Can Theology and Historical Knowledge Make Society Moral?

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Donald Trump’s ascent to the American Presidency has brought with it a slew of criticism from both Liberals and Conservatives alike. Chief among these concerns is the idea that the United States is slipping into moral degeneracy, typified by the perceived “lack of virtue” exhibited by the man in our nation’s highest office. Ironically, much of Donald Trump’s political success is a reaction by Conservative Americans who feared Barack Obama’s “immoral” policies and agenda of the political Left. Although Americans continue to disagree on what is right and what is wrong, the overwhelming narrative shows that almost all people are concerned with the morality of their fellow citizens. There is a general distress that further corruption will lead to destruction. This concept is not a new one, but rather has origins as old as the nation itself.

The United States’ founding fathers believed that the country’s success fully depended on the ability of its people to be moral and virtuous. Thomas Jefferson once stated, “No government can continue good but under the control of the people; and . . . . their minds are to be informed by education what is right and what wrong; to be encouraged in habits of virtue and to be deterred from those of vice.” Jefferson, along with other leaders, affirmed that morality and virtue could only be sustained through religion (made most apparent in the moral teachings of Jesus) and education (a thorough understanding of the world and its history). Perhaps America’s shift toward new forms of individualism and a bureaucratic industrial society during the 20th century pushed the once core principles of religion and historical education to the periphery, as is proposed in the book Habits of the Heart.

However, one must be cautioned before concluding that a refocus on these disciplines will produce a moral society. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese’s Mind of the Master Class shows that this idea is much more complex. Their research reveals that white southern society in the U.S. during the 18th and 19th centuries was both theologically and historically proficient. They write:

Southerners needed to know from whence they came and where they were going. Hence, like other Americans, they turned to history as well as religion for moral guidance for nations and for individuals – for illumination of the rise and fall of empires and nations in consequence of incurring the wrath of God. …

… Southerners did not turn to history primarily for facts about the past but for illustrative accounts of admirable and despicable human behavior, the complexities of political and moral struggles, and the tensions between long-term linear and cyclical patterns. … 

… Separate departments of history came slowly to American colleges, with the South leading in the establishment of chairs of history. … In politics and public affairs conservative Southerners appealed to historical experience, not abstract principles, to determine the course of government. … 

… Revivals and camp meetings receded in the North while they long remained vigorous in the South. Methodists led a revival in 1826-27 that extended from Virginia to Georgia and then westward. Stores and schools shut down. …

… Rural as well as town folk often attended church several times a week: services on Sunday and perhaps prayer meeting and songfests on Wednesday; sometimes the church trials of backsliders on Saturday. … Ministers groused about people who seized upon some excuse to skip services. 

Southerners, especially those in the upper class, thought deeply and profoundly about both history and theology. However, what makes this truth complex is the uneasy fact that at the same time, they also partook in one of the world’s most brutal institutions – slavery.

Did southern states during the antebellum era subconsciously invalidate the words of their own Thomas Jefferson (who, ironically, owned slaves himself)? Are religion and education useless in producing a truly moral society?

The natural depravity exhibited in humans should be a caution that no society will ever be fully moral or virtuous. It is indeed an unattainable hope for this world. However, this also does not mean that theology and history are useless for producing these desired qualities, generally-speaking. Although there are numerous complexities surrounding the “southern mind” and their attitudes toward slavery during the Antebellum era, the example is revealing. It shows modern Americans not that theology and history are useless, but that more attention must be paid to how they are used. Religious inclinations are troublesome when they fall short of disinterested benevolence (to use an Edwardsian term), and historical knowledge is dangerous when it is devoid of empathy.

In order to restore morality and virtue to a degenerating modern society, two things must take place. First, American Christians (and other religious practitioners) must emphasize a theology of radical, self-sacrificial love. It must be a faith not driven by the defense of certain norms, but rather the pursuit of ultimate ones. Secondly, American educators must teach students from an early age the skill of sound historical thinking, because as Sam Wineburg writes, it is an inherently “unnatural act.” History cannot be used to advocate or defend certain agendas or positions, but must rather be examined on its own terms. Students must learn to empathize with historical characters – both those they personally like and dislike – in an effort to gain nuance and perspective.

While the current condition of the United States’ societal morality is unclear, there is no doubt that it can be improved. Further knowledge of theology and history – and how to practice them – may be a major solution, but we must proceed with a great deal of caution and humility…for fear that we point out the twig in the eye of our brothers of the past, but ignore the log in our own.

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