Kris Wright, in her recent post, discussed women’s history in a way that complicated some of the comments I had made in a podcast with Scott on the participation of women in the Mormon healing liturgy. This is an important discussion, and the subsequent discussion was helpful, I think. Here I’m going to outline, hopefully with some measure of clarity, why I think that apolitical history is approachable and that the use of history as a “weapon,” as I said in the podcast, is not desirable.
For those that follow such things, there was an apparent media kerfuffle regarding Thanksgiving narratives. Jeremy Bangs, writing over at Religion and American History unpacked the idea of “simply telling the story” of Thanksgiving showing how writers with political agendas—including colony participants—began crafting narratives favorable to their causes from the earliest moments. He wraps up his post:
Recent writers who emphasize the year 1623 rather than 1621 when writing about the Pilgrims’ thanksgiving have made a choice that is obviously driven by a political agenda. And simply telling the story is not what concerns them.
Bangs was specifically responding to questions about “simply telling the story,” and I don’t imagine that he thinks such a thing is an uncomplicated or facile project. However his point about politically driven data usage is, I believe, cogent far beyond Rush Limbaugh’s Thanksgiving day commentary. Now, everyone has an agenda for everything they do. All historians write with an agenda (getting tenure, fame, filthy lucre). Moreover there are tribal dynamics in all human interaction. Consequently, political agendas are essential to most human activity, including writing history.
The writing of Mormon history is fraught with tribal dynamics. I have an agenda to promote what I consider to be scholarly history at the expense of the hagiographic history of yesteryear. My agenda is to encourage the writing of history that incorporates as much of the best data sources as possible coupled with the best analyses possible. What constitutes the best in those categories differs between the various scholarly tribes. When discussing the politicization of history and its use as a weapon, however, I envisioned something quite different than intradisciplinary historiographical wrangling.
As many have shown, Mormonism is tied to its history in important ways. Our history is foundational, theological, canonical, and exegetical, among a host of other “als” and consequently can figure importantly in all sorts of Mormon discourse, including discussions that potentially affect our lived religion. To use history as a weapon, however, is to define one’s rhetorical opponent as an enemy and then employ data or analyses (often decoupled from any context) not to discuss, but to damage the other.
A related danger to weaponizing history is the tendency to view history as prescriptive (see these comments on Jill Lapore’s recent work: here and here). With a topic like female administration of healing rituals, it is very easy to want such practices to be presently normative (I defy anyone to not find the source materials relating to such practice do be wildly inspiring).
I do believe that we can employ scholarly methods to approach history while minimizing extra-disciplinary political agendas. With regards to women healing, I hope that the Kris’s and my work does inform our conversations, conversations I look forward to having.