There’s a smart essay in Atlantic about the overuse in politics of claims to march on the “right side of history.” The author mostly cites President Obama’s rhetoric but also critiques some conservative assumptions about democracy’s supposedly inevitable triumph, especially after the Cold War. Assertions about history moving inevitably in a moral, climactic direction are misguided and lazy, the author warns. He writes:
Theologians have wrestled with the problem of evil for centuries: How can a benevolent God allow terrible things to happen? There may be no single, satisfying answer to that question, but there are many suggested resolutions. The whig interpretation of history is, like religion, a faith-based system of belief, but it’s much less equipped to deal with misfortune. Perhaps ISIS’s barbarism proves that they are on the wrong side of history—but what if, terrifyingly, it’s evidence that they are on the right side of history, and Western civilization is on the wrong? Luckily, there’s an easy way to sidestep the dilemma: relegating the whig interpretation to the dustbin of history. Now that would be progress.
The Whig interpretation of history stresses the eventual British parliamentary victory over royal supremacy, extrapolating a confidence that liberty prevails against despotism. This Whiggish assumption, often closely aligned with English Puritanism and religious dissenters against the established church and crown, believed in Providence, often from a Calvinist perspective.
Marxism is a secularized version of Christian confidence in the ultimate triumph of earthly justice. In one of John LeCarre’s spy novels, a British spook’s new paramour reveals she’s Communist by declaring: “I believe in history.” Americans on the political left who have faith in history are typically descendants of traditional oldline Protestant, Social Gospel certitude that God is building His Kingdom through the expansion of state power against social injustice. Religious liberals have discerned the wrong side of history in religious and corporate reactionaries who prioritize wealth over generosity. The secular Left sees nearly all traditional religion as an enemy that history will sweep away.
Religious traditionalists don’t speak much of history as a tide of justice. Instead, they are usually less confident and more grim, at most half-heartedly and smilingly affirming the Bible promises a satisfactory conclusion at the end of time. Otherwise, traditionalists mock the “side of history” talk favored by some liberals. For them, this history verbiage is just a left-wing rhetorical device to claim sexual revolution and statism are inevitable, consigning conservatives to history’s dustbin.
Reagan, of course, famously predicted that Communism would be consigned to the dustbin of history, as the Atlantic article recalls. As a sort of Whig himself, he was confident that freedom eventually wins against tyranny, if only after long vigilance and struggle. As a Christian, Reagan’s confidence was rooted in faith that God’s truth and justice always prevail against the pretenders who construct ungodly alternatives. He smilingly traced Communism to the serpent’s Edenic promise: Ye shall be as gods.
Most of American civil religion, borrowing partly from Whiggery, and mediated by once robust Mainline Protestantism, has assumed that constitutional democracy prevails against dictatorship in the world, with America spiritually and politically the model and champion. Supposedly recent USA military interventions, ostensibly contrived by neoconservatives, have discredited this metaphysical confidence. But the assumption of American democracy’s transcendly innate superiority is deeply embedded in our national soul. It wasn’t reduced, at least not for long, by the Vietnam War, or countless other mishaps across our history. For America as a whole, a largely unarticulated but heartfelt confidence in providential destiny persists.
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.