Thursday, December 3, 2015

"If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities..."

Barry Hankins, a professor of history at Baylor, comments on the controversy at Princeton about removing campus references to former college president and erstwhile Progressive hero Woodrow Wilson:
Woodrow Wilson
.... As a southern Presbyterian he was catechized on the Westminster Confession, which includes the clause: “This corruption of nature, during this life, does remain in those that are regenerated; and although it be, through Christ, pardoned, and mortified; yet both itself, and all the motions thereof, are truly and properly sin.” This is the concept of total depravity, the “T” of the famous TULIP of Calvinism. Such a concept should keep Christians sober and realistic about the potential for human reform efforts. For Wilson, it did not—except on race.

When Wilson ran for president in 1912 he assured African-American leaders that he would pursue racial justice “in the spirit of the Christian religion,” indeed as a “Christian gentleman.” They believed him and campaigned for his election, this despite the fact that at the time most blacks were in the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln. Once in office, Wilson brought into his administration many southerners who began to segregate agencies in the executive branch. Black leaders called Wilson to account. When they did, Wilson gave all manner of reasons why segregation was acceptable, including the implausible and paternalistic claim that it was good for African Americans themselves.

African American leaders across the country lambasted Wilson, often on religious grounds. This was especially so after the president blew up in a dialogue with black editor William Monroe Trotter and threw Trotter out of the Oval Office. Editor Nick Chiles of the Topeka Plaindealer, an African-American newspaper, wrote a lengthy editorial contrasting “The Wilson Way” with “The Christian Way.” Chiles had endorsed Wilson in 1912, predicting he would become “a second Lincoln.” Now, after the Trotter incident, Chiles wondered “why the president who professes to walk in the footsteps of Christ should lose his temper when a delegation of colored men called on him to discuss the wrongs that are being perpetrated against their race.” ....

To all of this Wilson made a quasi-theological response in 1918. As the race issue receded somewhat in the midst of the America war effort, he spoke to the National Race Congress, saying, “We have to be patient with one another. Human nature doesn’t make giant strides in a single generation.” ....

...[O]n every issue save race, [Wilson] seems to have forgotten that “this corruption of nature, during this life, does remain.” By contrast, a group of students at Princeton pushing back against the effort to remove Wilson’s legacy seems to understand the sinful nature of humankind better than he did. In a letter to their president they wrote: “If we cease honoring flawed individuals, there will be no names adorning our buildings, no statues decorating our courtyards, and no biographies capable of inspiring future generations.” If the controversy over Wilson results in a heightened awareness that all our heroes are flawed, it will be a debate worth having. [more]