We are all familiar with the maxim “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” (attributed to George Santayana). Though I like Santayana”s maxim (I like to think my schooling means something), yet it is not as easy to practice as one might think. For me this has been illustrated in two ways in recent weeks reading Björn Krondorfer’s essay It’s 1933, and Franklin Graham is German theologian Paul Althaus and the other was Douglas Wilson Black and Tan (a book so bad I’m not providing a link). Both authors want to connect the past to the present, using tragic circumstances of humanity’s failure to teach us lessons for today. As I read both, however, I came to recognize how different the approach of the historian Krondorfer was from that of the amateur Wilson. Using the past to explain the present is a common tactic; I have regularly encountered arguments over Christopher Columbus, comparisons between Trump and Hitler, Biden and Communist Cuba, and appeals to the “Christian” founding of our nation. Much of this has left me wondering if most Americans have picked up a history textbook. Going to Mr. Wilson (please don’t read his book), he has some familiarity with the events of the Civil War but is completely unaware of how they fit together. In the end he cherry picks information to try to justify himself and his ideas. Many who use historical arguments to justify themselves fall into this trap. They know that Fascist Italy was at one time a dictatorship or that Soviet Russia was oppressive and then equate those historical events to present circumstances. The trouble is these equations often break down far too easily and become poor comparisons.
Here is the trouble, unless you have invested significant time investigating history as Prof. Krondorfer certainly has, it is difficult to understand what parallels should be drawn between two situations. What is the difference between Krondorfer’s approach and the more inaccurate claims (i.e Trump is a Fascist, Biden is a Marxist, America is a Christian Nation)? First, Krondorfer makes modest comparisons not sweeping generalizations. Popular statements like Trump is a Fascist or Biden is a Marxist rely on popular understandings of these terms which are unhelpful for actually talking through situations because they are sweeping generalizations. Notice that Krondorfer specifically compares Althaus’ “Volk theology” to Graham’s both share a common rooting in their country’s mythology of exceptionalism. Such a comparison does not link Graham to the Nazi party in any way, but shows that Americans are not the only group to think we have a special ordination from God. Such a limited parallel forces me the reader to ask, “What makes Graham’s theology different from Althaus’?” Krondorfer is then able to show how Althaus was ineffective to stop a power hungry dictator and so leaves us to wonder whether we could stop a similar threat while holding to American Exceptionalism ideas. Even if I do not think that it is accurate to compare Trump and Hitler, I am left to ponder if Mr. Graham’s theology is appropriate or if it will leave him open to such people.
In a similar vein we are given a specific time frame to consider (1933). When most people appeal to history there is little context.
“America was founded as a Christian nation!”
“What do you mean?”
“Look at the founding documents.”
“The Mayflower Compact., the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution.”
This was an actual conversation between myself and someone attempting to argue from history. The first problem is the Mayflower Compact (which should not be used as a founding document) was written not by Americans but by colonists 164 years prior to the Constitution. Think about that– 164 years after the Constitution was 1948, would it make sense to talk about a letter of James Madison having historical impact in 1948? My point is, because the person did not confine the argument to a specific time, this person could cherry-pick information and piece it together randomly. A good historian traces the progression from one event to another showing consistent development. In this illustration, could that individual trace a consistent theme throughout the Colonial Era of people citing the Mayflower Compact or alluding specifically to the virtues which the Pilgrims established? The short answer is, no. America’s founders owed a large debt to the Enlightenment thinking of Thomas Jefferson and were completely unconcerned with the Mayflower Compact. The only reason this individual can make an argument is because of the assumption that over 164 years American thought stayed consistant and was completely grounded on one specific and relatively unimportant document.
One of my favorite illustrations for how this generalization plays out on a popular level is the consistent notion that the Roman Catholic Church persecuted Galileo because of his science. A quick scan of the evidence (even Wikipedia) will show Johannes Kepler had said the same things 70 years before Galileo’s trial. Kepler was condoned by the church. So what happened with Galileo? The Pope took issue with his philosophy not his science and even then his persecution was also because he was politically connected to the Medici family. The story that Galileo was arrested because of his scientific research became popular in the late 1800’s as Americans tried to keep Catholics from immigrating. From that time many in popular culture have grown to believe this distortion which now fuels the imaginative divide between science and religion.
Words like “Hitler”, “Fascist”, “Communist”, and “Socialist” have historical groundings. When we use these terms flippantly we still bring all of the baggage they inspire into modern discussions– including their associations with evil. Arguments based on sloppy or incomplete historical arguments create divides between people. Such arguments are not truly “learning from history” but sloppy emotionally driven rhetoric disguised as historical study. This rhetoric only serves to inflame passions, either passion against the target or passion against the speaker. I want to encourage people to read and study the past; I have learned much from studying history. However, we must be slow in drawing comparisons from history and when we do make such comparisons they must be authentic lessons rather than simple clumsy identifications.