One of the oft-heard rallying cries of progressives is to “stand on the right side of history”. There is a touch of irony there, as my generation is probably one of the least-studied generations on the subject of history in, well, history. When I was in school, I learned some highlights of U.S. History (mainly wars), a little ancient history (Greece and Rome) and the rest is empty space that I have been working to fill in ever since.
But, leaving that aside, what should we make of this claim to future historical vindication? Does the 21st century progressive hold the keys to future civilization, and will they be viewed as the philosophers of ancient Greece, the thinkers of the Renaissance, the framers of democracy, and others who set the world on a better course.
I’m inclined to be skeptical.
As I said, we don’t know history. Even the history we know is colored with revisionism and ad hominem. We tend not to interact with primary sources. I would ask my fellow millennials, how books have you read that were over 100 years old that were not required for a grade? You can probably count them on your fingers, if not one hand. When the only view of history one knows is the modern take, there’s a wealth of information that is lost. If all you know about the Puritans is that they had witch trials or all you know of the founders of our nation is that some of them were slave-owning bigots, and you haven’t actually interacted with their own ideas, you’re cheating yourself. Yes, these people were flawed. So am I. So are you. That doesn’t mean they had nothing to say that is worth knowing. When I write and dialogue about my Christian faith, I run into a similar problem. I’m told that the Bible is backwards, bigoted, and misogynistic by people who literally know nothing in the Bible but “judge not”. For most of my fellow millennials, the study of history is, in many ways, and avoidance of it.
C.S. Lewis coined the term “chronological snobbery” to describe this phenomenon. While we may not explicitly say so, we think we’re the smartest generation in the history of the world. Anything that has come before is outdated and useless, because we assume we know so much better. But do we? Have we truly taken humanity to new heights, or when we make history by discarding the norms of millennia and embracing norms anew, are we deviant and aberrant?
I think there is a mix of both. For instance, the overthrow of racism is a positive development. As I wrote in my inaugural post to this site last summer, racism is a denial of the Imago Dei, that is, that man is created in the image of God, and due certain dignity as a result. Of course, I make that claim on an ancient, historical (and, I would contend, divinely inspired) standard–the Bible. It is by that same standard that I cannot embrace the progressive causes such abortion and the LGBT agenda, because my objective standard does not permit it. The same God who bestows our intrinsic value in the Imago Dei places limitations on acceptable behavior. God made us, God owns us, God has every right to tell us how we should live.
Now, lest I be accused of unfairness, I’ll admit that my fellow conservative Christians are also often guilty of not knowing their history. For example, the majority of American evangelicals believe in an end times perspective where there will be a secret rapture of the church, followed by a 7-year tribulation period, then a destruction of God’s enemies and a 1000 year period where Israel will be established as a kingdom similar to the Old Testament, with a physical temple and animal sacrifices. Most adherents think this is what the church has always taught and believed. In reality, this perspective is based on dispensationalism, a theological system that is less than 200 years old. But most Christians don’t study church history, so they don’t know that. And it’s not just a theological problem. Our current Republican presidential administration can trot out “alternative facts” (as if such a thing exists) and be left largely unchecked.
The difference between the chronological snobs of conservatism and progressivism is that conservatives, as the name implies, want to generally keep things the way they have always been. Progressives want to continually push society to and past its preexisting boundaries. They claim to have standards, of “love” and “equality”, but they are nebulously defined and inconsistently applied. I think the actual driving force is a misplaced idea that the past is oppressive and must be thrown off. This is not being honest with history, nor is it a good force to drive a civilization. Understanding the past is important to avoiding mistakes in the future. “Progress” and “change” for its own sake, indifferent to where we came from or where we will end up, is a recipe for disaster. The regimes of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao brought great “change” and “progress” to their respective nations. They were also murderous tyrants, and too few caught on until it was too late.
In our era, we do not push our political ideas through genocide (except abortion, which I have addressed before), but we are pushing the limits of civilization beyond where they have ever been. Behaviors and lifestyles that were classified as disorders throughout all of history until less than 50 years ago are now unquestionable, inalienable rights. Not that we have the concept of “rights” down properly–the rights to sexual freedom and personal autonomy are weighted greater than the right to life itself. No one has ever dared to venture where we have.
Is this the right side of history? Will people 100, 200, or 500 years from now look back on our time and think, “After everyone else got it wrong, they got it right”? I think not. I think we are the aberration, and if we do not correct course, we will be a cautionary tale for generations to come. ♦