- A Religious Perspective on Writing and Teaching History
This collection of essays grew out of a 1994 conference sponsored by the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals. The conference considered two issues: the relationship between religious belief and the writing and teaching of American history, and the role of religion in the mainstream research university. The collection features essays by secular historians as well as believers. Most of the believers are evangelical Protestants.
Many of the contributors address what Peter Novick in That Noble Dream (1988) called the “objectivity question”—whether it is possible to write value-free history that explains truly the actions of human beings who lived in the past. Significantly, all of the contributors who express an opinion on the question, believers as well as secular historians, take a relativist rather than an objectivist stance. The contributors also respond to other manifestations of the “epistemological crisis” within the historical profession: the fragmentation of the discipline of history into increasingly specialized, narrowly defined fields; the abdication (perhaps as an outgrowth of relativism and fragmentation) of the task of synthesis; and the abandonment of ideas of unitary truth and universalism in favor of “particularist” perspectives based on race, ethnicity, religion, ideology, sex, or sexual orientation. 1
Undoubtedly the basic text for the ISAE conference, and one frequently cited by the contributors, was The Soul of the American University (1994) by George M. Marsden. In it Marsden traced the decline of a Protestant presence and influence in mainstream American universities from the colonial period to the present, which he says ended in the “virtual establishment of nonbelief” (p. 6) and the exclusion of normative religious perspectives from academic life. He also prescribed a “first step” in “restoring a place for religious perspectives in higher learning” that would seem to describe the intention of most of the believers who contributed to Religious Advocacy and American History: “religiously committed scholars” must “establish academic credibility for expressed religious viewpoints” (p. 439). [End Page 692]
Religious advocacy as espoused by most of the believers involves at least two tasks: writing history from an identifiable and acknowledged religious perspective and promoting the acceptance of religion, religious belief, and religious history within the historical profession and the university. The believers do not contend simply for increased coverage of or emphasis on religion, but, like feminists, blacks, and others, for a revised “master narrative.” For the believers, that means an interpretive framework informed by religion. 2
Five of the contributors focus directly on the objectivity question: evangelicals George M. Marsden, Mark A. Noll, and Grant Wacker and secular historians Bruce Kuklick and Murray G. Murphey. Marsden calls for greater acceptance of and influence for the religious perspective in the historical profession and the academy partly as a matter of fairness, partly in recognition of the growing acceptance of relativism, of “the advocacy implicit in all scholarship” (p. 6), not only in the field of history but in the humanities and sciences generally. Pointing to the current emphasis on multiculturalism, he insists that just as perspectives based on race, ethnicity, sex, or sexual orientation have been accorded equal standing, so should the religious perspective. “There ought to be identifiably religious schools of thought in the academy, just as there are other schools of thought” (p. 15). Moreover, Christian scholars should be able, without suffering negative consequences, to disclose, even promote, their particularist views, just as feminist, Marxist, or liberal democratic historians are able to do. For their part, he adds, Christian scholars should be prepared to play by the rules of the mainstream academy (its standards of evidence and argumentation) and forswear proselytizing and tendentiousness.
Wacker and Noll present arguments in favor of the kind of relativism Marsden takes for granted. Wacker endorses an approach to history whereby historians “deliberately impose value judgments upon their narratives above and beyond the layers of evaluation that are already present in everything that they do” (p. 162). Noll not only explains how “Christian teaching points to the relativity of historical knowledge...