions East. The Portuguese, of course, are not alone in history. And Christians are not alone. Muslims, atheists and others have done terrible things to others, all in the name of a perverted ideology.

Now this from Kaplan:

“Believing themselves a chosen people destined to be the sword of the faith, the Portuguese show us a religious nationalism as doughty and often extreme as any in history. Portugal’s spectacular and sweeping conquest of the Indian Ocean littoral falls into a category similar to that of the Arab conquest of North Africa nine centuries earlier.” (p.57)

Then Kaplan brings the lessons of this portion of history to bear on our world today.

“In the post-national West, we would do well to remember that morale is still the key to military victory: in particular, a morale fortified by a narrow, unshakable conviction, which often has been the product of religion and nationalism. What the medieval Arabs and the late-medieval Portuguese once embodied challenges us to this day. To a significant extent, American power will depend on how it confronts fanatical enemies who believe more firmly than it does.” (p.57)

Here are some takeaways from this for me:

1) Religious passion is very, very powerful.

2) That passion can easily be perverted and lead to behaviors inconsistent with that religion’s teachings.

3) It is, therefore, important that our Christian passion, our fanaticism be for the things Scripture says are important — worship, faith, hope, and love come quickly to mind.

4) It is likewise important that our passion not be for snuffing out another group, but rather be for attracting them to truth in Christ.

5) On the geopolitical stage, America faces a serious challenge from people who are fanatical about destroying the American and Western way of organizing society.

6) To stand against that fanaticism, America must retain an equal fanaticism for its principles. Representative government, religious freedom, equal rights, press freedom, civil rights, and controlled free enterprise are a few that come quickly to mind.

7) This passion should not be for destroying other cultures but for attracting them to the power of our ideals.

Standing for truth about American history

Stephen Stookey

Stephen Stookey, a historian at Dallas Baptist University, has summarized some of the serious problems with the “Christian America” push now being promoted in some circles, most notably by David Barton and Glenn Beck.

Stookey spoke during the annual meeting of the Baptist History & Heritage Society, meeting in Dallas May 20. Ken Camp has written a story on Stookey’s presentation in the Baptist Standard, and that’s where I ran across this.

The Christian America folks say they are rescuing American history studies from secularists intent on scrubbing Christianity from our history. Some secularists, it seems, would like to do that, but that’s no reason for we Christians to distort history ourselves, which I think is what Barton and Beck are doing.

Stookey acknowledged that some efforts to secularize, minimize or ignore America’s religious heritage certainly exist. “However, in reacting to perceived revisions of American history, Christian America advocates recast American history, creating a quasi-mythical American tale—a story with just enough truth to give the air of credibility but riddled with historical inaccuracies,” said Stookey, according to the Baptist Standard.

Proponents of Christian America presuppose the United States “was, is and should continue to be a constitutionally established Christian nation,” he explained. Any evidence to the contrary is ignored or recast, he said.

“Supportive data is either exaggerated or manufactured,” Stookey said. “In short, this camp presumes an inerrant historical understanding of America, as well as the original intent of the Constitution.”

Christian America advocates use out-of-context quotations and some outright falsehoods to give the Founding Fathers impeccable Christian pedigrees, ignoring or at least minimizing Enlightenment influences, he said.

“The historical reality is that the Founders were a varied collection of orthodox Christians, nominal (church) attenders, Christian moralists, deists and nonbelievers,” Stookey said.

While some advocates of the Christian America position long have existed, in recent years, they have moved into new prominence, he noted.

“Once a marginal group at the fringes of American culture and politics, dependent upon mimeographed newsletters and self-published books, this camp now enjoys significant access to public discourse via the Internet, publishing houses, television news networks and mainstream churches,” he said.

Proponents of the Christian American position gain credibility by dazzling with documentation—extensively footnoting their position papers with quotes carelessly copied from secondary or tertiary sources, he noted. Sometimes, quotes are abridged so much they imply the opposite of what originally was stated.

For more on Stookey’s speech, see the Baptist Standard story

I’m not a historian, and I suspect Barton and Beck have done a lot more study on America’s founding than I have, but trained, qualified, Christian historians generally agree that these guys are wrong. It is so hard for ordinary folks like me to know what is true and what is not, so we depend on experts. The reality is that Barton and Beck are not the experts on this; they are propagandists.