Reflecting on Religion and Citizenship in Chattanooga, Part One: Should Historians Make Moral Judgments On the Past?

I just returned from an excellent institute for Tennessee and Georgia history and social studies teachers at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga (UTC). The event was entitled “Religion and the Making of American Citizens” and it was sponsored by UTC’s Center for Reflective Citizenship.  Wilfred McClay, Jonathan Yeager, and Lucian Ellington made up the brain trust behind the event.  Twenty-four teachers, representing schools in Chattanooga, Memphis, Hixson (TN), Lindale (GA), Ringgold (GA), Ooltewah (GA), Signal Mountain (TN), Spring City (TN), and Lafayette (GA), participated in the institute.  It was a vibrant and engaged group.  In this post, I want to address Tracy McKenzie’s opening address to the teachers.

Tracy McKenzie is the chair of the history department at Wheaton College. He started off the conference with a powerful address about the role that religion could play in the school classroom. After discussing the provocative work of the late Warren Nord, a secularist who has made the controversial argument that it is unconstitutional to remove religion from the classroom, McKenzie turned to the subject of love.  He argued that if history teachers truly love their students they would not only teach them “what happened in the past” and “why what happened in the past happened in the way that it did,” but they would go even further, asking them to ponder whether what happened in the past was “good.” (McKenzie is borrowing here from Notre Dame historian Philip Gleason). When teachers ask students to think about whether a particular event in the past is “good,” they are challenging students to engage in work that is essentially religious.  This kind of engagement, McKenzie argues, belongs in the history classroom.

The teachers seemed to embrace McKenzie’s approach even as he claimed that such an approach goes beyond what most professional historians find acceptable.  Perhaps I am one of those professional historians who McKenzie chided in his talk. While the third part of Gleason’s formula (was what happened “good?”)  can have a place in the history classroom, I have argued that it must be done with a great deal of caution so that the discipline of history is not sacrificed to moral philosophy.

In the end, this is a friendly difference between two Christian historians. After spending twelve years teaching at a Christian liberal arts college, I find that making ethical, moral, and religious claims about people and movements in the past is rather easy for my students.  Most of them were raised in evangelical Christian homes where these kinds of judgments happen all the time.  As a result, I am often faced with the task of challenging them to understand, empathize, and explore the actions of those from the past on their own terms before jumping right away into whether or not such actions are “good” or “bad.”  While I certainly want the moral imagination of my students triggered by their

encounter with the past, they need to engage in the more elementary work of historical thinking before they dabble in moral philosophy.

Perhaps it might be a worthwhile exercise to read Tracy’s The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History alongside my own Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past?  

Whatever the case, I really appreciated McKenzie’s efforts on this front. I hope the teachers did as well.  What a treat!

Stay tuned.  A future post will explore the rest of the conference.