Christianity and the 'Right Side of History'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last week, I wrote about President Obama’s use—overuse, in my view—of formulations like “the right side of history” and “the wrong side of history.” The premise of those phrases seems unsound, both intellectually—it misunderstands how history functions—and as a basis for policy.

Mark Tooley, the president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, wrote a thoughtful response I wanted to spotlight:

Traditional Christians abandon the language of history at their peril.  Scoffing at or dismissing appeals to the “right side of history” will only marginalize our cultural voice. It also ignores the dictates of our own faith. Isn’t God the Lord of history? Aren’t all designs against His plans doomed to failure? Won’t justice and truth, as cornerstones of His Kingdom, inevitably prevail, despite sin and human failure?

Christmas is the ultimate reminder that Christians and all who pursue decency and humanity in a corrupt and vicious world are on the right side of history. We know He will make all the rough places smooth, and every valley shall be exalted. He came to us originally as a child, yet the government will be upon His shoulders. To align with the Baby Jesus is decidedly to be on the right side of history.

I wanted to engage with this point a little bit. There are really two questions at hand, one about faith and one about the secular world.

As a matter of faith, of course it makes sense for Christians to believe that “justice and truth, as cornerstones of His Kingdom, [will] inevitably prevail, despite sin and human failure.” Does that have anything to do with “history”? It depends how you define the word. In my piece, I drew heavily on the late historian Herbert Butterfield, who was defining “history” as the academic pursuit of understanding the past. In that sense, it makes no sense to think history as having a linear path toward perfection; history is full of contingencies, coincidences, chances. One qualm I heard from readers was that “history” is often used in a colloquial sense to refer to the past, and that this was perhaps how Obama was using it. But since Obama (and others) argue that history is a force with agency in both the past and the future, I find it hard to buy that claim.

Now, about the secular world, and how Christians fit into it. If Christians believe that the arc of the moral universe (as opposed to the arc of history, as Obama has it) bends toward justice, then what does that tell us about how to live and think about history? As I read Tooley’s thoughts I was reminded of an article by the theologian and former Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright. Wright’s piece is on the controversy over ordaining female bishops in the Church of England; Prime Minister David Cameron was pushing the church to change its policy, which it later did.*

Wright makes a couple of relevant points for this discussion. One is a straightforward rebuttal to the idea of progress, familiar to any adherent of post-modernism:

We, of all people, ought to know better. “Progress” gave us modern medicine, liberal democracy, the internet. It also gave us the guillotine, the Gulag and the gas chambers. Western intelligentsia assumed in the 1920s that “history” was moving away from the muddle and mess of democracy towards the brave new world of Russian communism. Many in 1930s Germany regarded Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his friends as on the wrong side of history. The strong point of postmodernity is that the big stories have let us down. And the biggest of all was the modernist myth of “progress”.

The other is about Christianity itself:

The Church’s foundation documents (to say nothing of its Founder himself) were notoriously on the wrong side of history. The Gospel was foolishness to the Greeks, said St Paul, and a scandal to Jews. The early Christians got a reputation for believing in all sorts of ridiculous things such as humility, chastity and resurrection, standing up for the poor and giving slaves equal status with the free. And for valuing women more highly than anyone else had ever done. People thought them crazy, but they stuck to their counter-cultural Gospel. If the Church had allowed prime ministers to tell them what the “programme” was it would have sunk without trace in fifty years. If Jesus had allowed Caiaphas or Pontius Pilate to dictate their “programme” to him there wouldn’t have been a Church in the first place.

This strikes me as a fairly chastening warning to Christians (as well as a useful reminder of the radicalism of Jesus’s message). “The resurrection of Jesus is the only Christian guide to the question of where history is going,” Wright concludes. Any Christian interpretation of history that doesn’t speak to that destination seems beside the point—and risky, too. The examples Wright cites seem to demand humility. Even if  “all designs against His plans [are] doomed to failure,” that leaves a great deal of uncertainty about what happens between now and the Second Coming. I’m willing to bet the path won’t be a straight, predictable, or always reassuring one.

* I originally wrote that Wright opposed the ordination of female bishops. I regret the error.