What is "activist history"?
Whose identity is political? And also, honesty is a virtue.
It’s the gift that keeps on giving. This week over at World Opinions, Kevin DeYoung weighed in on the “recent online kerfluffle” between Jay Green, John Fea, Beth Barr, Jemar Tisby, and myself over who is liberal, who is illiberal, and who gets to decide. In DeYoung’s assessment, in pointing out gross mischaracterizations of my work (which both Fea and Green have publicly acknowledged and for which they’ve apologized), I somehow give further proof of my illiberalism. Or, maybe the real problem was that I used the word “hell”—it’s hard to keep up with what counts as illiberalism these days.
Of more interest is DeYoung’s attempts to discuss and dismiss “activist history” in light of the plenary addresses that Fea, Tisby, and I gave at the most recent meeting of the Conference on Faith and History (CFH). (Fea has already pushed back against DeYoung’s “woefully misinformed piece” over on Current.) It’s curious to me that DeYoung, who holds a Ph.D. in early modern history from the University of Leicester, would be so sloppy in his summary and analysis. Cherry-picking a couple of sentences and adding one’s own spin usually isn’t how things are done in academic spaces; attentiveness to context and careful use of evidence are core methodologies of the discipline.
Fortunately, the address is accessible here in full, on Apple podcasts. If you’ve got the time, I’d encourage you to listen in. Of the many talks I’ve given over the past few years, it’s one of my favorites; it offers the clearest presentation of my intellectual formation, and the clearest articulation of what it is that I think I’m doing as a historian. The plenary address is also printed in the most recent issue of Fides et Historia, the journal of the CFH.
Allow me, then, to share a few of the passages that DeYoung seems to have intentionally ignored.
First, in my acknowledgment of the relevance of race and gender in positioning the work of scholars, I’m fully aligned with one of the basic tenets of the historical profession: the idea that there is no neutral, objective history. To point that out, however, is not to suggest that no rules apply. Nor is it to suggest that this is a zero-sum game, that we are engaged in entrenched battles between identity groups, or that white men have nothing to offer. In fact, here’s how I described my encounter with white male historians early in my career:
I remember it so clearly. If you go to the Calvin History Department lounge, you will still see on the wall pictures of all of the professors emeritus. There are about thirty of them, every single one of them a white man, most of them sporting rather grim expressions. At my interview I found myself surrounded by very distinguished-looking men, many of whom had beards, most of whom seemed to be named either David or Daniel, and I thought, What have I gotten myself into? But after the hour had come to an end, I knew that that department was where I wanted to spend my career. There was such deep wisdom, deep kindness, and unparalleled wit around that table.
That’s right. It’s possible to acknowledge that one’s identity might shape one’s work as a historian without disparaging or discounting the work of those positioned differently, even those positioned within the dominant social group. I realize this isn’t a convenient observation for those who benefit from decrying “identity politics,” but it’s my daily reality.
In my talk, I also showed how my approach to history is rooted in my Christian faith—in my Reformed, Calvinist, Kuyperian Christian faith—and can’t simply be written off as “identity politics”:
In preparation for this talk, I dug deep into my files and found my first reappointment statement on faith and learning, where I reflected on the task of the Christian historian. This being Calvin, I started off with John Calvin, pointing out how, in his Institutes, he wrote of the prophetic office that Christians, through their union with Christ, should take up: proclaiming good news to the poor, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming freedom for the captives, setting the oppressed free… I wrote about how historians can help give voice to the voiceless, reveal oppression, illuminate suffering, and articulate the many forms—structural and personal—that sin can take.
I also found inspiration in Calvin’s “Expanded Statement of Mission,” which emphasized the need to “discern the cultural and social forces that shape our world and address the needs and issues of contemporary life.” It also spoke of how we “strive to learn the demands of justice…and an awareness of ways to renew the world for God’s glory.” I reflected in my reappointment materials on how historical inquiry contributes to one of the four cardinal virtues, prudence—or, as Aquinas calls it, “right reason in action.” And it is through prudence that another cardinal virtue, justice, can be achieved. I considered, then, how historical inquiry is central to both: “Knowledge of the past can convict us in the present, illuminate injustice past and present, and reveal the complexities of human cultures and societies, complicating our understanding of sin and our human plans for restoration.”
Calvinists have a well-earned reputation for dwelling on sinfulness. If my own work doesn’t always come off as sunny and hopeful, I come by that honestly. John Calvin urged that we all “unremittingly examine our faults,” and insisted that it was only with an attitude of self-denial, “a heart imbued with lowliness and with reverence for others” that we could we be brought into right relationship with those around us.
I also talked about how I understood the study of gender as a Reformed Christian scholar:
In my reappointment materials, I went on to discuss how I applied all of this in my scholarship on gender and sexuality. And that was a sticking point with a member of the board of trustees. As part of my reappointment process, I had to appear before the board and the university president to discuss my statement on faith and learning, and at that meeting, one board member flagged my claims. He had always heard that gender studies was incompatible with Christian scholarship.
I shared with him how I had come to see work in gender studies as providing tools—not neutral, and not perfect, but nevertheless useful tools—that could help us understand the ways in which power operated in societies, and the ways power could be used to oppress in the hands of fallen individuals. His response was striking. He said he was grieved that Christians were not on the forefront of pioneering these methodologies, and he gave me his blessing.
On the topic of “activist history,” I shared the story of my first book, and how I came to see that history shouldn’t be used to prove a point. In other words, I positioned myself against what most people would consider to be “activist history”:
So, fast-forward then to my first book, A New Gospel for Women (Oxford University Press, 2015), based on my dissertation. I confess that the project was initially inspired in part by a desire to “prove” that one could be a Christian and a feminist. Perhaps we might call this an “activist” bent. Historians like Donald Dayton, Nancy Hardesty, and Janette Hassey had already done essential work of recovery in this respect, and I thought that the figure at the center of my book, Katharine Bushnell, was a sparkling example of this. But the more I looked into the sources and the more I really thought about those critical early works, the more wary I became of efforts to use history to establish the compatibility of Christianity and feminism by holding up examples from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century while largely ignoring subsequent history. The problem, of course, is that feminism changes an awful lot over the course of the twentieth century, as do understandings of sexuality. So does American Christianity. History helps us understand how and why. More often than not, history messes with our categories rather than proving our points. It disrupts simplistic notions of “traditional,” and it inevitably complicates our narratives.
I then described the origins of Jesus and John Wayne, and how my understanding of that project changed over time. Here’s where I invited others to think very carefully about how we define “activist history,” and how the very definition can be caught up in defending the status quo:
…is Jesus and John Wayne activist history? Sure. But no more, I would argue, than works that support the status quo. Histories of evangelicalism that depict “real” evangelicalism as a lofty theological ideal, or as a global and diverse movement and then read that definition back onto conservative white American evangelicalism, are no less activist. But the activism of works that sustain the status quo can be invisible, particularly among those invested in maintaining the status quo.
(For more on this assertion, see my review of Tommy Kidd’s Who is an Evangelical?)
In the talk, I also drew on the work of CFH scholars themselves who have drawn attention to the kind of work that has dominated the CFH by analyzing several years’ worth of articles published in Fides et Historia:
No wonder that there can be some confusion around what counts as “Christian” history and what gets dismissed as “activist” history when “Christian” has too often been defined in terms of the white, male Protestant experience—not an illegitimate experience, by any means, but also not the only one.
I responded, too, to assertions that I and my work lack love, and that I jeopardize my status as a Christian scholar by failing to offer hope, by drawing on the work of fellow members of the CFH and on one of my favorite historians, Tim Tyson.
But I want to close here with my conclusion to the talk:
Finally…I want to suggest that our most important role as Christian historians right now may simply be to model disagreement well. To resist the current “take no prisoners” discourse. To absolutely refuse to mischaracterize arguments we don’t like, put forth by people we also may not like. And to not be afraid to critique people we like very much.
There is such a need for us to do this. In fact, we historians do this all the time. I tell students in my intro courses that historians love to argue. It’s our specialty, and I show them the arguments in the texts and also in the footnotes. I show them, too, how nobody is objective, but how subjectivity is not the same as bias, which for my students always has a negative connotation and is too hastily used to dismiss an author’s work out of hand. No, we are all bringing our insights and our blind spots into our scholarship, and then we fight it out. But we have rules of engagement: Honesty. Proper use of primary sources and secondary sources. Peer review. We are really good at this, and most people right now are really, really bad at this. So we model it in our scholarship. We model it in our classrooms. Some of us can model this for a larger public as well.
I’d like to leave us with this challenge, that we work to model our disagreement with as much attention to the cultivation of virtue as we give to our pursuit of Christian scholarship. That we strive to disagree with honesty, with integrity, with empathy, and with courage.
If there is one thing that has surprised me about the engagement of Jesus and John Wayne among its conservative critics, it is the lack of rigorous honesty among men who claim to be fighting for truth—the frequency with which words are twisted and meaning ignored, the gleeful amplifying of baseless allegations, and the lack of virtue generally in the way these conversations are carried out.
Precisely because there is so much on which we genuinely disagree, we owe it to our audiences to engage one another with integrity.
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 Institutes 2.15.2; see Isaiah 61:1-2; cf. Luke 4:18.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part III, Life in Christ; Section 1, Chapter 1, Article 7, I.1805, 1806
 Institutes, 3.7.4.
I am deeply, profoundly tired of having to take unserious people seriously.
Sometimes prophets - especially if they’re a thoughtful female historian who questions and probes a predominantly male-constructed orthodoxy - are ‘without honour’ in their homeland. Love your reasoned response, continued strength and courage!