During a recent rereading of historian Sydney Ahlstrom’s classic “A Religious History of the American People,” I was struck by the following passage:
“A new present requires a new past; and the historian’s responsibility for creating a meaningful and usable past depends more on his interpretation of accepted historical knowledge than on his additions to the world’s overflowing treasury of fact.”
A new past? I was struck by the historian’s frankness here. Can’t there only be one past?
Ahlstrom proposes “creating a meaningful and usable past.” He was thinking that all the facts were already present, that all that was needed was “interpretation,” which I think is doubtful, especially where historical research seems to turn up new facts about the past at every turn.
Still, I understand his reasoning that history is more about ideas of the past than the past itself.
Ahlstrom goes on to argue that “the historian of America, even when he is speaking in the present tense, is dealing with national parturition.” In other words, the past has such implications in present questions of identity that it is really about something becoming or being born.
I relate those thoughts of his to the present – and very public – controversy about historic memory, particularly that of the Spanish saint St. Junípero Serra’s legacy and California Missions.
Taking down statues like those of St. Junípero is a physical, three-dimensional “re-interpretation” of history. Something that was there is now gone, sometimes replaced with another symbol. Other times it merely disappears. An academic paper I ran across said that societies, like individuals, “engage in a selective winnowing of past events in the creation of their identities.” The author, Bettina Arnold, an anthropologist, said that this winnowing process was done by both remembering and forgetting.”
This process is inherently ideological. It is not about self-discovery but about self-interpretation. If something of the past is alien to us, not “useful” or contradictory to our ideological conceptions, we will erase it from the public spaces that are our markers of societal memory, declaring this past alien to us.
In popular culture, one of the most entertaining ways of playing with the facts of the past is the imaginary science fiction trope of time travel. Countless films, shows, and books have envisioned how one intervention, or changing of an event in the past, can change the course of history. A recent Steven King novel features a hero who tries to prevent the JFK assassination. Others, like Philip Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle,” pretend to draw out what might have been had some event not happened as it did. What would the world look like if the Nazis had developed nuclear weapons before the U.S., or if Lincoln had not been assassinated? Such works often help to illuminate our understanding of our present reality.
But elected representatives like those in the California Assembly don’t bother with time travel. They want to alter identity by altering the historic memory of citizens, at least in its brick and mortar, brass and sculpture version. To a growing crowd of academics and politicians, there is no room for veneration of historic figures in Ahlstrom’s “usable and meaningful past.”
To return to the historian’s novel idea, the oxymoronic “new present” requires a “new past.” The architects of the new present say they want to emphasize the indigenous peoples of California, and this is where they get confused.
Common sense should dictate that highlighting the region’s pre-Christian past should not entail abolishing the Christian era that followed, especially in a state whose major cities are almost all named after Catholic saints. The state’s “parturition” should not require a secularization of its history.
In the same work, Ahlstrom observed how the intention between Spain’s missionary endeavors in North America differed from that of its rivals: “New Spain, with vast lands and few immigrants, would seek to integrate the Native Americans into a New World form of Western Catholic culture.”
France, meanwhile, “would seek (with very modest success) to convert them to Christianity within the old tribal context” and the British sought to” treat the Native Americans as independent nations or as wards of the State.”
I have thought for a long time that the California Missions represent a chapter in American Utopianism, an experiment perhaps started too late, destroyed not by the Church but by the secular states that followed. Perhaps some of the politicos should visit the Mission of San Luis Rey to brush up on how the collective farms of the missions were confiscated by secular authority in opposition to the Church.
Attacking the missionaries who, with all their faults and cultural blindness, attempted a fusion or grafting of cultures is not just a woefully incomplete understanding of history – it is an attempt to secularize history, sanitizing the past from uncomfortable associations with religious belief.
Making the missionaries criminals is really about taking God out of the picture. For some of the radicals behind this movement the real motive is Voltaire’s “ecrasez l’infame” – crush the infamous thing (the Catholic Church). Now, today’s “enlightened” California wishes to impose on history its antipathy to faith.
As a result, this revisionism doesn’t target the crimes of the subsequent political administrations of California, the barbarities of the Gold Rush and the exploitation and mistreatment of Asians and Mexicans. Nor do the extreme inequalities of an economy of vast contrasts of poverty and luxury-- from the days of the Robber Barons to today -- merit its attention.
No, the bogey man is a poor and devout friar, the most humane of the Europeans who encountered the natives of California and one who dreamed of a new culture and a new community. I do not doubt that St. Junípero’s real sin for some of the revisionists is his faith. Banishing his memory will not change reality, but this controversy should call the attention of people of faith. William Faulkner said, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.” That is why this fight about history is worthy of battle.