Tuesday, May 31, 2011

What is the Moral Responsibility of the Historian?

Tom Van Dyke's recent post at American Creation raises some interesting questions about the place of moral criticism in the historian's vocation.  

The topic is Mark Noll's recent review of Daniel Williams's God Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right and Darren Dochuk's From Bible Belt to Sunbelt.  Noll suggests that both of these books fail to critique their subjects from a moral or theological perspective.  Noll writes:

...Recent studies have begun to do better, with two of the best being these books by Daniel K. Williams and Darren Dochuk.  Williams, who works from the top down in attempting a broad national perspective, does as well as any writer to date in answering the basic questions of what went into making up the religious right and specifying when the movement coalesced.  Dochuk, who works from below in a superbly researched study of grassroots political mobilization, goes far to answer the question of where it came from.  The solid history in these volumes should be applauded by all as a welcome alternative to the frenzy of earlier efforts.  Yet neither Williams nor Dochuk addresses directly what should be one of the most compelling questions about political history they describe so well: what exactly is Christian about the Christian right?

And Noll adds:

From Bible Belt to Sunbelt is an important book.  It is also a perfect complement to Daniel Williams's national survey in God's Own Party.  Yet neither of these writers carries out the moral evaluation that, especially in tandem, their volumes make possible.

I would imagine that Dochuk and Williams are a bit surprised at Noll's critique of their books.  After all, both Dochuk and Williams are historians, not theologians, clergy, or critics of the evangelical political subculture.  (Or at least they are not writing as such).

Noll's review made me wonder again about the moral responsibility of the historian.  Should the author of a piece of historical scholarship be required to offer an overtly moral, ethical, or theological critique of the subject at hand?  Or perhaps this is a foolish question.  After all, a certain amount of moral criticism happens in every piece of historical scholarship, whether the historian is overt about it or not.  Yet I must admit that I cannot remember ever seeing a review in The American Historical Review or The Journal of American History that chided the author for not bringing enough moral criticism to his or her subject matter.

Van Dyke is not sure whether Noll is writing as a theologian or a historian:

If Dr. Mark Noll wants to put on the theologian's hat, OK, or the political pundit's hat. But---and this goes for anyone else in his acclaimed and exalted position as an historian---he must make clear what hat he's wearing. Just let us know.

In reviewing two scholarly historical works here, albeit in TNR, the gentle reader could not be blamed for assuming Dr. Noll has his professional historian hat on, and not the political pundit's or theologian's.

The last thing the historian should do is mix in his own religion and politics! When Mark Noll is writing as a theologian---or personally as a Christian, or as an evangelical Christian---or as a partisan and/or pundit, all I ask is that he let us know which hat he's wearing. I hope I'm not being unfair here, asking that certain lines be drawn. 

I think historians need to think more deeply about these issues, especially historians who are engaged in several different genres of writing. Does a historian write differently than a cultural critic or a theologian?  I think so.  The historian has a more limited (but no less powerful) role in society. His or her scholarship might provide fodder for moral philosophers and cultural critics, but this is not the historian's primary task.

What do you think? Help me sort this out for a chapter I am writing on the historian as a moral critic.

2 comments:

Gabriel said...

This is a really tricky thing, I think. I would argue that historians are usually engaging in some sort of moral judgment when we write or teach. Would it be possible not to? How do we approach slavery in the classroom, for instance?

On the other hand, I think readers often want historians to be as open-minded as possible, and not to bring moral judgments too strongly or quickly. I think readers and students still hope for some reasonably complete "set of facts," which it is the historian's job to unearth and compile. And often, I think they want those without moral judgment. So, I think there is a dilemma!

John Fea said...

Gabriel: Yes, I think you are right--it is a really tricky thing. I am still wrestling with how to sort it all out. If you have any additional thoughts I would love to hear them. I think prudence may be the operative word here.