Evangelicals have traditionally committed themselves to the Bible as the foundation of revelation and truth. Indeed, throughout the movement’s history, where you found evangelicals, you found a people devoted to the Bible as the fount of all theological knowledge and ethical wisdom.
In his recent book, however, Paul Gutacker found that when evangelicals in the nineteenth century disagreed with one another, they often turned to history to find support for their views on everything ranging from liberty of conscience to slavery. Thus, where there were evangelicals, you found a people bound to the Bible as God’s Word, but also disposed to turn to the past for answers.
That’s not a bad impulse; there’s wisdom in looking to the past for insight from Christians who have gone before us. That said, mining the past for nuggets of clarity and intuition can quickly devolve into a weaponized attempt to use—and abuse—the past for political gain.
A recent example of this broke out on Twitter—a spectacularly awful venue for serious conversations. Still, the issue that emerged in this controversy served as an important frame of reference for how evangelicals use (and misuse) the past in our debates with one another.
The dust-up began over a question about whether Christians should continue to live in locations like California due to the trajectory of those places on issues related to transgenderism and parental rights. Those who said, “no,” argued that this mindset was an abdication of the Great Commission. Those who said, “yes,” suggested that it was for the good of Christians, their families, and the church to leave these increasingly paganized locals for red-state havens where conservative policies exist and sanity reigns.
To be sure, this is an important conversation that Christians must contemplate. The point here is not to shut down the debate or weigh in on the merits of one viewpoint. My concern is how this discussion reveals a tendency amongst evangelicals to draw upon the past poorly. Anachronism, or the tendency to colonize the past with present-day concerns inevitably transforms history into a weapon used for gaining the upper hand in discourse.
The political left frequently falls into the fallacy of anachronism. For example, you can usually find liberals accusing pro-life Christians who want to end abortion for violating the “separation of church and state” principle that helped build this nation. The problem is that they have taken a distinctively late twentieth/early twenty-first-century view of church-state separation and imposed it upon America’s eighteenth-century founders. You would be hard-pressed to find advocates of religious liberty 250 years ago who thought that the separation of church and state encompassed moral insanity and licentiousness.
Conservative evangelicals, however, are not immune from the temptations of anachronism and poor historical thinking. Indeed, this recent dispute over whether or not Christians should flee blue states adumbrated the evangelical impulse to rely on history in ways that are not only unhelpful and silly but inevitably rob history of its true virtue and importance.
As evangelicals fired shots at one another, leaving blue states was compared with the move of Pilgrims and Puritans who fled the Netherlands and England for New England in the seventeenth century. You can see how the argument has an immediate appeal: these figures, whose theology we venerate, also left behind the “blue states” of their day. If they did it, you can too. In fact, it was suggested that the Pilgrims and Puritans “fled the negative world and rejected the neutral world for the hope of building a positive world.”
The idea of seventeenth-century England being compared to California is laughable. Furthermore, the use of the “negative, neutral, and positive worlds” taxonomy falls into that anachronistic trap of attributing to the past characteristics that simply did not exist. In fact, that framework was originally developed as a tool to trace the downgrade in American culture since the early 1990s. The “negative world” described our present predicament, wherein society has “a negative view of Christianity. Being known as a Christian is a social negative. . . . Christian morality is expressly repudiated and seen as a threat to the public good.” If you think seventeenth-century England was “the negative world,” then I have some beachfront property in Kansas for you.
Weaponized history is not history. Don’t trade the grand narratives of history—chronicles meant to humanize and humble us—for politicized cheap shots. The debate about leaving blue states for red states merits serious discussion. The issue here is to plead with evangelicals to think carefully about their appropriation of events that happened in the chronicles of Christian history. Quotable nuggets mined from the past carry the same value as fools-gold: it looks deceptively real but, in truth, it cannot purchase the argument you are trying to make.