This year’s USIH conference was, as always, a marvelous gathering, filled with great conversations with fantastic people. My thanks – all our thanks – to Tim Lacy for his hard work organizing and hosting our meeting this year.
As is often the case with our conferences, some of the most interesting conversations happen not just during the sessions, but also after them, as we post-game the arguments and various intellectual positions represented by panelists and questioners.
In just such a conversation, one of my interlocutors suggested that intellectual historians should treat religious thought as a special sort of category. Well, maybe not “religious thought” per se, but religious belief, deeply held (but perhaps not entirely reasoned or reasonable?) religious convictions.
I had never heard such a suggestion from a historian of ideas, and I don’t quite know what to make of it.
As our readers know, I am someone who presents at this blog both religious ideas – discussing, say, the relationship between Fundamentalist Dispensationalist eschatology and the physical attributes of the printed newspaper as a means of communication – and personal, if idiosyncratic, religious convictions. Rarely do I articulate my own religious convictions, such as they are, in any systematic form – I did enough of that in seminary – but you can find them in my writing here.
Welcome the stranger.
Love one another.
Death is the last enemy.
The Eternal God is our refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.
Teach us so to number our days, that we may present to Thee a heart of wisdom.
Those are some of my deeply held beliefs – or, I suppose, some of the beliefs that have held me, and have shaped me into the person I am, so that I could no more abandon those ethical commitments and profound certainties and lived prayers than I could cease to be myself.
For the next three years, you all are stuck with a not-very-orthodox, not-very-exemplary Christian blog editor.
But I am not asking for special consideration here. You all know how I have railed against the “Confessing Historians” and against “Confessing History” as a not-so-stealthy attempt to re-Christianize the secular liberal academy in general and the discipline of history in particular. Providential explanatory schemes run completely counter to the empiricist practices of our discipline, and they would read as special pleading in this space.
That doesn’t mean that historians who might offer such explanations are unwelcome in this space – the lovely thing about the secular liberal academy is that it is roomy enough to include religious people, religious thinkers, even religious thought.
But should we treat religious thought differently, as a special case, from other kinds of thought? Should we refrain from critiquing arguments as racist, or sexist, or anti-gay, or anti-woman, or anti-intellectual, because they proceed from a position of deep religious conviction?
That was the suggestion offered to me in conversation at USIH.
It struck me then as a case of special pleading, and it strikes me even more so now, after my tour of duty in the classroom yesterday.
This week I screened part of the outstanding PBS documentary “Eyes on the Prize” for my students in U.S. History since 1865. Specifically, I screened excerpts from Part 2 of the documentary, which covers the fight to integrate Central High School and the University of Mississippi.
Right after the title credits roll, there’s a clip of a minister, Bible open, explaining that his belief in the inferiority of Blacks and the justice of segregation is rooted in the scriptures. Here’s the clip (it might take a little while to load, as I’ve queued it to start at the point where he enters the picture.)
The passage he references is the so-called “Curse of Ham,” in which God pronounces a curse on Ham’s sons saying “a servant of servants shall he [and his descendants] be.” The sons of Ham allegedly populated the continent of Africa, so, people argued, it was God’s will that African slaves and their African-American descendants had born the curse of servitude.
Some people who believed this to be true cited this scripture triumphantly, smugly. Other people who believed this to be true cited this scripture with something like sorrow, a shaking of the head, an impotent shrug of the shoulders at the mystery of God’s will.
I know that because, when I was growing up, some people in my life cited this verse to me as the reason for America’s history of slavery.
I was born in 1968. I am not-quite-fifty years old. And when I was growing up, I was raised to believe that the suffering of African Americans in the United States under slavery and then under segregation was the fulfillment of a Biblical curse placed upon Noah. That was, for a good while, my sincere religious belief.
Would that kind of an argument, that kind of conviction, deserve a special allowance here, in this space?
Should we entertain in this space arguments of racial superiority because they proceed from a grounding in religious thought?
What about arguments about the proper role of women?
The morality or immorality of abortion?
The civil rights of LGBTQ+ people?
And if there are intellectual historians who “sincerely believe” that women should find their proper roles within a patriarchal culture, or that not just abortion but all forms of birth control are a sin, and that a federal government that protects the civil rights of LGBTQ+ people is heedlessly and unjustly trampling upon local communities that may have different values or standards – if there are intellectual historians who wish to make such arguments, and we were to give them a hearing here, would we be obligated to “respect” their position as one flowing from religious conviction?
These are the kinds of questions I have to think about as the editor of this blog. For, at the conference, someone suggested to me that religiously conservative intellectual historians feel unwelcome in this space.
I don’t want any person to feel unwelcome in this space.
I was gutted when my interlocutor told me that. I started to cry, if you can believe it. I thought of the efforts I had been making to reach out to newcomers – literally, at the conference, to find the people standing on the edges of the room, watching the little groups of friends gathered to chat, and drawing them into the circle.
Welcome the stranger. That’s how I live.
But I feel no obligation to welcome the stranger’s pernicious ideas, however sincerely they may be held. Should I even give them a hearing? I wouldn’t publish Charles Murray’s crap “scholarship” about race and IQ (he wouldn’t ask). But if someone comes to us with deftly argued “scholarship” about women’s proper role as one of subservience, scholarship grounded in and proceeding from a “sincerely held religious belief,” should we publish that and let readers make mincemeat of it, or should we pass on the opportunity to publish a conservative viewpoint that can find plenty of outlets elsewhere?
I don’t know how to answer this question.
I don’t know if that makes me a good editor or a bad one, a good person or a bad one, a good historian or a bad one. But that’s where I am with this right now.
Just as I am, without one plea…
Well, I do have one plea: readers, help me think this through.