A Witness for America

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":

First published in 1952, Witness was at once a literary effort, a philosophical treatise, and a bestseller. Whittaker Chambers had just participated in America's trial of the century in which Chambers claimed that Alger Hiss, a full-standing member of the political establishment, was a spy for the Soviet Union. This poetic autobiography recounts the famous case, but also reveals 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:

Whittaker Chambers, the man whose own religious conversion made him a witness to one of the terrible traumas of our time, the Hiss-Chambers case, wrote that the crisis of the Western World exists to the degree in which the West is indifferent to God, the degree to which it collaborates in communism's attempt to make man stand alone without God. And then he said, for Marxism-Leninism is actually the second oldest faith, first proclaimed in the Garden of Eden with the words of temptation, "Ye shall be as gods."

The Western world can answer this challenge, he wrote, "but only provided that its faith in God and the freedom He enjoins is as great as communism's faith in Man."

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:

From 2000 through 2008, sales of "Atlas Shrugged," which was published in 1957, averaged a remarkable 166,000 a year. Since Barack Obama took office, more than 600,000 copies have been sold. The novel's famous opening words -- "Who is John Galt?" -- refer to a creative capitalist, Rand's symbol of society's self-sufficient people who, weary of carrying on their shoulders the burden of dependent people, shrug. Ron Johnson would rather run.

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:

Nor has the author, apparently, brooded on the degree to which, in a wicked world, a materialism of the Right and a materialism of the Left first surprisingly resemble, then, in action, tend to blend each with each, because, while differing at the top in avowed purpose, and possibly in conflict there, at bottom they are much the same thing. ... The question becomes chiefly: who is to run that world in whose interests, or perhaps, at best, who can run it more efficiently?

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:

To those for whom the intellect alone has force, such a witness has little or no force. ... It challenges them to suppose that there is something greater about man than his ability to add and subtract.  It submits that that something is the soul...it whispers to them that each soul is individually responsible to God, that it has only to assert that responsibility, and out of man's weakness will come strength, out of his corruption incorruption, out of his evil good, and out of what is false invulnerable truth.[viii]

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].

[i] Whittaker Chambers, Witness (Washington DC: Regnery Publishing, 1952), page xiii

[ii] Ibid., page 741

[iii] Ibid., page 17

[iv] Ibid., page 16

[v] Ibid., page 25

[vi] Ibid., page xvii

[vii] Ibid., page 6

[viii] Ibid., page 762, 763

[ix] Ibid., page 5

[x] Ibid., page 17

[xi] Ibid., page 9