The Magazine

Providence and the President

George W. Bush's theory of history.

Mar 10, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 25 • By JAMES W. CEASER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Conservatives also balked at any idea of an inevitable plan controlling the course of events. The Doctrine of History view removed responsibility and control from human actors, especially from actors inside the political realm. It eliminated nobility and greatness. Had it not been for Lincoln or Churchill, to pick two examples, would the course of human affairs ever have been the same? The French theorist Raymond Aron was celebrated for his classic formulation of this theme. History, Aron insisted, is ultimately an account of "events," where an event is "an act performed by one man or several men at a definite place and time . . . that can never be reduced to circumstances, unless we eliminate in thought those who have acted and decree that anyone in their place would have acted the same way." As this last condition is an absurdity, it follows that the Doctrine of History is a delusion. History, from a human point of view, must be indeterminate.

These thoughts about History were in the background when the liberal idea of Progress collapsed in the 1960s. Conservatives faced an unprecedented situation. The old shibboleth that named conservatism the party of order and liberalism the party of progress could now be no more than half true. If only by comparison, conservatives had become the more progressive force. But it was not just by default that conservatives captured this dimension in 1980. The new conservative leader, Ronald Reagan, was an inveterate optimist, as strong a believer in the American project and in the capacity for transformation as any president in American history. Following Reagan's cue, a new generation of conservatives emerged that put any hint of doom and gloom in the closet and made an unshakable confidence in the future the emblem of conservatism. Grover Norquist's claim was typical: "From Ronald Reagan, conservatives have learned optimism and discovered they are on the winning side of history."

The legacy of the Reagan years has left conservatives with the question of how to incorporate this message of optimism into conservative thought. Two different paths, not always clearly delineated, have been suggested, and while the practical differences between them may for the moment seem small, the theoretical differences are enormous. In one account, conservatives espouse a Doctrine of History of their own in the form of a conservative idea of Progress. What is supported by natural law, they argue, must necessarily manifest itself in a predictable way in the historical context. Since, for example, liberal democracy is the system natural to man, one can be sure it will spread throughout most of the world in centuries to come. Other conservatives refuse to cross what they see as the philosophical red line between nature and history. While conservative principles offer the best prospect for progress and have proven themselves in many areas, nothing in the historical realm ever happens by necessity. Conservatives must continue to keep in mind the place of accident in human affairs and the importance of political choices, which of course can also lead to reversals of fortune.

III.

GEORGE W. BUSH is the product, far more than his father, of the modern conservative movement. Like Ronald Reagan, he is a self-described optimist who once went so far as to chastise a conservative intellectual for the sin of pessimism. What Bush has added to the mainstream of conservatism is a religious dimension, which in the case of the question of History includes the theme of Providence.

Providence is one of the richest and most complex--and therefore one of the most variously interpreted--of all religious ideas. For many, of course, the mere mention of a religious term is sufficient to provoke Pavlovian accusations of political messianism; any idea of religious pedigree (other than the message of peace) is devoid of all sense. Yet those willing to consider the matter more deeply will find that traditionally, Providence has had a reasonably determinate meaning. One of its central themes is that the course of history, from a human standpoint, is unfathomable: "The Almighty has His own purposes." One conviction, however, remains supreme: While the path of events before us can never be fully known, and while there will always be difficulty and pain, Providence offers a basis for hope and a ground for avoiding despair. Yet it disclaims any pretension to know the future and offers no assurance of divine reward for our action in this world. At the practical level of human affairs, the focus remains on human responsibility and choice.

The most sublime evocation of the "providence of God" in political rhetoric appears as the central theme of Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural. This speech carries a message of ultimate hope without any guarantee of immediate reward. It keeps the focus in the political realm on duty, on the need to do right "as God gives us to see the right." These aspects of this great speech are well known, but less known, perhaps, are two other things. The first is that Lincoln's recourse to Providence was a response to the nineteenth-century precursor to the Doctrine of History that had circulated before the war and that taught, in the words of the historian George Bancroft, that "everything is in motion for the better. . . . The last political state of the world likewise is ever more excellent than the old." Standing where he did in 1865, after experiencing all of the agony and turns of fortune of the Civil War, Lincoln had come to know the centrality of political choice and to experience pathos. The second thing was that no sooner did Lincoln give the speech than he was widely criticized for not invoking God more directly on his side and for not promising a swift and certain reward. In one of his last letters, Lincoln explained that such a wish was contrary to the idea of Providence and unsuited to the education of a great people.

Although no one at this point can claim to know administration "policy" on Providence, President Bush's comments have followed in the Lincolnian mold. As he observed in his State of the Union address: "We do not know--we do not claim to know all the ways of Providence, yet we can trust in them, placing our confidence in the loving God behind all of life, and all of history." Without taking anything away from a practical kind of optimism, the theme of Providence seems to have separated the president from the embrace of anything like a Doctrine of History. The focus has been on duty. Perhaps this language, suitably developed and elaborated, provides the best framework for conservatives both to express and reconcile their hopes and fears about history.

Presidents, it hardly needs to be said, are not philosophers. Yet in their responsibility to act, it happens that their words sometimes open a dimension of theoretical insight that more abstract thought misses. Modern man is growing ever more impressed with his supposed mastery of the physical environment. By contrast, it is obvious that the course of history can never be brought under his complete control. There will always be shocks, surprises, and events. So long as this fact does not lead to skepticism and paralysis, it can serve as a salutary reminder of the intrinsic limits of the human situation. It bids us open our thoughts, in a spirit of wonder and awe, to something much larger than ourselves. And this too is a part of the conservative message.

James W. Ceaser is a professor of politics at the University of Virginia.