It’s easy to believe passionately in the rightness of our moral position. What’s often ignored is the importance of being on the right side of history.
Friction over same-sex marriage
Same-sex marriage is one example of a contentious moral issue in America today, and passions still run strong on both sides. The National Black Church Initiative, a coalition of 34,000 churches, left the Presbyterian Church USA a few years ago after they liberalized their definition of marriage to “two people, traditionally a man and a woman.”
Acceptance of same-sex marriage within society has pushed many conservatives to fear the sky is falling. Rick Santorum, a Republican presidential candidate, thought he saw in American culture the gradual erosion of rights that Jews and Christians experienced in Nazi Germany. The title of Santorum’s 2015 documentary film reveals how soon he imagines that his religious rights could be lost: “One Generation Away.”
Worries about the 2015 Supreme Court Obergefell decision on same-sex marriage had a conclave of Christian leaders clutching their pearls. One proclaimed,
Once you elevate same-sex marriage to the level of protected status, whether on the federal or the state level, you begin to change and transform the face of society. In my view it will result in the beginning of the end of Western Civilization.
What will history say?
These Christian leaders see themselves as fighting the good fight, but how will this fit with the judgment of history?
Here’s one answer. Jennifer Morse, president and founder of the Ruth Institute (“Helping the Victims of the Sexual Revolution”), was asked if she feared being embarrassed by the seeming inevitability of same-sex marriage. She replied:
I am not the slightest bit worried about the judgment of history on me. This march-of-history argument bothers me a lot. . . . What they’re really saying is, “Stop thinking, stop using your judgment, just shut up and follow the crowd because the crowd is moving towards Nirvana and you need to just follow along.”
You’ve got to admire that. She’s standing up for what she feels is right, unconcerned about whether it’s popular or how history will judge that position.
But let’s not pretend that the judgment of history is irrelevant. Remember George Wallace’s infamous 1963 declaration, “I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Was Wallace fighting the good fight with his stand for racial segregation? He would’ve said yes. History says he got it wrong.
Those opposed to freedom for Southern slaves, women’s suffrage, and minorities’ civil rights were all fighting the good fight, like those opposed to same-sex marriage today. Just remember that history wins in the end.
Indeed, Jennifer Morse does think about the evaluation of history, it’s just that she thinks that she’ll be on the right side of it:
[Same-sex marriage proponents] are the ones who are going to be embarrassed. They are the ones who are going to be looking around, looking for the exits, trying to pretend that it had nothing to do with them, that it wasn’t really their fault.
Those fighting the good fight think that they will eventually be judged on the right side of history. I’ll propose that as the definition of fighting the good fight: taking a minority position now that you think will eventually, if only decades in the future, be seen as the morally correct one.
And there’s the problem—reading the tea leaves to see where society is moving. There is no reliable route to objective moral truth (I argue that what we imagine as objective moral truth is actually just widely shared or strongly felt moral beliefs). There is no celestial library where the answers to all moral questions are in a big book. The judgment of history is the best we’ve got, and we fool ourselves when we think that moral rightness is ultimately determined by anything more lofty.
It might seem shallow to base one’s moral convictions on what society will conclude fifty years in the future rather than on one’s conscience today. But make no mistake: the strength or sincerity of your convictions—about same-sex marriage or any moral issue—are irrelevant. Your stand today will be judged by the conclusions of that future society, and being on the right side of history is all that ultimately matters. Get that wrong, and you’re just another George Wallace.
for every man is convinced that he is well supplied with it.
― René Descartes
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 4/2/15.)
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