Virtue Signaling and Historical Presentism

The recognition that our heroes were also sinners should lead to historical humility and vigilance.

I am aware that mediating positions on difficult subjects are not popular in our social media environment, but I would recommend one anyway. We should be candid and forthright about the failings of people in the past, but we should not flatter ourselves by assuming we would have done better in their situation.


One of Americans’ favorite pastimes is establishing their moral superiority by denouncing dead people. Every week brings news stories of some politician scoring points, or a university cleansing itself, by removing a name, a monument, or in some other way purifying our historical memory.

Of course, there is broad agreement among Americans that there are certain figures we should not honor (Hitler, Stalin) and fairly broad agreement on some we should (Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman). The trouble comes when elite historical opinion turns against figures who have been revered in the past by many Americans (Christopher Columbus, Thomas Jefferson). Then the purification crusade begins, eliciting a predictable backlash by conservative-leaning folks who want to preserve the honored memory of those we previously revered.

Christians have their own versions of these conflicts. For TGC readers, the most obvious dilemmas come with regard to Christian historical heroes who also were complicit in some historical sin (George Whitefield and slavery, Martin Luther and anti-Semitism, and so on). Can we still revere these figures, who were so obviously used by God, when they also engaged in conspicuous sins?

Christians tend to go to one of two extremes on such questions. One extreme is to say that if a figure engaged in sins that we regard as egregious today, they are no longer of any use to us and should not be revered. The other extreme (again showing up as a backlash) is to say “stop harping” so much on the alleged sins of people in the past, because doing so somehow denigrates or denies what God did through them.

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