History: A Runaway Jury?

Invoking history in one’s support is, strictly speaking, a risky exercise

The direction and verdict of history amount to the same thing: an ethical stance determined by public opinion and prevailing tastes. What is so worrying, of course, is that ‘history’ can be wrong as easily as it can be right. Yes, there is the end of slavery, women’s suffrage, and the fall of the Iron Curtain; but then there are also the gas chambers built by history’s Master Race and the famines of forced industrialization imposed by history’s Master Class. We should not only beware of being persuaded by the rhetoric of sentimentality but also by appeals to pseudo-scientific historical process and progress.


In a recent article on events at Notre Dame, Michael Bradley offered some astute observations on the rhetoric of the LGBTQ movement, as did R. R. Reno a few weeks ago in a post on the Extraordinary Synod on the Family. Both make excellent points and rightly focus on the aesthetic tastefulness of gay rights language: love, tolerance, acceptance, inclusiveness, safety, etc. Such words strike a deep chord in this age of cheap sentimentality and ethics shaped by the story lines of soap operas and sitcoms.

There is another element in gay rights rhetoric which is just as important: that which invokes the verdict of history. The phrase is invoked particularly when LGBTQ advocates wish to connect their struggle to the struggle against slavery in the nineteenth-century or for civil rights in the twentieth. Regardless of its obvious presumption, such language has the great advantage of simultaneously connoting objectivity, progress, and inevitability. Those who reject it are thus unscientific, reactionary, and (above all) a pack of losers. Thus, it was not surprising that the judgment of some future history featured in a recent interview with the latest evangelical convert to the cause, David Gushee, providing him with one more compelling reason for his shift.

Invoking history in one’s support is, strictly speaking, a risky exercise, given that the history one is invoking is actually the future, not the past, at the moment of invocation. As a rhetorical ploy, it also has a rather grim track record. Reading the recently translated memoirs of Dietrich von Hildebrand, ‘the Catholic Bonhoeffer’ (of which more soon), I was interested to see how often he encountered Christian theologians who did not support him in his opposition against Hitler because they saw Nazism as the culmination of the historical process. History, they thought, was on their side—a point which presumably explains why (at precisely the same time) so many of the brightest European minds of the 1920s and 1930s became Communists.

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