The ‘Right Side Of History’ Fallacy
Writing in Christianity Today, Ted Olsen warns against believing that whatever is happening right now tells us the ultimate direction history is going to take. Consider, he says, Athanasius, who waged a lonely, desperate battle against the overwhelming forces of Arianism — and ultimately triumphed. More:
History, of course, is full of warnings that the “inevitable” is often not. Industrialization was going to lead to global secularism, except it didn’t. Kicking the missionaries out of China was going to kill off Christianity in the country that now has the world’s most Christians. Luther expected to die an anathematized heretic. The New York Times called Roe v. Wade “a historic resolution of a fiercely controversial issue.” The eugenics movement. Prohibition.
As Richard John Neuhaus once said, “There are no permanently lost causes because there are no permanently won causes.”
Or, as N.T. Wright said more recently, noting that Hillary Clinton had said once that “Russian and China were on the ‘wrong side of history’:
But how does she know what “history” will do? And what makes her think that “history” never makes mistakes? … The spirit of the age is in any case notoriously fickle. You might as well, walking in the mist, take a compass bearing on a mountain goat. What is more, the Church’s foundation documents (to say nothing of its Founder himself) were notoriously on the wrong side of history. The Gospel was foolishness to the Greeks, said St Paul, and a scandal to Jews.
The danger, of course, is that all of this can sound like one more culture war battle cry: We shall fight on the beaches! We have not begun to fight! The fewer men, the greater share of honor! To the constitutional amendment making machine!
Except it’s not that. The proper response to such arrogance and rhetorical triumphalism isn’t more arrogance and triumphalism, shouting, “We win in the end, so get with the program.” The better response is to meet those claims with humility and questions.
Thankfully, that’s what we’re seeing in the early Christian responses to yesterday’s Supreme Court decisions. Almost to a one, the Christian leaders we talked to yesterday disavowed easy lines of “Christians vs. gays and lesbians.”
“The gay and lesbian people in your community aren’t part of some global ‘Gay Agenda’ conspiracy. They aren’t super-villains in some cartoon. They are, like all of us, seeking a way that seems right to them,” said Russell Moore, the Southern Baptist Convention’s voice on ethics and political issues. “This is no time for fear or outrage or politicizing.”