Christianity Today, the magazine founded by Billy Graham in 1956, has called, in this week before Christmas, for President Donald Trump's removal from office.
Chapter 16. The Longest WarIt was the 1980s, and Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority organization were the perfect foils for James Comey to use in his senior honors thesis to extol the socialist teachings of his hero, Niebuhr (1892-1971). In a previous generation, Comey might have juxtaposed the evangelizing Billy Graham (1918-2018) with Niebuhr’s Bible-as-myth approach to “social action.” Earlier still, Comey might have compared the anti-New Deal, anti-Communist Norman Vincent Peale (1898-1993) with the socialist and “anti-anti-Communist” Niebuhr.
It should become clear that we are looking at a theological and political divide in American Protestantism that is an old story. What is especially relevant to the “red thread” is that so, too, is Donald Trump’s place in it.
Norman Vincent Peale and Billy Graham both were Trump family favorites. Donald Trump has spoken fondly of taking in Graham sermons with his revered father, Fred, who, Donald remembers, attended “the crusades” at Yankee Stadium. On the 2016 campaign trail at Liberty University, founded by Jerry Falwell in 1971, Donald Trump recalled watching Jerry Falwell’s TV show, The Old-Time Gospel Hour. When Billy Graham died in 2018, Donald Trump attended his funeral; five living former presidents did not.
According to the New York Times, it was Peale’s church, Marble Collegiate, that the Trump family “gravitated to” in the 1960s. Peale and Donald would develop a warm friendship. Peale officiated at Donald and Ivana’s wedding (1977) and also at the wedding of Donald’s sister Maryanne. In 1988, Donald hosted Peale’s 90th birthday party at the Waldorf-Astoria. As the Washington Post put it, “The Trump and Peale clans have [a] history.”
It’s easy to imagine heavy Niebuhrian eye-rolling over this “history,” and not a little choking on the Chardonnay and canapés. Back in the day, things could even get confrontational, as in 1955, when Niebuhr and several fellow “progressives”-of-the-cloth launched a vicious attack in a national magazine on Peale and Graham both. Their attack drew a public rebuke from President Eisenhower’s pastor, the Rev. Edward L.R. Elson, who accused these pastoral critics “of 'sneering’ and shallow thinking,” according to a news report.
Their differences were not theological only. In August 1948, Niebuhr was counseling Christians that the churches could not take a “negative attitude” toward communism. “Churches everywhere,” Niebuhr stated, “had to recognize our involvement in injustices and insecurities Communism seeks or promises to cure.” In January 1951, Peale was carrying a very different message to the faithful: “The future belongs to Christ not Communism.” These were Cold War battle cries across the pro-Communist/anti-Communist divide.
Trump’s connection to Peale, then, not only informs the Comey-Niebuhr/Trump-Peale divide, but also throws into relief the larger national cleavage between Global Elites and the America First “Deplorables.” This is another old war in America—the “internationalists” vs. the nationstaters; the “progressives” vs. the patriots; the socialistic vs. the nationalistic. Now that Donald Trump is president, the first to reach this highest office from the ranks of “America First,” this clash may never have been so highly charged.
For much of the 20th century, Norman Vincent Peale was the nationally renowned pastor of Marble Collegiate in Manhattan. In addition to uplifting, spellbinding sermons, Peale was known for being outspoken in his opposition to all varieties of collectivism, from the socialism of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which he sermonized against as a dire threat to liberty, to Soviet communism.
“No one has more contempt for communism than I do,” he wrote in his 1952 mega-seller, The Power of Positive Thinking. In the late 1930s, he fought against the explosion of executive powers that undergirded Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” serving as secretary of a non-partisan group called the National Committee to Uphold Constitutional Government. This committee came together under newspaper editor Frank E. Gannett to oppose Roosevelt’s infamous Supreme Court packing plan and other executive branch encroachments that were destroying the Constitution’s “checks and balances.” The same concerns drove opposition to FDR’s decision to run for an unprecedented third term in 1940, and the president’s landmark foreign aid proposal known as Lend Lease, which arrived as a bill in Congress at the beginning of 1941, eleven months before Pearl Harbor.
In most histories, Lend Lease is a barely noticed stepping-stone to America’s entry into World War II; at the time, however, the debate was loud and acrimonious. The vast war-making powers the bill gave the president galvanized its opponents in a quickly growing, grass-roots movement known as America First. Caricatured today, this anti-interventionist organization drew in a wide swath of Americans from both political parties, from all walks of life, from Frank Lloyd Wright to Gerald Ford to Kingman Brewster to Norman Thomas to Charles Lindbergh. Their main agenda was (1) steer clear of another European war and thereby save young American lives, (2) avoid building up one totalitarian monster (Stalin) to replace another (Hitler), and (3) ensure the government’s three branches survived the process “co-equal.” They failed on all counts.
Peale, as secretary of the National Committee to Uphold Constitutional Government, strongly opposed Lend Lease on well-defined constitutional grounds. Lend Lease expanded presidential powers to a point where the chief executive could send military support of any kind to any country he deemed “vital to the defense of the United States.” There were no limits. No president had ever even sought such powers. But there was even more to Lend Lease than that—and here is where the red thread pokes up and down like a hem-stitch through the rest of the “American century.”
Lend Lease was not just anti-Constitutional; it was revolutionary. This will not surprise anyone who learns that the legislation’s godfathers were Armand Hammer, Harry Hopkins, and Harry Dexter White—all three men pro-Soviet to the core, all three men variously believed to be Soviet agents, although such shocking revelations came later. We may now regard Lend Lease as the founding document of the “new world order” that arose in the aftermath of World War II, its heaviest cornerstones laid by covert Soviet agents Alger Hiss at the United Nations and Harry Dexter White at the International Monetary Fund.
To favor limited aid to the allies as an expedient device for saving friendly nations from conquest was one thing. To declare that the defense of those nations was “vital” to our own national security was quite another. If we adopted the bill with those words, we would, in effect, declare the interdependence of the American people with the other freedom-loving nations of the world … [emphasis added].We did indeed adopt the Lend-Lease bill with those words (notwithstanding that a major recipient of Lend Lease was the Soviet Union—definitely not a “freedom-loving nation”). This makes March 11, 1941, the day the Lend-Lease bill passed, America’s Interdependence Day.
Norman Vincent Peale correctly warned that Lend Lease would give the president “the power to commit the American people to any war anywhere, and without action by Congress.” Lend Lease itself may have expired but its powers have lived on in an unconstrained Executive. Such “interdependence” is the basis of the “liberal postwar order,” and the “neoconservative” mission we have known in our time as “nation-building.”
What was once controversial draws little comment today. When a President of the United States declares the destinies of foreign peoples to be “vital” to that of the United States, whether in Saudi Arabia (FDR), Iraq (Bush), or Afghanistan (Obama), he is merely carrying out the “internationalism,” or “globalism” that has been the primary purpose of U.S. foreign policy since FDR.
Then along came Trump.
Suddenly, the ideological mission of postwar America—as FDR put it, “our responsibility to build a democratic world”—was in peril.
In his first foreign policy address on the 2016 campaign trail, Trump identified as “dangerous” the “idea that we could make western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interests in becoming a western democracy.” He promised: “We’re getting out of the nation-building business.”
To that end, he declared he was looking for a new set of foreign policy experts with practical ideas “rather than surrounding myself with those who have perfect résumés but very little to brag about except responsibility for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war.”
For Washington’s entrenched and heretofore empowered elites in both parties—catastrophe.
Donald Trump understood there was a difference between the interests of global elites and those of ordinary Americans; there were the “progressives” with their plans for the world, and there were the patriots with their hopes for the wall. It was borderless free trade vs. American manufacturing. In many ways, it was Niebuhr vs. Peale all over again. The ensuing struggle, then, is not political; it is existential.
Where did they come from, these Niebuhrian elites? Not from Marble Collegiate. Not from Queens. Not from Trump Tower, either. It was in all of those places where Donald Trump, influenced by Peale, developed his own “power of positive thinking” and his anti-communism, too. Andrew Bostom points us to Trump’s 2000 book, The America We Deserve, for an expression of Trump’s anti-communist outlook.
Referring to what he designated “oppressive Communism,” Trump championed “western style democracy” as his desired replacement for Communist totalitarianism in the collapsed former Soviet Union. Trump also decried the “disgrace” Castro’s Communism had wrought upon Cuba:Trump wrote:
Terror reigns, the police are unrestrained; beatings and citizen disappearances are common, and all free expression outside the Communist Party is crushed.Also in 2000, by the way, the late Sen. John McCain favored “a road map towards normalization of relations [with Cuba] such as we presented to the Vietnamese.”
Trump was unrelenting, too, about the dangers posed by Communist China, notwithstanding eight years of Clinton “collusion” with the PRC military, including the exchange of U.S. military and technological secrets for Chinese campaign contributions. Just as Obama would oversee Russia’s entry into the WTO, Clinton brought about China’s entry into the WTO, kick-starting the Communist state’s development into an economic and financial rival to the United States.
Where I break rank with many business colleagues and foreign-policy gurus is in my unwillingness to shrug off the mistreatment of China’s citizens by their own government. My reason is simple: These oppressive policies make it clear that China’s current government has contempt for our way of life. It fears freedom because it knows its survival depends on oppression. It does not respect individual rights. It is still, at heart, a collectivist society. As such it is a destabilizing force in the world and should be viewed that way. [Emphasis added.]A similar lack of respect for individual rights and a collectivist heart are innate to the anti-Trump conspirators, who are themselves a destabilizing force inside our constitutional government.
Yes, James Comey may have “moved from” his Communist position in his college days, but he never changed sides in the very long war that pits socialism and collectivism vs. free markets and liberty, and godless Communism vs. God-fearing Christianity.
Neither did Donald Trump.