What Secular Liberal Historians Can Teach Conservative Christians about the Gospel

What Secular Liberal Historians Can Teach Conservative Christians about the Gospel April 22, 2022

Should a conservative Christian study history in a liberal secular academic institution?

File:Brown Campus Manning Hall.JPG
Manning Hall, Brown University, Providence, RI (Photo by Ad Meskens / Wikimedia Commons)

I was reminded of this question on the last day of the Conference on Faith and History, when I had a series of conversations that revolved around this theme. The first of these conversations was with a Ph.D. candidate who reminded me a little of myself in an earlier era of my life. He was finishing a Ph.D. in transatlantic history, with a dissertation on the Puritans near completion. But he was very wary of “liberal” academia. He had earned his undergraduate degree at a regional state university that was probably not too different from the place where I currently teach and had found the program in history there much too liberal for his taste. So, he had found a conservative institution where he could focus on the history of Puritan theology without having to worry too much about the rest of the “liberal” profession. His chances of getting a college teaching job with his beliefs, he thought, were slim-to-none, so he planned to teach history at a Christian high school and remain as far removed as possible from the liberal views of the historical profession.

I sympathized with the Ph.D. candidate’s feelings, because at one time my own theological and political views were about as conservative as his and my fears of liberal academe were similar. But the choices I made at the time were different than the ones the Ph.D. candidate was making, and I believe that I grew in my Christian walk as a result. I couldn’t help but reflect that the place where I’m currently teaching is a lot like an institution he disparaged as far too liberal for his taste – which implies that perhaps I don’t quite share his views today.

Two hours after speaking with the Ph.D. candidate, I took my seat at a conference table to chair a session on “Faith at State U,” a roundtable for Christians teaching history at secular institutions. All of us at the roundtable had chosen a different path than the Ph.D. candidate I had spoken to earlier that morning. But the conversations that resulted from this session showed that the Ph.D. candidate’s concerns may not have been entirely misguided. One person at the session shared a story about how one of his colleagues at a leading Ph.D. program in history had been “drummed out” of the program by the constant targeting of his conservative political views, and had left the program despite his strong intellectual promise. It was clear from other comments at the session that those who identified as conservatives or as “conservative Christians” could not expect a warm welcome in academia, no matter how talented they might be.

So, was the Ph.D. candidate right? Should people who might identify as conservative Christians (or Christian conservatives) approach history graduate programs and academia in general with suspicion, expecting to be vilified for their beliefs at any moment? Should they expect to have to fly below the radar, letting few people know the full extent of their real beliefs until the moment when they can leave with their Ph.D. in hand and, if they are lucky, find a job teaching at a conservative Christian institution where they will no longer be ostracized for their beliefs?

These questions matter to me partly because I was once a lot like the Ph.D. candidate I spoke to. I was the product of a very conservative Christian homeschooling subculture, and I was part of a devout family that held to nearly all of the strictures of fundamentalism. My father warned me repeatedly about the spiritual dangers of graduate study in history and a career as a college professor. When, in spite of the warnings, I entered graduate school at Brown University (which is, of course, hardly considered a bastion of conservatism), I was a conservative Christian in every sense and nearly as wary of “liberal” academia as the Ph.D. candidate was.

I’m still a Christian. I have been in secular institutions for my entire academic career, and I’m currently working for a regional state university. One might assume therefore that I would either confirm the Ph.D. candidate’s views with plenty of “war stories” to share about my own battles with secular foes in academia or else that I would advance the view that, contrary to popular myth, supposedly “liberal” academia is a lot more welcoming to conservative Christians than they might ever have imagined. But actually, I’m going to present a third view: the view that conservative Christians could grow in their understanding of the gospel by learning from liberal secular historians. There is a lot that liberal history professors can teach conservative Christians.

When I entered college as a history major, I was very conservative in both my politics and theology, and my historical interests reflected those beliefs, because I wanted to study the history of great empires and grand ideas. I was interested in the rise and fall of great powers, and I was especially attracted to courses on European diplomatic history and the history of the American economy. I also wanted to study the history of the biblical world and the early church. When I entered a Ph.D. program in ancient history after completing my B.A., my stated goal was to study interactions between church and state during the last centuries of the Roman empire. I was not interested in the rights-conscious “history from below” that attracted many of the history faculty in my undergraduate program. What interested me most were issues of political power, diplomacy, and theological ideas – which, for the most part (especially in my conception of the issue) meant the study of dead white men.

By the time I entered graduate school, I was aware that those interests made me part of a very small, beleaguered minority among historians of the modern world. That was part of the reason why I had retreated into the safer haven of the study of the ancient world, where I thought I could still get away with writing a grand narrative of statecraft – perhaps a 21st-century update of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I was afraid of postmodern approaches to history. Studying cultural history through the lens of power relationships or even using race, class, and gender as primary categories of analysis held no interest for me. As a fundamentalist at the time, I was drawn to a literal reading of texts. I didn’t think of gender as a construct; I thought of it as a biological designation that reflected divinely ordained realities. And as a color-blind conservative, the concept of structural racism was equally foreign to me.

When I first encountered these ideas as an undergraduate at a secular university, I dismissed most of them and instead carefully selected the courses that would not be too uncomfortable. By minoring in economics, I was able to take several courses that reaffirmed my faith in free-market capitalism. By studying ancient and modern European languages, I didn’t have to directly confront too many objectionable ideas (at least at the introductory level).I bypassed all courses in religious studies (a discipline which was filled with religious liberals and skeptics), anthropology (which posed numerous problems for an anti-Darwinian creationist, as I was at the time), and psychology. For the most part, I was able to carefully select history courses that matched my interests: European diplomacy, American economic history, modern Britain, the Hellenistic world, and the ancient Roman empire. As an undergraduate, I did not take any courses in African American history or women’s history – let alone the history of sexuality. Occasionally, a course unexpectedly challenged parts of my conservative worldview. A sociology course, for example, opened my eyes to structural poverty – especially when I compared this academic knowledge to the things I was seeing with my own eyes as a volunteer tutor in an inner-city middle school in Cleveland, Ohio. But for the most part, I was savvy enough (and wary enough of “liberal” academia) to tread very carefully and avoid some of the things I didn’t want to study. I thought I would be able to do the same in graduate school, but I was not. And that ultimately proved to be enormously beneficial for my spiritual growth.

My historical studies in graduate school forced me to reevaluate my beliefs, especially after I switched my primary field of study from the history of the ancient Mediterranean world to American political history. At first, the uncomfortable ideas that I encountered led to a crisis of faith of sorts as I tried to come to terms with the discrepancies between what I believed and what I was learning, but eventually, instead of taking me away from Christ, my readings in African American history, gender history, and the history of the marginalized gave me a perspective that was more authentically Christian than what I had before.

Only one of my Brown University graduate school professors who assigned me readings about African American history, the history of poverty, and the lives of the marginalized identified as a Christian, and none were evangelicals, but in many ways, their interest in studying the lives of those who lacked political power reflected the concerns of Jesus to a much greater degree than my earlier interest in studying the rise and fall of empires did. The Bible has a great deal to say about imperial ambitions, none of which is positive. It is the Bible, after all, that chronicled the tears of the oppressed long before any secular historians became interested in the topic. So, one of the Christian principles that I learned from secular liberals in the academy was a realization that we’re more likely to see God’s story in the lives of the marginalized than in the statecraft and political decision-making of the powerful.

Holy Angel Catholic Church, Chicago’s South Side, 1973 (Photo by John H. White, National Archives and Records Administration)

Another Christian lesson I learned was that Christianity cannot be equated with white American churches. African American Christians read the Bible, go to church, and pray to the Trinitarian God even more often than most white Christians do, according to several studies that have been done on the topic. Before I began studying history in graduate school, I often equated a white conservative version of Christianity with the totality of American Christianity, but my graduate studies led me to see how wrong I was. I had a distorted view of Jesus’s church before my Ph.D. studies, which meant that I had a distorted view of Christ.

My graduate studies also helped me to see how many of the things that I had made part of my worldview were erroneous. For instance, before my graduate school studies, I held the view of my conservative Christian subculture that both the United States and Western Europe had experienced a long moral decline over the past century. Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live? was one of my favorite books from my high school years, and I accepted its historical narrative. But I realized in graduate school that the reality was much more complicated. Moral norms certainly changed over the years – some for the better and some for the worse – but a linear moral decline was hard to trace, even on issues of sex, let alone race. Especially when the coerced sex that accompanied enslavement was factored into the equation, it was hard to say that the sexual behaviors of early nineteenth century America were so much better than those of the late twentieth century, and this complicated the picture that I had had of the moral decline of an erstwhile Christian America. I eventually realized that a theology of original sin should lead us to expect a lot of depravity in the past as well as the present, and that my earlier view of Christian nation that had lost its moral and theological moorings was more reflective of conservative nationalism than genuine Christian theology.

And perhaps above all, I learned to listen well to other points of view. I eventually began to realize that the supposedly secular worldviews that I had once thought I needed to oppose in actuality contained a great deal of Christian truth – often because they could trace their intellectual lineage to liberal Protestantism. And the supposedly Christian worldviews that I had once accepted in actuality contained a great deal of secular conservative thinking that was not necessarily Christian. But even when I was confident that I was standing on firmly biblical ground in my beliefs, I learned to listen carefully to other points of view and seek to understand where others were coming from.

After all, I learned, the study of history is really about the art of reading sources and listening to people. Historical study did not ultimately teach me as much about the rise and fall of nations and empires as I had once hoped. I didn’t get the clear political policy guidance that I had once sought. But I discovered the value of listening to other people – especially those whose stories had not yet been fully told. And when I started listening to others, I started seeing the world in a new way – a way, I discovered, that actually had a lot more in common with Jesus’s vision than it did with the vision of any of the empire-builders whose political machinations I had once wanted to study. Perhaps, in the end, some of the liberal ideas I feared were actually a clearer pointer to the gospel than the conservative worldview I once erroneously equated with gospel truth.

About Daniel K. Williams
Daniel K. Williams is a professor of history at the University of West Georgia and the author of The Politics of the Cross: A Christian Alternative to Partisanship. You can read more about the author here.
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