The Past is No Foreign Country


Randall Stephens is Associate Professor of History at Eastern Nazarene College. He is an editor of Historically Speaking and the author of The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South (Harvard, 2008).

“I don’t believe in change over time.”  I wish Glenn Beck would come out and say just that.

I’ve watched quite a few of Beck’s 5:00 p.m. dispatches from disturbia.  I’ve seen his maniacal chalkboard talks on fascism and communism, with brisk arrows drawn to “progressivism,” “social justice,” and “unions.”  I’ve heard him tar the labor movement with the brush of nineteenth century racism, conveniently ignoring the Knights of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations.  I’ve spent too much time observing him weave far-fetched moral conspiracy tales on a range of subjects.  Maybe I get some sick pleasure watching Beck cry crocodile tears for his American Babylon.

Beck’s political grandstanding and maudlin theatrics are offensive enough.  (I can think of no better ipecac for the typical humanities professor.)  But it’s his ahistorical theories of the past that disturb me most.  Beck, like many conservatives, Christian or not, is incapable of coming to terms with the notion of change over time.  What was true for bewigged, knee-breeches-wearing, slave-owning nabobs in eighteenth century Virginia must be just as true for a minivan-driving NASCAR dad in 2010.  (Still, few of those NASCAR dads would adopt some of Ben Franklin’s woolly polytheistic notions.)  Did America’s public schools once allow Protestant-styled prayers in the classroom?  Then they should do so still.  Were women once the caretakers of hearth and home?  Then maybe they should still be.  Didn’t learned folks once believe that the Grand Canyon formed in a matter of days during the flood of the Old Testament?  Or was it millions of years in the making, as modern geologists would have us believe?  The flood story—biblical, less complicated, more interesting—makes more sense.

Ahistorical logic knows few bounds.  Beck applies his shoddy history to the left, too, which he dispatches with relish.  If members of the California Workingmen’s Party or the American Federation of Labor hated blacks and Asians in the 1870s and 1880s, then they must still hate them.  Was Woodrow Wilson a white supremacist?  Then it follows that progressives today are, too.  Maybe the New Left adage about a usable past should be retooled as a mis-usable past for Beck, Christian Nation historians, and the like.  (I wonder what representatives of the NAACP make of Beck’s “use” of Martin Luther King.)

In the West, historians have been thinking about the “differentness” of the past for more than five hundred years.  Many historians now take for granted the idea that, in the words of L.P. Hartley, “The past is a foreign country:  they do things differently there.”  David Lowenthal’s excellent study on the subject, which borrowed Hartley’s phrase for the title, put the matter succinctly:  “The disjunction of the past from the present became significantly apparent only during the Renaissance, when rapport with antiquity made humanists exaggerate the unlikeness of more recent medieval times…and feel poignantly their remoteness from ancient Rome.” (2)

Sometimes the distance between past and present lessens.  Like many historians, I often sense a point of contact with the individuals I study.  How might I have felt in that same situation?  I wonder.  Did the man in the street in mid-nineteenth century Charleston see some things as I do?  And often enough the past comes crashing in on the present, like a hurricane, bringing new meaning to William Faulkner’s immortal words in Requiem for a Nun:  “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.” (That rang true for Daniel Lazare, who wrote a Harper’s Magazine article over ten years ago on the lock the Second Amendment held on the country.  He asked, “Why must Americans remain slaves to the past?”) More typically, when I’m thumbing through old dusty documents or scanning microfilm as it speeds across the screen, I’m reminded of the strangeness of the past, or the gaping distance that separates me from the subjects I study.

Not so with many religious conservatives.  The past is much like the present, they must think, with the exception that people in olden times had different hairdos, talked funny, and wore strange clothes.  Besides minor changes in wardrobe, hair, and speech, they imagine, the circle is unbroken.  The inability to understand change over time is a basic blind spot for a range of evangelical conservatives and right-wingers of various stripes.  Whether they’re talking about the inerrancy of Scripture or the original intent of the founders, what’s missing is a real appreciation for historical processes or an understanding of the uniqueness of the past.

I conclude with one example:  Marriage.  Historians would appreciate that marriage in nineteenth century America is really not the same as marriage in twenty-first century America.  One hundred and fifty years ago a woman’s legal identity was an extension of her husband’s.  She was a dependent.  Before 1848 in New York a married woman lost the right to control any property owned before the union.  A woman could not acquire land in her own name.  Neither could she make contracts or bring a lawsuit into court.  Late in the century women gained greater property rights, but full legal equality in marriage would take decades to achieve.  Added to all that, state laws could dictate who could marry whom well into the twentieth century.  As many know, the case Loving v. Virginia (1967) challenged Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924.

Marriage gets more complicated, foreign, bizarre in contemporary eyes the further one looks back.  The Old Testament patriarch Jacob had four wives.  King David’s eight wives are named in the Bible, though he had many more.  The book of I Kings describes the amorous King Solomon, who “loved many strange women, together with the daughter of Pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites.”  He took seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines.  Wives and women in general were subject to a range of Bronze Age laws.  Codes and regulations for concubines, spelled out in Exodus 21:7-11, were a whole other matter.

In the West women are no longer property to be hoarded by kings or jealous leaders of tribes.  That historical context is either ignored or lost on advocates of traditional, changeless marriage.  Here's conservative Christian psychologist and bestselling childcare expert James Dobson on the subject:  Gay activists “do not have the right to define marriage….For five thousand years in every continent on Earth, marriage has been the standard between a man and a woman.”

Whether the issue is marriage, human evolution, or history, quite a few stalwarts argue that things have always been the same and should always remain so.  The same faith once delivered to the saints.  Beck just happens to be one of the most visible and powerful expositors of that ahistorical faith.

(1) David Lowenthal, The Past Is a Foreign Country (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 390.

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