Are Historians Angels or Hangmen?
Hillsdale College historian Wilfred McClay presciently stated, “History is to social identity what memory is to individual identity. Without points of reference provided by historical consciousness, we soon forget who and what we are, and we perish.”
History, then, encompasses more than cold-hard dates and names—the details college students in their American history or World Civ courses find so difficult to remember. History and historical memory root a people or nation together by a story that teems with both heroic triumphs and disastrous failures, all of which redounds with significance for our national identity. We are narrative creatures, which makes the study of history a necessary part of what it means to be human. The chronicles of our past demand to be told.
But memory possesses underlying dangers. At times, the individual’s memory can betray or belie reality. We “remember” parts of a story, or an event to highlight our own innocence or virtue; we conveniently contrive the past to atone for our sins or remove the suspicion of guilt. Any parent of young children instantly resonates with this phenomenon. Somehow, the vase met its own demise, falling to the ground of its own accord, unaided by the children who had just recently been running through the house. In this instance, memory has been tampered with to meet the needs of a present situational crisis. This rather benign example, however, can manifest in more egregious ways with horrific consequences.
The troubles that accompany individual memory apply to historical memory. Indeed, the storyteller can weave together a curated selection of narrative threads to create a tapestry with a telos. The story suddenly becomes subservient to the contemporary needs of the historian, regardless of what truly happened. In this way, the “points of reference” that historical consciousness provides for a society now serve whatever agenda the historian has in mind when writing his or her chronicle.
This is the weaponization of history.
This kind of history was the subject of a recent op-ed by the president of the American Historical Association, James Sweet. Professor Sweet, a historian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, argued against the rise of “presentism,” a methodological approach to history that interprets “the past through the lens of the present.” As Professor Sweet argued, presentism deliberately overlooks the customs, values, culture, and worldview of historical subjects, neglecting the concepts of context and change over time. “The allure of political relevance,” he lamented, “encourages a predictable sameness of the present in the past. This sameness is ahistorical.” As an example, Sweet pointed to the 1619 Project, which attempted to reframe American history—and American historical memory—around slavery and white supremacy. Its central thesis asserted that “nearly everything that has made America exceptional grew out of slavery.”
Several leading historians from elite institutions expressed “strong reservations” about numerous factual and structural errors in the 1619 Project, which, as they stated, aimed at a “displacement of historical understanding by ideology.” For professor Sweet, the 1619 Project reduced history to a “zero-sum game of heroes and villains viewed through the prism of contemporary racial identity.”
Within forty-eight hours of its publication, Professor Sweet appended an apology to his original article. In his words, the argument he made caused “harm” and “damage” to his compatriots in the historical academy. He added the apology because of the uproar his article caused on social media. Beth Allison Barr stated that Sweet’s argument was “denigrating” the work of historians who write “history that reaches the present.” She insisted: “The problem isn’t presentism.” Habiba Ibrahim lambasted Sweet’s piece as well, stating that the category of “presentism” was specifically deployed to “immobilize the descendants of enslaved and colonized people in time. It’s discursive violence. It foists the condition of immobility onto us, condemning us to a past-less and future-less present.” To condemn presentism, in short, tends towards racism.
Malcolm Foley, furthermore, wrote a longer critique of Sweet’s article, suggesting that the “Black American intellectual and political tradition” necessarily produces academic content with the present in mind. “This tradition,” he suggested, “has never been ‘objective’ nor has it sought to be so. In fact, so-called ‘objectivity’ is not only a myth, but it is morally reprehensible.” Foley went on to call Sweet and others who supported anti-presentism in the historical academy as those constrained by fear–fear of losing employment because academic boundaries between disciplines like history and sociology are “meshing.”
Thus, rather than letting the undiluted past confront us, the presentist historian mines the chronicles for the materials needed to smith together whatever story he needs to tell for his present political and social context.
The 1619 Project is but one example of the broader problem of presentism in the historical academy. In short, presentism manipulates historical memory. It wields a set of primary sources to prove a present political point and does so with little to no regard for the context of those under scrutiny. History, then, becomes a bludgeon, used to disparage political opponents in the public square. An example might read something like this:
- The presentist concern: Christians in 21st century America want “religious freedom” so that they can discriminate against people they “hate,” especially LGBTQ people.
- The weaponized history: This impulse to veil religious liberty under the guise of “religious freedom” extends from a longstanding practice of Christians who used the same rhetoric to justify slavery and white supremacy.
- The conclusion: A Christian cake baker who wants religious liberty to refuse to bake a cake for a gay marriage is synonymous with the motivations that guided slave-owners and skinheads. Religious liberty, therefore, is largely an oppressive idea used by majority powers to provide legal cover for their bigotry and discrimination.
That example might seem far-fetched. On the contrary, it is a summation of an argument that ran in The Washington Post in 2017. The history of an idea—in this case, religious liberty—succumbed to the presentist concern regarding LGBTQ equality, sexual ethics, and gender ideology. Historical memory was reimagined and recrafted to fit a modern policy concern. The argument is clear: present claims for religious liberty are nothing more than the perennial cry to hate others and institutionalize bigotry. Our nation, furthermore, resisted and overcame this before with slavery; we should resist it now.
To be abundantly clear: using any political or religious argument to justify slavery or racial supremacy is wicked, no matter where it appears in the historical record. Slavery is part of America’s history and, by extension, our historical memory. It must be confronted honestly, with an unwavering commitment to pursue the truth. That is the historian’s task.
But, as McClay suggested, the idea of presentism transforms history into a “brutal simplification of the historical record.” In the case linking contemporary debates about religious liberty with slavery and racial discrimination, the historian has now become less a historian and more of an activist. To prove their point, furthermore, they would have to ignore at least two historical realities. First, the activist-historian would necessarily overlook how Christians usually called for religious liberty throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Figures like Roger Williams, John Clarke, John Murton, or Isaac Backus didn’t apply religious liberty as a license for slavery or racial discrimination. Indeed, the existence of Christian religious leaders or politicians who advocated for religious liberty and abolition would wrinkle the activist’s account—and there were many such figures that existed in American history, which leads to the second point. Linking liberty with bigotry would have to ignore who contended for the abolition of slavery and for equality. Here’s a hint: it wasn’t secular atheists.
For Christians outside the historical guild, this may all seem a bit jargony—a silly debate amongst academics who have nothing else better to do with their time. This would be a naïve conclusion. Again, history is to the nation what memory is to the individual. McClay contended that a proper historiography resuscitates forgotten parts of our past. Herbert Butterfield, moreover, wrote that “the historian is of greater service when he is a recording angel rather than a hanging judge.” Thus, it matters who tells our story and how they tell it.
Christians in every sector need a proper historical method, and one that certainly rejects the presentist approach. As John Wilsey wrote, “We all have a stake in this matter, whether we are writing history or just reading it. Sacrificing truth in the name of political ideology will bring forth more injustice, not less.”
Yet is presentism avoidable? Can we honestly expect a series of historical books by human authors that fit the bill as purely objective history? In a word, “no.” Objective history absent all personal interests and concerns is impossible because the historian is an embodied person, bound by his own time, space, and context. Present concerns or pressing contemporary questions often drive historians to take up particular stories and narratives from the past. My own historical research about the rise of religious liberty in colonial New England was, in part, animated by the modern quandaries over liberty of conscience in America. Even professor Sweet acknowledged, “Historical questions often emanate out of present concerns.”
Subjective tendencies burden us all. We have preconditions and weaknesses that can distort our abilities to tell the truth of the past as it happened. The historian must be aware of this pull as he embarks on all the work required to properly tell the story. Subjective awareness reminds us of our finitude, and the vast contextual differences that separate us from those who have gone before us. Furthermore, subjective awareness demands that, whatever contemporary concerns drove us to a particular story, we must do all that we can to mitigate and control those impulses as we explore the chronicles of the past. For the historian, this ought to instill a sense of patience, compassion, grace, and a willingness to tell the story of our past as it happened. Let the reader draw his or her own conclusions.
Christians ought to understand this. Indeed, Christians ought to make the best historians. We understand the realities of sin and depravity; but we also have a sincere belief in how God breaks through sin, working even dire situations for good and for his glory. As historian Allen Guelzo argued, the Christian historian cannot be a hangman. He stated:
I’m acutely conscious that I am a sinner, and I do not wish to have the full burden of those sins judged against me. What I crave from God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is redemption, justification, forgiveness. And if that is what I want, then I think I have an obligation as much as is reasonably possible to extend that to others. . . . If that is how I crave to appear before God when I come to give an account, then I need to exercise some of that myself in making historical reckonings.
His profound grasp of the gospel guided his historical method. Done this way, history humanizes and humbles us. It should confront us with our own depravity and weaknesses while also reminding us of our need for God and his work of redemption.
Again, in no way does this mean the historian passes over the egregious manifestations of wickedness in our historical memory. The context of Guelzo’s quote was during an interview about his biography of Robert E. Lee, wherein Guelzo frequently referred to Lee as a traitor. Guelzo, however, did not allow a presentist concern to constrain his historical method. In so doing, he told a compelling story filled with complexity and nuance, and asked the reader to join in with him in the story of a man like Robert E. Lee.
To be sure, constrained presentism exists on both the right and the left—everyone on the political spectrum bears the temptation to mine the past for present concerns. This temptation must be resisted.
Our innate proclivity to tell stories and forge historical memory must coalesce with an uncompromising set of virtues necessary for the storyteller. Without these qualities, a true historical consciousness of who and what we are as a nation will fade, and we ourselves will perish.
*Image Credit: Unsplash