History suffers from an apparently terminal illness—it is quickly dying and dying before our eyes.
Those who mourn ought to include every individual, not merely academic historians. Lament must necessarily encompass everyone outside the ivory tower, for in the death of history, we lose a cherished friend who always invited us into a rich, burgeoning narrative of humanity filled with both tragedy and triumph, razing and restoration, inciting within us an amalgam of emotions and ideas all in an effort, as historian Wilfred McClay contends, to forge a “sense of continuity with the past.” We are narrative creatures and we are all drawn, whether we realize it or not, to history and the myriad of stories that must be told.
Far from death by natural causes, history is yet another casualty of identity politics. The effects of this disease not only infect the fields of academic discourse but can be witnessed on American streets and in the nation’s top media outlets. Indeed, there is a direct correlation with the demise of history and our ability to engage in public discourse—the politicization of the historical record has consequently corroded civility in American democracy, anathematizing even the appearance of an idea or worldview that is contrary to the cultural orthodoxy. In short, proponents of identity politics have brandished history as a weapon, refitting it for malicious purposes. To be clear, conservatives are just as culpable and guilty of abusing history for their own political purposes, but the left is far more organized and insidious in its deployment of history as a rhetorical weapon. The product is a cherry-picked, half-baked, out-of-context story from the past intended to bludgeon anyone who dares to defend, say, the accomplishments of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, or Martin Luther King Jr. Contemporary concerns, guided by malevolent identity politics and critical theory, inevitably contort the historical record into a disfigured creature that is unrecognizable with what actually happened.
History used as a weapon is not history, and if the current trajectories in historical studies continue, we will, as I contend, witness the death of history and, along with it, the silencing of meaningful debate. Not only that, but in the death of history, we lose something of our humanity—we sunder ourselves from the larger tapestry of historical narrative that reveals the common threads of human nature. History evinces, indeed, reminds us that every individual is capable of virtue and vice.
Within the study of history itself, there has arisen a tendency amongst scholars and academic societies to silence, squelch, or flat-out prohibit historical narratives and arguments not in line with an identity-politic historiography.
Indeed, headlines abound throughout the nation that reveal the precarious realities facing the study of history and its implications on political debate. There is the professor who is under investigation after reading Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to his political science class. At the end of June, moreover, Princeton University announced that the school would strike Woodrow Wilson’s name from its school for public and international affairs, after some of the school’s recent graduates authored a petition, ridiculing the administration for preserving the legacy of Woodrow Wilson, namely, his white supremacy.
Perhaps one of the more well-known weaponized affronts to history is the “1619 Project,” which has attempted to “reframe the country’s history,” stating that “nearly everything that has made America exceptional grew out of slavery.” Though the “1619 Project” received a full broadside of critique from historians—see for example this letter signed by leading American historians, as well as this response by Wilfred McClay and this op-ed by Allen Guelzo—it was recently announced that the project would be turned into a TV and film project.
To be clear, the atrocities of slavery and the supporters of that wicked institution—supporters that include many of the nation’s founders and most venerated figures—must be told. Slavery is part of America’s history, and its formation and consequences must be told with clarity, honesty, and an unwavering commitment to pursue the truth. That is the historian’s task—to tell the truth of the past, the full truth, using the historical records that are available.
Efforts like the “1619 Project,” however, represent, as McClay argues, a view of history that “corresponds invariably with a remarkable hostility to history. Its practitioners are content to slice a single fact out of a web of details, then repeat that fact with the stubbornness of protesters who have memorized a chant.” In other words, the thin ice which college and university professors find themselves traversing, the attempts to reframe all of American history around the year 1619, and even the mobs trying to tear down statues of Abraham Lincoln, as just one example, are all connected to a post-modern historiographical method—a method intent on eradicating the full pursuit of history’s truth in favor of a politically charged narrative that is willing to devour any resistance to its agenda. It is history subservient to ideological will.
Our history matters, perhaps in such significant ways we do not yet realize. If America can just be reduced to the year 1619 and is viewed only through the lens of slavery, then the entire American project is not merely worthless but inherently wicked. If the memory of figures such as Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, or King is reduced and confined to the sum of their faults, what then is left? Who among us can cast the first stone? Who among us possess such self-righteousness that we can bypass all avenues of conversation, wrap chains around a statue and tear it down, all the while being guided by a narrow historiography and fallacious anthropology? None of these men were perfect, nor did any of them fully embody the ideas for which they contended. Yet, as Gordon Wood argues in his book The Radicalism of the American Revolution, “To focus… on what the Revolution [or any historical event for that matter] did not accomplish—highlighting and lamenting its failure to abolish slavery and change fundamentally the lot of women—is to miss the great significance of what it did accomplish.” Thus, there is a fuller accounting of our history that must be told, not just a politicized story that is incapable of tolerating disparate views and opinions.
But telling the full complexity of our history is not only vital for the study of history itself. Rather, there is a direct connection between how we approach the past and the vitality of our society and public discourse. Indeed, Christian historians are animated in their historical research and writing by kindness, charity, an unyielding commitment for truth, and a patient endurance. We understand the realities of depravity and the human condition, fully aware of just how far human sinfulness will go toward destruction. Yet Christian historians operate from a biblical anthropology—one that recognizes the complexities and realities of mankind, one that understands that within the same life, a man like George Washington can accomplish enormous good while also upholding the wicked institution of slavery. Such is the story of all of us, which is why history can and ought to humanize and humble us.
Make no mistake: being guided by that kind of theological anthropology not only makes for good history—indeed, those virtues necessarily carry over into the public square and our willingness to treat each other with the same levels of charity and patience.
It is those virtues, however, that seem to be fading away in our contemporary moment, and as we witness the death of history, we will simultaneously behold the demise of free speech and civility.