June 12, 2010
A Witness for AmericaBy Cindy Simpson
Amid the struggle to define the mainstream of current conservative thought and articulate its platform, perhaps no book is as relevant as Whittaker Chambers' Witness. Although it could be described simply as a lengthy autobiography that recounts an interesting story of espionage during the Cold War, even the short summary by Amazon notes that the book is something "much more":
Anyone who has read Witness will assert that this masterpiece truly is much more than a beautifully written, heart-wrenching life story of a deep and intelligent thinker. It contains priceless words of wisdom that have had a profound impact on many great conservative minds. The late Robert D. Novak, in his introduction to the 50th Anniversary Edition, confessed: "It changed my worldview, my philosophical perceptions, and, without exaggeration, my life"[i].
Dr. Paul Kengor, in "The Intellectual Origins of Ronald Reagan's Faith," noted that Witness was one of Reagan's two favorite books and called it a "mesmerizing source of information and affirmation" for Reagan, who "could recite passages from Witness verbatim. This is evident in speeches throughout his public life."
Reagan, in his famous "Evil Empire" speech, said of Chambers:
Writing for the Heritage Foundation, Dr. Lee Edwards noted that Witness "argued that America faced a transcendent, not a transitory, crisis; the crisis was one not of politics or economics but of faith; and secular liberalism, the dominant "ism" of the day, was a watered-down version of Communist ideology." It can certainly be argued that this same crisis, though perhaps in a different form, looms even larger today.
Dr. Alan Snyder's timely essay reminded readers of Chambers' story and his admonition: "[T]he difference between liberalism and communism was in degree only: both put their faith in man and rejected faith in God; therefore, they shared a common worldview."
Chambers wrote that "when I took up my little sling and aimed at Communism, I also hit something else...the forces of that great socialist revolution, which, in the name of liberalism, spasmodically, incompletely, somewhat formlessly, but always in the same direction, has been inching its ice cap over the nation for two decades"[ii]. In recent months, this glacier seems to have transformed into an avalanche.
As the nation struggles to dig its way out of a failing economy, another lengthy book from the '50s that has resurfaced in popularity is Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. George Will, in his recent article on Ron Johnson, a Republican challenger in the Wisconsin U.S. Senate race, noted:
Whittaker Chambers would rather witness.
Staying afloat in today's mainstream while carrying the burden of a witness is far more difficult than shrugging or running. Many conservatives who subscribe to Rand and undertake to address our nation's economic problems while striving for a "politically correct" stance that is socially liberal or secular will find that Chambers disagrees with the concept. He said, "Economics is not the central problem of this century. It is a relative problem that can be solved in relative ways. Faith is the central problem of this age"[iii]. Chambers did not recognize the possibility of a compromise among competing political ideas, but rather a choice "between irreconcilable opposites -- God or Man, Soul or Mind, Freedom or Communism"[iv].
In 1957, Chambers penned a scathing review of Rand's godless philosophy of Atlas Shrugged:
Chambers, then, not only found similarities between liberalism and communism, but also between objectivism and the secular materialism that sometimes manifests itself in solutions of the right. All propose answers to the world's problems that elevate Mind over Soul, prioritize the common good over individual responsibility and Freedom, and ultimately place Man over God.
Chambers viewed communism and materialism as the "winning world" and feared that in his "break," he left it for the losing -- although this pessimism did not affect his determination, as he asserted that "men must act on what they believe right, not on what they believe probable"[v]. Novak lamented that Chambers did not live to see the fall of the communist Soviet Union and so could be cheered by being proven wrong[vi].
Novak may have ultimately shared Chambers' pessimism, however, had Novak lived longer. He may have wondered if Chambers' vision and wisdom were more prescient for our world after the demise of the Soviet Union, as he would no doubt see the numerous and striking parallels in today's political and moral struggle in America. A rereading of the book, with a mental note to replace references to "communism" with the current "liberalism," compounded by the prevalence and popularity of relativism and rejection of absolute truth, is at the same time both revealing and frightening.
Chambers maintained that he was in some ways an "involuntary witness to God's grace and to the fortifying power of faith"[vii]. He also wrote:
Chambers also counseled that an effective challenge requires witnesses -- not just against, but for something: "A witness ... is a man whose life and faith are so completely one that when the challenge comes to step out and testify for his faith, he does so, disregarding all risks, accepting all consequences"[ix].
Let us, like Chambers and the "quintessential optimist" who was Reagan, strive to answer the challenge "Faith in God or Faith in Man?[x]" as witnesses for the vision of Man with, and not without, God[xi].