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Why Coolidge Matters: an Interview with Charles C. Johnson


You write: “Coolidge’s religious grounding prevented him from making Progressivism’s gravest mistake: rejecting the exceptional statesmanship of America’s founding.” He loved America’s founding principles, didn’t he, while Woodrow Wilson did not, right?

That’s right. One of the issues with the political left is that while they profess a love of America, they are always trying to remake it and deracinate it from its tradition and history. Wilson’s view was that the American system of government needed to change by tinkering with the machinery of government. The American system of separation of powers was too Newtonian, the thinking went, rather than evolutionary. It didn’t allow mutations, and change was what was wanted most. Wilson’s presidency (and his prior thought at Princeton) was to be an end-run around the American separation of powers.

Coolidge, by contrast, approached the American form of government as something to be revered. As he put it, “to live under the American Constitution is the greatest privilege ever accorded to the human race.” In Coolidge’s understanding, America had a missionary mission in the world. It was, after all, founded by Christian religious dissidents who had settled here because the sway of the “things unseen” mattered more than the things of the flesh.

As Coolidge saw it, the best statesmen and that the best politicians minister to man’s spiritual and moral nature, rather than just relying on efficiency arguments.

Indeed, for Coolidge, the ideal public servant was Christ. It was, as Coolidge put it, sacrifice of the fittest, not survival of the fittest, that revealed man’s real worth.

Wilson’s Christianity is far more Hegelian, far more Germanic, far more communal than Coolidge’s. His Christianity was also exclusionary, too, in the worst possible sense in that it didn’t seem to have overturned his deeply problematic racialist thoughts. While Coolidge is doing his best to censor the pro-Klan film Birth of a Nation, Woodrow Wilson was good friends with its author and invited him to the White House. Coolidge believed that blacks, Native Americans, immigrants, and others were equal citizens; Wilson treated them dismissively and sought to resegregate Washington.