Historians: prophetic preachers of an American civil religion?

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That phrase comes from Rachel Wheeler’s piece in the latest issue of Perspectives. Wheeler writes:

The ideological and religious right have been phenomenally successful in laying claim to the myths and symbols of America, distorting them to the point of caricature. Historical scholarship now draws vicious fire from pundits on the right who see campuses as hotbeds of anti-American, liberal orthodoxy, even as it has achieved wide dissemination among the cultural left. But, informed by historians’ efforts at deconstructing American myths, some quarters of the left veer into a dystopian iconoclasm. This first crystalized for me as I followed reactions to the immigrant family separation crisis on social media last summer. Proclamations of “This is not who we are” from one quarter of the left were quickly met with reminders of slavery, Indian boarding schools, Japanese concentration camps: “This is exactly who we’ve always been!”

Here is the problem: meeting MAGA fundamentalism with dystopian iconoclasm only affirms the central claim of today’s right wing: that America’s soul is white and Christian, disagreeing only over whether that is cause for celebration or lament. Yet iconoclasts rarely persuade the iconophiles. Pathologists do not cure cancer, and prosecuting attorneys do not rehabilitate the criminal. It is not their job. Which brings me back to the question, in the context of American civic life: What are we history professors for?

This is a real problem. Imagine if leftist-historian twitter had existed when Martin Luther King wrote his Letter from Birmingham Jail. When King dared to write,

One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

There would have been a bunch of us screaming from the sidelines, “Don’t you know the founding fathers were scared of democracy? Don’t you know the Declaration of Independence was hypocritical propaganda? Don’t you know Judeo-Christian is problematic?” Seriously though, it’s precisely because of stuff like this that some of the historiography downplays King as patriot and Christian in preference of King as radical. (Of course, he could be all three, and more).

Much like Jill Lepore at the OAH meeting last month, Wheeler believes we must take it upon ourselves to supply national myths for a public that is hungry for them. And so she asks:

What if we envision our work as prophetic preachers of an American civil religion? This doesn’t require dramatic change, but simply a reframing of our thinking about what we’re already doing. Our lecterns are our pulpit and our lectures sermons, with the power to make congregants squirm in their pews at our country’s many sins, while also inspiring them with a vision of a better, more American America. Students are hungry, I believe, for exactly this sense of possibility. As the would-be keepers of America’s past, we owe it to our parishioners—our students—to help them imagine a future. Right now, I fear we often leave them straitjacketed by history. We dangle them over the pit of an American hellscape like Jonathan Edwards’s spider and preach of the indelible mark of our nation’s original sins, but we fail to offer the accompanying sermon that holds out hope of salvation.

To that I say…yikes! Can I stand in the mushy middle and say Wheeler has identified a significant problem but I’m not sure I like her solution?

Wheeler thinks the way forward is to see the oppressed and persecuted in the American story as essentially and fully American. They are not victims at the hands of “real America” (i.e., white supremacy or some such). They are constitutive of the nation. This is fine as far as it goes, but it seems like it’d be hard to find a historian working today who disagrees with it. In any case, it’s not clear to me that national histories, whatever their frame, can ever adequately get us out of this myopic trap where students move between the poles of America is awesome! andAmerica is awful!

One way out of that trap is to use transnational and global history. The wider our lens, the harder it becomes to sustain a sense that the United States is uniquely good or bad. I don’t know; maybe Wheeler thinks this is part of the problem. But I think it has to be part of the solution.

In all kinds of ways, these broader frames upset those who seek to cast the United States as an angel or devil. For example, the immigration story on which so much of American identity is built looks considerably less special when one realizes how many millions of people were moving to other places at the same time. On the other hand, American capital’s oppressions in the twentieth century look considerably less villainous when one realizes that other societies were murdering millions of their citizens in the name of class liberation.

Though I’m somewhat skeptical of Wheeler’s approach, thinking through the issues she (and Lepore) are raising can help historians to realize how thoroughly ideological our deconstructing work already is. My impression is that many of us approach our country’s history with the disillusionment of an adult who’s lost their childhood faith. We can’t get it back, and we don’t even want to at this point, but we sure as hell are angry about it.

Such an attitude shows how little we’ve learned from our own lessons. If in our classrooms students learn that the United States has not been the moral exemplar to the world they may have imagined, we ourselves ought to have learned by now that it has been a place of hope, opportunity, and inspiration for many. If such a diversity of stories make us uncomfortable, then we really are just angry deconstructionists with nothing to offer the public.

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