What Can We Learn From the David Barton Controversy?

In case you have not heard, last week Thomas Nelson, a Christian publisher based in Nashville, ceased publication of David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson, saying it has “lost confidence in the book’s details.”

Since its publication earlier this year, The Jefferson Lies has been attacked by historians and other critics for errors in historical accuracy and interpretation.  Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter of Grove City College, neither of them historians, were still able to come up with enough errors in The Jefferson Lies to fill the pages of an entire book of their own,  Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims About Our Third President.  I read that book in manuscript and found it to be a convincing refutation of many of Barton’s claims about our third president.

A group of evangelical pastors in Cincinnati called for a boycott of Thomas Nelson over Barton’s book, particularly in its approach to Jefferson’s views on slavery and race.  Ten conservative historians chosen by Jay W. Richards, senior fellow at the Discovery Institute (an organization perhaps best known for promoting the validity of the “intelligent design” view of the origins of the universe), found The Jefferson Lies to be loaded with what Richards called “embarrassing factual errors, suspiciously selective quotes, and highly misleading claims.”  (The Anxious Bench’s Thomas Kidd did some fine reporting here).

With so many people condemning Barton’s “scholarship,” Thomas Nelson had no other choice but to remove the book from publication and stop its distribution.  (I should also add that the decision took place one day following a National Public Radio story on Barton, but I have no idea if that story played a part in Thomas Nelson’s decision to pull the book).

If Barton was shaken-up by the Thomas Nelson decision, he is certainly not showing it.  As expected, he and his followers are using the opportunity to trash the publisher and the “godless,” “liberal,” and “elite” historians who pressured Thomas Nelson to drop the book.  I am sure Glenn Beck has already weighed in on his behalf.  His fans on the Wallbuilders Facebook page are fired-up.  Rick Green, his right-hand man at Wallbuilders, compared historians and writers who are critical of Barton to Adolph Hitler.  And Barton recently went on a radio program and suggested that Throckmorton’s criticism of his book was somehow linked to the Grove City College professor’s views on homosexuality.  Barton promises to prove that all of his critics are wrong.  Green says that he is “ready to rumble.”

Through it all, Barton continues to insist that his interpretation of Thomas Jefferson is accurate despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  When legitimate historians criticize his work he paints them as godless and liberal.  But can all these historians and critics be wrong?  Apparently David Barton is the only one out there who has correctly interpreted Thomas Jefferson.  This kind of arrogance not only shows a deep disrespect for the work of historians, many of whom have devoted their lives to the study of Jefferson, but, perhaps more importantly, it is an embarrassment to the Christian church.  Perhaps Barton needs to take a lesson from Rev. Dudley Rutherford, the evangelical pastor who misinterpreted the story of the Star-Spangled Banner.  When Rutherford, the pastor of Shepherd of the Hills Church in Porter Ranch, California, learned that his YouTube presentation contained several inaccuracies, he quickly apologized and pledged to look deeper into the historical record.

But even if we allow Barton to dismiss non-Christian historians, he will have a hard time dismissing his fellow evangelicals.  Many of his critics have very solid  evangelical credentials.  Throckmorton is a Romney supporter (or at least “likes” Romney on his Facebook page) and is a conservative evangelical Christian.  When I spoke at Grove City College in January 2012, he apologized for having to miss one of my lectures.  It turns out that Throckmorton is an elder at his local Evangelical Free Church and had to attend a meeting there on that particular night.  Ray McMillian, one of the Cincinnati pastors who led the boycott of Thomas Nelson, runs an organization called “Race to Unity.”  Speakers at Race to Unity events have included evangelical luminaries such as Tony Evans, Joseph Stowell, Ed Dobson, and Bill Hybels.

Gregg Frazer, one of the ten historians chosen by Jay Richards, teaches at The Masters College, a school founded by popular evangelical preacher John MacArthur. (Frazer has also written an excellent book on the religious beliefs of the founding fathers which I highly recommend).  Glenn Sunshine is a graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL—certainly not a bastion of godless liberalism.  Charles Dunn, who has endorsed Getting Jefferson Right, is a Distinguished Professor in the  School of Government at Pat Robertson’s Regent University.  Even the folks at WorldView Weekend, an organization that used to partner with Barton, have turned their collective backs on him.

I recently took an informal survey on my blog and learned that the history departments at some of the most conservative or fundamentalist colleges in the country, such as Bob Jones University, Liberty University, and Patrick Henry College, do not, and will not, use Barton’s books in their classes.  Actually, the only place I could find that does use Barton’s books appears to be Liberty University Law School.  Though I realize that this is only a rough survey, it is worth noting that historians at these kinds of institutions also reject Barton’s pseudo-history.  If you are a David Barton fan, and you have a college-age son or daughter, you will be hard pressed to find a Christian college history department in the United States who embraces his views.

Yet Barton continues to press on.  I imagine that the debates over the proper interpretation of American history and the role of Thomas Jefferson within it, will now get more intense.  Barton, Green, and the Wallbuilders staff will have a tough row to hoe.  But in the meantime, here are a few important lessons to take away from the entire Jefferson Lies controversy.

First, when the past is used to promote political agendas in the present it usually leads to bad history.  It is very easy to find something useful in the past that serves a particular political agenda.  This is the ultimate form of indoctrination by historical example.  For example, those who want to prove that the roots of the United States were Christian can find quotes from the founding fathers in which they reference the importance of God or Christianity to the moral health of a successful republic.  Similarly, those who want to prove that the roots of the United States were secular in nature can find quotes from the founders in which they champion religious freedom or deny essential theological doctrines that have always been at the heart of Christian faith.  This kind of selective cherry-picking does little to help us understand the past in all its fullness.  Though it might be an effective way of winning political points in our ongoing culture wars, it is simply bad history.

Good history demands understanding the past on its own terms, rather than recreating historical figures to suit contemporary needs.  I think Barton is correct when he claims that the Left has sometimes misused Jefferson.  For example, it is customary on the Left to refer to Jefferson as a “Deist.”  As I argued in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation, he was not a Deist.  But neither was he an orthodox Christian.  Rather than interpreting Jefferson from the perspective of a historian, Barton has chosen to interpret Jefferson from the perspective of a culture warrior. Historian Gordon Wood has said that if someone wants to use the study of the past to change the world he should forgo a career as a historian and run for office. His advice applies to both the Left and the Right.

But David Barton has carried this fundamental historical error to another level.  He has become so fixated upon stealing Thomas Jefferson from the scholarly and political arsenal of the American Left that he has allowed himself to play fast and loose with the historical record.

Second, the Barton controversy reminds us that, even amidst postmodernist attacks, truth exists and it is the historian’s responsibility to pursue it.  Of course no historian can understand what happened in the past with absolute certainty.  We are often too removed from the past to be able to paint anything close to a complete picture all that happened in a particular era.  Even the best collections of primary sources only provide us with a small glimpse of the mentality of our historical subjects.  We see through a glass dimly and, as a result, we must remain modest and humble about our findings.  But this does not mean that historians should abandon the pursuit of truth, stop trying to figure out what happened in bygone eras, or cease to analyze and critique the work of other historians based on how they have used whatever resources are available for getting at the truth.

David Barton claims to be a great defender of truth against all those liberal professors who have sold their souls to the gods of postmodernsim, poststructuralism, and deconstructionalism.  But this entire Jefferson Lies controversy reveals that even the historians who Barton condemns are very concerned about examining the past truthfully.  My favorite comment about this whole dust-up came from Jim Cullen, the author of many excellent books on American popular culture.  After hearing about Thomas Nelson’s decision to drop Barton’s book, Cullen jotted off a quick Facebook post: “Maybe there is such a thing as Truth.”  If Cullen is right, and there is such a thing as Truth, then in this case Barton does not seem to be on its side.  It looks like his seemingly heroic defense of historical truth has backfired on him.

Third, the Barton controversy reveals that there is still a fundamental misunderstanding about the role of primary sources in the doing of history.  Barton defends The Jefferson Lies by counting the number of footnotes in the book and claiming that his research is based upon original documents.  So far this has been enough to convince his followers that his interpretation of Jefferson is accurate.  A quick look at the Wallbuilders Facebook page suggests that the leading reason people continue to defend The Jefferson Lies amidst the damning criticism is because Barton claims that the book is well-documented.

I have no doubt that every Jefferson quotation that Barton cites in The Jefferson Lies comes from a legitimate Jefferson document.  (This has not always been the case with Barton.  He has been known for using false quotes from the founders). But in order to provide a historically accurate portrayal of any person or event in the past one must interpret such documents.  This requires examining particular quotes in the context of the given era or in relationship with other quotes from the same author.  The criticism of The Jefferson Lies stems not from Barton’s citation of original documents or his ability to amass footnotes, but from the way he has used the available documents to reconstruct Jefferson’s life.  Barton seems more suited to be an editor and compiler of a book of quotations than a writer of history.

Barton has apparently already secured a new publisher for The Jefferson Lies.  Stay tuned.

  • Larry Linn

    “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”
    Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to the Danbury Baptist’s Association

    • oft

      Larry,

      The letter you mention refers to the General Govt. not the State govt. Jefferson believed the States could form whatever religion they wanted.

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  • Dwight Brautigam

    Barton has always been a fraud when calling himself a “historian.” John, you and I would not let a first year history major proceed the way he does, which is to first have his conclusions all set and then go looking for “evidence” to match his predetermined conclusions. He would fail my Historical Method class for the way in which he does history. But, he peddles what a lot of people want to believe and is a relentless self promoter. And it has certainly worked. Sigh.

    • TexasHistorian

      Dwight,

      That is EXACTLY what my grad school professors told me in the same class. I completed my masters in history in February and most of Barton holds out as “scholarship” resembles a first semester freshman who still thinks he is in high school.

      I counted roughly 276 secondary sources where Barton quotes other writers, yet chastises academic historians for citing other research in the field. I have never seen a professional history book use Internet sites like Facebook ,infidels.org, or about.com as reliable references. He also cites many historians from the mid 19th to early 20th century regarding Jefferson. There has been voluminous amounts of research compiled on Jefferson that he missed because he refused to cite contemporary sources . Although, he does cite Ellis only to tear him down. I did not work hard for two years learning to do history the right way to have some layman tell me how he gets it and the rest of us are just plain wrong.

      • Susan

        The “contemporary sources” you mentioned CHANGED the original information provided by Jefferson himself. The “contemporary sources” did not believe the evidence Jefferson himself provided. They took it upon themselves to change history to their liking. That is why Barton chose to go back to the Jefferson’s
        evidence and ignore the twisted, edited versions provided by your “contemporary sources”.

        After all, history should be based on facts in the order it actually happened. History is NOT
        another man’s preference to the FACTS,

        • TexasHistorian

          They changed nothing. They revealed new information and revealed new views on Jefferson that romanticist historians refused to address because they were still to close to the era in question and lacked the objectivity to examine Jefferson “warts and all”.

    • Susan

      Do I detect jealousy in your post? Perhaps you are bitter because you have never had anything published before.

      Much of Barton’s references were edited out. I saw the deleted pages marked in red myself.
      Much of what I learned from Barton seemed far-fetched because of what I was taught in public school.
      I have to admit that when I did the research, I found Barton’s claims to be factual.

      I am not impressed by a teacher’s curriculum or credentials when proving their expertise in history.
      Progressives have had an agenda to rewrite history since FDR. They want us to see the forefathers as something they all were not – all wealthy, all pro-slave and all bigoted. Progressives also would prefer we
      ignore facts; the Constitution and everything America stands for was based on Judeo-Christian values.
      Whether one is religious or not; these are all good values to have,

      I have no respect for college professors because I know most are liberals. They give biased versions of history. I’ve learned to do my own research

      • kfreed

        And your own research consists of: David Barton’s fabrications.

      • TexasHistorian

        You saw on TV what everyone else saw and have no way of proving that Barton didn’t produce that on an inkjet color copier on his home PC .

      • TexasHistorian

        I have no jealousy. What academic experience do you have to determine if you are even interpreting your own research correctly? Without understanding the context in which Jefferson’s 27,000 pieces of correspondence were written and how society viewed the various topics addressed by Barton during the Early Republic era, you have no way of knowing if your understanding is correct. I have that training and understanding of early 19th century American society to clearly see gaping holes in Barton’s research and I am an Evangelical Christian.

        Barton used this link on page 165 to base his assertion on liberals calling Jefferson an atheist:

        http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=360240177811

        Do you see an author listed for this article? You will not see one because it is an anonymous article.

        Barton writes “Or more to the point, he was not a Christian. Is this true? For modern writers the answer is simple:…Jefferson …It’s very likely he was a an atheist.” (4)

        So who is the modern writer Barton cites here when this article is authorless? This is not scholarly work.

        If you truly do the research you claim to have done, please read this link in its entirety.

        http://www.jeffersonhour.com/Barton%20Review.html

        http://americanvision.org/6326/evil-revisionism-did-bartons-jefferson-get-fair-treatment/#.UEFEpmt5mSO

  • Bob Wiley

    Though he advocates very different positions than Barton, an American history professor at my Christian college is just about as wacky as the author of JEFFERSON LIES. But because he hasn’t published a book his ideas are not under scrutiny by the scholarly community.

  • oft

    Throckmorton is a Romney supporter (or at least “likes” Romney on his Facebook page) and is a conservative evangelical Christian.

    Can a person affirm homosexuality and be born again?

    • Lee Karl Palo

      I know countless people who claim to be “born again” and “affirm homosexuality.” I’m not sure, for many of them, if they ever bothered to ask whether or not they “could” do that. They just went ahead and did it. Whether or not one agrees with them is a different story. I will say that they (those I know) are not stupid, and it might be profitable to listen to what they have to say. You may be surprised.

      • TexasHistorian

        Once saved always saved. You can not lose your salvation.

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  • sanford

    I would suggest reading Liars for Jesus by Chris Rhodda. No, she is not a historian. It would take an actual historian to assess how accurate she is. But she uses the same documents Barton does to disprove what he has to say. She also uses many footnotes but shows the documents they came from. While you can buy the book, she was so ticked at Barton’s lies that she gave the book away for nothing. If you google it you can find a PDF on line. If you go to Liarsforjesus.com you will find an archive of the documents she cited.

    • Margie

      My personal problem with Rhodda is her seemingly blind hatred of Barton and Beck. I do doubt Barton’s honesty in much of what he says/writes, however, it appears that a large part of Rhodda’s current life is to destroy Barton, Beck. The top of her ‘Liars for Jesus’ website says, “Help Fight the Scourge of Christian Nationalism”. With the WAY she’s gone after them, plus that statement, I’m not a fan.

      • TexasHistorian

        I loathe anyone who tries to bend history to make it conform to a Christian worldview because eventually it is proven to be false and anyone in the Christian scholarly community is lumped together as unreliable. It hurts our witness.

    • Larry

      In a Huffington post article Rodda refers to Mikey Weinstein as her “boss” and indeed they have worked together for many years.
      http://www.pjvoice.com/v32/32300words.aspx
      Despite his ‘some-of-my-best-friends-are’ claim toward evangelicals and claims of only having an axe to grind with dominionists, his disdain for Christian orthodoxy is fairly evident in his sneering description of part of it holding that innocent victims (Jews in his example,) burn in hell for not following Jesus. He said much the same (worse actually as I recall,) on C-Span and another interview years back but none of that can be found anymore. Everything on the internet now is rather flattering of him probably because so little of it is ‘in his own words’. Or maybe he’s decided to tone down his rhetoric.

      I debated Rodda on Amazon lo those many years back. I ended up conceding her points on Barton (mostly) challenging her on her wording instead. “Liars for Jesus” is not the language of scholarship and indeed her book is slanted and inaccurate as well. Not as much as Barton’s oevre, but enough that when her book is scrutinized misinformation can be found. The trouble is no one cares to scrutinize her as closely as she cares to scrutinize Barton, et. al.

      Barton is such an easy mark that his success cannot be explained except by gullibility. For example, he holds up John Quincy Adams as a model Christian statesman but JQA was a Unitarian. That made him quite an odd duck in his day and even now I trust any Christian ought to know denying the Trinity is ..uh.. a red flag.
      I once sent an e-mail to a noted ministry that used Barton’s material alerting them to points like that. They did not respond. If I sent another now saying, “I tried to warn you” I wouldn’t expect a response to it either and that I think is a problem evangelicals have. Their fear of strangers and trust of friends are both too great.

      However, Barton being wrong doesn’t makee Roddat right. There are far better scholars to investigate:
      http://www.amazon.com/Separation-Church-State-Philip-Hamburger/dp/0674013743
      http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=Daniel%20Dreisbach

      Incidentally, when I referred Rodda to those two authors she expressed disinterest.

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  • Geoff

    Any particular reason for putting the term “Intelligent Design” in scare quotes?

    • Wesley Mahan

      Are you a little paranoid?

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  • Birger Johansson

    I find it hilarious that Barton, a conservative and (allegedly) Christian is doing what the communists did and called “agitprop”; defining “truth” as whatever might further The Cause.
    And of course everyone who criticizes him is The Enemy. Also a staple of communist agitation :-)

    • TexasHistorian

      American and European historians came in after the fall of Communism and rewrote Russia history based on ALL the facts shocking the Russian people who had been only told how great Mother Russia had been all these years never knowing her human rights atrocities.

    • Ryan Godfrey

      BINGO! This is brilliant. All of talk radio and all of politics that we see presented to the public is propaganda with varying degrees of factuality. Barton is just another huckster peddling slop for the ignorant masses.

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  • Happy Mommy

    I just want to ask if the author of this article has actually read David Barton’s book in it’s enterity? Barton’s final analysis about TJ’s religion was inconclusive. Barton properly defeats claims of TJ being a Deist or atheist, easily. But the idea of TJ being an “orthodox Christian” is inconclusive. I think Barton’s analysis was thorough, and I did not finish the book believing TJ to be an orthodox believer. I’m not sure what all the debate is about? (I read this book this summer and was, at that point, unaware of the controvery surrounding it’s accuracy.)

  • Larry

    Mr. Fea,
    In your endorsement of Gregg Frazer’s book, may I ask if that was without reservation? And either way would you mind offering a critique of this reader’s review of the book?
    http://www.amazon.com/The-Religious-Beliefs-Americas-Founders/product-reviews/0700618457/ref=cm_cr_dp_synop?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=0&sortBy=bySubmissionDateDescending#R1HFJFPMFQW9TP

    “trenchant” seems to make some points there worth considering don’t you agree? When the term “founding fathers” is used it mostly applies to a small number who ended up presidents or faces on money or both, but surely the majority who didn’t should count as much if not more. Moreover, doesn’t the common man who was only represented by a delegate matter too?

    It is sometimes grudgingly conceded that of course in terms of demographics the nation was Christian at the founding, meaning despite the idiosycracies of elites like Jefferson and Franklin for instance, most common folk held to basic Christian piety as a matter of course. One proof of that is searching an ancestor from that time will nearly always lead to church records — of baptism, wedding and burial. Civic and church records tended to blend then. When we note those demographics have altered so that church records would be of no help in establishing the identity of many if not most citizens now, does that not merely reinforce that things are exceedingly different now? Even if the “founders” are limited to ten or so elites, they all claimed to be doing the bidding of “the people”. Those people were predominantly Christian overwhelmingly, often devoutly so, which should matter more than if those doing their bidding weren’t.

    It may be true that at the signing of the Constitution Christianity wasn’t as foremost as at the signing of the Mayflower Compact, but the idea that the first amendment came about by fear of or even indifference to Christianity is utter nonsense. Even the inquiry of the Danbury Baptists was an appeal to the free exercise clause – an assurance that as Baptists they wouldn’t be marginalized. Disestablishment was not what they were concerned about, obviously because there was no denomination that was in a position to become the established one of the whole United States. They were concerned with equal protection as a religion, not equal marginalization. They weren’t the Danbury Atheists.

    In the 21st century this will likely all end up a moot point. Once it is quite clear the nation is no longer Christian in any sense, demographically most significantly, it won’t much matter if anyone wants to look back quaintly to times when it was. Then the only reason it could possible matter if the “founders” (however they’re defined,) were Christian is if the founders matter and they will not matter the less the people identify them as their forebears. The debt of gratitude paid them now already isn’t often that of forefathers really. Commonly it amounts to at best a perfunctory nod to them for proclaiming the right of the people to alter or abolish what they created. This paradoxically amounts to paying tribute to them for not having to pay any tribute to them.


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