I have been enjoying Tracy McKenzie‘s reflections on moral judgment and the American idea of manifest destiny. I think I approach the question of moral reflection in historical inquiry a little bit differently, but we both seem to end up at the same place.
McKenzie’s posts are making me impatient about receiving the copy-edited manuscript of my Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past. I want to make a few small changes in light of the things I am learning from his posts at “Faith and History.”
Here is a taste of his post “Manifest Destiny and Moral Reflection–Part Two“:
At its best, the study of the past can provide a marvelous context for serious moral inquiry. One of my favorite statements to this effect comes from historian David Harlan. In his book, The Degradation of American History, Harlan writes movingly about history’s potential to facilitate a “conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.”
In practice, secular historians today frequently write implicitly as moralists—criticizing past views about race, class, gender, and colonialism with which they disagree without building a systematic moral argument for their views. And yet officially, for more than a century academic historians have insisted that moral inquiry has no legitimate place in responsible historical scholarship. They usually make their case by equating moral inquiry with heavy-handed dogmatism, painting nightmare scenarios in which the historian becomes a “hanging judge,” passing out sentences left and right for the moral edification of the audience.
Obviously, this is not the only form that moral inquiry may take, however. I like to distinguish between moral judgment, defined as outward directed inquiry focused on determining the guilt or rectitude of people or events in the past, and moral reflection, an inward directed undertaking in which we engage the past in order to scrutinize our own values and behavior more effectively.
The concept of manifest destiny and its role in American history is one of those topics that cries out for moral engagement. Most of the contemporary allusions to manifest destiny in popular culture evoke the worst kinds of self-righteous judgments, however. The furor over the Gap t-shirt with “Manifest Destiny” on its front was one such instance. But what might it look like to think historically and Christianly about manifest destiny with an eye toward moral reflection?
There is no one single way to do so responsibly, but here is what I would recommend: To begin with, we need to purpose to go to the past in search of illumination, not ammunition. Next, we must determine to take seriously Christ’s injunction to “judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). The starting point of moral reflection is “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23), or if you prefer, Paul’s declaration that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (I Timothy 1:15). In thinking about the past, this means that we purpose to identify with those whom we are trying to understand, acknowledging that their propensity to sin is no more developed than our own, glimpsing shadows of our own struggles in theirs. When we do that, whatever is morally troubling about the mindset of manifest destiny becomes a clue to what we might expect to find in our own hearts if we look closely enough.