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Culture Q&A

Michael Medved

Remarkable providences

Accidents, adjournments, and absences in U.S. history manifest the fingerprints of God

Remarkable providences

Michael Medved (Illustration by Raul Allen)

Passover and Easter are brothers, as are Jews and Christians, as are (metaphorically) national talk show host Michael Medved and I. We both grew up in Jewish homes and had immigrant grandparents who grew to love America. He became an Orthodox Jew, I became a Christian, and we’ve both written books praising this sweet land of liberty. 

We also agree that God acts providentially in history, but I tend to emphasize more that we don’t know why some things happen. In Michael’s new book, God’s Hand on America: Divine Providence in the Modern Era, he tells of how William Seward in 1867 pushed hard for the United States to purchase Alaska, while others mocked him and called it “Seward’s icebox.” We talked about Seward and then moved on to others: Here are edited excerpts. 

Let’s discuss some of the remarkable deliverances you describe. William Seward, Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State, broke his jaw in a carriage accident nine days before the night of Lincoln’s assassination. Seward was in bed and almost helpless when Lewis Powell, an accomplice of John Wilkes Booth, came to murder him.

What delivered him was the contraption the doctors had set up—a device made of metal plates that covered his throat and set his jaw in place. Powell brought the knife down at least four times against Seward’s throat, but it kept hitting the metal plate. If Seward had not survived, America would not have acquired Alaska from Russia in 1867, and in 1962 the Soviet Union would have had missiles not just in Cuba but in Juneau. 

So that metal plate Seward had because of the accident was part of God’s providence—but if Seward hadn’t had that accident, he might have been better able to defend himself. He might even have gone with his wife to Ford’s Theatre with Abraham and Mary Lincoln and saved Lincoln’s life. We know that God does act providentially, but couldn’t that carriage accident have been curse rather than blessing-in-disguise?

It’s beyond what we really know, but not what we can infer. I also learned that Seward believed America should acquire any property that it could. He was behind the Guano Islands Act, an 1856 law that gave the United States claim to any island with bird droppings on them that could be used for fertilizer if that island wasn’t claimed by anyone else. Seward, in the midst of his negotiations for Alaska, filed the papers to give America title to Midway Atoll.

In 1942 the battle near that island was the turning point in the war with Japan.

Does this mean that without Seward taking that step America would not have won the war in the Pacific? I’m not arguing that, but there’s something extraordinarily haunting in the providential deliverance of Secretary Seward, at a very grim time when the president of the United States had been lost.

You also write about Theodore Roo­sevelt escaping death during the Spanish-American War, and then escaping assassination in 1912 when a folded-up speech and an eyeglasses case slowed up a bullet aimed at his heart.

Roosevelt was a prime target as he led his regiment on horseback during the so-called Battle of San Juan Hill, but he went untouched: Eyewitnesses to the battle believed there was something supernatural about that. Later, the United States at the beginning of World War I had a military the size of Portugal’s. Without the pressure to grow the Army that Roosevelt provided, it is unlikely that we would have had the same results we did in World War I.

It is amazing that in 1912 he spoke for an hour with a bullet in him, but the election overall was a disaster. The Republican Party, split between Taft and Roosevelt, allowed Woodrow Wilson to be elected. He was an awful president, and it seems to me the U.S. entry into World War I was a mistake. After the assassination attempt, was Roosevelt’s continuing to run a blessing or a curse? 

I’m also very skeptical about the idea that America did the right thing by entering the war, but there was no doubt in Roosevelt’s mind that we had to do that. He maintained that belief even though his youngest son, Quentin, was killed in the war.

I do like your profiles, and we’re agreed that it would have been a disaster had Henry Wallace, Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president during the early 1940s, become president in 1945.

In 1944 Henry Wallace was vice president. Roosevelt did not know the extent to which Wallace had been deeply involved with the extreme left, including the Communist Party, and with a guru cult. The Democratic convention featured a rousing demonstration on behalf of Wallace. Florida Sen. Claude Pepper was rushing to the podium to place Wallace’s name in nomination, but seconds before he reached the podium the convention chairman gaveled an adjournment for the day—and the next day Harry Truman gained the nomination. 

Wallace would have gained the nomination in that burst of excitement.

Pepper tried to speak through his microphone, but it had been turned off. All of this had to do with behind-the-scenes manipulation by some political bosses, but it was not only important to some of these political bosses: It was impor­tant to the boss of the universe. It was very important in the cosmic scheme of things that Stalinism not be the wave of the future. Truman made all the difference in setting up the structures that allowed us to win the Cold War, and in recognizing the state of Israel 12 minutes after it was proclaimed.

Didn’t Wallace later realize some of his errors?

Wallace ran as a basically pro-Stalinist fringe candidate in 1948, against Truman. The story of that campaign is remarkable and horrifying, but later he acknowledged that he had been wrong about Stalin, and seemed to acknowledge that it was good Truman replaced him as vice president. It was a great providential blessing that the churchgoing and hymn-singing Baptist boy from Missouri became president rather than the guru-following New Ager from Iowa.

Amen on that. It’s amazing that 75 years have gone by since Truman approved the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I’m not aware of any other time in human history that a massively effective new weapon hasn’t been used for such a long time. That to me is a great sign of God’s mercy.

I think it is. I do ask: Why would God, Who has special protection for America, allow Abraham Lincoln to be shot in 1865? I keep coming back to Lincoln’s sense of himself as a humble instrument of God’s purposes. I see Lincoln was sent for the purpose of preserving the Union and ending slavery, both of which he accomplished literally days before his killing. It’s utterly extraordinary, and seems to be God wanting to call attention to His own purposes, that the surrender at Appomattox by Robert E. Lee was on Palm Sunday, and Lincoln is killed on Good Friday.

You also write about Martin Luther King Jr.

In his final speech, 19 hours before he was killed, King reflected in detail about how close he came to dying with an assassin’s knife in his heart 11 years before. He thanked God for having preserved him for those years. His sense of purpose and instrumentality was remarkable.

But many historians write as if God does not exist.

In American historiography there’s a great tendency to downplay a specifically Christian element. That’s a shame. Even Thomas Paine, who challenged Christian belief, saw that there was no explanation for what had happened in the formation of the United States of America without looking to a higher power.

Let’s conclude with some thankfulness about the bad but educational political experiences each of us had in the 1970s soon after college. You briefly became the campaign manager for a radical congressman, Ron Dellums, who represented the People’s Republic of Berkeley, Calif. What was the most horrifying part?

First was the use of cocaine, because I have never been a drug-sympathetic person. The second most horrifying part was campaign money doled out in cash and paper bags. 

That contributed to your movement from left to right?

It wasn’t just Dellums, it was living in Berkeley: My four years there were three of the happiest days of my life. You could say that mad Berkeley hurled me into conservatism, because in America we make our political decisions not necessarily by feeling enthusiastic for one side but by recoiling in horror from the other side. That was certainly my experience in the early 1970s.

Which came first, your political change or your movement from secular to Orthodox Judaism?

Probably religious change first. I was dating a young lady and believed my parents were negative toward her simply because she wasn’t Jewish. I was determined to show them the values of Judaism were more universal and started looking at Jewish texts for the first time to win those arguments. I found those texts compelling. I began experimenting with a minor Jewish observance: candle-lighting on Friday night, going to Shabbat meals. Every aspect of Jewish observance, including some of the dietary restrictions and daily prayer, improved the quality of my life, made me happier.

You’re 71 and must be thinking of mortality. Judaism has had broad debates about what happens after death. Where do you come out on that?

That’s an extraordinarily complicated question. The most widely accepted sort of itemization of the fundamentals of Jewish faith is that provided by ­Maimonides, who died in 1204. One of his 13 principles of faith is believing that the soul is eternal: There is a ­resurrection.