Wilfred McClay on Historical Monuments

Kosciukso

Whether you agree or disagree with him, Wilfred McClay is always thoughtful. If I see his byline at First Things or another conservative outlet, I will always read the article. As one of America’s best conservative historians (not a historian of conservatism, a historian who is politically and intellectually conservative), and a winner of the prestigious Merle Curti Award, he plays an important role in public discourse.

I always learn something from Bill, as I did last Fall when we spent a couple of hours chatting in the Chattanooga airport.  (We talked about a lot of things as we waited for our flights–mostly small talk– but I distinctly remember his suggestion that we should think of the word “evangelical” more as an adjective [as in “evangelical Christian”] than a noun. I am still thinking that one over). I remember when Bill visited Messiah College in 2003 to deliver our American Democracy Lecture and, as a member of the board of the National Endowment for the Humanities, gave us some tips about how to get funding for our Center for Public Humanities. (We eventually landed an NEH grant to create the Center). I have long considered him a mentor and he has always been supportive of my career.

I am a bit embarrassed that I had to preface this post in this way, but I felt it was necessary because I am guessing a lot of people who read this blog are going to be upset with his recent piece at First Things, a short reflection on what is happening right now with American monuments.  Some may also get upset about my thoughts at the end of the post.

A taste:

But I think the most disturbing aspect of this episode, which perhaps indicates how deep our societal rot goes, has less to do with the rioters than with those in positions of authority. Rioters and miscreants we will always have, but that is why we have authorities. Ours, however, seem to have utterly abdicated. In city after city, mayors and governors decline to act against vandals, the police stand down, and the devil is allowed to take the hindmost. Corporations fall over themselves to advertise their virtuousness, and give what looks very much like protection money to organizations whose goals are openly subversive of the fundamental American political and social order. University administrators are all too willing to side with those who suppress free inquiry, and routinely cave to protestors rather than defend even the most fundamental tenets of academic freedom. 

The pulling down of statues, as a form of symbolic murder, is congruent with the silencing of dissenting opinion, so prevalent a feature of campus life today. In my own academic field of history, it is entirely of a piece with the weaponizing of history, in which the past is regarded as nothing more than a malleable background for the concerns of the present, and not as an independent source of wisdom or insight or perspective.

Those caught up in the moral frenzy of the moment ought to think twice, and more than twice, about jettisoning figures of the past who do not measure up perfectly to the standards of the present—a present, moreover, for which those past figures cannot reasonably be held responsible. For one thing, as the Scriptures warn us, the measure you use is the measure you will receive. Those who expect moral perfection of others can expect no mercy for themselves, either from their posterity or from the rebukes of their own inflamed consciences. 

But there is a deeper reason. It is part of what it means to be a civilized human being—it is in fact an essential feature of civilization itself—to recognize the partiality of all human achievement, and to cherish it and sustain it no less for that partiality. 

Read the entire piece here.

There is a lot to agree with in McClay’s analysis. I think McClay’s thoughts on Jefferson and his monuments echo the ideas I am hearing from Annette Gordon-Reed, Manisha Sinha, and Sean Wilentz.

Let’s also remember that McClay is writing in a Christian magazine. If we take Christianity seriously, we must reckon with McClay’s suggestion (I am not sure how he can know this for sure) that those who tear down monuments are motivated by “pure and unmitigated hate.” It does seem that one can be morally correct about a particular social cause, and still respond to such a matter in a manner defined by “pure and unmitigated hate.” I struggle with this on a daily basis as I write about Donald Trump. I have had to do a lot of confessing of sins in the last four years and have tried to distinguish between a legitimate, Christian-based, critique of Trump and his court evangelicals and the kind of angry rhetoric that is not good for my spiritual life or the spiritual lives of others. I have found that prayer–for Donald Trump and his administration, for the evangelical church, and for the best way to strike an appropriate prophetic voice– is often an antidote to this kind of anger. But I’m not always good at it.

McClay’s remarks about the white privilege enjoyed by the middle-class, suburban, college-educated students engaged in some of the violence is also on the mark. There seems to be white privilege on both sides of our current conversation on race in America. I wish these young people would be more thoughtful.

Finally, McClay writes, “In my own academic field of history, it [the tearing down of monuments] is entirely of a piece with the weaponizing of history, in which the past is regarded as nothing more than a malleable background for the concerns of the present, and not as an independent source of wisdom or insight or perspective. Here I think McClay is half-right.

As I argued in Why Study History, we need to understand the past in all its fullness in order to make sense of the complexity of the human experience. I am largely talking here about the classroom, where I teach American history as if all voices matter. Please don’t get me wrong. Yes, Black lives matter. I am disgusted when I hear the political Right screaming “all lives matter” as a way of avoiding tough conversations on racial injustice, systemic racism, and the experience of African Americans. Responding to the phrase “black lives matter” with the phrase “all lives matter” represents a failure to address the pain and suffering of Black men and women in this particular moment. It is reprehensible. Anyone who reads this blog knows where I stand on this, so I ask you to think about my words here as part of my larger body of work.

But when I teach history, especially when I do broad sweeps in a survey class, I am charged with telling the story of the United States. In this sense, my students must be exposed to all American lives. They must encounter these lives in their context, and in all their complexity, even if it makes them (and I am talking about white students and students of color here) uncomfortable. We can’t erase the past. We must confront it.

Yet, I also believe that historians can and must use the past, and especially historical thinking, to speak to the present. I tried to do this in Believe Me. As I have said before, I have never understood Believe Me to be part of the same historical genre as The Way of Improvement Leads Home, The Bible Cause, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? (to an extent), or the book on the American Revolution that I am currently writing. But there are times when historians must speak to current events by teaching us how we got to a particular moment in the present. And once they understand their subjects thoroughly and empathically, there is a place for moral critique. This, of course, may require getting political. As I recently told a friend, I have spent much of my career trying to understand conservative evangelicals. My critique is rooted in over two decades of historical work.

And finally, let’s talk about “law and order.” As I argued in Believe Me, it is hard to understand this phrase without thinking about racial unrest in America. Nixon used it as a dog-whistle to win votes among white voters. Trump uses it in the same way. And let’s recall that the tearing down of monuments, riots in the streets, and destruction of property are as as old as the American republic.

McClay gives us a lot to think about here. When does government intervene to stop the destruction of property? How much is too much? Where do we draw the line between law and order on the one hand, and racial injustice on the other?

One of the best ways to do this, I have found, is to think historically. The years leading-up to the American Revolution were very violent. After the revolution, when the Whiskey rebels rose-up in Western Pennsylvania, George Washington sent out the army to crush the rebellion. Martin Luther King Jr. protested peacefully. Other American reformers, like John Brown, did not. There debates between law and order on the one hand, and American protest on the other, are not new. Go listen to the Hamilton soundtrack or watch it next week on Disney+.

And what should Christians think? Was the dumping of tea in Boston Harbor in December 1773 justified? Is destruction of someone else’s property ever right? What about pouring hot tar on peoples’ skin, covering them with feathers, and parading them through the streets? What about our moral responsibility as the church to speak truth to power and disobey unjust laws–codes that are out of harmony with the moral law for God?  Sometimes these questions do not have easy answers. But are we even asking them?

When it comes to Supreme Court decisions, context matters. But whose context?

Context

Earlier today, I published two posts on yesterday’s Supreme Court decision on LGBTQ rights. The first post addressed the politics of the decision and what it means for white evangelical support for Donald Trump. The second post dealt with the religious liberty issues at stake. I encourage you to look at them to get up to speed. Here and here.

In this third post, I want to think historically about both the majority and dissenting opinions.

Over at Think, Jessica Levinson, a law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, explains the conservative judicial philosophy Justice Neil Gorsuch employed in coming to his decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia and the other consolidated cases. Title VII of the Act forbids “discrimination because of race, color, religion, sex , or national origin.” The debate, of course, is over the meaning of the word “sex.” Gorsuch interpreted “sex” to cover LGBTQ rights.

In another piece, Levinson describes Gorsuch’s textualism. She writes,

Typically, conservative judges and lawyers adhere to the idea that in determining the meaning of words in a law, you look only at those words. You do not look at the context in which the law was passed, or congressional intent. This is called textualism.

No historian would treat a text this way. Frankly, I am not entirely convinced that Levinson offers an accurate description of how most textualists interpret a text. As we will see below, it is certainly not how Justice Samuel Alito or Justice Brett Kavanaugh understand textualism.

But historical context can also be a tricky thing. Gorsuch appears to have ignored it. He writes in his majority opinion:

Today, we must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender. The answer is clear. An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids

Those who adopted the Civil Rights Act might not have anticipated their work would lead to this particular result. Likely, they weren’t thinking about many of the Act’s consequences that have become apparent over the years, including its prohibition against discrimination of the basis of motherhood or its ban on the sexual harassment of male employees. But the limits of the drafters’ imagination supply no reason to ignore the law’s demands. When the express terms of a statue give us one answer and extratextual considerations suggest another, it’s no contest. Only the written word is the law, and all persons are entitled to its benefit.

A couple of quick observations about these two paragraphs:

  1. Does the meaning of a word really exist outside of its historical context? Are we to assume that all words have universal meanings across time? A historian would answer both questions with an emphatic “no.” Historians do not subscribe to the kind of textualism that Gorsuch describes here.
  2. Is Gorsuch correct when he says that the “those who adopted the Civil Rights Act” could never have imagined it being applied to the gay community? This is an honest question. I am assuming Gorsuch is correct, but I am not up to speed on the scholarship here.

In their dissenting opinions, Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh also appealed to the text of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but they interpreted the meaning of the word “sex” in historical context.

Here is Alito:

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination on any of the five specified grounds: “race, color, religion, sex [and] national origin. Neither “sexual orientation” nor “gender identity” appears on that list.

Alito argues that unless the document specifically says “sexual orientation” or “gender identity,” the Civil Rights Act could not have encompassed these things. He suggests that “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” do not fall under the category of “sex.”

Alito challenges Gorsuch’s textualism with the ideas of the late Antonin Scalia:

The Court attempts to pass off its decision as the inevitable product of the textualist school of statutory interpretation championed by our late colleague Justice Scalia, but no one should be fooled. The Court’s opinion  is like a pirate ship. It sails under a textualist flag, but what it actually represents is a theory of statutory interpretation that Justice Scalia excoriated–the theory that courts should “update” old statues so that they better refelct the current values of society.”

Alito argues that we need to understand the meaning of the word “sex” in the context of the 1960s. He writes:

Determined searching has not found a single dictionary from that time that defined “sex” to mean sexual orientation, gender identity, or “transgender” status. In all those dictionaries, the primary definition of “sex” was essentially the same as that in the then-most recent edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary (2d ed. 1953): “[o]ne of the two divisions of organisms formed on the distinction of male and female.”

Alito continues:

Thus when textualism is properly understood, it calls for an examination of the social context in which a statue was enacted because this may have an important bearing on what its words were understood to mean at the time of enactment. Textualists do not read statues as if they were messages picked up by a powerful radio telescope from a distant and utterly unknown civilization. Statutes consist of communications between members of a particular linguistic community, one that existed in a particular place and at a particular time, and these communications must therefore be interpreted as they were understood by that community at that time.

For this reason, it is imperative to consider how Americans in 1964 would have understood Title VII’s prohibition of discrimination because of sex. To get a picture of this, we may imagine this scene. Suppose that, while Title VII was under consideration in Congress, a group of average Americans decided to read the text of the bill with aim of writing or calling their representatives in Congress and conveying their approval or disapproval. What would these ordinary citizens have taken “discrimination because of sex” to mean? Would they have thought that this language prohibited discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity?

The answer could not be clearer. In 1964, ordinary Americans reading the text of Title VII would not have dreamed that discrimination because of sex meant discrimination between sexual orientation, much less gender identity. The ordinary meaning of discrimination because of “sex” was discrimination because of a person’s biological sex, not sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Alito is writing like a historian here. He wants to understand the 1964 Civil Rights Act in context. This is historical thinking 101. But while judges use historical thinking skills, they are not historians. They are tasked with applying the past to the present.

Brett Kavanaugh’s dissent is shorter, but it also draws on historical context. Here is a taste:

As to common parlance, few in 1964 (or today) would describe a firing because of sexual orientation as a firing because of sex. As commonly understood, sexual orientation discrimination is distinct from , and not a form of, sex discrimination.

He adds:

[The majority opinion rewrites history. Seneca Falls was not Stonewall. The women’s rights movement was not (and is not) the gay rights movement, although many people obviously support or participate in both. So to think that sexual orientation discrimination is just a form of sex discrimination is…a mistake of history and sociology.

Again, any historian would have to agree, to some extent, with Kavanaugh’s logic. We try to get our students to see that Seneca Falls and Stonewall were indeed different movements in the same way that the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution were fundamentally different “revolutions.” We resist the social scientist’s tendency to clump all “revolutions” or “reform movements” together. Each movement took place in a particular time and place amid a different set of circumstances.

At the same time, we also treat Seneca and Stonewall as part of a larger story of American reform. It is appropriate, at times, to talk about common themes–such as the appeal to the ideas of the Declaration of Independence–that drive this larger and broader story.

But, again, historians are not justices. We are not primarily in the business of telling people what to do with the information we provide and the skills we teach. Kavanaugh was a history major at Yale. During his years studying history, he no doubt learned about Seneca Falls and Stonewall. He also learned to think critically,  make an argument, understand historical context, and reflect on the many ways the past relates to the present. He is now using those skills, guided by a particular judiciary philosophy, to make Supreme Court decisions. His professors at Yale taught him these skills, but they could not tell him how to use them in service to the law. (Although I am imagining that some of them tried).

What strikes me about yesterday’s Supreme Court decision is the fact that it played out, at least in the opinions, as a debate over how to interpret Antonin Scalia’s judicial philosophy . This happened because Chief Justice John Roberts assigned the majority opinion to Gorsuch rather than to one of the Court’s liberal justices.

If Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, or Elena Kagan wrote the majority opinion, I imagine it might have also appealed to historical context, but in a much broader way.  Levinson suggests what such an interpretation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 might look like in this case if one of the liberal justices had weighed-in:

Liberal judges and lawyers, however, generally believe that it is appropriate to look beyond the words of the law and at the history and context around the law. But there was no such thing as sexual orientation protections in the 1960s, when the Civil Rights Act was passed, so “sex” in the history and context of the law was not meant to apply to LGBT Americans.

As a matter of policy, LGBT rights should be situated clearly within the larger struggle for civil rights, and discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation  should be outlawed in every workplace in the nation.

Again, context is tricky and this case shows that much of the law rests on how much weight a given justice gives to this important “C” of historical thinking.

Out of the Zoo: The 5 C’s of Christianity

Why Study History

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie writes about the relationship between historical thinking and her understanding of the Christian faith. –JF

I was first introduced to the “five C’s of historical thinking” when I read Professor Fea’s book Why Study History? for an introductory history course last year. The five C’s—context, continuity and change, causality, contingency, and complexity—are tools historians use on a regular basis to gain a full and accurate understanding of the past. These skills continue to crop up in my history classes here at Messiah, whether I’m examining a primary source for Historical Methods or learning how to teach them in my future classrooms. Frankly, I’ve learned so much about the five C’s over the past several months that I could probably recite them in my sleep. Joking aside, over a year of working with these tools has shown me that the five C’s are not only vital for historical scholarship, but can give us a deeper understanding of the Christian faith.

The first C of historical thinking is context. I’m no religious scholar, but I do know that if you take scripture out of context, you can make it mean nearly anything you want it to mean. When someone pulls an individual verse from the Bible without considering the text around it or the historical situation from which it emerged, they can easily bend it out of shape. They impose their own views on scripture, rather than letting it take the form the author had originally intended. By considering the context of each verse, each passage, each book of the Bible, we learn to see the Word for what it really is, instead of what we want it to be. We see it as God’s overarching story, rather than a disjointed collection of anecdotes.

Continuity and change go hand-in-hand with context. Anyone who opens up the Bible can tell that the human race has changed in a lot of ways since the days of Moses or David, or even the days of the Apostle Paul. Even though as Christians we can have confidence that the message of the Gospel never changes, we cannot forget that the past is a foreign place where people do and see things differently. Yet in many ways, we are not far from our brothers and sisters who walked the earth two thousand or more years ago—we have the same sinful nature and the same fears, but many of us also have the same gift of hope in Jesus Christ.

Causality is the third of the five historical thinking skills. The scriptures remind us time and time again that our actions have consequences. Just as historians seek to discern causes, Christians have found that the never-ending cycle of sin causing death, and Jesus’s sacrifice causing redemption has defined and will define our human narrative until Christ’s second coming.

Professor Fea describes contingency as “the free will of humans to shape their own destinies.” (11) As a believer, I am convinced that the choice to follow Jesus is the most important, most influential decision someone could ever make in their life. It is certainly the one that has shaped my existence until this point, and will continue to do so for the rest of eternity.

The fifth C of historical thinking is complexity. Perhaps the coolest thing about the Christian faith is the complexity of the God we worship. I mean, how else would you describe an all-powerful being who decided to join his creation on earth by becoming a baby? How else could you possibly characterize the one who, through His own death, brought life everlasting for all of humankind? Just as historians struggle to untangle the complexities of the past, Christians must come to terms with the fact that they worship a complicated, awesome God who they will never completely understand.