One of Americans’ favorite pastimes is establishing their moral superiority by denouncing dead people. Every week brings news stories of some politician scoring points, or a university cleansing itself, by removing a name, a monument, or in some other way purifying our historical memory.
Of course, there is broad agreement among Americans that there are certain figures we should not honor (Hitler, Stalin) and fairly broad agreement on some we should (Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman). The trouble comes when elite historical opinion turns against figures who have been revered in the past by many Americans (Christopher Columbus, Thomas Jefferson). Then the purification crusade begins, eliciting a predictable backlash by conservative-leaning folks who want to preserve the honored memory of those we previously revered.
Christians have their own versions of these conflicts. For TGC readers, the most obvious dilemmas come with regard to Christian historical heroes who also were complicit in some historical sin (George Whitefield and slavery, Martin Luther and anti-Semitism, and so on). Can we still revere these figures, who were so obviously used by God, when they also engaged in conspicuous sins?
Christians tend to go to one of two extremes on such questions. One extreme is to say that if a figure engaged in sins that we regard as egregious today, they are no longer of any use to us and should not be revered. The other extreme (again showing up as a backlash) is to say “stop harping” so much on the alleged sins of people in the past, because doing so somehow denigrates or denies what God did through them.
I am aware that mediating positions on difficult subjects are not popular in our social media environment, but I would recommend one anyway. We should be candid and forthright about the failings of people in the past, but we should not flatter ourselves by assuming we would have done better in their situation.
The “stop harping” crowd would seemingly prefer we not be candid and forthright, or perhaps that we can mention it but move on because the sin in question was either not that big of a deal, or the recitation of it devalues the historical event the person was associated with (the Reformation, the Great Awakening, or whatever). But Christians should not treat their historical heroes differently than they would any other figures in the past. We have all seen “special pleading” by interest groups on behalf of their heroes; Christians should not emulate the impulse to excuse or obscure the sins of our preferred champions.
But the “they are no longer of any use” crowd is engaging in a species of what historians call presentism. Presentism is a tendency to assess historical figures based on the norms and habits of today. As Christians, we believe that moral law remains fixed throughout time. Chattel slavery was always immoral, from beginning to end, and it was always wrong for anyone to promote or benefit from any facet of it.
The trouble comes when we imply we are better than the past figure in question because we see that their actions were immoral. We imply that we would have done better than they did, because we are morally enlightened people. This attitude is also a facet of presentism, and it is historically arrogant.
I tell my students in my American history introductory course that they must realize a sobering fact: If they had been born into a white slaveholding family in the South in the Revolutionary period, they would have almost certainly died believing that slavery was morally permissible, if not a positive good. We are no better at thinking outside of our cultural, moral “box” than anyone in the past. We can’t see the culturally permissible sins we surely commit today. But, if the Lord tarries, you can bet that people 200 years from now will gawk at us and wonder, “How could they have thought that [x] was ok?”
So yes, by all means let us be honest about the sins and errors of people in the past, perhaps especially those we admire. But that honesty should not lead us to arrogance or self-satisfaction. It should not become a means of signaling our virtue on social media. Instead, the recognition that our heroes were also sinners should lead to historical humility and vigilance, knowing that any of us can be sucked into sin that our culture overlooks or blesses.
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See also my article “When Our Heroes Don’t Live Up to Their Theology“