I wasn’t going to write about this but I think I need to. I was raised on David Barton’s historical revisionism, studying from his books and reading his literature. Barton argues that mainstream historians have it wrong, and that the founders really were all devout evangelical Christians who intended to found a Christian nation. In a move reminiscent of creationism, Barton essentially argues that mainstream historians are engaged in a cover up, but that he can give you the real story.
Well, Christian publisher Thomas Nelson has just discontinued publishing Barton’s latest book, The Jefferson Lies, amidst concerns about accuracy raised by conservative evangelical World Magazine. Yes you read that right – Barton is finally being called out by his own side. He’s just that sloppy! Basically, it’s simply becoming increasingly obvious to all that he lies, twists the truth, and makes up quotes. Because, well, that’s what he does.
Here are some links:
I’ve written about Barton before, and the main point I made was this:
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.
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 candidateslisten and believe. This would be less scary if Barton wasn’t calling the separation of church and state bullshit.
I want to leave you with these links and finish by making three points.
First, documents aren’t everything. Barton likes to go on and on about how he has all these original documents, and what they say isn’t what historians say, and on and on. Well, leaving aside the lying and making up quotes part, doing history is more than simply having a lockbox of original documents – or as we call them, primary sources. There’s a reason historians train for a decade in order to get their Ph.D.s – something Barton never did. Historians employ methods and use theoretical frameworks. You can’t simply read a document and think you suddenly understand it all. There are things like context, for instance! Put simply: Barton has no idea what a historian actually does.
Second, let me offer an example to illustrate my first point. Barton and others like him like to argue that the founding fathers were basically exactly what evangelicals are today when it comes to religion. This is simply not true. Even colonial and revolutionary evangelical Christians were not the same as evangelical Christians today. Religion changes as culture changes and people’s needs and daily lives change. Which beliefs are emphasized and which are not changes – and sometimes beliefs fall out of fashion altogether. For crying out loud, evangelicals in the colonial and revolutionary era didn’t believe in the rapture because, well, that belief hadn’t been invented yet! Their conception of the end times was nothing like evangelicals’ current conception. And the differences go on and on. Reading current evangelicals into the past is silly, and pretending religion has never changed is silly.
Third and finally, I think it’s important to remember that people like Barton will never fall completely out of fashion – because they have an audience. As long as there is a substantial population that wants to believe our country was founded with the intent of having a Christian government and political system, or that our founding fathers were all identical to modern evangelicals, there will be an audience for books like The Jefferson Lies – and, relatedly, for organizations like Vision Forum which advocate returning to an imaginary idyllic Christian past. On some level, facts can only do so much. People like my parents will go on buying books like The Jefferson Lies. They believe it all, facts be damned, because they want to believe. And we can’t change that.