When Good Historians Talk About the “Right” and “Wrong” Side of History

MLK

I have never met Matthew Sutton, the Edward R. Meyer professor of history at Washington State University.  I admire his book American Apocalypse: A History of American Modern EvangelicalismYesterday he wrote an op-ed at The Guardian: Billy Graham was on the wrong side of history.”

Here is a taste:

When Billy Graham stands before the judgment seat of God, he may finally realize how badly he failed his country, and perhaps his God. On civil rights and the environmental crisis, the most important issues of his lifetime, he championed the wrong policies.

Graham was on the wrong side of history.

Did Graham, as Sutton suggests, “fail” his country or his God?  Sutton believes that he did, but this is not a historical question.

Sutton falls into the trap of claiming that there is a “right side” and a “wrong side” of history.  Such claims have nothing to do with history.  They have everything to do with politics.  They tell us more about Sutton’s politics than Billy Graham’s legacy.

I found this tweet from November 9, 2016, the day after the presidential election:

Read the rest of Sutton’s piece here.

4 thoughts on “When Good Historians Talk About the “Right” and “Wrong” Side of History

  1. Andrew Sullivan’s new column–a meditation on Auden, among other things–is a must-read. It bears, if only tangentially, on the topic at hand. He quotes Hannah Arendt:

    “In the 1940s there were many who turned against their old beliefs, but there were very few who understood what had been wrong with those beliefs. Far from giving up their belief in history and success, they simply changed trains, as it were; the train of Socialism and Communism had been wrong, and they changed to the train of Capitalism or Freudianism or some refined Marxism, or a sophisticated mixture of all three. Auden, instead, became a Christian; that is, he left the train of History altogether.”

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  2. From your tweet, it is clear that you are not interested in the “arc of the moral universe” as King calls it. However isn’t the “arc of progress” why we study history?
    For me, history is about the connections between individuals in the past informing the present. Without information from the past wouldn’t we still be hammering away in caves, or making the same mistakes of our forefathers?
    I wholeheartedly accept your notion that we as historians should not editorialize in the documentation of history. However, the act of the application of history and the application of the context for today necessitates some editorialization. That is even without going down the rabbit hole that truth is a construction.

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    • King was speaking as a preacher, operating in the prophetic mode. He was claiming to know the will of God, and was revealing what he believed, by faith, it was in the context of the struggles of his day (I have no reason to doubt he was right). And, as a good shepherd must, he was also discerning a ground for hope in a darkening hour.

      Historians aren’t “uninterested” in justice, or progress, or grounds for hope. Christian historians, specifically, aren’t uninterested in the doctrine of providence, or God’s will in the world.

      What they are–if they are careful Christian historians–is keenly (often painfully) aware that their tool-box (the empirical investigation of the past) lacks any reliable instruments for detecting the broad direction of history, providence, God’s will, or even–strictly speaking–right and wrong in many cases.

      What might look like apathy is actually, in these cases, humility.

      Speaking for myself, I wish I knew what God was up to, what the right side of history was, or is. I don’t. Sometimes it’s tempting to lie, but I try to resist. To some, my resisting that temptation can look like intellectual or moral cowardice. All I can say is, yes, it might look like that, but it’s really something other. I won’t say “I know” when I don’t, no matter how crowd-pleasing my affirmation might be.

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