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I’ll admit to mixed emotions about the protests against Woodrow Wilson at Princeton University. I first read about the racism of the former president (of both Princeton and the United States) in junior high in a piece claiming he endorsed the film Birth of a Nation as being “History written in lightning.” Though I subsequently learned that the quote is dubious, Wilson’s favorable writings about the Ku Klux Klan were not, nor was his work to promote segregation in the federal government and in the armed services.
Seeing a man formerly considered a hero of liberals and the Democratic Party torn from a podium of honor like communist statues after the fall of the Wall has its appeal for me. But another part of me — a better part, I think — sees the foolishness of a cultural revolution to purify unpleasant history from our presence. I think a healthy perspective comes from my faith and knowledge of Scripture.
One of the great heroes of the Bible is Abraham, the great man of faith who followed the call of God to find the Promised Land. But the book of Genesis repeatedly presents embarrassing episodes of this great man denying his own wife in moments of cowardice. And his son, Isaac, did the same thing. And his son, Jacob, was a momma’s boy and a swindler. Yet these men are honored as founders of the nation of Israel.
Moses is believed to have written the first books of Scripture and was God’s agent in presenting the Law to the nation of Israel and, in turn, the world. But Scripture also records the unfortunate fact that he murdered a cruel overlord who was abusing a Hebrew slave. David, of course, later murdered to cover up an adultery.
Those of us who grew up with the Bible learned these stories from an early age. And yet, there were never any protests. Never any occupations of the clergy’s office. Never any talk about throwing the Ten Commandments out of the Bible because the words were given by a killer or throwing out the Psalms because they were written by a philanderer who arranged the death of the man he cuckolded.
Those Bible stories prepared us to face the ugly truths of life that all men were imperfect and that nothing on this Earth was pure. That’s why, I think, we were able to accept that many of the Founding Fathers — who wrote so movingly about liberty — were slave owners. Just as Moses presented Laws he himself failed to follow, our country’s Founding Fathers often failed to live up to their own ideals. They recognized their own weakness, which led to such important concepts as the balance of powers.
How much better it is to have, as an example to follow, men and women who strove to do better, to proclaim virtue greater than they could themselves accomplish than to look for perfect heroes? We who believe in Original Sin are not surprised by the shortcomings of the cast of history.
There are a great many people in our history more worthy of respect than Woodrow Wilson but — for better or worse — he’s an indispensable part of our nation’s history and, specifically, of Princeton’s. Past or present, none of our leaders has ever been perfect. But many of them served a God who is perfect and sought to honor ideals greater than themselves.
Someday, these campus protesters may come to realize they aren’t perfect either.Published in