Moral reflection in the doing and teaching of history (part two). Or is *Believe Me* a work of history?

Why Study HistoryRead part one here.

This post is adapted from Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

Here are five suggestions for those who want to pursue Robert Gleason’s idea that the historian should always ask whether or not what happened in the past was “good.”

First, the historian’s primary responsibility is explanation and understanding, not moral criticism. They are not called to give their opinions about the past. Such activity is better left to the ethicists, theologians, and politicians. Those who do want to offer some level of moral reflection on the past should do so only after they, their students, or their readers have fully grasped what happened in the past and why it happened the way it did. Sometimes this kind of moral reflection works better in the classroom than it does in a book, article, or museum exhibit.

Second, when historian do speak and write ethically about what happened in the past, they should do so with caution so that preaching does not trump historical interpretation. In other words, historians should speak as historians to the moral concerns of the public. Historians, like everyone else, have opinions, and in the United States they are free to express those opinions, but when speaking to the public as historians they must do so with the goal of bringing historical thinking skills to bear on the issue at hand. As James Banner has noted, “Reform may arise from historical knowledge, but bringing about reform is the province of others–or at least historians on their days off.”

Third, when a historian engages in moralizing about the past, it should be characterized by mature moral thinking. Let’s think about this from the perspective of the Christian historian.  The Bible and church tradition provide Christians with a source of truth that enables them to shed moral light on all of human life, regardless of the era. But for Christian historians to engage in moral criticism well, they must have an adequate theological and biblical understanding of the Christian tradition. Sunday school Bible proof-texting will not cut it. Nor will moral platitudes (Hitler was “evil” or “The Declaration of Independence should be praised because it mentions “the Creator”) that are not grounded in deep theological or ethical thinking. At least one historian has even suggested that historians interested in doing “moral history” should first be trained in the discipline of moral philosophy.”

Fourth, historians should make moral judgments in an implicit rather than explicit manner. Christians who write history should take to heart the words of Adrian Oldfield:

If the historian litters his account of the past with explicit, stentorian, moral judgments, then the result is likely to be a very ugly piece of historical writing indeed, however much attention he scrupulously pays to evidence. But more judgments do not have to be delivered in such a thunderous manner. Historians can make clear their moral positions implicitly, in terms of the language they use, and in the tone and style of composition.

Historians should also avoid explicit moralizing because we, like the historical actors we write and teach about, are flawed humans. This belief should always be on the mind of historians as the thunder their moral prophetic condemnations on people in the past. George Marsden summarizes it well: “We can point out that we ourselves probably have similar blind spots and that, even though our mistreatment or neglect of our neighbors may not be as notorious or spectacular, we share a common humanity with those whose action we deplore.” This can be the most difficult part of writing moral history and it must always be balanced with the Christian’s or citizen’s responsibility to speak truth to power. Individual historians will strike this balance in different ways.

Fifth, and finally, historians should also remember to see historical actors as morally complex individuals before casting judgment on them. Thomas Jefferson might have been the champion of the ordinary farmer, religious freedom, public education, and small government, but he was also a slaveholder. Or to put this differently, Jefferson owned slaves, but he was also influential in promoting the democratic ideas that eventually led to emancipation. The complexity of the past will often trigger our moral imaginations. In a time when our politicians and students rest too comfortably in certitude, history’s moral turn may help “create productive confusion and a willingness to recognize that behind all our moral choices, whether past or present, lurks paradox, tragedy, and irony.”

Several people who read Why Study History? have asked me how my book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump and my regular criticism of Trump and the evangelicals who support him intersects with what I have written above. It’s a great question. Let me try to explain.

What I have written above is how I approach teaching and writing history–my primary vocation. But I also engage the public–especially here at the blog–as a father and husband, son of the working class, white educated male, seminary graduate, professor at a small college on the margins of academia and, most importantly, as a Christian. All of these identities inform my opinions, commentaries, and moral critiques. Often times they merge in such a way that makes it impossible to break them apart. As one of my favorite writers Richard Rodriguez once told the graduating class at Kenyon College, “life is a whole.”

I do not teach the way I write at this blog. Nor do I teach with the same political and moral tone that readers encounter in Believe Me. In fact, I don’t really understand Believe Me as a work of traditional history. It is too overtly political to call it that. Of course all of my books have some political dimension to them. I do not pretend that politics does not play a significant role in every historian’s work.  (Although I do lament that only one form of political thinking dominates the academy). But whatever kind of politics inform my other books, I made every effort in those books to read the record as honestly as possible and keep my own moral voice limited. In Believe Me, however, I let it rip. I stepped outside the historian’s traditional role and tried to speak as a Christian to my own tribe of Christians.

One more thing. Though Believe Me was unlike any of my other books, I think I still approached the subject as a historical thinker. As I tell my students, when a person learns to think historically it is hard to think about the world any other way, even when you are offering opinion and commentary.  In Believe Me I did my best to understand Trump and his evangelical supporters. I tried to interrogate claims like “Make America Great Again” from my training and expertise as a historian. I tried to marshal historical evidence to help readers see why evangelicals flocked to Trump. I also tried to take a long view and situate Trump’s evangelicals in a larger context that spans several centuries. This makes Believe Me different from other books about Trump and evangelicals. I tried to understand my subject historically and then, and only then, offer moral criticism in accordance with my training in Christian theology. In the end, I think I was somewhat consistent with what I wrote above and in Why Study History?

I am currently working on another book of history. But I also think I have some more historically-inflected opinion and commentary in me as well. Thanks for helping me think through this in public. For those familiar with Why Study History? you know that these last several paragraphs have moved the discussion beyond what I wrote in that book.