Should Historians Cast Judgment on the Past?

Posted on August 8, 2012 by

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That question came up often last spring in our department’s capstone course, Senior Seminar, where we read Confessing History, a collection of essays by Christian historians, many of whom wondered if the historian’s vocation included rendering moral judgments. One of the editors of (and contributors to) that book is John Fea, who teaches at Messiah College and is perhaps best known for his Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? In his post today at The Anxious Bench, John tackles the moral judgment question himself, asking “how should Christian historians balance a moral sensitivity to the injustices of the past with the kind of detachment that is necessary to fulfill their responsibility as historians?”

It’s worth reading the full post, but as an introduction… John outlines five (well, six) points:

1. Unlike others (he suggests ethicists, theologicans, and — tongue in cheek? — politicians), John thinks that historians “are not predominantly called to give their opinions about the past.” Instead, their primary responsibilities are to understand and explain: to grasp themselves and to help others grasp “what happened in the past and why it happened in the way it did.”

2. On the rare occasions when historians do integrate ethics or moral philosophy into their work, “they should do so with caution so that preaching does not trump historical interpretation.” Here he echoes his colleague Jim LaGrand, whose chapter in Confessing History discourages historians from acting as preachers. (Here’s a response to that chapter by one of our Senior Sem students.)

3. Also, any moralizing needs to be rooted in a mature understanding of both history and “an adequate theological and Biblical understanding of the Christian tradition. Sunday-school-style proof-texting from the Bible will not cut it.  Nor will moral platitudes… that are not grounded in deep theological or ethical thinking.”

4. John would have historians render implicit rather than explicit moral judgments, making their views clear by language, tone, and style of writing.

5. Next, John stressed that “historians should also remember to see historical actors as morally complex individuals before casting judgment upon them.” He mentions Thomas Jefferson here, and I suspect he has in mind the ongoing controversy (within evangelicalism) over David Barton’s treatment of this country’s third president. (Here’s some of John’s blogging on that topic.)

Finally, John concludes by reminding us of the “great paradox at the heart of the human experience,” that we humans are made in the image of God but are nonetheless fallen and profoundly affected (like the world around us) by sin.

Read the full post here — and while you’re at The Anxious Bench, check out some of the other posts by John and fellow religious historians Philip Jenkins, Thomas Kidd, and John Turner.

- Chris Gehrz

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