U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Special Pleading

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.

“David Kirby on his deathbed, Ohio, 1990,” Therese Frare / LIFE

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.

13 Thoughts on this Post

S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.

  1. I think the commenter was off- base. I have a friend who is a religiously conservative intellectual historian who has attended the conference. The only time I’ve heard him express displeasure about S-USIH was the year his panel didn’t get accepted; he was disappointed he wouldn’t be able to get funding to attend.

  2. A funny thing happens when “sincere beliefs” are examined the same way we examine other ideas: positions presented as timeless and Scriptural often turn out to be contingent and instrumental. For example, a colleague of mine at Baylor (a school where all faculty members must be people of faith) is writing a series of posts on Patheos using her academic specialty, medieval English history, to critique contemporary American evangelical ideas about gender. Her post today is brutal: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2018/11/disrupting-evangelical-biblical-womanhood/.

    All of this to say, if members of religious communities are not afraid to scrutinize their traditions’ “sincere beliefs,” then I don’t see why USIH needs to be timid. The result of discussions on these topics might be that participants decide that they just can’t see eye-to-eye, and that this fundamental disagreement hurts, but that would be nothing novel or egregious for the society. Declaring certain ideas off-limits for critical engagement–that seems novel and considerably more problematic.

  3. I’m not sure I’m entirely clear on what the individual you were talking with was proposing. Were they saying that a religious tradition’s holding a certain proposition should count as evidence for its truthfulness? Or were they saying that if a conservative religious scholar arrives at a conservative conclusion by way of the usual empirical processes acknowledged in the academy, that conclusion should be treated like any other? The latter seems to me as obviously correct as the former is ridiculous.

    • Or were they saying that if a conservative religious scholar arrives at a conservative conclusion by way of the usual empirical processes acknowledged in the academy, that conclusion should be treated like any other?

      To the contrary, John, he seemed to be arguing just the opposite. There are certain assumptions that guide professional discourse in the modern secular academy, and they are liberal assumptions — that is, assumptions about interlocutors’ individual worth, agency, equality, authority, liberty. Liberalism assumes the fundamental equality of, say, men and women, or straight people and gay people, or atheists and Christians — assumes their social equality as interlocutors, and assumes that the scholarly ideas they advance should be judged by the same standards.

      So if an atheist hops onto the blog and makes an argument based on the firm conviction that women would be happiest in a patriarchal social order, and women’s discontent with feminism is due to the rejection of patriarchy, I think he would be dismissed out of hand as begging his question in the most chauvinistic matter. But if a fundamentalist Christian scholar were to hop onto the blog and make the same argument with the same assumptions, the fact that those assumptions may be rooted in “sincere religious belief” does not make them any less deserving of outright condemnation.

      Is that orthodoxy of belief, or is that scholarly orthopraxis? Both?

    • There’s a portion missing form my comment above, John — following “judged by the same standard” should be this: ” and assertions that belie the basic norms or rules of academic discourse can be dismissed by the same standard.”

  4. Great topic and questions, Lora. I’m so glad you brought this here for discussion.

    This post is, at heart, I think, about the vexing question of liberal tolerance. I have found people’s intellectual tolerance levels to be heavily dependent on first-hand knowledge of the person in question. If you find someone to be inter-personally tolerable (gentle, giving, caring, etc.), you more often listen to their more fringe ideas. Conversely, when people feel comfortable together, the more likely you are to present to others in the circle your own more borderline ideas and notions. I mention this because I believe those relationships translate to blogs, magazines, newspapers, etc. Personal relationships sometimes trump reason, even with publishers and editors. It’s a reaffirmation, in a sense, that bodies and particular experiences matter as much as ideas, at times.

    Humane people are more tolerant of fringe ideas and people. It goes with the territory of humanists being more aware of our foibles, and the need for human nudging and correction.

    But, personally, there are limits to my humanists leanings. I am happy to welcome strangers so long as they don’t try to: kill me, hurt my family, burn down my house, attempt to exterminate Jews in my house, silence women in my house, pretend that 300+ years of oppression don’t affect the current scene of those with different skin colors, etc. Tolerant people do, and should, have limits.

    My list involves practicalities. And that’s part of the rub at an “intellectual history” blog. Which interpretations of past ideas and intellectual activities will eventuate in real-life tragedies? The line from thought and discourse, about history, to present-day action is never straight. Or, backing away, which meta-level conversations really repress and oppress others? Which of those fraught kinds of discourse will turn others away from a publication or society?

    Looking forward to the discussion under this post. – TL

  5. Thanks to all for these thoughtful comments. Jeremy, I wasn’t being criticized so much for the climate of the conference (which I could not single-handedly whip up in any case, as if I were Prospero in a caftan), but the culture of the blog. My interlocutor actually used the term “correct politics” to complain of a “narrow orthodoxy” of (liberal) opinion heard here at the blog — to which I say, “The last batch of humanities scholars to make a big stink about ‘political correctness’ infecting academe pretty much shot themselves and the academy in the foot. Can you not learn from these mistakes?” But anyhow, the critique was aimed at the “correct politics” of the blog.

    Elesha, we haven’t declared any ideas off limits from criticism here. But there are some ideas to which I would not, I think, give a platform. As I mentioned above, if Charles Murray came to me today with “The Bell Curve,” I’d tell him to go elsewhere. And honestly, my interlocutor had no problem with that. However, he argued that religious beliefs that might seem racist or bigoted or sexist or whatever are somehow different, or should be treated differently, than non-religious beliefs that are similarly racist or bigoted or sexist. They are supposedly a special category of thought, or ought to be treated as such, because they are deeply held convictions, rather than academic arguments. That was news to me.

    I do understand this much: my deepest beliefs are a special category of thought to the extent that I prefer to not worry about their logical consistency or scientific probity. But if I were to make a historical case here not only for the verity of my deepest beliefs, but for the advisability of others adopting them as well, I wouldn’t expect my argument, my tone, my language, my terms, my assumptions to be immune from critique just because I’m talking about things I sincerely believe. Sincerity and soundness are not the same thing.

    And if we as a community of thinkers can dismiss Charles Murray’s nonsense out of hand based on his a priori assumptions about the greater intrinsic value of some individuals compared to others, we can do the same with similar a priori assumptions that derive from some religious commitment.

    That doesn’t mean everybody in this community agrees with my assessment of Charles Murray’s argument, of course. But Charles Murray — or some hyper-conservative religious person who wants to argue that women shouldn’t be concerned about their rights, because that’s what is causing social decay — is free to make those arguments elsewhere. Nothing obligates us to entertain them in this space.

    And for this position — which is where I currently am on the issue, though, as I indicate above, I am very much wanting us to think this through as a community — I (as a representative of the USIH online discourse community) have been called out.

    So I thought it worth asking: what are the limits of our liberalism and our openness to disagreeing and disagreeable speech? Are they broad enough? Are they narrow enough? Are there important voices we are missing or shutting out? If someone wants to point out that secular liberal academe operates via a set of credal commitments, just like any other religion — not altogether right, but not altogether wrong — must we accept the next step in that argument, which is something like, Therefore, since academe is merely religion in disguise, you must now provide space to entertain my anti-liberal/illiberal religious beliefs?

    This is where I am with this. Thank you to other people for venturing into the conversation with me.

  6. I think this (great) question has a lot of layers, so although it’s only a small part of what I’d like to say, I tried to work out one train of thought here. I think that defining the difference between an ideological viewpoint (or framework, presupposition, attachment, etc.) and a specific conclusion that is legitimately subject to academic criticism can be crucial to knowing how to proceed.

  7. Oh boy, here goes.

    I’m going to stick out like a sore thumb here a bit by taking what I imagine some might take to be a position lacking nuance. Should religious ideas, sincerely held, enjoy special consideration or care in our openness and criticism of them?

    Absolutely not. To quote a now famous tweet from @SonofBaldwin – “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” The problem is, when such convictions are expressed politely, or take the cover of the open and free exchange of ideas, many people do not recognize them as such. Except, that is, for the people being told they shouldn’t, essentially, exist. At least not in their present form. At least not with their present life choices. All the protestations of “hate the sin, not the sinner” will not change the fact that at the end of the day, someone is telling you that you, as you understand yourself, are a problem and an obstacle to the correct, moral, or just form of society.

    I don’t know how to express how this feels to someone who has never been told this. *I* didn’t know how it felt until I was told it, several times over, by a former common contributor to this blog (who said it from a position of what I’m quite sure was completely sincere religious belief). Well, let me tell you; it is a mind fuck. And the fact that it was told to me in the spirit of open discussion and collegial disagreement made it all the more confusing, not less. It meant that other people could ask me, what’s the big deal? It meant that other people who have the privilege of toying with ideas about politics and society in an abstract way that would never have any implications on how their life would change, how they would be defined as a problem, seemed to think there was no problem here with simply exchanging ideas. That hurt quite a lot, and quite frankly, still hurts.

    Which gets me to the difficult truth at the nut of this: I also would like no one to feel unwelcome in this space. But I’m afraid that any space that deals with questions of politics – which are the questions of the fate of nearly everything most dear to us, in the end – can’t make everyone happy, can’t make everyone feel welcome. Because our visions imagine scenarios where gay people are accepted as they are and not asked to change, and others have visions where women are constrained by their biology because that defines their fate and function. Because some visions involve taking responsibility for the privileges of race, class, and gender we’ve all inherited, and others dream of a space that plays around with ideas as though those structures were temporarily suspended for the sake of thought experiments.

    But the vast majority of things we discuss fall within the realm of difference that we can agree to disagree on, we can discuss, and we should be open to. But you’re absolutely right, L.D, that there are always lines most people would draw – your example of The Bell Curve is a great one. So unless someone is actually open to any and all propositions being aired in a certain space – if they are nihilist, more or less – we are really just arguing about where the line is drawn, not the principle of whether there should be any line or not.

    And when it comes to where to draw the line, sincerity, I think, should not enter into the question. A sincerely held belief that is racist is still racist. Even if it is held with regret (“God’s ways are mysterious”) or a wish to make it somehow not contain the ugly that it contains, it is still questioning the right of a person to be who that person is. As John Holbo also once put it brilliantly, sincerity is not the same thing as accuracy. We often desperately want to avoid the implications of such ideas because, as Tim discussed above, when we meet the carriers of them in person, they are often nice, easy to like, or be empathetic with. But for me, for whatever reason, this hasn’t been enough. I don’t experience being politely told “in a just/moral society you as you know yourself wouldn’t exist” as ultimately any better than being told I’m a godless whore. In fact in some ways I prefer the latter – it recognizes its implications fully, and comes from a source easy to dismiss, since anyone who would say that is not a nice or thoughtful person worth spending my time on. Actually there’s a sort of pleasure in it; hell yes I am! :p But being politely told this – well, I could write a river on that, so I’ll leave it there.

    But to reiterate my main point here: any community which makes decisions about what they value, what they will try to contribute to and what they will try to fight against, is going to make some people feel unwelcome. There is always a line. And at the end of the day, the best we can do is own where we draw it, and be honest and responsible for it.

  8. “However, he argued that religious beliefs that might seem racist or bigoted or sexist or whatever are somehow different, or should be treated differently, than non-religious beliefs that are similarly racist or bigoted or sexist.” He’s right about one thing, they are different. They are religious beliefs, not arguments, not evidence, not logic, fact, or any of those things that would be worth putting in a blog dedicated to academic knowledge and discourse. And non religious beliefs and ideologies should be treated exactly the same way–entitled to no special status simply because they are sincerely held. Now if he wants to make an argument, engage in a dialectic, present a case, propose a thesis and back it with logic and evidence, that’s another matter. You know, the sort of humanistic inquiry that has been around since what, Abelard, if not the Arabs and Ancient Greeks. And Charles Murray is an easy one. He’s the same as some nut who wants to convince physicists that a perpetual motion machine IS possible, Newton be damned. There is no reason to engage him further.

  9. Wow. Thanks to everyone for participating in the conversation and sharing the link. I highly recommend reading the blog posts shared in comments by Elesha Coffman and Jonathan Wilson. They add a lot to this conversation. I especially appreciate Jonathan’s sympathetic and thoughtful engagement with this post as a jumping-off point.

    I would not have written this post — or at least, I would not have written it here — if it hadn’t been for that film clip I screened yesterday. That was a startling reminder to me of how very constructed — and how badly misconstrued — moral categories can be.

    As a historian of thought, I can discuss the growing salience of the notion of the “curse of Ham” as an ex post facto justification for / explanation of the African slave trade and its aftermath. That scriptural argument was a “moral” justification that emerged and gained strength for a while but that has mostly disappeared, I think (I hope; I wish). But its historical contingency was forgotten utterly by its adherents, if they ever knew it. It became “a truth” about religion seemingly divorced from any judgment about human or humane values.

    I can tell you with certainty that when, as a child, I inquired about why there had been slaves in America, I wasn’t looking for an excuse to justify the practice — I wanted an explanation for something that seemed morally inexplicable. The “curse of Ham” was, for a while, a satisfactory moral explanation — until I read Faulkner’s “The Bear” as a senior in high school. Never, ever underestimate the moral force of literature and the arts.

    Meanwhile, the person who offered this response to me did not believe they were passing along exegetical garbage rooted in straight-up racism; they thought they were telling me the truth. Indeed, my surmise would be that, to this day, this person probably still believes that African slavery in the Americas, while truly regrettable, was also a fulfillment of prophecy. And they’d be very sincere about it — sincere, and wrong.

    Has someone at some point taken the plunge into exegesis and “proven” this argument wrong? Yes, a thousand times over. But we don’t need a deeply contextualized, broadly sourced exegesis of Genesis to know that the argument is wrong; we know that it’s wrong because its conclusion militates against truth — not simply factual truth, but moral truth, and, for that matter, historical truth. To glibly say that the explanation for the kidnapping, forced migration, and enslavement of 13 million Africans is that “God willed it” is to dismiss and devalue and demean human agency, human will, and a humane ethos — not just the agency of the enslaved, but the agency of the enslavers. The Transatlantic slave trade existed because many men and women wanted it so — as historians, we are ethically committed to understand their moral agency, and we cannot allow it to be waved away or papered over by an appeal to God’s will.

    You see, there are some arguments that can be ruled out of bounds because of their a priori assumptions. We have no need to hear them out as historical arguments because we know that they fall outside the bounds of historical argumentation entirely. (That doesn’t mean we can’t consider them as ideas that need to be understood for the work they do in the world; we just don’t have to take them seriously as historical interpretations.)

    There are other arguments that can be ruled out of bounds because of their conclusions, because of what they purport to prove. I don’t care how you get there, but if your conclusion is, “Jews are a corrupting, decadent influence on society, and they are the secret power behind every social ill,” your argument is wrong. I literally do not need to check the math on that one; it’s wrong. It could even be logical, I suppose, depending on how you define your premises — but it is nevertheless wrong, because it is an immoral argument, as morality is broadly understood among secular historians. If your conclusion is, “Slavery was possible because blacks were inferior to whites,” your argument is wrong — I don’t care how you got to it. One (or more) of your logical assumptions is off by a country mile, as is your moral compass. As a profession, we no longer have to hear that argument out to dismiss it.

    So one of the interesting things to consider, as Robin Marie’s comment indicates, is this: where is the arrow of the profession’s ethical compass pointing these days? About whose full humanity is the historical profession broadly willing to entertain theoretical speculation?

    If someone came into the comments of this blog and tried to argue that historical evidence or sociological data clearly indicated that African Americans would be happier and better off living under the benevolent supervision of white paternalism, they sure wouldn’t be commenting here for long. It’s a racist proposition, and a racist argument, plain and simple.

    But are we supposed to welcome people coming into the comments of this blog to argue that historical evidence or sociological data clearly indicate that women would be happier and better off living under the benevolent supervision of (white) paternalism? I would like to think that we would dismiss such drivel with the simple, factual observation that it’s a sexist proposition and a sexist argument, plain and simple.

    I would submit to you that whatever difference there is between how we would treat those two arguments indicates some of the distance we have yet to travel as a profession engaged in moral inquiry and informed by ethical commitments that prioritize and foreground the full humanity of all our historical subjects.

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We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.