The History Wars
In 2013, a headline at The Guardian by Tristram Hunt read, “History is where the great battles of public life are now being fought.” Hunt likely had no idea how prescient this was.
More specifically, the great contemporary battles are over historical or cultural memory. That is to say, battles over our collective identity, values, and aspirations—a form of cultural sparring, it must be said, that can only emerge in a society that has been enveloped by expressive individualism and the psychological self. It is now a high crime to be inauthentic, that is, to be forced to identify as or with something that does not coincide with an internal sense of self.
Most obviously, the hullabaloo surrounding the New York Times‘ 1619 Project evidences this deeper societal distress—the loss of shared cultural memory, values, and aspirations, all of which are intricately connected to societal narratives and, well, history. The central contention of the Project is that “Our democracy’s ideals were false when they were written.” What America claims to be is a lie. The true American ethos is not liberty and justice for all but white supremacy and black subjugation and genocide. As Andrew Sullivan has pointed out, it is one thing to say that the ideals of the American founding were not fully realized at the time, but quite another to say they were “false.”
Per essayists at the Times, America in its essence was never, and is not now, a democracy, but a slaveocracy. Any narrative to the contrary is merely a distraction, a concealed bid for power and the maintenance of the status quo. To be clear, the Project is not simply attempting to remedy the fact that sometimes, in the past, the brutal truths of American chattel slavery have been avoided. Its aim is not to help us come to terms with the past but to radically alter it for the sake of present interests.
More important than the content of the 1619 Project is the phenomenon it represents. Only a culture already uncertain of itself could succumb to such alternative history so quickly. (The Pulitzer Center is now dispensing curriculum based on the Project to primary schools across the country.) That Hannah Nikole-Jones’ lead essay was so disruptive and controversial means that the public harbored enough doubt about its origin, purpose, and essence to entertain Nicole-Jones’ wildest contentions. How these historical skirmishes—many of which are regrettably conducted on Twitter—pan out will define the future trajectory of the country and, perhaps, (depending on how pessimistic you are willing to be) produce irreparable fissures.
The uncertainty inherent in this conflict exposes not only a lack of historical consciousness, but an inability to deal with difficult aspects of history generally. More simply, an inability to grapple with regrettable history is, at root, an inability to make sense of lapsarian man. It is no coincidence that an anthropology infected with the myth of man’s infinite perfectibility and progress—which has dominated the popular imagination for more than a century—cannot stand to see evidence to the contrary; to look into the mirror, as it were. It is strange, indeed, that the cadre of intellectuals that demand that America face up to its past sins with sobriety and purpose simultaneous cheer on the young radicals in the streets who are sanitizing the public landscape of any remembrance of the very things said radicals (allegedly) object to.
The response of choice to complicated, and even objectionable, history has been, thus far, that of its erasure—as if destroying the evidence, the mechanisms of memory, will retroactively and actually abolish it. Thereafter those who engage in historical vandalism can self-assuredly mutter, “God, thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this publican.” Us Protestants in the west are finally getting a taste of what it was like to be a Catholic in late sixteenth and early seventeenth century England, or worse still, late eighteenth century France. We should not miss the import of the new iconoclasm. Demolishing statues, monuments, and the like has always signified three things: 1) regime change; 2) liberation; and 3) purification. The first two precipitate the alleviation of oppression, the latter coincides with the eradication of idolatry. Meaning, the approach to history being proffered at present is not a debate over facts, but a movement of religious fervor with political implications.
Slightly less exciting, but no less effective, is the response of the intellectual class itself, viz., deconstruction. That is what the 1619 Project endeavors to do: expose the hidden agendas behind the lies. It is a textbook example of mounting a counter hegemony. Hearts and minds, and all that. That’s why it has not mattered one bit that nearly every historian of note has criticized the Project for factual inaccuracies, oversight, and skewed interpretation. The point was never being factually correct, but rather morally justified.
The same kind of battle(s) are taking place within, and will increasingly define, America’s largest denominations as well—indeed, the outcome of said skirmishes will determine whether said denominations will endure or succumb to schism. By extension, the fate and character of American Evangelicalism will be determined by whichever narrative proves victorious.
I have predicted at CP before that the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), for several reasons (including lack of rootedness acquired from self-conscious fealty to a historical, confessional tradition), will split within the next decade or so (maybe sooner). Several months ago, I argued that the United Methodist Church foreshadowed the SBC’s future in this regard. What I did not include in that previous prediction was the battle over denominational identity mediated through the interpretation of its history unto an agreed upon narrative.
The latest iteration of the historical conflict within the SBC surrounds the proposed name change, announced in September 2020 by denominational heads. The latest proposal, the one gaining traction, drops the “Southern” and replaces it with “Great Commission.” J.D. Greear, the SBC president, explained to the Washington Post, “Our Lord Jesus was not a White Southerner but a brown-skinned Middle Eastern refugee… Every week we gather to worship a savior who died for the whole world, not one part of it. What we call ourselves should make that clear.”
Not now being a member of the SBC, I have no dog in the fight. I could not care less what the denomination calls itself. What is concerning is the impetus for the move. If the SBC is going to change its name, then it needs to do so for the right reasons, not because of public (internal or external) pressure. If the recent move by Greear is in any way an effort to placate certain factions, then he will be sorely disappointed.
Upon announcing the name alteration, Twitter erupted in equal parts resistance (from the conservative wing) and derision (from the opposite pole). The latter was predicated on the assumption that the name change constituted nothing more than pandering rebranding. It is hard not to feel sympathy for that take. News outlets noted that the new name is part of an effort to deal with the legacy of the SBC’s origins, forever marred by its slaveholding founders. Notably and to the same ends, Greear also retired the infamous Broadus gavel earlier this year. It is tempting to explain Greear’s campaign as an Evangelical version of the Washington Redskins’ name change (i.e. the Washington Football Team) and other such efforts by the NFL (and seemingly every other professional sports league), which Colin Kaepernick himself rightly, in my opinion, dubbed “propaganda.”
If such is the case, if the renaming effort is an attempt by Greear to appease certain parties, he will soon find that the “woker” segments of his denomination will be unsatisfied. Indeed, as I have written elsewhere, the Great Commission itself is offensive to those who have imbibed the most postmodern of critical social theories, Postcolonial Theory (PT), which has long infected the Emergent Church movement and has found a home in certain quadrants of broader Evangelicalism. Within the PT paradigm, the efforts of missionaries during the colonial period to evangelize indigenous populations constitutes nothing short of brainwashing and epistemic erasure of non-western ways of knowing. Indeed, to PT theorists, the colonization of the mind is a greater offense than physical bondage. That is to say, if— and I am not saying definitively that such is the case—the move by Greear is to distance the SBC from its Southern slave holder heritage for the sake of satisfying the woke, it will not work.
In any case, even if the name change rolls out smoothly, it is a sorry attempt at confronting the more contentious elements of the SBC’s history—to some extent, a reality of any institution not born yesterday—and the charges of complicity in racism and slavery that are regularly launched at the denomination. And less pragmatically, to respond to the ever-shifting political circumstances is to, as Carl Trueman has put it, live in Marx’s world, wherein everything is political either positively or negatively.
This is why there is so much pressure for churches to speak to whatever is the political issue of the day. We live in Marx’s world—a world where the cultural imagination is gripped by the idea that everything is political. Silence in today’s climate on any issue by anybody in any institution is unacceptable, for to take no political stand on anything in our world is in fact to take a political stand—a stand for the status quo.
The inability to deal with history, to reconcile the present with the past, precipitates the downfall of any institution because it frustrates any continuity and thereby compromises cultural, institutional stability over time. In that case, each generation becomes defined by repudiation of the last, a perpetual reinvention of the wheel every fifty years or so. Deborah Lipstadt once wrote in a New York Times review of Susan Neiman’s book, Learning from the Germans, “The history wars shape far more than how we remember the past. They shape the societies we bequeath to future generations.”
Speaking of the Germans, earlier this year, a German Jewish man pursued legal action to have a Judensau—a medieval depiction of Jewish rabbi’s with pigs commonly featured on medieval churches—removed from a 13th century church building in Wittenberg (the Stadtkirche) at which Martin Luther once preached. Indeed, Luther even mentioned the exact sculpture in question in his 1543 publication, Of the Unknowable Name and the Generations of Christ.
It is estimated that some 40 Judensau images remain on German churches, which does not include other anti-Jewish imagery throughout the country and, for that matter, the rest of Europe. Unfortunately, as many readers will know, anti-Semitism was a feature of medieval Christendom. As I have noted before, Luther’s The Jews and Their Lies was, regrettably, the least unique polemic he ever produced. Much more interesting is his earlier That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew, an evangelistic plea for Christians to treat their Jewish neighbors with sympathy.
Theological conspiracy theories like the blood libel were ubiquitous in the period. Jews presented a particularly vexing problem for medieval political theory wherein baptism was synonymous with citizenship. Meaning that the non-baptized were effectively non-citizens and therefore subversive in some amorphous sense. The Judensau—pigs being unclean under Jewish law (Leviticus 11), and Jews, obviously, not recognizing Acts 10 as canon—was installed in the architecture of many medieval churches to ward off these subversive murderers (and deniers) of Christ. All that to say, when Luther blamed Jewish obstinance for stalling the full Reformation of German churches and the return of Christ, he was grasping at what was, at the time, low-hanging fruit. Of course, suggesting that Luther lacked creativity in this regard would be too charitable of a way to describe it. (It may go without saying that the legacy of medieval anti-Semitism was compounded in Germany by the history of the mid-twentieth century which climaxed with the terrors of the Third Reich years.)
The Judensau in the recent case is particularly vulgar. As the BBC describes it, “The relief shows a rabbi lifting a sow’s tail and peering at its behind while other Jewish figures suckle on her teats.” But as the BCC further notes, “In the 1980s the Church community in the east German town installed a memorial on the ground next to the church’s wall, which refers to the six million Jews murdered during the Third Reich.” There is also a plaque on the church grounds explaining the history of the Judensau.
The Stadkirche’s resistance to petitions for the removal of the sculpture in question was not obstinance. Indeed, the pastor of the church told media that the icon on the building’s facade is “repulsive” and fills him with shame. And that is the point. He explained to a German paper that “We are trying to deal with this difficult inheritance responsibly.” To that end, the parish wanted to leave the carving in place as a reminder of the anti-Semitism of the Middle Ages, and of the anti-Semitic elements inherent in the history of Lutheranism and the German nation.
Accordingly, the German court ruled that while the sculpture would be offensive if viewed in isolation, “in the context in which it has been placed by the church it has lost its insulting character.” The court continued, “anyone looking at the relief cannot fail to see the memorial and the information sign the parish put up in 1988.” It should be remembered that Germany has markedly stricter speech laws (both online and offline) and has criminalized Holocaust denial. As in some cases stateside with Confederate monuments, the petitioners in the German case proposed that the Wittenberg Judensau not necessarily be destroyed, but rather, relocated to a museum.
It is trendy to denounce the legal principle of stare decisis—given how abysmally Chief Justice John Roberts applied it earlier this year. Indeed, appeal to precedent must always, like everything else, be governed by higher principles that form the basis of human judgments, viz., the natural law (as the eternal law condescended to the creature). But, as Thomas Aquinas acknowledged, change itself, regardless of the justifying purpose, is destabilizing and, therefore, presumptively ill-advised. Aquinas was speaking of law and custom, but his insights are no less true in the context of the subject matter here. Radical alteration of cultural memory, for better or worse, is inherently destabilizing. Of course, the authors of the 1619 Project know this.
The history wars are really periodic skirmishes for control of institutions, the historical consensus of which signals the rightful owners and a corresponding identity. William Hogeland, commenting at the New Republic on the historical upheaval instigated by the 1619 Project, has discerned that the present fight is really about the so-called post-war liberal consensus which positioned America as a beacon of democracy and affirmed the myth of liberal democracy’s progress endemic thereto. The struggle is, therefore, “over ownership, not of historical scholarship, but of the middle-ground, middlebrow cultural sway held for decades by the consensus school.”
Though the 1619 Project present a rather arid, hyper-politicized way of looking at history, the key, underlying question of who owns history—”the victor,” or rather, “those with power in the present,” being the implied answer—is not completely illegitimate. If certain segments of a society feel alienated from cultural memory it is no wonder if they care nothing for preserving it and have a vested interest in its displacement.
It may be a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy but jockeying for historical ownership, and, thereby, ownership of institutions is playing out in real time both within and without evangelicalism. The 1619 Project may have been a lightning rod but it has, paradoxically, exposed who does wield the real cultural power (soft as it may be), and it is those behind the Project itself, not those it vilifies.
Behind the narrative of history (not just the historical narrative itself) told by the 1619 Project stands an anti-providentialist bent. For the Foucauldian brand of history to be adopted one must first accept that history is fundamentally chaotic, neither linear nor cyclical. Both the historical assumptions and metanarratives of Christianity and the ancients must be discarded in order for cultural stories to become simple exercises of power. Implied here also is the rejection of objective truth. Cultural histories and narratives, and therefore identity, then are not about the pursuit of truth and virtue but about relative oppressive power dynamics.
But the Foucauldian historian is left with no metric by which he can measure the virtuousness, and therefore legitimacy, of a society or institution. He has discarded objective truth at the outset, but further still, he disallows himself from even measuring the object of his investigation by its own standards—it was always a lie. The purported mission of the revisionists is decidedly moral. What else could motivate the desire to call out (real or perceived) deceit and to eradicate all vestiges of the same? What they do not realize is that they have, from the get-go, cast out the means of moral evaluation. No basis for any truth claims. Their project will inevitably, therefore, descend into the very thing they allegedly despise: amoral power struggle.
Contrary to how our contemporary postmodernists like to present themselves, theirs is not a realistic, sober view of history, but a fantastically imaginative one. This much is evidenced by the unthinking, destructive impulses of their disciples. The complexities of human activity are never truly considered (nor appreciated) in that approach; nothing about man or society is gleaned. No future lessons learnt. It is not quite so brave an approach as it lets on because it effectively flees from the past by denouncing it in toto rather than facing it head on—at least for long enough to catch a glimpse of one’s self in it. It is shattering a foggy mirror rather than cleaning it.
The better way has been modeled by the Germans and their neighbors mentioned earlier. Unlike the Foucauldians at the New York Times, the German approach allows history to be faced, judged, interpreted, and integrated into the cultural identity, warts and all. David Aaronovich, a columnist for The Times of London, eloquently punctuated this point back in April, 2020,
Slavery, mass murder and persecution punctuate human history and what is important is the willingness to face up to the truth. Few memorials work better than the stolpersteine in so many European cities now, marking the names and domiciles of Jews taken from their homes and murdered. And more towns should do what the city of Graz in Austria has done, placing information boards in public places showing photographs of the same place from the same aspect in Nazi times, adorned with swastikas and marching storm-troopers. No wonder Graz has been such a poor stamping ground for the new far right. Because it says: this is what we were; let us never be that again.
Our approach to history should, like history itself, explain where we came from and who we are, the good, the bad, and the ugly. That on all fronts, we seem to be running from difficult history by demolishing its monuments (literal and figurative) says more about us as a people than anything else. In some sense, it exposes whether or not we have the will to carry on. The same is true in evangelicalism right now. The survival of evangelical institutions (especially in the SBC and PCA) may hinge on whether it opts for the German or the Foucauldian approach to its past.
Image: Stadtkirche, Wittenberg from the northeast/Wikimedia Commons