Christian Faith and the Study of History:
A View from the Classroom

Robert Tracy McKenzie

Presented to the "Christian Scholarship Conference,"
Ohio State University October 22, 1999
Columbus, Ohio


In recent years Christian historians in the United States have produced a burgeoning literature on the integration of religious faith and the study of the past. A sampling from only the last two years would include George Marsden's influential essay, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, as well as two impressive anthologies on the topic, Religious Advocacy and American History, edited by Bruce Kuklick and D. G. Hart, and History and the Christian Historian, edited by Ronald Wells. These two collections alone contain the essays of twenty-two scholars, and are impressive testimony to a broad-based effort among Christian historians to explore the complex interrelationship between religious conviction and appropriately professional, responsible historical investigation.{1}

Although provocative in the best sense of the word, these recent works suffer collectively from two significant limitations: (1) they originate disproportionately from the vantage point of the Christian college or university, and (2) they focus overwhelmingly on scholarly publication, having little to say about teaching. What they lack, in other words, is any significant discussion of what it would look like, practically and specifically, for a Christian historian at a secular institution to bring a "faith-informed" perspective into the classroom. Needless to say, as a teacher at a large, thoroughly secular research university, I find this question vitally important, and it is because I desperately desire an answer, not because I claim to have one, that I am here today. In sum, my chief desire is to raise a few questions and promote a more explicit dialogue on the question. Toward that end, after briefly reviewing the recent literature on the integration of faith and historical scholarship, I will attempt to situate that ongoing discussion more concretely in a classroom setting, drawing on my teaching experiences over the past eleven years. I will discuss briefly the approaches that I have employed to introduce questions of eternal significance into the classroom-providing tangible examples of the intellectual costs of secularism along the way-and conclude by offering some deep misgivings about the implications of the strategic recommendations offered by Marsden and others.

Rich in complexity, the recent literature on the integration of faith and history is difficult to distil into a few generalizations. Although all of the major questions are still open to debate, a number of basic themes still clearly emerge. Most obvious is the recurring call for Christian scholars, as Christians, to do more to engage the academy. Much of this work admonishes believing historians to reflect more self-consciously on the meaning of their faith for their vocation and challenges them to bring a more visible Christian presence to their colleges and universities. Contextually, such admonitions may be part of a broader call to evangelicals to develop a Christian mind or a more specific appeal to believing scholars to reclaim a "place at the table" of higher education. Biblically, they are grounded in our Christian responsibilities to love God with our minds (Matthew 22:37) and to be salt and light in our world (Matthew 5:13-16).

Such exhortations are not classic jeremiads, however, for they emerge from a context of widespread optimism. Indeed, among historians writing on the subject, almost all are encouraged by developments of the last generation. One reason is that the last thirty years have seen an outpouring of scholarly writing about "religion in history," a development that may very well be opening the way for more "religious discussion about history."{2} By 1992, this renaissance of writing about religion as a historical subject had become so pronounced that Yale historian Jon Butler exclaimed, "religion could scarcely be getting more attention."{3} Another close observer has more recently contended that, since the emergence of the modern research university in the late-nineteenth century, American evangelicals have never "been as comfortable walking down the corridors of the academy as they appear to be today."{4}

Another reason to be hopeful, according to much of the recent literature, lies in higher education's declining belief in an Enlightenment positivism that has long denigrated religious thought as "unscientific." George Marsden has led the way in arguing that, based on its increasingly postmodern presuppositions, the contemporary academy can no longer offer a consistent rationale for excluding religious perspectives. Similarly, Ronald Wells notes that, to the extent that the modernist ideal of objectivity has given way to the postmodern celebration of "point of view," Christian historians should feel less inhibited in making explicit their own religiously-informed perspectives. Echoing these observations, a Notre Dame historian avers that the "new openness" about ways of knowing may allow Christian scholars to bridge the gap between believers and the rest of the academy, while two other scholars at a private Christian college speak in terms of "exploiting the "postmodern window of opportunity for Christian perspectives on the past."{5}

Overall, then, recent work on the integration of faith and history calls for believing historians to engage the academy more directly and maintains that the prospects for successful engagement are bright.{6} Precisely what such success should look like is far from clear, however. What does it mean, for example, to say that a Christian historian is distinctively Christian? All participants in the discussion agree that, as individuals, believing scholars should manifest Christian virtues such as charity, humility, and integrity, but is their distinctiveness limited to the manner of their conduct only? Or will the content of their interpretations be tangibly influenced as well? If the latter be true, is there a place for Providence in explanations of historical causation? If not, how will "Christian" interpretations differ from those of our unbelieving colleagues? Most broadly, is it possible to reconcile a distinctively Christian scholarship-or even a distinctively theistic scholarship-with the scholarly conventions of the pluralistic academy?

The recent literature on faith and history addresses these difficult questions thoughtfully and judiciously. On the whole, the historians writing on these issues object to providentialism-the identification of specific divine intervention as a factor in historical causation-on both methodological and theological grounds. In the first place, when well-meaning authors appeal to special, privileged revelation-when they "footnote God"-they violate the scholarly convention that the evidence for historical explanation must be accessible to all. Such pragmatic rules, although unabashedly naturalistic, are indispensable for effective communication in the pluralistic academy.{7} More seriously, the scholar who claims to pinpoint the hand of God in human affairs may be guilty of the sin of presumption, of professing to know the "mind of the Lord," in contravention of the Biblical teaching that "God's thoughts are not our thoughts, neither are our ways His ways" (Isaiah 55:8-9). Finally, as Jonathan Boyd has bluntly observed, "logically, providence makes a lousy category for analysis. If God's rule extends over all and his providence comprises all events . . . it makes little sense to name some events as more providential than others."{8}

While these arguments against providentialism are persuasive, they leave us with a rather indistinct definition of "distinctively Christian history." Those scholars who have grappled with this question most recently agree that, at the very least, the religious convictions of Christian historians can serve as influential "background" or "control" beliefs. Although they will not qualify as "evidence" in the academy, they can justifiably shape the questions that believing historians ask and may, to some degree, define boundaries of acceptable conclusions by limiting the range of theories that they are willing to consider as valid.{9} Beyond this, the consensus seems to be that Christian historians' written work will largely resemble that of their non-Christian colleagues. "The 'difference in being a Christian' has more to do with the vocation of an historian," Martin Marty contends, "than with the production of a particular monograph." Similarly, Douglas Sweeney denies that a "full-orbed Christian world-and-life-view" (we should all have one) is of much practical help in "formulat[ing] positive interpretations of selected, mundane historical materials."{10} Even the foremost advocate of "outrageous Christian scholarship" largely concurs. Although he urges Christian scholars openly "to identify or reflect upon the religious sources of their views," George Marsden notes that, "when we look at the past, if we do it right, what we find will in large measure correspond to what other historians find."{11}

To be sure, Marsden contends that religious perspectives can make a difference in higher education, especially by challenging its pervasive "naturalistic reductionism" and "absolutization of humanity."{12} Much of the recent literature on faith and history is hopeful of similarly positive effects; indeed, the chorus of calls for greater engagement with the academy makes little sense otherwise. And yet, one of the most striking features of the recent literature is its essential conservatism. On the whole, these works take great pains to assure non-believers that they have nothing to fear from their Christian colleagues becoming more open about their faith. Ronald Wells, for example, assures readers that the contributors to History and the Christian Historian view their "role in the academy to be cooperative and dialogical." As evidence of their mainstream credentials, he observes that their epistemological views are broadly in agreement with those of the current president of the American Historical Association. In a like manner, Marsden emphasizes that Christian scholars can remain faithful to their religious commitments without violating "the legitimate rules of the academic game," as long as those rules are applied fairly to all.{13} While acknowledging the longstanding antagonism between the academy and traditional Christianity, Marsden concludes that "Christian perspectives need not be so outrageous after all, but can fit in nicely . . ."{14}

I must confess immediately that I am troubled by Marsden's conclusion, as well as by the conservative tenor that predominates in the recent literature more generally. To be honest, I do not want my perspective to "fit in nicely" at the University of Washington, where I teach, although I fear that, in my own timidity, I do and say far too little to prevent that. I teach out of a sense of calling, and I have increasingly come to view my vocation as redemptive as well as sacred.{15} I am fully aware that many sincere Christian scholars regard theirs differently, and I share my perspective not to persuade others, but rather in the interest of full disclosure, as I am sure that this understanding of my calling colors my view of the academy and influences my reaction to those who write about it.

My consternation with Marsden's conclusion is not grounded in my experience in scholarly research and writing but rather in my observations as a teacher. As already noted, one of the peculiar attributes of the most recent writing on faith and history is the minimal attention that it pays to the classroom in general, and its utter silence with regard to the classroom in the secular university. The omission is huge. To the degree that they do not acquire it from Ken Burns or Oliver Stone, the vast majority of the current generation of college and university students will learn their history from a professor at a secular university, not from reading the latest dissertation or monograph from a Christian historian. While a few believing historians may realistically expect to reach large audiences through their publications, most of us will never do so. Our social contribution will be forged in the classroom far more than in the bookstore. As a former president of the American Historical Association observed a half century ago, "Compared with those who read our monographs those who sit in our classrooms are much the more numerous and probably much the more malleable company. And those who read, read about the minutiae while those who listen scan, as it were, the great panorama of the past, hear, as it were, the reverberating footsteps of whole civilizations on the march."{16}

Based on my eleven years of teaching American History at the University of Washington-a large, pluralistic, thoroughly secular research university-I would venture to conclude that, for most believing historians, the limitations that secular academic culture imposes on our teaching greatly exceed in consequence its constraints on our published scholarship. The limitations of the secular classroom were not always as clear to me as they are now, however. When I first began teaching at UW in 1988, my primary goal was to help students understand the past on its own terms, "to resurrect the dead and let them speak for themselves," as Grant Wacker puts it.{17} I inflicted upon my poor students lectures of the approximate density of black holes, confident that by overloading them with information I was helping them to acquire the minimal level of understanding that every college-educated individual should possess, whether they wanted to or not. Along the way I also tried to teach them critical thinking and writing skills, but I never assumed that historians were the only folks on campus doing that, and thus I could never quite shake the conviction that, if I had anything unique to offer my students, it was somehow wrapped up in the subject matter of my classes.

Over the past decade my approach to teaching history has changed considerably, in part, I would like to think, because of my development both as a teacher and as a believer. I still want my students to understand the past on its own terms, but no longer for its own sake. I now want them to use it as well, not in the sense of manipulating the past to support a particular agenda, but rather in the sense of evaluating it, morally as well as intellectually, as part of a larger effort on their part to begin to develop an intellectually consistent philosophy of life. Topically, I have shifted my focus relatively away from broad social and economic trends toward a greater concentration on ideas. On the first day of each new course, I challenge my students to believe that the highest form of education involves change within us, and I ask them to entertain the possibility that the study of history can be much more than the contemplation of a dead past; that, at its best, history offers a dialogue with the ages concerning the issues that T. S. Eliot labeled the "Permanent Things," those questions about the nature of humanity and our place in the universe that every society in every age has confronted in varying degrees. Indeed, I now indicate on every class syllabus that the study of history should lead to self-reflection and evaluation, to what one educator has labeled "inner work."{18} Please let me stress that I am not telling my students that history per se offers answers to life's largest questions, but rather that the study of history, unless artificially restricted, inevitably raises such questions and is inextricably intertwined with the answers that they provide, implicitly if not explicitly. As the British historian Herbert Butterfield put it, "our interpretation of the human drama throughout the ages rests finally on our interpretation of our most private experience of life, and stands as merely an extension of it." In the same way, students have never truly appropriated the past until it becomes interwoven seamlessly with their innermost convictions.

Needless to say, these goals inevitably collide with the artificial boundaries that the secular academy imposes on intellectual inquiry. To make clear why this is so, it is helpful to make use of historian Philip Gleason's observation that the types of questions students may ask about historical events fall generally into three broad categories: the descriptive (what happened?), the explanatory (why did it happen?), and the evaluative (was it good that it happened?){19} When the focus is on ideas rather than events, the questions remain substantially the same: What was the idea? Why did a particular individual or group hold it? And was the idea good-or to pose the question in a manner designed to offend the postmodern ear-was the idea true?

Each level of engagement comes with its own set of problems. The first level is probably the most straightforward from the perspective of believing historians. I think that George Marsden is correct when he observes that Christian convictions "do not very often have substantial impact on the techniques used in academic detective work," as is Ronald Wells when he maintains that Christian historians "see what most other honest scholars see."{20} Although the descriptive level would seem to be the least problematic, it should be pointed out that much of the criticism of professional historians from outside of the academy involves historical practice at precisely this level of engagement. Here I have in mind, in particular, conservative Christian accusations that academic historians have systematically "whitewashed" American history, purging it of all evidence of a peculiarly Christian past.{21} Believing historians have been more likely to disagree among themselves at the second, explanatory level. Here the question has been the appropriate role for the place of providentialism, although, as I have noted, for both methodological and theological reasons, that debate seems to be fading, and most Christian scholars accept the necessity of a methodological atheism or agnosticism in evaluating the causes of discrete historical occurrences. If I am to help my students to engage history in such a way that history actually engages them, however, leading them to self-reflection and evaluation, I must also encourage my students to respond to the past at the third, or evaluative level. For the Christian historian in a secular classroom, this third level of response raises all sorts of thorny problems.

Let me illustrate with a concrete example from my upper-division lecture course on the U.S. Middle Period, i.e., the century or so from independence through the end of Reconstruction. Among the primary documents that I assign in this class are several selections from the Federalist Papers, those eighty-five essays penned in defense of the Constitution by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. I assign them because they remain the single most authoritative source of insight into the original intentions of the Constitution's framers and, what is more important to my mind, they raise a number of crucial philosophical questions about the human condition and the ideal nature of civil society. In particular, the selections that I assign focus on the authors' assessment of human nature and its implications for the structure of republican government.

At the descriptive level, I simply ask students to identify the view of human nature set forth in the Federalist. They understand immediately that it was pessimistic, although they tend to overstate the point. ("The framers of the Constitution thought that mankind was evil," is a rather typical response.) A closer second reading usually results in more nuanced understanding. The authors did not believe that men and women were as bad as they could be-for human nature consisted of both base and noble elements-but rather that their nobler sentiments could not be relied upon, an ironclad assumption that underlay the very existence of government. "Why has government been instituted at all?", Hamilton asked in Federalist no. 15. The answer: "Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason." Or, as Madison put it most famously in Federalist no. 51, "what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary."{22}

At the explanatory level, I ask students to do what historians typically do best-contextualize. Specifically, in class we attempt to place the Framers' views on human nature in their appropriate historical context by exploring the intellectual forces and practical circumstances that helped to shape them. We discuss the degree to which their views were Christian, we weigh the influence of the European Enlightenment, we gauge the impact of the Scottish "Common Sense" school of philosophy. Nor do we forget to scrutinize the self-interested economic and political concerns that might have reinforced their particular way of looking at human nature and the implications for government that derived therefrom.

Both levels of engagement offer important insights, but I would classify those insights-without meaning to denigrate them-as "narrowly historical," by which I mean that they help students primarily to understand rather than use the past. They constitute, in other words, precisely the kind of information most readily forgotten once the course is over. These selections from the Federalist Papers can also be engaged in a third and far more important way, in a sense that I would characterize (if you'll pardon the crude dichotomy) as "broadly philosophical" rather than narrowly historical. Specifically, the ideas they set forth challenge students to believe that, to be consistent, their political convictions ought not be suspended in a vacuum, but should instead be rooted in logically consistent philosophical beliefs about the nature of mankind and the purposes of human society and government. Logically pursued, this revelation can lead them to crucial, ultimately productive examinations of the philosophical underpinnings of their own standards of behavior and belief-to "inner work," in other words.

It is naïve in my opinion, however, to expect most students to get to that point on their own. At least, I have found this to be the case for all but a handful of my own students. This is less a reflection on their intellectual capabilities, I think, than on their intellectual habits. As a rule, they are simply not accustomed to thinking deeply about such questions; our culture does not predispose them to value such questions, nor has the university trained them to do so.{23} It becomes absolutely essential, then, to direct them pointedly to the third, evaluative level of engagement, which is where the rub comes, for in evaluating the ideas of the Federalist on human nature, I want them above all to ask whether they are true. To do anything less is either to reinforce students' penchant for pragmatic relativism or to invite them to engage in a sort of cheap moralizing, neither of which demands anything from them in the way of critical philosophical reflection. And yet to pose the question thus bluntly is to introduce into the classroom, implicitly if not explicitly, a religious question that ultimately demands a religious answer, something the current rules of the academic game frown upon.{24}

Focusing primarily on published scholarship, Marsden, Wells et al emphasize the vast proportion of scholarly study in which such overtly religious questions are irrelevant. I am prepared to believe that their emphasis is appropriate-at least with regard to much of the incredibly specialized monographic literature that historians produce so prolifically. I speak from experience here, having devoted nearly nine years to the study of the economic effects of agricultural reorganization in Civil-War era Tennessee, ultimately producing a book utterly devoid of the minutest particle of eternal implication.{25} But Christian historians should never confuse the "history in the little" that most of us write with the "history in the large" that we all disseminate to our students.{26} When historians enter the undergraduate classroom determined to pursue all three levels of engagement with the past, they will regularly encounter questions that are essentially religious.

To provide a sense of how routinely such issues emerge in my courses, let me offer three other very brief examples from that same history course on the U. S. Middle Period. I'll begin with one of the simplest. Old fashioned as I am, I still include in my lectures on the American Revolution some attention to the Declaration of Independence. Although the American people still seem to venerate it, historians have deconstructed it effectively enough that it has ceased to seem of much importance outside of its immediate historical context.{27} Yet the philosophical questions that it raises are hugely important. Here, even the most basic descriptive questions to my students can lead quickly to the metaphysical. What truths did Jefferson claim as "self-evident"? Upon what did he ground the concept of "unalienable rights"? The evaluative question that students like most is whether the slaveholding Jefferson's ideas were hypocritical (a line of inquiry that often leads to Sally Hemings), but the one of greatest import for their world views is the simple evaluative query, "were Jefferson's assertions about human rights true?"

A second example involves the rise of democracy during the quarter-century after the War of 1812. The term "democracy" is notoriously difficult to define; "the indispensable term for whatever we like, it has come to cover so much in general" that it no longer means "much of anything in particular."{28} At the descriptive level, I ask students to define what Americans in the Jacksonian Era meant when they used the term. They readily appeal to Andrew Jackson's own procedural definition, that "the first principle" of democracy is that "the majority is to govern."{29} At the explanatory level, we discuss the various developments that may have contributed to the growing acceptance of majoritarianism, including changes in Protestant theology, the influence of romanticism, and the cultural impact of the Market Revolution.

At the evaluative level is where things get complicated. The central question in this instance is whether majority rule reliably produces morally acceptable outcomes. Given that the majority of Americans in the Jacksonian Era both tolerated slavery and advocated Indian removal, most students answer this question in the negative. Indeed, many eventually conclude that "true democracy" (whatever that is) can only be guaranteed by restricting the will of the majority on any number of occasions. This conclusion gives rise to other crucial questions, of course, fundamentally religious questions that I usually feel constrained to relegate to the "food for thought" section of my syllabus rather than ask explicitly: What will be the philosophical rationale for restraining the wishes of the majority? If all moral codes are culturally constructed, what does it mean to say that the majority is "wrong"? Apart from a theistic world view, is there any philosophically coherent basis for restricting the will of the majority that is distinguishable from totalitarianism?

Here is a final example: When I turn to the coming of the American Civil War, one of the issues unavoidably raised in that course concerns the range of reasons why northern whites opposed either slavery per se or the expansion of slavery during the years leading up to secession. For the sake of simplicity, I emphasize three basic rationales and attach each to a prominent figure of the era. The first, and most widely popular across the North, was an opposition to slavery grounded in the pragmatic determination of self-interest. This position is represented best by David Wilmot, a Democratic congressmen from Pennsylvania who strongly opposed the expansion of slavery into the territory acquired from Mexico as a result of the Mexican War. As Wilmot explained it, his opposition did not come from a "squeamish sensitiveness . . . nor morbid sympathy for the slave. . . . The negro race already occupy enough of this fair continent. ... I would preserve for free white labor a fair country . . . where the sons of toil, of my own race and own color, can live without the disgrace which association with negro slavery brings upon free labor."{30}

A second antislavery rationale was the natural rights position espoused, at least implicitly, by Abraham Lincoln during the 1850s. During his debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858, Lincoln went to great lengths to stress his opposition to the social and political equality of the races. Blacks should not be allowed to vote, to hold office, to serve as jurors, or to intermarry with whites. The only rights to which the black American could lay claim were those unalienable rights-"life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"-inherent in his very humanity. "The negro may not be my equal and Judge Douglas' equal in many respects," Lincoln averred, "but in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my own equal, and Judge Douglas' equal, and the equal of every living man."{31}

The third antislavery rationale evident during the late antebellum period, and always the least commonly espoused, was an appeal to a transcendent spiritual law, an approach most passionately modeled by the arch-abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison. "O, how accursed is that system," Garrison observed, "which entombs the godlike mind of man, defaces the divine image, reduces those who by creation were crowned with glory and honor to a level with four-footed beasts.... Why should its existence be prolonged one hour? Is it not evil, only evil, and that continually? What does its presence imply but the absence of all fear of God, all regard for man, on the part of the people of the United States? Heaven speed its eternal overthrow!"{32}

Should my goal as a scholar in a secular university be merely to introduce students to the variety of antislavery expressions before the Civil War (descriptive engagement)? Ought I to encourage a pragmatic relativism by asking them only which approach was more popularly appealing and why (explanatory engagement)? I hope that my students enter my class with a desire to learn about American history, but above all I hope that they will approach my courses with the question, "What can I learn about how to live?" To satisfy that yearning where it exists, and to stimulate it where it is lacking, it is necessary to press further. Yes, I want my students to understand the historical context; yes, it is essential that they recognize the different moral assumptions of another time and place; but ultimately I hope that they will enter personally into the moral debates of an earlier time, not simply to engage in self-indulgent moralizing, but in order to grapple with ethical questions that were important in the past and which, more importantly, still resonate today (evaluative engagement). Is pragmatic self-interest a secure platform for appeals to racial equality? What do we do when the "self-evident truths" of natural law aren't self-evident to the majority? Are there grounds to impute dignity to human beings from a starting point of naturalistic evolution? Most broadly, can we be good without God?

In sum, in an open history classroom, where instructor and students freely evaluate the ideological, intellectual, and moral debates of the past and aggressively pursue the philosophical implications of the ideas they encounter, they will regularly, repeatedly confront religious questions that the secular academy insists have no place there. The question for Christian historians is what to do when they encounter the artificial boundaries that secularization imposes.

One response would be for historians simply to back away from such questions, altering the course of classroom discussions when they sense them looming on the horizon. The argument for such an approach would rest on the grounds that the pragmatic secular academy is not designed to address such questions, and that it functions most effectively when both faculty and students accept the rather limited objectives for which it is suited. I understand that no college or university is ever to be confused with a church, and I also understand the Augustinian idea that a Christian can, in good conscience, endorse the pragmatic rules of particular public institutions and be thankful for the practical benefits that they provide.{33} The latter, however, presupposes that such institutions do no harm; concerning the secular academy specifically, it demands that we believe that its effects on students range from very beneficial, at best, to neutral, at worst. But is this true? I'm not sure. At the very least, does not the secular academy systematically inculcate the message that one's convictions about the meaning and purpose of human existence are simply irrelevant to the life of the mind? What is worse, does it not teach that the reverse is true as well, i.e., that intellectual ideas are devoid of moral consequences? Put differently, given the power of language, can we really adopt an unrelentingly naturalistic discourse in the classroom without promoting-albeit unintentionally-a naturalistic worldview?

A second approach would be to introduce religious perspectives explicitly, but in a way that does not violate the pragmatic rules of the academy. George Marsden suggests that Christian scholars may introduce religious viewpoints as long as they do so "conditionally"-which means that they must not assert that they are true-and as long as they show "great deference and respect for opposing viewpoints, especially opposing religious views."{34} This might significantly increase the discussion of religious perspectives in the academy, but at what cost? Try as I might, I cannot imagine it having any effect but that of underlining the relativism of all religious points of view, or, more precisely, the relativism of all points of view, theistic and atheistic. I think in this regard of the very bright honors student in my historiography seminar this past spring, who sought to drive home his adamant belief in cultural relativism by denying that there was any transcendent moral difference between a daycare facility and a Nazi death camp. What does it mean to "show deference and respect" for his viewpoint? What does it teach the rest of the class should I do so? Rightly did Princeton theologian A. A. Hodge predict the implications of such an educational philosophy more than a century ago, when he observed that "he who believes most must give way to he who believes least, while he who believes least must give way to he who believes not at all."

A third approach, which Marsden also endorses, would be to introduce religious perspectives into the classroom indirectly by exposing "internal inconsistencies in the belief systems of others."{35} This is essentially the approach that I have taken in recent years. I now include in my syllabus an encouragement to students to think presuppositionally, and I try repeatedly to challenge them, both in the classroom and in private conversations, to search for metaphysical beliefs that are logically consistent with the ethical convictions they profess to hold. To give one example, in discussing the antebellum antislavery movement, I usually note, rather offhandedly, my suspicion that few if any of the students in the classroom could marshal a moral case against slavery consistent with their own foundational presuppositions about life. To be completely candid, I adopted this strategy in part as a form of "pre-evangelism", but also in part because I believed that very few of my students had ever been challenged to develop a rationally consistent philosophy of life. At the very least, many of them blithely hold ethical values, epistemological beliefs, and metaphysical convictions that are blatantly contradictory. Such contradictions come in many forms, but the most common variety in my experience is found in the self-professed relativist who denies that there is any transcendent meaning or purpose to human existence, and yet who expresses great hope for the future of humanity and feels passionately about his own non-negotiable set of ethical values. Michael Novak calls this "nihilism with a happy face,"{36} and I find it to be widespread on my campus.

Unfortunately, I have encountered two problems with this indirect approach which suggest that it is ill suited to the type of students I actually teach. To begin with, although less vocal than his classmates with passionate convictions, the most common type of student I have encountered appears to possess no deeply-held convictions of any kind, much less anything approaching a consciously articulated world view, however immature. I find it relatively easy to show such students the nihilistic implications of philosophical relativism, but getting them to care is a more difficult matter. And in spite of all the talk about the "angst" felt by "generation X," I doubt that this is an entirely new phenomenon. More than a half-century ago, C. S. Lewis noted that, "for every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be guarded from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts."{37} When the foremost obstacle is apathy rather than antipathy, poking holes in the belief systems of others accomplishes little, it seems to me.

Second, among the smaller number of students who do hold passionate convictions, I find that a large proportion recognize no obligation to reconcile daily belief with first principles. From a postmodern perspective, after all, "rationality" is simply a "western construction" and ideas are merely "convenient perceptions," to quote Richard Weaver.{38} Indeed, a few years ago, I delivered a public lecture on my campus in which I charged the university with positively discouraging students from developing a rationally consistent philosophy of life, and one of the first questions from the audience after I concluded-from a graduate student in my own department-was why is it necessary to be consistent? Perhaps more than for any other reason, this is why I am less willing than Marsden, Wells et al to view the rise of postmodernism as an opportunity for Christian scholars. The rise of postmodernism may very well afford believing historians an opportunity to regain a stronger voice within the academy, but it is difficult to imagine a set of epistemological presuppositions less compatible with the tenets of traditional Christianity.

To be of maximum benefit, I realize that a paper such as this one should not only point out problems-always a relatively easy task-but also suggest constructive strategies for solving them. I have failed rather badly in this regard, I'm afraid, largely because, from where I stand, the obstacles to fully integrating Christian perspectives into a secular history classroom appear insuperable. Not all the news is bad, I should stress. The good news is that, for scholars who wish to do so, it is a simple task to structure their history courses in such a way that they touch regularly upon "Permanent Things," i.e., questions of explicitly religious significance. This need not be orchestrated artificially, furthermore, but rather develops naturally when students are encouraged to use history as well as understand it, to evaluate the past as well as describe and explain it. Indeed, I would argue that, at least for the teaching of history, it is the exclusion of religious questions that is artificial. This should not be surprising, of course, given that history as a discipline focuses so centrally on the experience of humans, including the ultimate questions that they have always confronted "about the nature and meaning of the world, and of [their] existence in it."{39}

Although it may be encouraging to note how relatively easy it is to inject religious questions into the history classroom, it is also essential to remember the larger institutional context in which those questions are raised. Therein lies the bad news. In the secular classroom, the believing historian may pose religious questions but never answer them, introduce religious perspectives but never endorse them, demonstrate the contradictions of other belief systems but never proclaim the good news of a consistent alternative. In his book on education as a "spiritual journey," educational theorist Parker Palmer argues that the most important teaching on the college campus is "the teaching behind the teaching."{40} Palmer has in mind the myriad of epistemological assumptions about how we know and what we can know which, though often unspoken, undergird the courses that we teach. While Palmer is thinking primarily of the individual classroom when he writes of the "hidden curriculum," it is evident that, as an institution, the secular university also proffers a subliminal message. Through the fragmentation of knowledge that it promotes and the denial of the unity of truth that it implicitly espouses, the secular university, in its very structure, reinforces a worldview that is antithetical to that of evangelical Christianity.

Well might we contemplate, before closing, the sober query of Psalm 11:3: "If the foundations are destroyed, what will the righteous do?" At the very least, this is a question that every believing scholar on a secular campus must reckon with, implicitly if not explicitly. If the psalmist's plaintive cry ought not lead us to despair, it nevertheless reminds us of the incalculable importance of the presuppositions-the epistemological foundations, if you will-of the educational institutions within which we labor. Honest reflection on those foundations calls into question whether it is truly possible, or more important, whether it is even desirable, for our Christian perspectives to "fit in nicely."


{1}George M. Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (New York: Oxford University press, 1997); Bruce Kuklick and D. G. Hart, eds., Religious Advocacy and American History (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997); Ronald A. Wells, ed., History and the Christian Historian (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdman's Publishing Co., 1998). An extremely abbreviated list of pivotal writings on the topic over the past half century would include Herbert Butterfield, Christianity and History (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1949); H. Christopher Dawson, The Dynamics of World History (London: Sheed and Ward, 1957); idem, The Crisis of Western Education (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1961); Van Harvey, The Historian and the Believer (New York: Macmillan, 1967); Frank Roberts and George Marsden, eds., A Christian View of History? (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1976); C. T. McIntire, God, History and Historians (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977); C. T. McIntire and Ronald Wells, History and Historical Understanding (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1984); . Recent works that deal more broadly with the relationship between faith and the academy include George M. Marsden and Bradley J. Longfield, eds., The Secularization of the Academy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); Mark R. Schwehn, Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994); and Warren A. Nord, Religion and American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

{2}Wells, History and the Christian Historian, pp. 3-4.

{3}Quoted in Paul Boyer, "In Search of the Fourth 'R': The Treatment of Religion in American History Textbooks and Survey Courses," in Kuklick and Hart, eds., Religious Advocacy and American History, p. 118.

{4}D. G. Hart, "What's So Special about the University, Anyway?", in Kuklick and Hart, Religious Advocacy and American History, p. 137. See also George Marsden, "The Naked Public Classroom," Books and Culture, Sept./Oct. 1996, p. 28; and Jonathan Tucker Boyd, "If We Ever Needed the Lord Before," Books and Culture, May/June 1999, p. 40.

{5}Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, especially pages 25-43; Wells, History and the Christian Historian, pp. 4-6; James Turner, "Humbling the Lords of Epistemology," Books and Culture, Sept./Oct. 1996, p. 26; Karl W. Giberson and Donald A. Yerxa, "Providence and the Christian Scholar," Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies (forthcoming), p. 19. In contrast, Wilfred M. McClay doubts that postmodern epistemology is as dominant as Marsden, Wells, et al assert, and maintains that "the reigning mindset of the mainstream academy remains overwhelmingly secular-positivist." See McClay, "Why the Academy Needs Christians," Books and Culture, May/June 1997, p. 12. An informative overview of how the rank and file of historians in the United States have thought about epistemological questions is Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988). Normal J. Wilson offers a sympathetic introduction to the most recent theoretical literature in History in Crisis? Recent Directions in Historiography (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1999). Gertrude Himmelfarb presents a pithy critique from a Christian perspective in "Tradition and Creativity in the Writing of History," First Things, Nov. 1992, pp. 28-36.

{6}D. G. Hart offers particularly trenchant dissent to the prevailing optimism. that "the utilitarian pressures of the American economy set the agenda for the modern university," Hart argues forcefully that "the economy and purposes of academic life in late-twentieth century America are hostile to the development of a Christian mind." See "What's So Special about the University, Anyway?", quotes on pp. 146-7, 144.

{7}Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, p. 45; Giberson and Yerxa, "Divine Agency and the Christian Scholar," p. 1.

{8}Boyd, "If We Ever Needed the Lord Before," p. 40. See also Mark Noll, "Traditional Christianity and the Possibility of Historical Knowledge," in Kuklick and Hart, eds., Religious Advocacy and American History, pp. 28-53; Douglas A. Sweeney, "Taking a Shot at Redemption," Books and Culture, May/June 1999, p. 43; Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, p. 95; as well as C. S. Lewis's famous essay, "Historicism," in Christian Reflections XXXXXX.

{9}Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, pp. 44-51.

{10}Martin E. Marty, "The Difference in Being a Christian and the Difference it Makes-for History," McIntire and Wells, eds., History and Historical Understanding, p. 50; Sweeney, "Taking a Shot at Redemption," p. 43.

{11}Marsden, Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, p. 52; idem, "Common Sense and the Spiritual Vision of History," McIntire and Wells, eds., History and Historical Understanding, p. 59.

{12}Marsden, Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, pp. 72, 78.

{13}Wells, History and the Christian Historian, pp. 4, 6, 11.

{14}Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, p. 57.

{15}Douglas Sweeney makes this distinction in "Taking a Shot at Redemption," although his view of own calling evidently differs from mine.

{16}Conyers Reid, "The Social Responsibilities of the Historian," American Historical Review 55 (1950):277.

{17}Grant Wacker, "Understanding the Past, Using the Past: Reflections on Two Approaches to History," in Kuklick and Hart, eds., Religious Advocacy and American History, p. 165.

{18}E. F. Schumacher, quoted in Parker Palmer, To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1983), p. 36.

{19}I have adopted these categories from Philip Gleason, Keeping the Faith: American Catholicism Past and Present (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987), pp. 216-20; as described by Grant Wacker in "Understanding the Past, Using the Past," pp. 163-64.

{20}Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, p. 47; Wells, History and the Christian Historian, p. 4.

{21}Gary DeMar employs the phrase "whitewashing" in his America's Christian History: The Untold Story (Atlanta: American Vision, Inc., 1993). Other examples of triumphalist works that celebrate America's Christian beginnings include Peter Marshall and David Manuel, The Light and the Glory (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1977); and Tim LaHaye, Faith of Our Founding Fathers (Green Forest: Master Books, 1996).

{22}Clinton Rossiter, ed., The Federalist Papers (New York: Mentor Books, 1961), pp. 110, 322.

{23}Hart makes this point forcefully in "What's So Special about the University, Anyway?" The implications of this failure from a Christian point of view are tragic. As Christopher Dawson observed more than three decades ago, the primary cause of irreligion in the western world is not aggressive opposition to religious belief but "sheer indifference: the practical paganism of people who have never thought deeply on this subject, or perhaps on any subject." See The Crisis of Western Education (Steubenville, OH: Franciscan University Press, 1989; orig. publ. 1961), p. 171.

{24}By asserting that a "religious" answer would be called for, I am not suggesting that the question could only be answered by appealing to some particular code of ethics grounded in a belief in the existence of God. From an intellectual standpoint, "the significant aspect of religion is the code of beliefs that it supplies concerning ultimate questions, about the nature and meaning of the world, and of our existence in it." See M. Stanton Evans, The Theme is Freedom: Religion, Politics, and the American Tradition (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1994), p. 119.

{25}See-or better yet, buy-One South or Many? Plantation Belt and Upcountry in Civil-War Era Tennessee (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

{26}I have borrowed these terms from Reid, "The Social Responsibilities of the Historian," p. 276, although I employ them slightly differently.

{27}Pauline Maier provides a nice commentary on the persistent popular veneration of the Declaration in the introduction to American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), pp. ix-xxi.

{28}Robert H. Wiebe, Self-Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 1.

{29}James D. Richardson, compiler, Messages and Papers of the Presidents (Washington, D.C.: Bureau of National Literature, 1897), vol. III, p. 1011.

{30}Quoted in James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 55.

{31}Harold Holzer, ed., The Lincoln-Douglas Debates (New York: Harper Collins, 1993), p. 63.

{32}The quotation comes from Garrison's introduction to Frederick Douglass's first autobiography. See David W. Blight, ed., Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (Boston: Bedford Books, 1993), p. 33.

{33}Mark Schwehn makes the first observation pointedly in "A Christian University: Defining the Difference," First Things, May 1999; Marsden makes the latter in The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, p. 45.

{34}Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, pp. 52-53.

{35}Ibid., p. 50. As an example, Marsden notes the observation that "contemporary academic dogmatism on questions of equality and justice is inconsistent with the affirmation of purely naturalist Darwinism."

{36}Michael Novak, "Awakening from Nihilism: The Templeton Prize Address," First Things, September 1994, p. 20.

{37}C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Macmillan Pub. Co., 1947), p. 24.

{38}Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), p. 21.

{39}Evans, The Theme is Freedom, p. 119.

{40}Palmer, To Know as We Are Known, chap. 3.

Dr. McKenzie is Associate Professor of History at the University of Washington.