What’s Wrong with the “Wrong Side of History” Argument?

It has become one of the most common refrains. When Vladimir Putin acts like an international bully, geopolitical leaders are quickly dismissive of his thuggish behavior as being on the “wrong side of history.” Closer to home, when Christians and other religious conservatives maintain that marriage is between a man and a woman, you can count on a chorus of voices declaring confidently that these old bigoted views are on the “wrong side of history.” The phrase is meant to sting, and it often does. It conjures up pictures of segregationists clinging to their disgusting notions of racial supremacy. Or pictures of flat-earthers warning Columbus about sailing off the edge of the world. The phrase seeks to win an argument by not having one. It says, “Your ideas are so laughably backward, they don’t deserve to be taken seriously. In time everyone will be embarrassed who ever held to them.”

No doubt, the “wrong side of history” retort is rhetorically powerful. But it also happens to be intellectually bankrupt. What’s wrong with the phrase? At least three things.

First, the phrase assumes a progressive view of history that is empirically false and as a methodology has been thoroughly discredited. Today’s historians often warn against “Whig history,” a phrase coined by Herbert Butterfield in 1931 which has come to refer to historiography which assumes the past has been an inexorable march from darkness to light and from ignorance into enlightenment. Whig history has in common with Marxist views of history a confidence in the rationality of man and the inevitability of progress. But of course, history is never that neat and knowing the future is never that easy. The Whiggish approach, with its presumption of enlightenment and progress, is not the best way to understand the past and not by itself an adequate way to make sense of the present.

Second, the phrase “wrong side of history” forgets that progressives can be just as dimwitted as conservatives. To cite but one example, Thomas Sowell, in his book Intellectuals and Race, demonstrates that it was progressives in the early twentieth century–often applying Darwin’s biological theories to other disciplines–who championed eugenics and racial determinism. Many of the elite intellectuals of the day accepted “scientific” theories about innate mental differences among the races, and it was leaders on the left who argued for eliminating the “inferior stock” of mankind through restricted immigration, institutionalized, and mass sterilization. If there is a “wrong side of history” there are enough examples in history to tell us that anyone from any intellectual tradition could be on it.

Third, when applied to Christians, the “wrong side of history” argument usually perpetuates half-truth or outright falsehoods about Christian history. For example, the church did not object to Columbus’ voyage because it thought the earth was flat. That’s a myth that has been erroneously believed since Andrew Dickinson White, the founder and first president of Cornell University, authored his influential study, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom in 1896. The “sundry wise men of Spain” who challenged Columbus did not do so on account of their belief in the earth’s flatness, but because they thought Columbus had underestimated the circumference of the earth, which he had.[1] Every educated person in Columbus’ day knew the earth was round. Jeffrey Burton Russel argues that during the first fifteen centuries of the Christian era “nearly unanimous scholarly opinion pronounced the earth spherical, and by the fifteenth century all doubt had disappeared.”[2] Sphere by the title of the most popular medieval textbook on astronomy which was written in the 13th century, and generations before Columbus’ voyage, Cardinal Pierre d’Ailly, chancellor of the University of Paris, wrote “although there are mountains and valleys on the earth, for which it is not perfectly round, it approximates very nearly to roundness.”[3] Centuries earlier, the Venerable Bede (673-734) taught that the world was round, as did Bishop Virgilius of Salzburg (8th c.), Hildegard of Bingen (12th c.) and Thomas Aquinas (13th c.), all four of whom are canonized saints in the Catholic Church.

And while it’s true, shamefully true, that Christians in the South, some of them good Calvinists, defended chattel slavery, we need to put this sad fact in context. By the nineteenth century, slavery had existed for a long time, and it was usually not promoted along ethnic or racial lines. Africans had more slaves of their own than were sent to the New World. Muslim slave-trading began centuries before Europeans discovered the New World and continued longer, being legally abolished in Saudi Arabia only in 1962.

Of course, this doesn’t mean Christians have no complicity in the evils of slavery, but we must remember that it is chiefly owing to Christians and Christian nations that slavery was eradicated. The overthrow of slavery (after near universal slavery for almost of all of recorded human history) came about from two main factors: the rise of nation states (so it became too dangerous to go raid other peoples) and Christian opposition to its practice. For all its grave faults, European imperialism is largely responsible for ending slavery. Starting in the 19th century, the British stamped out slavery in their Empire, which at that time covered a fourth of the world. They destroyed slave trading ships, made slavery illegal, and blockaded islands and coasts until slavery was shut down. Thomas Sowell, the African-American economist writes, “It would be hard to think of any other crusade pursued so relentlessly for so long by any nation, as such mounting costs, without any economic or other tangible benefit to itself.”[4] And the crusade was championed by Christians, William Wilberforce chief among them.

Furthermore, it’s not as if nineteenth century Christians were the first ones to object to slavery. This is why the analogy with the church’s view of homosexuality falls wide of the mark. The church has always believed homosexual behavior to be sinful. The church–and not the whole church–can only be found to be supporting chattel slavery in a relatively brief historical window. Even if we look at slavery of any kind, it’s not as if Christians never spoke against the institution until the nineteenth century. As early as the seventh century, Saith Bathilde (wife of King Clovis III) became famous for her campaign to stop slave-trading and free all the slaves in the kingdom. In 851 Saint Anskar began his efforts to halt the Viking slave trade. In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas argued that slavery was a sin, and a series of Popes upheld the position. During the 1430s the Spanish colonized the Canary Islands and began to enslave the native population. Pope Eugene IV issued a bull, giving everyone fifteen days from receipt of his bull, “to restore to their earlier liberty all and each person of either sex who were once residents of said Canary Islands…these people are to be totally and perpetually free and are to be let go without exaction or reception of any money.”[5] The bull didn’t help much, but that is owing to the weakness of the church’s power at the time, not indifference to slavery. Pope Paul III made a similar pronouncement in 1537. Slavery was condemned in papal bulls in 1462, 1537, 1639, 1741, 1815, and 1839. In America, the first abolitionist tract was published in 1700 by Samuel Sewall, a devout Puritan. Meanwhile, Enlightenment bigwigs like Hobbes, Locke, Voltaire, and Montesquieu all supported slavery.

I am not trying to rewrite history here and make the record of the church into one long string of unbroken heroism. But since we get the impression from so many folks, Christians and non-Christians alike, that the church has been an unmitigated disaster on social issues since the beginning of time, we should take the time to get the rest of the story, in context and un-sensationalized. Christians as individuals have been wrong about ten thousand things. Christians collectively have probably been wrong about just as many things. But to suggest the whole church has always at all times and in all places been wrong about something is an audacious claim. As Christians we ought to fear being on the wrong side of the holy, catholic church more than fear being on the wrong side of Whig notions of progress and enlightenment.


[1] Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 121.

[2] Ibid., 122.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Thomas Sowell, Black Rednecks and White Liberals (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2005), 123.

[5] For the Glory of God, 330.

Portions of this blog post have been taken from my chapter “The Historical: One Holy Catholic Church” in Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion (Moody 2009).