David Barton, Pseudohistorian

My parents were always big fans of David Barton and his organization, Wallbuilders. We actually had a lot of his materials, both videos and books. From the website:

WallBuilders is an organization dedicated to presenting America’s forgotten history and heroes, with an emphasis on the moral, religious, and constitutional foundation on which America was built – a foundation which, in recent years, has been seriously attacked and undermined. In accord with what was so accurately stated by George Washington, we believe that “the propitious [favorable] smiles of heaven can never be expected on a nation which disregards the eternal rules of order and right which heaven itself has ordained.”

Basically, Wallbuilders is all about how America was built upon a Christian foundation, and about how the founding fathers never intended to found a secular nation or a secular government. Barton explains that secular historians have hidden America’s religious past and obscured the religious views of the founding fathers, creating the myth that America was founded with the intention to have a separation between church and state.

This post is not at all meant to be a comprehensive investigation of Barton. If you’re a die hard Barton fan, I’m not going to change your mind, and if you’re on the fence, I’d suggest that you check out Liars for Jesus or any of a number of sites that have taken on Barton’s pseudo-history. I will, however, make a couple of quick points before going on to explain why Barton matters.

First, Barton is known for getting his facts wrong and even making up quotes. But then, that’s nor surprising: David Barton is not simply a bad historian, he’s not a historian at all. You want to know what historical training David Barton has? None. Nada. Zip. Yes, I’m serious. He has a BA in religious education from Oral Roberts University, and that is it. But then, you don’t see him mentioning that when he portrays himself as a historical expert.

Second, historical debates take place within the academy, or, more specifically, within academic journals, not in the court of public opinion. Historians absolutely do have historical debates: What exactly caused the Civil War? What effect did the New Deal really have on the U.S. economy during the Depression? What exactly caused the rise of conservatism over the past fifty years? The thing is, historians debate these things within the academy by writing books and articles that must stand up to rigorous standards of proof and review. When an academic takes his case to the public, that’s a sure sign he’s lost already. And that, quite simply, is what Barton is doing – rather than working within the academy by writing good historical articles proving his points, he’s taking his case to the people, who have no way of knowing good history from bad history.

Having said all that, let’s take a look at two problems with the story Barton is taking to the public.

First, Barton builds a strawman of “secular historians.” I have taken a good number of American history classes in college, and I have never seen the role of religion in American history ignored, especially not its role in colonial history and the history of early America. Secular historians don’t deny that most of the founding fathers were Christian, or that there were Christian influences in the Revolution or the founding of the United States, or that Christianity was incredibly important to the history of early America. No secular historian will deny that the first amendment originally applied only to the federal government, leaving the states to establish official denominations if they so chose (as some states did until the 1830s). These things are not secrets hidden away by secular historians, as Barton implies.

This brings us to the second point. Barton’s view of American history is just as wrong as the strawman view he incorrectly claims secular historians hold. The founding fathers were influenced by religion, but they were also influenced by other ideas and philosophies, such as the enlightenment and John Locke, something Barton ignores. While some of the founding fathers were orthodox Christians, many were far from it (some were deists, some Unitarians, and others questioned the veracity of Jesus’ miracles). Finally, while religion did play an important role in colonial America, by the time the Revolution took place church attendance was actually at an all time low (16%. Church attendance then grew dramatically during the antebellum period, benefiting from America’s greater religious freedom, and continued to grow after that, peaking in the 1950s and remaining quite high today.). Barton distorts all this, cherry picks quotes, and ignores things like historical context.

One of the hallmarks of the historical profession is that historians are supposed to approach materials in as unbiased a manner as possible, and see what the sources say and where they lead. Historians come up with hypotheses, then look at the evidence, then adjust their hypotheses. I’m not saying this always works perfectly. Gay historians of gender will want very much to find evidence of homosexuality among ancient people groups, and Marxist historians of labor will be predisposed to looking for signs of class struggle. But most historians work to fight against their biases, and those who fail to live up to the ideal don’t change the reality that the ideal of the historical profession is an unbiased examination of the facts. Barton does none of this, and actually starts out with predetermined conclusions, something a historian should never do.

By now you may be wondering, why should I care? I mean, people are free to say and believe as they like! Well yes, but the problem is that Barton doesn’t just think these things, he’s spreading his propaganda with surprising alacrity. For one thing, many homeschooled students, like I myself, are today being raised on Barton’s twisted version of American history. But it’s not just homeschooled students. Wallbuilders states its goal as following:

WallBuilders’ goal is to exert a direct and positive influence in government, education, and the family by (1) educating the nation concerning the Godly foundation of our country; (2) providing information to federal, state, and local officials as they develop public policies which reflect Biblical values; and (3) encouraging Christians to be involved in the civic arena.

Believe it or not, Barton was called up as a historical expert at the most recent Texas State Board of Education social studies standards revision. Texas is very important in the textbook market with its large number of children, and its standards therefore exert a lot of control over the textbooks of the nation. And Barton had a very real influence on those standards.

But it’s even more than that. All of the leading Republican contenders for presidential nominee have cited Barton as a historical expert, and as someone who has had a lot of influence on their thinking. When Barton talks, Republican presidential candidates listen and believe. This would be less scary if Barton wasn’t calling the separation of church and state bullshit.

But the whole reason I started this post is that I just came upon this. It is a detailed rebuttal of Barton’s Foundations of Character program by an actual historian. Here are some quotes:

The presentation also fails to explore the other influences in the Founders’ lives that affected their worldviews and personal character. The members of the founding generation were widely read and drew their ideas for republican government from many sources: the common law, Whig political theories, classical republicanism, and Calvinism. Without question, however, the most influential ideological source was Enlightenment rationalism. The Founders were most influenced by the Enlightenment political writers of the previous two generations: John Locke, Baron Montesquieu, Hugo Grotius, Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, among others. Most of these writers were religious nonconformists or skeptics. Also influential were those writers of the so-called Scottish Enlightenment – Frances Hutcheson, David Hume, and Thomas Reid – whose “common sense” rationalism influenced many of the Founders including James Madison, John Adams, and James Wilson. Secular theories were more influential in forming the Founders’ ideas about natural law and civic virtue than was religion…

Second, the curriculum engages in “proof-texting,” a practice refuted by professional historians. The writers extract selected religious quotations of the various figures without explaining the larger context of the statements (and usually without providing a citation to authority). The curriculum then uses the statement as “proof” of the speaker’s sentiments, disregarding or omitting other likely influences. It fails to account for the sincerity of the speaker’s statement (such as whether the speaker was using irony or pandering to his audience) or whether the speaker likely intended that particular statement on the subject to represent his views, as opposed to other possible statements on the subject…

The additional problem with religious proof-texting is that it fails to explain the role of religious discourse during the founding period and early nineteenth century. As stated, religious rhetoric and imagery were ubiquitous in speeches and other writings because the Bible was one of the few generally available books. The narratives and allegories of the Bible were the stories that were most familiar to people. Unlike today, a person’s use of religious rhetoric during the eighteenth century tells little about his or her own religious devotion. That religiously heterodox figures such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine employed religious language should warn against drawing conclusions about a Founder’s personal piety from his statements.

Here are some specific examples of Barton’s factual errors:

Contrary to the impression created in Drive Thru History, Franklin’s religious beliefs were unconventional and non-doctrinaire. Franklin was raised Presbyterian, not Quaker as claimed in Drive Thru History (p. 15), but rejected his Calvinist upbringing as a teenager. From that time on, Franklin was a religious skeptic.32 He rejected the divinity of Jesus, miracles and the Bible as divinely inspired. Franklin, like Thomas Jefferson, set out to revise the Bible, removing material he believed to be inaccurate and superstitious superstitious, such as accounts of miracles. His motivation was to demystify the Bible by making it consistent with Enlightenment rationalism and more accessible to the average person. Historians disagree over whether Franklin was an atheist, a deist (and then, whether he was a “warm” or “cold” deist, with the former believing in an active providence), a polytheist, or simply a rationalist-theist. Historians agree, however, that he was not “a Christian, orthodox or otherwise.” Franklin did believe in the existence of a deity, and that he governed the world by his providence. Belief in God’s providence was common for deists, as it suggested a general “divine” plan for humankind. But deists and many others viewed such providential influences as being indirect, not as representing the presence of a god who was an active agent in human affairs. According to biographer Gordon Wood, Franklin “came to believe that the only important thing about religion was morality, and the only basis for that morality was utility.”

Also, while Franklin was familiar with the Bible and no doubt had read Romans 14:7 (as had all educated people of the era), there is no evidence that that passage inspired or directed his scientific endeavors (p. 18). Because Franklin completely rejected his Calvinist upbringing, it is unlikely that he would have seen any early instruction in the Bible as determinative of his philosophy or worldview.

Franklin’s appeal for prayer at the Constitutional Convention is attributed to his frustration with the divisions and intransigence among the delegates and his belief that it would be helpful to appeal “to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings.” Too much can be read into this statement, as Franklin wrote frequently about providence, often in contradictory ways. (Franklin was infamous for using satire and irony to make a point.) The statement was a strategic move to embarrass the delegates to action rather than a declaration of faith. Contrary to the assertion in Drive Thru History (p. 26), the delegates did not respond favorably to the proposal. According to Madison’s Notes, which are considered the authoritative source, delegates expressed concern that resorting to prayer would “lead the public to believe that the embarrassments and dissensions within the Convention had suggested this measure” and “bring on it some disagreeable animadversions.”

Also, the assertion in Drive Thru History (p. 26) that Franklin’s speech “seemed to change the tone of the convention” and a “three-day recess was called, during which time many of the delegates attended church together” is outright fiction. Franklin’s proposal occurred on Thursday, June 28. According to Madison’s Notes, the Convention did not adjourn but met the following day (Friday, June 29) and again on Saturday (June 30), continuing with their rancorous debate over representation. As historian John Murrin has remarked, “Beyond any doubt, the Founding Fathers empathically refused to pray together while they were drafting the fundamental charter of the new nation. . . . The Constitution’s failure to invoke God was no mere oversight. In that respect the document faithfully mirrored the attitudes of the delegates who wrote it.”

If you’re interested, here’s another interesting link on a specific claim by Barton.

Finally, Chris Rodda has written an entire book on Barton called Liars for Jesus, in case you’re interested.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Brawne Lamia

    Can I add as well that there's intense (worrying) importance to Barton's view being used in Texas. Due to Texas's textbook regulations, a lot of major textbook publishers use them as the standard for new books, meaning, if they put crap in, the rest of the country gets it too, fairly generally speaking. Great post!

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    Thing is (as I'm sure you know better than I), if you tried to explain how the academy works and how historical research is actually done to the Right, they'd probably start shrieking "elitist!" The rise of Barton signifies a larger, disturbing phenomenon that's taking hold in this country–the loss of respect for educated people and for the very concept of expertise. So many people now seem to think that the public gets to rule on everything–our nation's history, the reality of climate change, economic policy–and that the very idea of experts who went to school for years to learn how to study these things is some kind of affront to the wisdom and sense of the "Common Man." A Ph.D that takes 7 years as well as blood, sweat, and tears to earn means nothing, apparently. People who have those are just latte-drinking snobs working out their theories in smoke-filled rooms. We don't need no stinkin' experts. (Except the Wall Street crowd–they are are rare snowflakes who's talent and knowledge is so obscure and important that we must provide them with millions of dollars in bonuses as an incentive to do their jobs.)Of course, knowledge, historical, scientific, or otherwise shouldn't be obscure and regular Americans should have access to good scholarship and the means to learn to understand it. That's why it would be nice if our public schools didn't suck and a college education weren't prohibitively expensive for a large percentage of the population. But there I go again, spouting off socialist mumbo-jumbo.

  • Disillusioned Ex-Homeschooler

    Barton makes me want to bang my head against the wall and pour myself a stiff drink. (I usually skip the former and head straight toward the latter).

  • http://zyxek.blogspot.com zyxek

    This is a great post. I like how well you're able to explain the social importance of these religious reactionaries.I have a nitpick, though. You wrote that "the leading Republican contenders for presidential nominee have sighted Barton" when context indicates you meant that they "cited" Barton.No judgment, though. I'm pretty typo-ridden myself.

  • http://amielou31.livejournal.com/ amielou31

    Oh, Libby Anne….I shall spare you my rant on Barton. I could, however, rant on him and his ilk all day long. Chris Rodda covers it all very well at Liars for Jesus, though. As a grad student in history and someone who taught high school American history for ten years, though, I have to say this: history is being revised in many ways to make it fit people's political agendas and early American history is often expected to be taught as an exercise in patriotism (woe to the teacher who suggests that any of the founders were anything less than perfect demi-gods). It is extremely frightening. And while that is happening, schools are choosing to spend less and less curriculum time teaching it. As it is, most school curriculum totally disregards teaching how we "do" history. The scientific method and how to research in the sciences is diligently taught, but history is treated as if it is merely a set of facts to be endured.

  • Anonymous

    Not familiar with Barton/Wallbuilders. Interesting post.BeverlyP.S. I like your lighthouse picture on your blog header, did you take it? It is very pretty.

  • Pingback: David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies pulled by publisher


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