Historian or fraud?

The Daily Show and The New York Times just discovered David Barton and both featured him last night on their respective sites, even though he has been on the conservative scene for at least 20 years or so.

A portion of the extended interviews from The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart is posted to the right where he and Barton mostly talk past each other.

“I think there’s real persecution of Christians. I think it happens in China, but I don’t think it happens in this country,” Stewart says. “The idea that Christianity as a religion is threatened in this country is ludicrous. As a Jew I can tell you, you have it made. You get presents for Christ’s birth. When he dies, you get a basket of candy. You can’t lose!”

You can watch the rest of Stewart’s interview, but I want to focus more on The Times, which put Barton on its front page today. Next month, will we see a front-page profile on Pat Robertson or James Dobson? Barton’s reach does not parallel Robertson or Dobson, but all three of them have been around for decades so the timing is a little strange. Here’s how The Times describes Barton in a political context.

Mr. Barton is a self-taught historian who is described by several conservative presidential aspirants as a valued adviser and a source of historical and biblical justification for their policies. He is so popular that evangelical pastors travel across states to hear his rapid-fire presentations on how the United States was founded as a Christian nation and is on the road to ruin, thanks to secularists and the Supreme Court, or on the lost political power of the clergy.

Through two decades of prolific, if disputed, research and some 400 speeches a year on what he calls the forgotten Christian roots of America, Mr. Barton, 57, a former school principal and an ordained minister, has steadily built a reputation as a guiding spirit of the religious right.

The article’s news hook is that Barton is sought out by Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann, feeling potentially reminiscent of the Jeremiah Wright/John Hagee coverage from 2012. Why not quote someone suggesting he is “a guiding spirit of the religious right”? Or perhaps the reporter could look at some evidence for his popularity. For instance, how do his books sell among other Christian books? Barton is not lauded in every circle, of course.

Many historians call his research fraud, but Mr. Barton’s influence appears to be greater than ever. Liberal organizations are raising the alarm over what they say are Mr. Barton’s dangerous distortions, including his claim that the nation’s founders never intended a high wall between church and state.

Accusing someone of fraud is pretty serious. Can we get more specifics? Who says this and what is the case? Why not quote someone who would suggest something like this? Is it just politically liberal organizations who have voiced concern over his research? For instance, I would love to hear what someone like Notre Dame historian Mark Noll thinks of Barton. The piece instead quotes from one other historian.

But many professional historians dismiss Mr. Barton, whose academic degree is in Christian education from Oral Roberts University, as a biased amateur who cherry-picks quotes from history and the Bible.

“The problem with David Barton is that there’s a lot of truth in what he says,” said Derek H. Davis, director of church-state studies at Baylor University, a Baptist institution in Waco, Tex. “But the end product is a lot of distortions, half-truths and twisted history.”

Quoting a Baylor University professor is an interesting choice because you might think a professor from a Baptist school might be more sympathetic to Barton, but the resulting quotes don’t offer many specifics.

One of his most contested assertions is that the Supreme Court has misconstrued Thomas Jefferson’s statement that the First Amendment erected a “wall of separation between church and state.” According to Mr. Barton, Jefferson meant that government should not interfere with the public exercise of religion — not that public spaces should be purged of prayer. He also cites biblical passages that, he says, argue against deficit spending, graduated income taxes, the minimum wage and costly measures to fight global warming.

Were these the concerns that the Baylor professor called “distortions, half-truths and twisted history”? It’s unclear if the two paragraphs are supposed to connect.

As a side note, I was a little surprised to find no mention of Glenn Beck, since Barton has been a lecturer for Beck’s online university. In fact, I wonder if that’s what has kept Barton on the radar screen nationally in the last few years. Otherwise, the profile probably could have run in 1988, 1998 or 2008.

The profile is not a hit piece or anything. It gives some biographical info and explains Barton’s background pretty well. It’s the context–the idea that his controversial ideas could be infiltrating the 2012 election–that confuses me. Instead the profile could have highlighted questions about what makes a historian, how historians view the whole church-state divide and how that has implications for the courts. It’s not as sexy as continuing the election 2012 guessing game, but it might be more compelling.

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  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    The article does link to a rather extensive report on Barton and his scholarship by “The liberal group People For the American Way”. While there were few quotes in the article, there were at least links to substantive critiques.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Ray, good point. However, I would prefer information a less politically charged group. Maybe some other Texan historians?

  • http://www.thebigdaddyweave.com BDW

    I’m not sure why you’d think a professor from a Baptist school would be more sympathetic to Barton? Sounds like you have only been exposed to a certain type of Baptist. The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty in DC has been refuting Barton specifically for well over a decade. The BJC is comprised of fourteen different Baptist groups whose total membership exceeds that of the Southern Baptist Convention.

    Derek Davis is actually not a professor at Baylor U in Waco. So NYT got that wrong. Since at least 2007, he’s been the Dean of the College of Humanities and Dean of the Graduate School at the University of Mary-Hardin-Baylor in Belton, Texas.

    I would bet that TMatt knows Davis from his days at the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies.


    Davis is well-respected in the church-state area and is more of an expert in this specific field than Mark Noll (Davis has at least a couple books on original intent and the founding era). Ronald Flowers of TCU, John Witte of Emory or Douglas Laycock of U of Michigan would also have been more appropriate than Noll (who I like too).

    Covering Barton adequately in a newspaper surely would be a challenge. Hard to spell out the distortions and half-truths in just a paragraph or so. There have been numerous lengthy academic journal articles published to refute Barton’s claims.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    In reading this over there seems to be a certain elitist snobbery directed against Barton. They apparently consider him an “amateur” historian because he didn’t matriculate at some prestige institution.
    However, the “Best And The Brightest” got us into little complications like the War in Vietnam. And the master race theories that so evilly convulsed the world only a few generations ago were primarily the work of “The Best and the Brightest” of that era.
    The question should always be how accurate the information being presented is and how much credence should be given to any theories no matter their source.
    Many times there is more wisdom from “the mouth of babes” than from the pens of Harvard dons.

  • Jerry

    the idea that his controversial ideas could be infiltrating the 2012 election—that confuses me. Instead the profile could have highlighted questions about what makes a historian, how historians view the whole church-state divide and how that has implications for the courts. It’s not as sexy as continuing the election 2012 guessing game, but it might be more compelling.

    What? There is something more compelling than politics? How can that be? Oh, how can that be? :-)

    But a wee bit more seriously, the history of religion in America is probably not satisfying to ideologues of any political stripe.

    We have John Winthrop and other Puritans back in the day when the “Bible belt” was in the north and the mercantile colonies in the south (oh, how times have changed). Then we had Quakers, Catholics and others who added their religions to the American stew followed by members of all other religions in the world. And we had the Deists of the American Revolution embedding their ideas into our founding documents followed by an evolution of church-state relationships.

    So, yes, I agree that I would find an exploration of history and historians very very compelling. But I suspect we’re in the minority.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com bob smietana

    Barton was mentioned (but not interviewed) in a long piece the NY Times magazine did earlier this year, entitled “How Christian were the Founders?”

    Barton is called a “non historian” but not a fraud.

    Here’s the nut of that story:

    There is, however, one slightly awkward issue for hard-core secularists who would combat what they see as a Christian whitewashing of American history: the Christian activists have a certain amount of history on their side.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    Thanks for posting the link to the daily show. I don’t have a television machine and hadn’t seen the Daily Show before now. I watched all three segments.

  • Richard

    I think one of the factual questions to be raised here is, if Barton is a “non-historian”, “self-taught historian”, etc., what qualifies a source to get beyond those qualifiers?

    I’m not ideology baiting here. Just asking what standards apply to allow any expert (whether wannabe, self-taught or traditionally trained)?

  • Dave

    Barton is notorious in Pagan circles for “historical” theories that Pagans are not protected by the First Amendment. Though it’s a cranky minority position on my part, I have to view as incomplete any coverage of Barton that mentions his influence in GOP politics but doesn’t deal with this.

  • http://www.wthrockmorton.com Warren Throckmorton

    I was disappointed in the Daily Show because the segment was neither insightful or funny. If I can’t get debunking from Jon Stewart, then I want funny. Stewart came close to pinning Barton down on Barton’s claim that John Adams really believed the Holy Ghost set up governments, but whiffed.

    I have recently looked into some of Barton’s claims, particularly about Thomas Jefferson and found that several that are distortions or misrepresentations of Jefferson’s words and/or record (e.g. his claim that Jefferson chose to close govt documents with, “In the Year of Our Lord Christ“). I think a Christian publication should take up the issue and ask Christian historians what they think of his claims.

  • LarryLinn

    Benjamin Franklin, “My parents had early given me religious impressions, and brought me through my childhood piously in the dissenting [puritan]way. But I was scarce fifteen, when, after doubting by turns of several points, as I found them disputed in the different books I read, I began to doubt of Revelation itself. Some books against Deism fell into my hands; they were said to be the substance of sermons preached at Boyle’s lectures. [Robert Boyle (1627-1691) was a British physicist who endowed the Boyle Lectures for defense of Christianity.]It happened that they wrought an effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them; for the arguments of the deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough deist”

  • http://www.thebigdaddyweave.com BDW


    The Southwestern Journal of Theology published a couple of articles responding to Barton in the Spring-Summer 1999 issue. Not sure if there is anything scholarly more recent than that.

  • Dave G.

    If the press doesn’t get religion, we won’t even discuss what it gets about history. History is tough since it’s so dependent on one’s interpretation. You can be absolutely right with what facts exist, and still spin those babies to say what you want. Thus, let’s take the American History textbook my boys have studied. Let’s take the lesson on the Declaration of Independence. It deals only slightly with some bare bone facts: the Founders (not Founding Fathers) wanted a document, asked Jefferson, he wrote it, and here’s a few quotes. The remaining 80% of the lesson? That would be the fact that we allowed slavery, that many Founders owned slaves, we didn’t let women vote, persecution of Native Americans, civil rights, interment of Japanese prisoners of war, American Imperialism, dogs and cats, living together, Mass Hysteria! In short, there is nothing factually wrong in how it is presented. And yet, the entire picture is one of not just a half empty glass, but of a glass missing. That is the problem that Barton speaks to, however strange his theories.

    Same with Separation of Church and State. It isn’t as if Barton is the first to ask the question ‘Are you sure the SCOTUS was right on this?’ Especially as there is a not-so-silent underground movement starting to read SoCaS as ‘Shouldn’t religion and too-religious types be banned from the public forum? Especially if teaching things that are clearly wrong?’ People are actually saying that. Under the age old principle that you can judge a tree by the fruit it bears, the modern and post-modern spin on the issue could bring legit questions to the table.

    But in the end, history is often what you want to make of it, and that’s what has allowed Barton not only to present his case, but be listened to. I think many things I’ve heard him say are suspect at best. But his presence and acceptance are what they are because the other views are equally suspect. If reporters want to look at Barton, I think they will need to roll up their sleeves and look at all of the history in our modern day, and not just assume Barton is the one who is playing fast and loose with the spin.

  • Daniel

    I saw the limited TV version of the Daily Show interview and it seemed like he was able to get his side of the story out in a fair manner. I didn’t realize how much influence he had on history textbooks in the U.S. Apparently if I go online and watch the full version, Stewart runs a marathon of a debate with him…

  • http://wthrockmorton.com Warren Throckmorton

    BDW – Thanks for the tip; helpful to get some context.

  • John M.

    “The liberal group People For the American Way”

    Yeah, that sounds like a real neutral, scholarly group without an agenda.

    What’s next? You’re going to recommend “The Flat Earth Society” for a discussion of geology?