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Friday, October 9, 2015

Caesar and Christ, A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from their beginnings to A.D. 325 (The Story of Civilization Volume III) by Will Durant (1944)

"We look on past ages with condescension, as a mere preparation for us . . . but what if we're only an after-glow of them."  J.G. Farrell, as quoted by Robert Harris as an introduction to his historical novel, Conspirita.

The Black Holes in my Knowledge, or, Why I Read this Book.    

"Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance."  Will Durant

In recent years, my readings on various historical subjects of personal interest have, again and again, led me back to Rome.  I have come to realize that, in the West, the men and women who peopled most historical eras since 300 AD were, themselves, studiously interested in the classical world, and so, to understand the viewpoints of prior generations it is imperative to know at least some of the basics of Greek philosophy and Roman history, together with Biblical religion, which influenced so much of the worldview of all those who came after.  The medieval Christians, for example, in addition to their reliance on the Biblical revelations of Jerusalem, plumbed (albeit selectively) the philosophy of Athens and the literature of Rome for their moral, ethical, and legal precepts.  The nation builders of the same era constantly sought to revive the dream of a new, but holier, Roman Empire. Later, the architects of the Renaissance saw their chief mission as bringing a "new birth" of Hellenized Rome's scientific and artistic achievements to a benighted world.

In the 18th Century, the English-speaking world was intensely interested in Roman history, knowledge of which was considered by our nation's founders to be essential as a guide to informed self-government.  A young John Adams practiced for future rhetorical glory by reciting Cicero's Catalinian Orations in front of a mirror and Thomas Jefferson used Cicero's "The Case Against Verres" as a model and template for his own case against King George in the Declaration of Independence.  It is impossible to understand the founders or the Revolution without understanding, among other things, the history of Rome and the lessons the founders derived for the future, right or wrong, from that history. Jefferson's life-long distrust of standing armies was grounded in the many examples afforded by Roman history of such armies, from Julius Caesar to the Praetorian Guard, seizing control of the civil government. And Adam's lifelong belief that an aristocracy would inevitably develop in America, whose interests would need to be checked and balanced, was similarly based on his knowledge of Rome, and of what came after.  [Endnote 1]

As historian Bernard Bailyn has pointed out, "Knowledge of classical authors was universal among colonists with any degree of education, and references to them and their works abound in the literature" of the revolution. [2]   The founders of our Nation were especially enthralled by that period of classical history in which the Roman Republic made its last valiant stand before falling into libertine anarchy and civil war, which ended via the imperial dictatorships of the Roman Empire [3] established by Julius and then Octavius Caesar, fulfilling one of the Platonian patterns of history. The revolutionary colonists saw their own struggle against British tyranny as akin to that of the Roman generation which had unsuccessfully attempted to forestall the overthrow of the Republic and its replacement with a military dictatorship.  [4]  Thus, when a beleaguered Washington wanted to improve the morale of the troops at Valley Forge, he arranged for a showing of his favorite play, Joseph Addison's popular drama, Cato, about the Roman Senator's principled stand against the tyranny of Julius Caesar.  (It had been from this play, earlier in the war, that captured colonial spy Nathan Hale had drawn his famous last words, before being hung by the British: "My only regret is that I have but one life to lose for my country").  And when a victorious Washington, at the end of the war, returned his commission to the Continental Congress, both he and the world were keenly aware that he was acting in the role of an American Cincinnatus, the General of Republican Rome who had taken up the sword and the mantle of leadership to save his people from peril, and then relinquished that power and returned to his farm. [5]

But in our own time, any description of the fall of a republic and the rise of an empire is far more likely to be understood as an allusion to Star Wars, than as a reference to Rome. After decades of relentlessly and ruthlessly utilitarian educational "reforms," of which the common core is only the most recent example, most Americans no longer know anything about Rome.  Why this came to be, and how modern Americans were cut off from vast swathes of a historical heritage which earlier generations considered their intellectual commons, is a story for another day. For present purposes, it suffices to say that I count myself one of the victims of this imposed ignorance and deliberate policy of abetting historical illiteracy.  My religious upbringing has given me some grounding in one leg of what has been called the three legged stool of Western Civilization: the biblical theology of Jerusalem.  But as for the other two legs of the stool, the philosophy, art, and science of Athens; and the legal principles of Rome and the lessons of Roman history, I must learn of those on my own, having been exposed, instead, to hours of mindless fluff in the formal education of my youth.  Hence my interest in this book. [6]

The Third Book in the Durants' Series.

Caesar and Christ, subtitled, A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from their beginnings to A.D. 325, is the third volume in Will (and eventually Ariel) Durant's famous 11-volume series, The Story of Civilization, written between 1935  and 1975, and introduced into thousands of middle class American homes as the bonus for joining the Book of the Month Club.  This volume, published in 1944, is the first and only book in the series I have ever read cover to cover.

Will Durant's Wisdom

The author, Will Durant, is as congenial a guide through this history as anyone is likely to find, and he knows just where to pause for asides and personal commentary and observation that overcome the dustiness one usually finds in chronological summaries of history.  Indeed, it is his authorial asides which make the book most worth reading, raising its value as a storehouse of not just knowledge, but also of wisdom, and demonstrating why bland, committee-written, textbook history, has done so much to kill off historical interest in our public schools.  A few examples of Durant's asides, which are what really make the book worth reading:

-On the inherent conflict between security and freedom:

"The principle of democracy is freedom, the principle of war is discipline; each requires the absence of the other."

"Caesar returned to the task of persuading the Gauls that peace is sweeter than freedom."

"We must reconcile ourselves to the probability that whatever power establishes security and order will send taxgatherers to collect something more than the cost."

-On Cicero:

"Not since Plato has wisdom worn such prose."

"Next to Cicero, [Seneca] was the most lovable hypocrite in history."

-On human nature:

"The constitution of man always rewrites the constitutions of states."

"[I]t is as difficult to forgive forgiveness as it is to forgive those whom we have injured."

"Sanity, like government, needs checks and balances; no mortal can be omnipotent and sane."

"[O]nly youth knows better than twenty centuries."

- On the patterns of history:

"Democracy had fallen by Plato's formula: liberty had become license, and chaos begged an end to liberty.  . . .  Dictatorship was unavoidable."

"The very peace that Augustus had organized, and the security that he had won for Rome, had loosened the fibre of the people.  No one wanted to enlist in the army, or recognize the inexorable periodicity of war.  Luxury had taken the place of simplicity, sexual license was replacing parentage; by its own exhausted will the great race was beginning to die."

"When great men stoop to sentiment, the world grows fonder of them; but when sentiment governs policy, empires totter."

"In every epoch something is decaying and something is growing."

"History, like the press, misrepresents life because it loves the exceptional and shuns the newsless career of an honest man or the quiet routine of a normal day."

"Nothing reaches maturity except through the fulfillment of its own nature."


Durant's writing reveals him to be a man of great Aristotelian medians.  Balance seems to be the governing principle of his writing, which goes to some length to avoid extremist positions.  Even in describing the worst and most notorious of Rome's post Augustan despots, for example, Durant gives them credit, where it is due, for their administrative achievements:  "There was something good in the worst of these rulers -- devoted statemanship in Tiberius, a charming gaiety in Caligula, a plodding wisdom in Claudius, an exuberant aestheticism in Nero, a stern competence in Domitian.  Behind the adulteries and the murders an administrative organization had formed which provided, through all this period, a high order of provincial government."  Durant suggests that the the most salacious details from accounts of the more tyrannical leaders' lives, as written by ancient Roman historians with political axes to grind, should be taken with some grains of salt; and argues that the circumstances of the despots' lives, explains their behavior as almost rational:  "The emperors themselves were the chief victims of their power. . . . Seven of these ten men met a violent end; nearly all of them were unhappy, surrounded by conspiracy, dishonesty, and intrigue, trying to govern a world from the anarchy of a home.  They indulged their appetites because they knew how brief was their omnipotence; they lived in the daily horror of men condemned to an early and sudden death.  They went under because they were above the law; they became less than men because power had made them gods."  Still, he rejoices when a sensible emperor now and again comes along, in the middle of a series of arbitrary and capricious despots, beginning his account of Vespasian's reign with the remark: "What a relief to meet a man of sense, ability, and honor!"

The book's final chapters are a description of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, and the founding of Christianity, in a Hellenized world which was bound to influence its doctrine.  (Tad R. Callister's The Inevitable Apostasy,  quotes frequently from this volume, in support of the Mormon sense that Christianity soon became unmoored from revelation and too influenced by the philosophies of men. Durant takes that idea even further than most Latter-day Saints would be willing to do, arguing for example that the Gospel of John is an essentially Platonic, rather then Hebraic, document, suggesting that the influence of Greece arose even while the canonical scriptures of Christianity were being transcribed.)  When writing on the life of Christ, the missions of Paul, and the founding of the Christian faith, Durant writes as a non-believing scholar, but not as a scoffing skeptic.  He offers, for example, a psychosomatic explanation for Jesus's miracles.  However, he rejects the claim of Higher Criticism that Jesus never even lived, noting that this theory would require the early Christians to have created the Jesus personality in one generation, which he finds absurd; and agreeing with another historian's suggestion that, if the tests against Christ's historicity were applied with equal fervor to other historical figures, they would erase from the record many of history's most prominent persons.  He accepts the likely accuracy of most of the Gospels on the grounds that writers of inspirational fiction would have kept out the squabbling among Christ's apostles, and Christ's agonized query from the Cross as to why he had been forsaken. The religious reader, like myself, will not be strengthened in their testimony by this book.  But they will also not be weakened, nor offended. Indeed, I came away from my reading grateful for the much deeper understanding the book provided me of the historical context of Paul's epistles, and the rift between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians which was occurring while they were written, which I find helpful to understanding the doctrinal points Paul was asserting.

The Fall of Rome

Political observers have, for centuries, looked to Rome's fall as a source for prescient observations about their own society's shortcomings.  Durant makes no such attempts at modern political application, but he does describe various causes of Roman decline, leaving the reader to draw his own parallels.  Rome actually went through two falls: the fall of the Roman Republic into class strife and civil war, leading to the restoration of stability and order via the establishment of an Empire led by autocratic military dictators; and the subsequent fall of that Empire itself, a fall which Durant notes lasted three centuries, longer than many nations' entire history, from their rise to their decline.

Here are some passages on the decline of the Roman Republic, implicating all of the usual suspects: easy money, luxury, immorality, corruption:

"As currency multiplied . . . the owners of realty in the capital tripled their fortunes without stirring a muscle . . . .  Industry lagged while commerce flourished. . . .  Rome was becoming not the industrial or commercial, but the financial and political, center of the white man's world. . . .

[T]he Roman patriciate and upper middle class passed with impressive speed from stoic simplicity to reckless luxury; . . . .   Houses became larger as families became smaller; . . . .  [T]he old simple diet gave way to long and heavy meals . . . .  Exotic foods were indispensable to social position or pretense. . . . Drinking increased; goblets had to be large and preferably of gold; wine was less diluted, sometimes not at all.  . . . .

The individual became rebelliously conscious of himself as against the state, the son as against the father, the woman as against the man. . . .  Prostitution flourished.  Homosexualism was stimulated by contact with Greece and Asia;  . . . .  Women . . . divorced their husbands or occasionally poisoned them . . . .  Cato and Polybius . . . noted a decline of population and the inability of the state to raise such armies as had risen to meet Hannibal.  The new generation, having inherited world mastery, had no time or inclination to defend it. . . . [T]he Roman landowner disappeared now that ownership was being concentrated in a few families and a proletariat without stake in the country filled the slums of Rome. Men became brave by proxy; they crowded the amphitheater to see bloody games.  . . .

In the upper classes manners became more refined as morals were relaxed. . . .  Everyone longed for money, everyone judged or was judged in terms of money.  Contractors cheated on such a scale that many government properties . . . had to be abandoned because the lessees exploited the workers and mulcted the state . . . .  [The] aristocracy . . . accepted presents and liberal bribes for bestowing its favor upon men or states, . . . .  It became a common thing for magistrates to embezzle public funds and an uncommon thing to see them prosecuted.

Marriage, which had once been a lifelong economic union, was now among a hundred thousand Romans a passing adventure of no great spiritual significance, a loose contract for the mutual provision of physiological conveniences or political aid."

And here are some passages on the decline of the Empire, many of which seem, once again, eerily and obviously apropos to our current conditions:

"A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within.  The essential causes of Rome's decline lay in her people, her morals, her class struggle, her failing trade, her bureaucratic despotism, her stifling taxes, her consuming wars.

A serious decline of population appears in the West after Hadrian. . . .  The holocausts of war and revolution, and . . . the operation of contraception, abortion, and infanticide had [their] effect. . . . The dole weakened the poor, luxury weakened the rich; . . . .  [Immigration occurred too quickly to allow] time [for] a leisurely assimilation [in which the immigrants] might have reinvigorated the classic culture . . . .  [Instead], the rapidly breeding [immigrants] could not understand the classic culture, did not accept it, did not transmit it; . . . were mostly of a mind to destroy that culture; the Romans, possessing it, sacrificed it to the comforts of sterility.  Rome was conquered not by barbarian invasion from without, but by barbarian multiplication within.  Moral and esthetic standards were lowered by the magnetism of the mass; and sex ran riot in freedom while political liberty decayed.

The political causes of decay were rooted in one fact--that increasing despotism destroyed the citizen's civic sense and dried up statesmanship at its source. Powerless [politically] the Roman lost interest in government and became absorbed in his business, his amusements, his legion, or his individual salvation.  Patriotism and . . . religion had been bound together, and now together decayed."

Surely none of that sounds familiar to modern ears.

Still, there is room for hope in Durant's writing, even on Rome's decline and fall, perhaps explaining why that fall took so long: "Around the immoral hub of any society is a spreading wheel of wholesome life, in which the threads of tradition, the moral imperatives of religion, the economic compulsions of the family, the instinctive love and care of children, the watchfulness of women and policemen, suffice to keep us publicly decent and moderately sane."

And perhaps, in any event, it is not the fall of Rome that we should fear most.  But, rather, its new rise.  The fact of the matter is that, for all of their contributions to science, art, literature, and the theory of law and jurisprudence, and for all of the graceful prose, poetry, and philosophy offered up by their most noble citizens, from Cicero to Marcus Aurelius, and for all of the best traits which marked the best of Roman society, as outlined in the final pages of this book, the Romans were a brutal and in many ways a despicable people.  Maybe everyone else was back then as well, and maybe the order they imposed upon their time allowed the growth of a stable society which would shun their excesses, and embrace the beauties of Christianity. But even still, their excesses were notably horrifying.  The Romans were politically corrupt; practiced the horrors of slavery and infanticide and pederasty without any apparent moral qualm; entertained themselves with bloodthirsty spectacles which were even worse than our most violent horror films, because they were real; and engaged in war with a relish and callousness difficult for us to fathom. This rottenness in the Roman soul was true even in the days of the Republic, or the years in which they were ruled by benevolent monarchs (Durant quotes Gibbon on the pinnacle of society reached before the end of the reign of Marcus Aurelius: "If a man were called upon to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would without hesitation name that which elapsed from the accession of Nerva to the death of Aurelius.  Their united reigns are possibly the only period of history in which the happiness of a great people was the sole object of government.").  The story of the Roman Republic's dealings with Carthage immediately before and during the utter destruction of that City by Roman troops is, simply, horrifying.  And in the most prosperous and peaceful years of the Empire, the Colosseum continued to be a place of vileness and violence.  Thus, as much as I loved this book, and consider it one of the most intriguing and fascinating volumes I will ever read, I must disagree with the author's final, elegiac statement, in which he wishes that Rome may rise again.

I certainly hope it will not.  Indeed, if the book taught me anything, it is to treasure and be grateful for our current relatively stable and free society, in the knowledge that such societies are the exception not the rule, and that while our society is in obvious decline, there is still some chance its ultimate fall may at least be postponed. Historically, this book caused me to reflect, slavery is more to be expected than freedom; poverty more to be expected than prosperity; greed and stupidity in political leaders more to be expected than wisdom and beneficence; corruption in government and commerce more to be expected than honesty; vice more to be expected than virtue; and war more to be expected than peace.  It would be wonderful if the best of Rome could rise again, and her worst stay in the past. But alas, just the opposite is occurring instead.


1. Gordon S. Wood, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different  Chapter 6 "The Relevance and Irrelevance of John Adams" (The Penguin Press 2006)

2. Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution p. 23 (Harvard University Press 1967, 1992).

3. Id. pp. 24-26.

4. Gordon S. Wood, The Idea of America  Chapter 2 "The Legacy of Rome in the American Revolution" (Penguin Books 2011)

5.   Gordon S. Wood, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different  Chapter 1 "The Greatness of George Washington" (The Penguin Press 2006)

6. An attempt to learn more about the classical world could start chronologically, with Greece.  But trying to understand that era by slogging through Greek history, drama, and literature, is a bit like trying to get into Tolkien via the Silmarillion.  There are elements of the Greek mind that are simply . . . alien.  Try for example to read some Greek play, like The Libation Bearers, which might as well have been written by Martians, and you'll see what I mean.  Marcus Aurelius's Meditations, or Plutarch's Lives, by contrast, are remarkably accessible to a modern reader.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

A. Lincoln, by Ronald C. White, Jr.

Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals remains my favorite Lincoln book.  But the comparison is hardly fair, since Goodwin gave us four biographies for the price of one.   This book, A. Lincoln is my favorite single volume biography of President Lincoln to focus solely on him.  What sets it apart from other works is the author's interest in Lincoln's development over time, and the analysis of Lincoln's skilled use of the English language, in his writings and oratory, to rally political support for policies that saved the Union and freed the slaves.

Lincoln's Journey of Faith

We do weird things with the dead.  We say that a particular founder "was a Deist" or that a particular 20th Century thinker "was a Communist" based on a particular piece of writing at a particular point in their life, as if their entire lives were static, from beginning to end, with no ebb, flow, or development of their opinions, including during those portions of their lives which make them most historically interesting. In Lincoln's regard, some modern historians will claim that he was a non-believer, and not a man of faith. Those who make this claim typically intend it as a compliment (reflecting their own values). However, if true, it would make Lincoln, whose speeches and writings in his final years were infused with Biblical language and theological suppositions, a rank cynic: using the language of faith in his masterfully powerful Second Inaugural to satisfy the common rubes, while holding himself aloof from such nonsense. This would hardly be a complimentary way to view Lincoln's character, whatever one's own personal beliefs. Nor would it be justified.  Lincoln was a shrewd politician, who knew how to balance competing interests.  But nothing in his life suggests he was full of such guile.

Here, we get a narrative that is supported by the evidence and rings much more true.   Like all Americans of his era, Lincoln knew the Bible extremely well.  (Once, upon learning by telegraph of a convention at which 400 Republicans had gathered together to select a new candidate to replace Lincoln on the ballot after his first term, Lincoln asked the telegraph operator to hand him a Bible, and quickly located an obscure passage about a meeting of 400 "discontented" Israelites who gathered together under David's leadership to unseat King Saul. 1 Samuel 22:2)   Nevertheless, a young Lincoln rejected the emotional displays of his parents' Baptist faith, and never joined a church.  What is more, early in his life, fresh from imbibing large quantities of Constantin Volney and Thomas Paine, he gave a speech offering his own similar critiques of revealed religion, which a friend, out of either offense, or to protect the young man, threw in the fire before he could finish reading it.  

Subsequently, however, as we learn from White, Lincoln became interested in the more rational and less emotional approach to religion offered by Springfield Presbyterian minister James Smith, in his book, The Christian Defense. Smith ministered to the Lincolns after the death of their son Eddie, and the Lincolns began attending his congregation, though Lincoln, riding the circuit, did not become a member and attended less frequently than his wife.  When his father's death was imminent, Lincoln wrote to his stepbrother, asking him to convey to his father that he should remember to call upon his merciful Maker, Who would not forget the dying man who puts his trust in Him.  In the final years of his Presidency, Lincoln would increasingly invoke the comforts of God to parents of fallen soldiers in letters of consolation, and the designs of God in official pronouncements, such as the Emancipation Proclamation.  At Gettysburg, Lincoln added the words "under God" to his prepared text, speaking the words extemporaneously during the speech's delivery (as all of the contemporaneous newspaper accounts of the address, based on stenographer's notes of the speech as delivered, confirm), and Lincoln included that phrase in all three versions he would write out at later dates. 

In the latter months of his Presidency, Lincoln, as was his custom when trying to work through a logical or philosophical issue, wrote himself a short memorandum, not meant for public view.  These personal notes were kept by Lincoln in his hat, or desk drawer, and, White argues, are the closest thing we have to his intellectual autobiography. This particular personal memo, found some time after Lincoln's death, began with the words, "The will of God prevails."  The memo discussed the phenomenon of both sides in the Civil War claiming that God was on their side, the logical impossibility that they were both right, as God could not be both for and against the same thing at the same time, and the likelihood that neither side was wholly right, but that God had his own purposes, and was using and adapting the will and actions of men to achieve the same. As it was not intended for the public, this writing is the best evidence we have of Lincoln's personal religious beliefs in the final years of his life, as he led the nation through the war.  The writing is theologically sophisticated, addressing one of the core paradoxes of Christianity, the conflict between free will and God's omniscience, as it contemplates a God who manages to work in and influence history, yet does so without impinging on human beings' personal will and choice, which are adapted to God's purposes.  White traces some of the influences which might have led to Lincoln's thoughts in the memorandum, which would later resonate in certain passages of the Second Inaugural.  The man who gave that speech apparently believed in the theological and biblical language which it used, in the God which it invoked, and in the Christian principles of mercy, reconciliation, and service to the widowed and orphaned victims of the war for which it called.

Lincoln's Political Journey

Similarly, with respect to slavery, one will sometimes come across a particular type of libertarian revisionist crank, almost always from the South, who insists that slavery had nothing to do with the Civil War, which was fought over tariffs or something, and who will support their revisionist history by citing various statements of Lincoln that the war was being fought to save the Union, and any decision to free slaves would be based on whether or not it furthered that cause.  The crank inevitably forgets that the South started the Civil War and did so very much because of its desire to not only retain slavery, but to extend it to new territories, which desire became the chief political conflict of the decade before the war.  (The Confederacy was formed, and Jefferson Davis chosen to lead it, before Lincoln was even inaugurated, and the South fired the first shots of the war, upon federal vessels bringing aid and non-military supplies to Fort Sumter, all of which events occurred on the basis of Southern outrage over the election of an anti-Kansas Nebraska Republican to office.) If we want to know why the Civil War was fought, it is the South's reasons for secession which must be examined, not Lincoln's response.   Moreover, the crank's simplistic analysis also forgets that historical figures are not static, and that political figures are constrained by that which is politically possible.

White does an excellent job of tracking Lincoln's willingness to apply his own personal beliefs against slavery into more proactive political action, over time. From early in his political career, Lincoln was opposed to slavery, which he felt was a moral evil ("If slavery isn't wrong, nothing is wrong.") But he was not elected, or even nominated as the candidate of his own party, as a radical abolitionist.  The Republicans chose him, instead of Seward, because the latter was too radical. Lincoln did not believe the Government had the ability under the Constitution to end slavery. His debates with Douglas, and his Presidential campaign, were based on the principle that slavery must not be extended into the territories, but restricted to where it already existed, where he promised it would not be interfered with (a promise he likely would have kept, had the South taken him at his word and not seceded).  He firmly believed the Federal Government had the right to restrict any extension of slavery, but he did not call for its abolition where it already existed, while running for President.  When that position proved insufficiently moderate to a South which instead launched a Civil War over his election, Lincoln sufficiently politically astute to know that, in order to retain support for the war among Northern Democrats, and border states, he needed to emphasize that the war was being fought to preserve the Union, not to free the slaves, much to the chagrin of those who filled the more radical abolitionist wing of the Republican party. But White tracks how, over time, Lincoln came to understand the hollowness of any victory which did not end slavery, and his willingness to therefore become more overt about that purpose of the war, over time.  His developing thinking led Lincoln to issuing the Emancipation Proclamation (freeing the slaves as a military measure, only in locations where the Proclamation could have no practical effect unless the war were to be won). This was followed, upon further developments in Lincoln's thinking, by his orders for the recruitment of black Union soldiers. In turn, this decision, upon its successful implementation, was followed by Lincoln's September 3, 1863 speech, written for James Conkling to read and deliver at a Springfield Illinois pro-Union rally (the largest held during the war), praising the valor of those black soldiers as against their confederate enemies who, "with malignant heart, and deceitful speech" strove to hinder an important historical "consummation" namely the end of slavery.  This passage made clear that ending slavery was indeed now one explicitly hoped for effect of the war, although Lincoln still emphasized that the war remained primarily a war to save the Union, and no soldier was yet being asked to fight solely to end slavery, which would only be true if Lincoln asked them to keep fighting solely for that cause after the Union had been preserved.  The consummation of Lincoln's thinking on these points led to his advocacy for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

Lincoln the Writer and Orator

The author also relishes Lincoln's skills as a writer, a thinker, and an orator.  The passages in which White analyzes Lincoln's more important writings and speeches, and examines the rhetorical tools he utilized, are among the book's best.  And the description of how Lincoln, again and again, rallied political support for his policies when they came under fire, via a well-timed speech, or widely published letter to a newspaper editor or a political caucus, tell an important part of his story which no film (the primary medium through which most Americans have formed an image of Lincoln today) could ever capture. Lincoln's effective employment and deployment of the English language as a political tool reflected the founders, and is one of the reasons I like to think of him as the final founder.  Like Lincoln, almost all of the founders, save Washington, came to prominence and fame, and directed the course of history, on the basis of their way with the written word.

In our own era, screens have replaced newspapers, soundbites have replaced well reasoned writing, and political ideas too complex for an internet meme or a bumper sticker don't get very far.  This, as much as anything, explains why we are unlikely to ever see another Lincoln (or Adams or Jefferson or Hamilton or Madison) in our lifetimes. Whether we can find leaders fit for our times and its challenges, on the basis of whether those politicians come across as well on the screen, as Lincoln and his predecessors did in well-reasoned and passionate writing, remains to be seen.  But the evidence so far is not encouraging.

A. Lincoln by Ronald C. White, Jr.  (Random House 2010) Trade Paperback.  4 Stars out of 4.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Back to the Future. Welcome to the Post-Christian West


In the year 65 A.D., the Roman Emperor Nero got in a row with his second wife, Poppea, and viciously kicked her in the stomach.  Poppaea was pregnant and died from her injuries. The Roman historian Cassius Dio records that, grief-stricken by the loss of his murdered beloved, Nero sought a replacement.  He found a youth named Sporus who he felt resembled Poppaea, castrated him, "married" him in a formal and public ceremony, including all of the customary recitations hoping for progeny, and, “used him in every way like a woman.”  This might have been Western civilization’s first same sex marriage, except that Nero, at the time of the wedding, was already married to another man, a former slave named Pythagoras.  As historical precedents go, this doesn't have quite the romantic resonance of Adam and Eve. But I'm sure the decorations were lovely, and that the bakers all knew better than to object. The pre-Christian Romans, like the post-Christian moderns, found the concepts of male, female, and marriage, to be loose, subjective, and fluid.  Or at least, when their rulers told them to think that way, they got on board if they knew what was good for them.

Nero’s views on marriage never really stuck.  Perhaps because they violated the prior understanding of what marriage was, and what marriage was for, as previously held by earlier generations of Greeks and Romans and every other civilization on earth, and perhaps because a new religion, little noticed by Nero until he needed someone to blame for the fire which destroyed much of Rome, was growing in influence, and would, some generations later, become the majority religion of the Western world which emerged from Roman ashes. That new religion, Christianity, would have very strict views about marriage, which would eventually come to be adopted by the West, making marriage between a man and a woman the centerpiece of the Western world's long-held child-centered and family-centered sexual ethic.

But Christianity's integration with and influence upon Western culture has now officially ended, and if we want to know what life is going to be like in the future, in our new non-Christian, but nevertheless Western, world, going back in time to study ancient Rome is one good place to start.  For the pre-Christian Romans resembled today’s post-Christian moderns in other ways as well. They were comfortable with a form of allegedly Republican government in which the Senate, as a polite fiction, still pretended to exercise its former legislative functions, but had in fact, since the time of Julius Caesar, ceded all real authority to the Emperor, whose pronouncements they rubber-stamped into law.  In similar fashion, modern state legislatures, and our federal congress, still like to pretend that Americans live in a democratic republic, but have long since ceded all real power to a judicial oligarchy, over the strenuous objections of earlier American Catos such as Jefferson and Lincoln, and to a President who makes law by executive order.  Other similarities abound.  Like Roman Emperors, who controlled the doctrines of the official State religion, our own Presidential office holders and candidates have recently become quite comfortable in making pronouncements on what churches should teach, with both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama having recently lectured us on the need for a change in religious beliefs on subjects such as abortion and same-sex marriage.  Also, like Nero, our own judicial oligarchy gets a kick out of putting us in our place from time to time, and reminding us that our pretense to government by the consent of the governed has long since gone out of fashion, and that the judiciary's votes are the only votes which actually matter.    


Our judicial overseers most recently reminded us of how things really work in their decision in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, issued June 26th, 2015.  Obergefell overturned a 1972 decision, Baker v. Nelson, in which even the Court which was otherwise liberal and arrogant enough to give us Roe v. Wade, took all of one sentence to explain that the U.S. Constitution does not mandate same sex marriage, and that claims to the contrary do not even raise a serious federal question. The proverbial toad has been in the increasingly hot water for a long time since then though, and its brain is long since boiled.  

Of course, what happened last week was more than just yet another act of raw political power, exercised by Judges supposedly occupying a non-political branch of government, who insist that their own personal policy preferences are Constitutional mandates, even with respect to subjects on which the Constitution is silent.  It was also the culminating act in the sexual revolution, which began in the 1960s, and has brought our nation such happy statistics as an illegitimacy rate which increased from less than 10% to almost 50% within my lifetime, a youth suicide rate that has increased threefold since 1950, and a welfare state whose non-discretionary expenditures now exceed 100% of the annual GDP.  

But what happened last week was more even than that.  What happened last week was, also, a final and culminating act in a drama which has unfolded over a much longer period of time: Call it the death of Judeo-Christian America if you will, or call it the official displacement of religiosity with secularism, or call it the creation of an official American Establishment of Religion: the Church of Secular Humanism, whose sermons and homilies are taught in movie theaters (hence the steeples in the architecture of so many Cineplexes) and written on Supreme Court letterhead.  Call it what you will.  What is clear is that Western civilization is now post-Christian, and, in many ways, closer in spirit to the pre-Christian Western civilization of Rome, than to the Christian era which just ended.  That Christian era began in roughly the third Century A.D.; flourished most successfully in an America governed by Madison's vision (as set forth in his Memorial and Remonstrances against Religious Assessments) of a secular government, distinct from and holding no authority over faith, but nevertheless recognizing that the demands and rights of faith were "precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of" that distinct government; and finally ended, and was given its funeral, on June 26th, 2015.

To be sure, just as there were additional battles and skirmishes after Yorktown, there is still some mopping-up to do.  The Obergefell decision will not be the final cultural skirmish in the sexual revolution or the battle of precedence between the secular and the divine, but it is nevertheless the decisive moment. What follows next will be ugly but is largely preordained. Churches must be emptied, either of their adherents or of their doctrines.  This will be easy in a world where the secular left holds all the fortresses: publishing, the news and entertainment media, universities, government, and the governmental and quasi-governmental bureaucracies which license citizens in their professions, accredit colleges, and oversee public education. It will be extremely easy to stomp down on dissenters in a world where, as a very non-Madisonian New Mexico Judicial Oligarch recently explained, the loss of religious freedom is now the “cost of citizenship.” If people of faith fail to resist, the mopping up effort will not take long.  

But there is still some cause for hope, albeit distant, at least for those of us who take a long view of history. Everything the secular left is about to impose upon American Christians --the editorial attacks against reactionary religious forces in the newspapers, the inability of a believer to get into the right college, or be accredited or licensed in her profession if she graduates from the wrong college, the co-opting of private civic organizations, such as the BSA– has been done by secular leftists before, in Eastern Europe between 1947 and 1949. Whether it will get even worse after that, here, as it did after 1950, there, remains to be seen. But if you want to know the broad outlines of what's coming, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Applebaum’s amazing book, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956, needs to be put on your must-read list.  Cold War Eastern Europe, like ancient Rome, is another helpful subject to review in analyzing what a non-Christian Western society will look like.  But the story of Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe brings us some glimmer of hope: the Catholics of Poland refused to give the government and the Party the same legitimacy, in their hearts, that they gave to their Church, and in the end, after whole lifetimes were lived under militantly secular oppression, freedom was restored.  So follow up Applebaum’s book by reading, The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister, by John O’Sullivan, which tells the end of the story, and may give you hope that totalitarian left-wing secularism can be endured long enough to someday be defeated by faith. Give these books to your grandchildren, to read in secret in the basement. 

What We Have Lost

In the meantime, it might be worthwhile to contemplate what we have lost, as the hope for its restoration may give us the motivation to fight on, if only in secret, in hopes for a better tomorrow. Herewith, a non-exhaustive list of key principles which Post-Christian Western civilization has decided to forego, and the consequences of these losses to ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren: 

Loss 1: The Abandonment of Christian Sexual Morality and the Best Interests of Children which Were Advanced Thereby.  

I have written elsewhere on the history of the decline and fall of the Christian sexual ethic, which displaced and prevented (well, . . . at least postponed) Nero’s vision from becoming that of the entire Western world:

Suffice it for present purposes to note that the Christian sexual ethic which has governed the outlook of humankind in the West for most of the past 17 centuries could be thought of as an arch which protected the children who were sheltered beneath it.  Christian sexual morality performed this function by ensuring that the bonding right of every child to know and be loved and reared by her own mother and father, would never be intentionally taken away, except when in the best interests of the child, and not merely to gratify the desires of any adult.  The keystone of that child-protecting arch was conjugal marriage between a man and a woman, and with that keystone removed, the arch has fallen, and the children previously sheltered by its protections will be the victims of that calamity, deprived of either their mother or (almost always) their father, and told that they must not only accept and adapt to this loss, but may not mourn it, and must instead celebrate it.  It seems that every generation perpetuates its own new lies about the separate but supposedly equal institutions it establishes for its children, in the name of what the adults want to do.   

Loss 2: The Loss of Respect for Objective Reality   

The West advanced beyond other corners of the globe based on its discovery and implementation of the scientific method: observe those material realities which are capable of observation, hypothesize about those realities, test the hypothesis, determine if the test’s outcome can be recreated and is therefore demonstrative of the true nature of that which is being tested.  Niall Ferguson has called the scientific method one of Western civilization's "Killer Apps", which led to the West's ascendance over the rest of the globe in the past five centuries.

But science requires working and living in the world of objective reality.  And that is no longer permissible.  

Instead, we now live in a world where words have no objective meaning, and a reader's personal understanding of a text trumps the author's intention, not just in poetry, but also in law. Subjective reality now trumps all sorts of objective facts. A white woman can insist that she is black. An able bodied person can insist that he is disabled.  And Bruce Jenner can insist he is a woman, despite the evidence of his chromosomes, his anatomy, and the children he has sired. Such fantasies would be no cause for any real alarm if they were maintained privately.  But when a United States Governmental Agency, such as OSHA, declares that the nation's private employers must jump through the same looking glass, as they implement restroom policies and assess the diversity, rather than the competence, of their staff, something has gone amiss.  And woe be to the man who fails to prove his virtue by keeping silent, and instead ventures to question whether the new subjective emperor has any clothes.

The mindset can best be understood by studying the history and meaning of the left's fascinating new term: "Cisgendered" which is used to describe a person who “identifies” with the sex she was “assigned” at birth. The word "assigned" is the key to the imagery meant to be invoked.  You are not male or female in any objective sense.  Rather, shortly after your birth, an aging white male member of the patriarchy in a lab coat walked into your nursery, and, while you were innocently sleeping, arbitrarily and capriciously “assigned” you your sex, cackling away as he wrote it on your Birth Certificate.  The Bastard.  

And so we have school districts in North America implementing policies preventing teachers from using words like boys, girls, men, women, or their accompanying gender pronouns. Will there be exemptions for biology teachers, so they can teach the basics of human sexual reproduction?  I wouldn't count on it.  Allowing biology teachers to teach the basics of human sexual reproduction would destroy the whole point of banning gender pronouns in the first place.  Heaven forbid that young biologically informed Patrick, upon meeting Heather and her two mommies, might stumble upon the depraved thought that Heather doesn't really have two mommies, and must have a daddy somewhere, who has been treated as expendable, and of whose presence Heather has been deprived.  

Loss 3: The Loss of Respect for Faith, and of Legal Protections for the Faithful. 

Science is not the only way to learn about truth.  There are also immaterial realities for which we rely upon revelation, rather than observation.  As Dallin H. Oaks, put it, "we believe there are two dimensions of knowledge, material and spiritual.  We seek knowledge in the material dimension by scientific inquiry and in the spiritual dimension by revelation.”

As G.K. Chesterton (another author whose books will be vital reading in our children's secret basements) similarly explained: "The man who cannot believe in his own senses, and the man who cannot believe in anything else, are both insane."  They are both boxed in a cell of their own devising, said Chesterton, on which can be written "He believes in himself."   This is a perfect description of the modern West, which exalts the subjective, and rejects both objective reality and religious faith as legitimate sources of truth, in favor of personal opinion.  Justice Kennedy made the exaltation of subjective opinion official in his notorious magical mystery passage from Planned Parenthood v. Casey: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life."   Chesterton would recognize this as a long-winded way of saying "he believes in himself."  Where can we turn for truth? To the Bible?  To Aristotle? To science?  To the Declaration of Independence?  To the Constitution?  No, no, no, no, and no. To one's own personal subjective conceptions and opinions.  

And if one's own personal conceptions, enshrined as the heart of Constitutional liberty, are offended by another's religious beliefs, when publicly exercised?  Then of course, the latter must give way to the former.  (The First Amendment speaks of the "free exercise" of religion, but certain politicians and jurists are increasingly uncomfortable with that terminology, and prefer to employ the phrase "freedom of worship" not of "exercise". The majority in Obergefell for example, in claiming that their decision would not unduly impact faith, made no reference to free exercise. Perhaps some words really do have objective meanings after all, and must therefore be ignored and avoided.)  The great analogy repeatedly made and employed by the same-sex marriage movement has been a comparison to the civil rights movement.  It is a false and an evil analogy.  But it has been accepted.  And that means the rest of the story will play out as follows: If you oppose same-sex marriage, or did so before the Supreme Court’s recent diktat, you are deserving of the same kind of scorn which we have heretofore reserved for members of the Ku Klux Klan. Your right to dissent, to speak out, to exercise your own religious beliefs in how you conduct your own personal or business affairs is simply not worth preserving.  You may go to Church, if you must, but what you say and do there must be kept within the walls of your own Church and your own home, and never acted upon any where else.  Contra Madison, the demands of the secular state now take precedence over the demands of faith.  Step into the street, and you must not only tolerate, but celebrate and perpetuate and embrace your neighbor's personal concepts of existence, of meaning, of the universe, of marriage, of gender, and of the mystery of human life (so long as those personal concepts are not based in religion).  Or else.  

Loss 4: The Loss of Checks, Balances, Separation of Powers, and the Rule of Law.  

We now live in a nation which still calls itself a democratic republic, but is in fact only governed as such with and by the leave of the other two branches of government, when they find it convenient.   And when they do not find it convenient? The Executive branch issues Executive Orders, and its vast bureaucracy issues kabillions of pages of annual federal regulations, to override the laws passed through merely democratic processes.  And the Judicial branch no longer even pretends that it must tie itself to the text of the Constitution as understood and intended at the time the provision in question was written or amended, to validate their decision to strike down a law they happen to personally disagree with, as supposedly Unconstitutional.  Instead, they strike down disfavored laws based on how they the Justices determine the words of the Constitution should be read today, in a process of perpetual judicial amendment.  We claim to honor the rule of law, but in fact honor the rule of lawyers, especially lawyers in robes. When Judges act like legislators, real legislators, and the voters who put them there, become obsolete.  And when men are governed by laws written in words which judges and bureaucrats can read as meaning something entirely different than what the words actually say (because words mean whatever, subjectively, a judge or a bureaucrat wants them to mean) then men are not governed by laws at all, nor by the elected legislators who enacted them, but are governed instead by sympathies and emotions and refs with money on the game.  

It has been said that bad laws are among the chief enemies of the rule of law.  So are bad lawyers, especially the ones wearing robes.  I was not and am not a fan of Cliven Bundy and his Jacobin resistance to the rule of law.  But every time the judiciary makes stuff up (which they did not do in Bundy's case, but have done in many others), they encourage more such Jacobin resistance among a populace which cannot fathom why they should be bound by laws if their government is not.

The modern citizen agrees or disagrees with a Supreme Court Decision depending on whether or not he likes the outcome, not based on whether the outcome was in fact compelled by the language and intent of the Constitution.  

Our world no longer employs or understands the analogy of different hats, such as: When I go into the voting booth I am wearing a different hat than when I as a Judge preside over a trial.  When I go into the voting booth I am wearing a different hat than when I as a journalist report the news. When I go into the voting booth I am wearing a different hat than when I as a college professor teach history.  A nation without hats is a nation without separation of powers.  A nation without hats is no longer made up of three governmental branches and a fourth journalistic estate to act as checks and balances upon each other.  The root source of this loss of hats is easily found: the self-anointed's belief that the virtuous cause of social justice (however they are defining it this week) is more important than the ends utilized to obtain it.  The ends they seek are so righteous and so virtuous and so important, that any means justify these noble ends: Gay marriage is more important than the proper role of the judiciary in a constitutional republic.  And so are a lot of other things. Getting a favored Presidential candidate elected is more important than practicing honest and objective journalism about any subject which might discomfit the cause.  And so are a lot of other things.  Telling the next generation what to think, and training them up to be warriors for social justice is more important than teaching University students facts and how to think.  And so are a lot of other things.   Challenging the traditions of the patriarchy is more important than a federal government which is sovereign solely as to its own limited and enumerated powers.  And so are a lot of other things. Shutting people up who do not think the way they are supposed to think, so we can silence them, rather than debate them, is more important than the First Amendment.  And so are a lot of other things.  

We have forgotten some of history's most important lessons: that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions; that no matter how virtuous the ends are which a beneficent dictator may seek, or even realize, relying on dictatorial power to achieve such ends leaves the populace at risk of the evil ends which the next dictator may use his power to achieve. A Marcus Aurelius will inevitably, eventually, be succeeded by a Commodus.  The same judicial power grab which gave us Obergefell previously gave us Dred Scott.  The doctrine of ends which justify procedurally improper means is fit for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or Pol Pot’s Cambodia or Fidel Castro’s Cuba.  But not for America as its institutions were once understood by anyone who had passed 5th grade civics. The whole point of the clunky procedural safeguards, separation of powers, and checks and balances in our Constitutional system is to differentiate America from nations where the government's most powerful officer or officers, can do whatever they want to, just because they think it's a marvelous idea.  To live in a world where any officer of the government can do whatever it thinks would be a marvelous idea, is to live in pre-Christian Rome or post WWII Eastern Europe. As post-Christian America becomes increasingly similar to such places, it won't just be the elderly believers in our culture's former Judeo-Christian values who find it an unfortunate place to live.  It will be everyone who holds no government office. 

Christianity and Society

Each of the losses described above are, in their own way, based on the loss of a Judeo-Christian frame of reference.  

The Christian not only believes in a Child-centric sexual morality, and a Government which protects his rights to religious liberty.  He also has little use for placing too much power in the hands of too few elites.  It is no mere coincidence that the French Revolution, steeped in anti-Clericalism, rejected a system of separated powers which might have checked and balanced the new regime's leaders, and prevented the bloodshed of the Terror into which that revolution fell as it consumed its own children.  Or that America rejected not only the Anti-Christianity of Thomas Paine, but also his call for a unitary government led by a single assembly.  

The Christian understands that humanity is fallen, and that a Utopian Eden may not be reclaimed by human efforts, but only by divine grace in God's due time. This tragic understanding makes him suspicious of major societal transformations, in an attempt to build a tower to God, or create a new Utopian Eden through the efforts of man. Such societal transformations inevitably come with unintended consequences, far worse than whatever evil is sought to be remedied through their implementation. Knowing that man is not an angel, but is fallen, and prone to corruption, the Christian citizen fears the evil the all-powerful can do, more than he cherishes the hope of the good they might accomplish, and favors dispersed and separated powers.  He doubts the ability of any one fallen man, or few fallen oligarchs, to govern wisely and show the way to a better future, unrestrained by tradition or majority opinion. History has proven the Christian view to be correct.  But a Nation which no longer reads history, and gets its values from cable television rather than Judeo-Christian scripture, has set a new course. 

Again from G.K. Chesterton, in Orthodoxy:  "The one specially and peculiarly un-Christian idea is the idea . . . that the man should rule who feels that he can rule.  Whatever else is Christian, this is heathen.  If our faith comments on government at all, its comment must be this--that the man should rule who does NOT think that he can rule. . . .   [W]e have not got to crown the exceptional man who knows he can rule.  Rather we must crown the much more exceptional man who knows he can't."   From this perspective, the most post-Christian characteristic of the modern Supreme Court is not their views on sexual morality, or their ruling on the meaning of marriage, but their lack of judicial restraint in overturning laws they don't like, without any constitutional basis, on questions where the Constitution is silent.  They are not post-Christian merely because their morality is post-Christian. They are post-Christian because of their certainty that they are fit to make these decisions free from democratic restraint, check, or balance.  They are post-Christian because they are far too comfortable in their crowns.  

Thursday, April 30, 2015

How to Prepare a Sacrament Meeting Talk

I am blessed to live in a ward which has really amazing Sacrament speakers, consistently, week after week.  Seeing how they do things has inspired me to do better.  These thoughts represent simply my own personal opinions on some of the rules of preparation that can allow a Sacrament Meeting Talk to do what it is meant to do.  Though described as rules, they are not hard and fast.  I'm sure some of the best talks I've ever heard have broken one or more of these rules:

So there you are.  It's Sunday morning, and you stand in front of a congregation of your fellow Latter-day Saints, freshly rebaptized by the Sacramental ordinance, and ready now to be spiritually fed. By you.  Today's Sacrament meeting speaker.  They are your neighbors and your friends and your co-workers in the glorious cause of building Zion.  According to C.S. Lewis, they are among the holiest sights that will ever be presented to your senses. Daunted?  You should be.  Your task is important, and you have hopefully taken it very seriously. A talk which uplifts, edifies, engages, and elevates will allow the members of the congregation to feel the spirit.  It may even accomplish the most important task of all.  It may even inspire us in the congregation to repent, and thereby fully effectuate the promise of the bread and the water which we have just taken. Alma 31:5 teaches that the effective preaching of the word has a more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword.  An uplifting Sacrament talk is one of Heavenly Father's most powerful tools.  Present it unto him sharpened and clean and ready, and His Spirit will help you to use it true.

A meandering, mediocre, dialed-in performance will, on the other hand, make it just a little bit harder for the members of the congregation to want to come to Church next week.  The faithful can persist for week after week of boring Sacrament meetings.  But the less faithful?  The investigator?  The recently baptized member who misses NFL afternoons?  The young person struggling with their testimony?  Not so much.  A boring Sacrament meeting talk is a tool in the hands of Satan.  Don't give it to him.

This is not to say that avoiding boredom is your first task.  Novelty for the sake of novelty, or entertainment value for the sake of entertaining is not the point.  If it were, we could bring in rock music, like some of the other Christian churches are doing.  No. Your task is not merely to engage. Engagement for its own sake has no value.  You are there to teach.  And you need to engage so that we in the congregation might be taught.

So here are some rules you might consider as you prepare your talk.

1.  Number one:  Organize your talk around a doctrinal premise, not a doctrinal topic.  This, more than anything else, will bring focus to your task, as you organize your thoughts, and will ensure that you will sit down from your presentation having actually said at least one thing.  And if you actually say one thing, the possibility at least exists that it will be something which was worth saying.  A premise is a full sentence.  A topic is a word or a phrase.  The bishopric member who asks you to speak will likely give you a topic.  That is a place for you to start.  Now narrow it by choosing a premise.  Let's say, for example, that he asks you to speak on faith. There's about a billion things you could say about faith, many of them not even religious.  Or, if he is having a particularly good week, he may even ask you to speak on Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.  That's better, but you'll still need to focus.  Now, turn that word or phrase into a statement (that is to say: a full --not an incomplete-- sentence) which statement will form the core message of your talk: "Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ invites repentance." Perfect.

You can tell the audience what your premise is right from the beginning, and then discuss it, and then remind them at the end what your talk was about (tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them), which is a good structure for youth and beginners; or you can build to your premise. Whatever works.  The important thing is that, if you choose your premise carefully, you will be teaching doctrine.  Boyd K. Packer has repeatedly stated that true doctrine, properly understood, changes behavior, and that the study of doctrine will do more to change behavior than the study of behavior will do to change behavior.  If you organize your talk around a doctrinal statement you will be teaching doctrine, which leads to changing behavior, i.e., repentance, which the Doctrine and Covenants tells us, again and again, is the only thing that we should be preaching to this generation.

By way of illustration and example, here are some doctrinal premises, any one of which would make the core of a fine Sacrament Meeting talk:  Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ motivates us to repent. Jesus Christ's Atonement allows our repentance to be effective.  The Atonement of Jesus Christ allows our will to become more perfectly at one with that of our Heavenly Father. The Atonement of Jesus Christ reconciles, or brings at one, the eternal principles of justice and mercy. The Atonement of Jesus Christ can cause our spirits and our bodies to be brought at one, not only in the resurrection, but during this life.  The blessings of the Atonement are available to all who offer up a broken heart and a contrite spirit.  The Holy Ghost testifies of Jesus Christ.  God is our Father.  We are the children of heavenly parents and we have a divine destiny.  We believe in being chaste.  The Prophet Joseph Smith saw God the Father and Jesus Christ.  Because of the restoration, the full blessings of the Atonement are again available on the earth.  Joseph Smith was the first Prophet of our dispensation.  Gospel ordinances allow us to make and keep covenants with our Heavenly Father, which will bring the blessings of the Atonement into our lives.  The Book of Mormon is the word of God.  The Book of Mormon testifies of Christ and of His Atonement.  We are led by Prophets, Seers, and Revelators.  It is only through grace that we are saved.  We obey the Commandments to be changed by the Atonement.  If you can't think of any premises, look through the Articles of Faith.  Or open Preach My Gospel to the missionary discussion chapters, where you will find premise after premise of docrinal truth.

2.  Number two:  Support Your Premise.  No, your talk is not a legal brief, or talking points for a debate tournament.  You don't need to pretend the audience contains a skeptic and try to convince her of your premise.  But the point of organizing your talk around a premise is to narrow and focus your ideas and thoughts, so that your talk will be about something specific.  Having a premise doesn't do you any good if your talk then launches off into several different directions instead of supporting your premise.  If you had a High School English teacher who taught you about deductive essays, invoke that format.  If you didn't learn about deductive essays in High School, google it.  The support for your premise can include scriptures, but if so don't just read the key scriptural passages, give the context and explain the passages.  The support for your premise can include quotes from General Authorities or other "famous people", but if so don't give a "talk on a talk" where you simply rehash and summarize an entire text from last Spring's General Conference.  Instead, choose quotes that fit your point as precisely as possible, or which say what you want to say more eloquently than you could say it.  The support for your premise can take the form of stories, but be careful to use stories from reputable sources, not faith-promoting rumours that can end up tearing down faith when someone hears an altered variation of the same Mormon urban legend a few months later.  If you are using stories that are meant to be taken allegorically, and not as factually accurate, make that clear, and choose an analogy that is appropriate.  The support for your premise can include lines from a hymn, or poetry.  We don't get nearly enough poems in Church anymore. It can include a scene from a well known movie, or a passage from a famous play, but for obvious reasons, choose your movie wisely.  Significantly, your premise can find support in questions: "What does it mean to have a broken heart and a contrite spirit?"  You aren't in a class setting though, so you'll have to handle such questions carefully, perhaps by discussing your own struggle to find an answer, and what you may have tentatively come to understand.  

Unless you are a recently returned missionary giving his homecoming talk, there are no set rules for supporting the premise of your talk.  (If you are a recently returned missionary reporting on your mission, then there are set rules: whatever your premise, support it with stories from your mission.  That's what your relatives came to hear. And that's what all of us in the congregation are hoping our children will hear. Your talk is a recruitment tool for future missionaries and for member missionary engagement.  It took you two years of gruelling labor to come up with 20 minutes worth of faith-promoting stories, and now is your time to tell them, including to a group of Deacons who don't need to know about the gruelling labor, and just need to know that missions are awesome! Tell your stories.  Don't blow it.)

But even though there are no set rules, some things do work better than others, and you should be aware of two of them:  

First and foremost, know that personal stories, from your own life, or stories from the lives of your own family, or ancestors, will be far more meaningful to you, and therefore far more engagingly told, than will any story you get from any other source.  This is so important that it's almost a hard and fast rule.  If your entire talk consists of other people's stories, or quotes and scriptures, throw out the middle 1/3 and replace it with something closer to home. There is a brother in my ward who tells a story about an incident which occurred one December evening that he spent at his failed Christmas Tree Lot venture.  I have heard that story about three times.  It has never failed to make me cry. Brother J is engaged by that story, because it is his story.  And so I am engaged as well.  I will never forget the first time I heard Brother L, recently released from our Stake's high council, tell his story of growng up in  a broken home and being converted to the gospel.  His story is so powerful that just hearing it can convert others.  Keep it personal. We want to add YOUR TESTIMONY and YOUR WITNESS and YOUR STORY to our hearts, not just be told hearsay from others whose voices we can read at home on our own.  Secondly, for scriptural stories, try as much as possible to use stories that come from the life and the teachings and the parables of the Savior.  For my money, one of the greatest BYU Devotionals ever given was from Thomas B. Griffiths, The Root of Christian Doctrine, from March 14th, 2006.  
In that address, Judge Griffiths' spoke about an organized effort by a student Stake over which he presided, to ensure that all of their Sacrament and other Sunday meetings were rooted in the Atonement of Christ.  To do so, he encouraged instructors to draw upon Christ's life and teachings in presenting curriculum material, making this point: "When we are talking about [Christ's] life and using the words he said, we are remembering him, and a power comes into our teaching that is otherwise not present."  

3.  Number Three.  Avoid Unforced Errors.

A lot of important points could be made here.  I'll stick to some essentials:

- Practice your talk at home, and time it when you practice it.  It will almost certainly be longer than you imagined.  Giving the last speaker little time to give remarks which he spent just as much time as you to prepare can create spirit-destroying awkwardness in a meeting.  Keeping young children squirming in their parents' laps long after the time for the meeting to end has the same effect. Keeping it short will help you to keep it focused and concentrate on the good stuff.

-Do not write your entire talk or you will be tempted to read it, and a talk which is read is lifeless. Write down quotes.  Write down scriptural passages.  Write down important ideas or your treatment of any potentially delicate issue, that you want to make sure you articulate carefully and correctly. But everything else should be in the form of an outline so we in the congregation can hear you conversing with us, not reading to us.  The spirit might direct you to say something you hadn't quite expected to say.  This can only happen if you are open to being guided by the spirit, and you won't be open to that if you are controlled by a written text.

- Avoid politics and controversy. Most of us have very strong political viewpoints.  Anyone who has read this blog knows I do. And those opinions are very much influenced by my own personal take on the Mormon paradigms which instruct my worldviews.  It is certainly appropriate to speak on our Mormon paradigms and the spiritual components of our worldviews in Church, but not in a manner which hints of partisan promotion. When in doubt, don't go there.  Not in Sacrament Meeting.  Not the time.  Not the place.  If you are going to quote a famous historical figure who was involved in politics, he or she should be dead.  The longer he's been dead, the better.  If she died before any one in the congregation was born, she's perfect.  On rare occasion, it may be appropriate for the Sacrament Meeting speakers to deal with an issue which has political dimensions, such as freedom of religion, the divine origins of the Constitution, or the importance of civic engagement and awareness. On even more rare occasions, some political topic of current concern which has a clearly moral dimension, on which the Church has taken an explicit stand, might be addressed in Sacrament Meeting.  The wise will not volunteer to address these topics or look for opportunities to put their thoughts regarding the same into their talks unless they have been expressly and explicitly asked to do so by the bishopric.  If the Bishopric or the Stake leadership feels inspired to have such a topic addressed, let the Bishopric carefully choose the speaker who will address that matter, or let them address it. If you have been tasked as that speaker, find recent Conference Address quotes from the Apostles and the First Presidency on the topic in question to guide your thoughts, and run your remarks by the bishopric ahead of time. Otherwise, choose a gospel premise, not a political premise.  Your task is to inspire the congregation; to help them feel the spirit; to strengthen their testimony and understanding of a doctrinal principle of the restored gospel, to motivate them to repent.  Not to tell them how to vote.

- No gimmicks.  The handbook advises that Sacrament Meeting is not the time or place for visual aids or multi-media presentations. The same is true of other forms of novelty.  Some clever method you have found to get your Sunday School class's attention at the beginning of class; or some behavior that might work well in a skit, and might be perfectly approriate and even effective during the second or third hour of church, is not thereby rendered safe for Sacrament meeting.  Don't encourage your audience to be like the people of Mars Hill at Athens, who were described in the book of Acts as constantly seeking after "some new thing."  Novelty for its own sake has no place in Church.  And even novelty for the sake of something important, which might be effectively deployed in Sunday School, still has no place in Sacrament meeting.  You are not there simply to engage or entertain. But to engage reverently and for a higher purpose.  When a great speaker sits down, her audience will not be thinking about what a great or entertaining speaker she is.  They will be thinking about what they learned. (My favorite Roger Ebert movie review is his skewering of the film, The Dead Poet's Society, in which he made the point that, at the end of a truly great teacher's class on  English literature, the students would love English literature, not just love the teacher. The same principle applies here.  Your talk is about the gospel, not about your skills as an engaging speaker.)

- Know the very first thing you are going to say when you first stand up. Hemming and hawing for the first several seconds will not invite the spirit.  Don't start with humour unless you really need to do so to relax yourself, or the audience looks dead tired and you are sure you are good at it, and you are sure you know the bounds of propriety.  Most people don't pass all those tests and should just take a pass on the opening joke. Telling us about the phone call from the first counselor and the topic you received is inherently uninteresting.  You shouldn't be speaking on a topic anyway, you should have taken the topic you were given and turned it into a premise.  Stand up and start saying something that matters.  

4. Number Four: Testify of the Atonement and Tie the Atonement into Your Premise.   The Atonement of Jesus Christ is the core principle of the Gospel.  Boyd K. Packer has called it the very root of our doctrine.  The Prophet Joseph taught that all of the other doctrines of the restored gospel are merely appendages to its core truths. Whatever the topic you have been assigned, in order to fully understand that topic, you must understand how it relates to the Atonement.  If you are not able to see the connection, then you don't understand the topic you have been asked to speak on as well as you need to.  Ponder and pray and make the connection and help the congregation to make it as well.  Again, from Brother Griffiths: "If you cannot figure out the link between the topic you are to teach and the Atonement of Christ, you have either not thought about it enough or you shouldn't be talking about it at church.  In our limited time in church, we must be talking about the Atonement of Christ."   Testify of the Atonement as you conclude your talk.  This will make you a prophet, giving revealed truth.  Revelation 19:10. Nothing could be more powerful.   

5.  Number Five.  Stay Humble.  The members of the congregation who were most influenced by your talk will be those who left the service with an idea in their mind which was put there by the spirit.  There is a better than even chance that this concept won't be directly based on anything you actually stated.  This doesn't let you off the hook. The spirit won't tell any member of the congregation what the spirit needs us to know if we are trying to puzzle out where you are going or falling asleep during your remarks.  All of the foregoing rules still apply, and there may be some members of the congregation who are actually taught what you hoped they would be taught.  But remember that that is not necessarily the point.  After taking the Sacrament, the members of the congregation didn't stay in our pew to hear you, but to hear the Spirit, through you.  Follow these rules, or another set that works better for you, and you may be able to give us that opportunity.