USA Today’s Christine Brennan chided the soft-spoken, retired-NFL-coach-turned-commentator, devout Christian Tony Dungy, for his comparatively benign comment that he would not have drafted the openly gay Michael Sam since he “wouldn’t want to deal with all of it [the controversy].” The unforgivable sin that Dungy and a number of his over-60-years-old crowd committed is, according to Brennan, to be “[o]n the wrong side of history.”
Barack Obama once publicly worried about being on the wrong side of history by not supporting same-sex marriage though, later, he apparently got on the right side of history by supporting it. In fact, as even the left-slated Slate complains, the president is increasingly trotting out that expression “the wrong side of history,” as, for example, when he scolded Russian President Vladimir Putin for invading the Ukraine. Even conservatives sometimes get into the act. Fox News’ Shepard Smith claimed the Republican Party was “on the wrong side of history” for not lining up behind same-sex marriage.
The phrase is often identified with classical Marxists, and Leon Trotsky is reputed to have told his opponents they would end up in “the dustbin of history.”
The Metaphysical Myth
Behind this idea widely held by leftist radicals is a metaphysical myth, a breathtaking leap of faith. It is this: just as linear history is a record of man’s scientific and technological advance, so it is a record of his moral advance. Earlier morals in history were at best crude and undeveloped and oppressive, and, in many cases, just plain wrong. But as history moves forward, and man becomes more enlightened, as he inevitably will, his morals become more enlightened.
But it is, in fact, not true that science and technology have merely advanced. As Carnes Lord has noted, some ancient cultures (notably Egypt and her pyramids) obviously employed technologies every bit as modern as our own. How did that technology get lost for 2500 or more years? From a purely empirical standpoint, scientific and technological advance are not inevitable. But apparently, moral advance is.
The radicals will say: “Just think of slavery. It has been abolished everywhere in the Western world. It is not even thinkable.” (Except by radical Muslims in Africa, but we apparently should only be concerned about the putative injustices suffered by the descendants of African-American slaves, and not actual African slaves today.) According to this metaphysical myth, mankind is consistently shedding morality destined for the dustbin of history. (Even expressions like mankind must be shed for the less paternalistically imperialistic term humankind.) When outmoded moralities do reappear, as in the Nazis’ anti-Semitism, they are quickly and relentlessly crushed because they are, well, on the wrong side of history.
Disproving a Myth
Like most myths, this one is hard to disprove. It is a metaphysical myth. It cannot be empirically disproven because it enlists a standard beyond history by which the events of history must be interpreted. Technological and scientific advance are different. Common sense will tell us that, if our goal is swift and accurate communication with one another, a smart phone is better than a telephone, and a telephone is better than the Pony Express, which has been consigned to the dustbin of history, just as telephones are being relegated to dustbins, and not just historical ones, either.
A commonsensical standard for, say, human sexuality is not as clear. Is monogamy superior to polygamy and, if so, to what commonsense standards would one appeal? If the goal is the proliferation of offspring, polygamy beats monogamy hands down. But to assess whether proliferation of offspring should be the chief objective of sexual relationships is to invoke a standard beyond the merely historical. Ironically, however, most radical leftists see monogamy (including, today, homosexual monogamy) as having replaced polygamy in the great march of human history. Radical leftists must enlist a metaphysical standard, a moral standard, that they did not discover merely by historical investigation. To say that monogamy must replace polygamy and that homosexual monogamy is no less legitimate than heterosexual monogamy is to express a judgment based in a particular presupposition, or worldview. No one should simply accept it as an axiom.
The Empirical Failure
But the wrong-side-of-history myth fails on the empirical level too, even if it can’t be disproven empirically. Moral optimists early in the 20th century were hailing the end of war, the ushering in of universal peace and brotherhood. Tribalism and xenophobia and their moralities had been found to fall on the wrong side of history and had been replaced by the universal morality of tolerance. But something funny happened on the way into the 20th century: World War I, and then World War II, and then world communism, and then the Cold War, and then Korea and Viet Nam, and then Rwandan genocide, and then 9/11, and then ISIS. If, according to the radicals, each event was on the wrong side of history, much of the 20th century was on the wrong side of history. Which is to say, there’s nothing inevitable about the march of morality, including leftist morality. People make decisions, and they often make wrong moral decisions (however “wrong” is defined), and if enough of them make those wrong decisions, the culture will quickly get on the wrong side of history. There is, frankly, nothing morally inevitable, and there simply isn’t any moral march of history.
God’s World of Human Choices
This world is God’s world, however, since he created it, sustains it, and will bring it to its conclusion, glorifying him and his truth without his employing determinist moralities, without coercing humans to be good or evil. God alone is absolutely free, but he gives man free choices. He can assure the ends without coercing the means. He gave Adam and Eve the choice to obey or disobey. He set before ancient Israel good and evil. His apostle Paul declares that when God revealed himself to humanity in righteousness, most of it turned to idolatry and consequent perversion. History is not some personal force gradually shedding some morals while adopting others. History is God’s created theater in which he dynamically interacts with man, created in his image, to bring all things to God’s glory. There is no right or wrong side of history, there is only a right or wrong side with respect to God. “Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said, ‘Who is on the LORD’s side? Come to me’” (Ex. 32:26). “Whoever is not with me is against me,” Jesus states, “and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Lk. 11:23).
God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, the Bible, and in creation is the only standard of morality in any historical period. Older morality is not illegitimate (or legitimate) merely on the grounds that it is older, and newer morality is not illegitimate(or legitimate) merely on the grounds that it is more recent. All morality must be judged by the objective standard of God’s revelation.
We Can Win
We Christians aghast at the onslaught of cultural apostasy surrounding us should derive great comfort from the falsity of historical determinism — the myth that history picks sides on which we’d better bandwagon. The pervasive victory of same-sex marriage is not historically inevitable. Legalized abortion on-demand may be the law of the land, but it is not the iron law of historical determinism. A socialistic state may seem the wave of the future, but it may turn out to be nothing more than the splash of the present. Apart from the predictive prophecy of the word of God (and there is much less of this in the Bible than you might suppose), nothing is inevitable. Properly qualified, Thomas Sowell’s comment “[N]othing is inevitable until it happens” is right on target. The world changes. People change. Churches change. Businesses change. Nations change. Cultures change. Nothing is inevitable until it happens.
The moniker “the wrong side of history” is calculated to cut off reasonable arguments and is often simply a dash into irresponsibility. To be on the right side of history is simply to capitulate to the inevitable: “Who am I to impede history’s moral march?” That is the lazy way out, and often the immoral way out. History doesn’t decide anything. We decide whether we will obey God or resist him. “Let God be true though every one were a liar” (Rom. 3:4).
Don’t be either bullied or discouraged when you are accused of having fallen on “the wrong side of history.” There is no wrong side of history, or right side of history. There is only a wrong and right side of God and his revelation.
Being on God’s right side is all that matters — individually, and culturally.