David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies pulled by publisher

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:

David Barton’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Career

The Most Influential Evangelist You’ve Never Heard Of

Thomas Nelson Pulls David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies

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.

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.

  • http://reasonableconversation.wordpress.com Kaoru Negisa

    “Reading current evangelicals into the past is silly, and pretending religion has never changed is silly.”

    There’s actually a term for this. It’s called “presentism.” Basically, the idea is that you apply current social attitudes and contextual events to events of the past.

    One of my least favorite examples of this are people who claim that there was no need for the government to desegregate private business because that person would never eat at a segregated business. It ignores attitudes at the time and the changes made by forced desegregation that lead to them being raised in such a way that we view segregation as wrong. However at the time it was fairly common to simply see segregation as natural, the way things were, and to assume that racial minorities enjoyed their insularity as much as whites did. And had desegregation not been forced, that attitude would have likely persisted to this day because opportunities for interracial interaction would have been severely reduced.

    • Christine

      “Presentism” sounds like the sort of belief that is required for anyone to read the Bible “literally”, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a lot of the “Religious Right ” subscribes to it.

    • http://tellmewhytheworldisweird.blogspot.com/ perfectnumber628

      “Presentism”- I’ve never heard that term before. It makes a lot of sense. Culture changes all the time, and to really understand history and the world, we need to remember that things that seem “normal” at one place and time will seem completely bizarre in other contexts.

  • historian

    An excellent and accessible reference on religion in the revolutionary period is Faiths of Our Founding Fathers by David L. Holmes. In an appendix, Holmes explains how religious language was used in the period which gives the proper context to words and phrases used in primary sources of the period that reference religion.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      Exactly! Exactly! These are the sorts of things one has to examine to actually understand what was going on at the time, and what words and customs and phrases even meant, and Barton never does this!

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      So true. Many people do not understand that the bible and biblical language held a great deal of cultural significance, not just religious significance in that era. Barton is certainly not helping.

  • Bob Seidensticker

    Fantastic! Justice does happen sometimes, I guess.

  • Fina

    Glad my links were put to good use :)

    Nice job pointing out that context matters for a historian. It should be obvious – if all you had to do was reading documents, you’d think that being a historian was pretty easy, and that there would be overwhelming consensus about pretty much everything. But it obviously isn’t, people have to study hard to become historians and like in other sciences our view of the past becomes more accurate the more context we uncover.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      “It should be obvious – if all you had to do was reading documents, you’d think that being a historian was pretty easy.”

      It seems to me that Barton’s followers DO think being a historian is pretty easy if they take a fraud like him seriously. By the same token, if Constitutional scholarship were as easy as simply reading amendments off a page (not that many of the right-wingers howling about the Constitution even seem to have even bothered to do THAT), why go to law school at all? Anyone can be a Constitutional scholar! And it seems that many people think that they are.

      These people have contempt for education and for the people who dedicate themselves to it. They seem to think that the only purpose of such things as Ph.D programs, law school, and other advanced higher education is simply to, I don’t know, teach people how to eat lots of arugula, drink glasses of champagne with their pinkies delicately crooked, and hate Christianity, of course.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    Maybe it’s because I am the daughter of a U.S. historian (a real one, you know the kind who spent years busting her butt working in a dilapidated apartment that she was too poor to heat above 50 degrees in the winter to earn her Ph.D, who still works incredibly hard and who takes the integrity of her profession very seriously) but David Barton is one of those people who makes me want to shake my fist and scream “BAAAAARTOOOON!!!!” at the universe, a la Captain Kirk in “The Wrath of Khan.” So I’m pleased as punch to see him go down, although I hope it will stick. It does seem that once a person gains a positive reputation in the right-wing Christian community, it’s harder to kill than zombie, no matter what the person does. But I do hope that this will at least erode his ability to influence education and public perception of history OUTSIDE the Christian community, which has been quite alarming.

    On a related note, I’m really surprised to see that it’s a faculty member of Grove City College that’s largely responsible for taking him down. I remember receiving literature from them when I was a senior in high school applying to colleges (I’ve got to assume they just bombard everyone with it if I got it) and they are…out there.

  • smrnda

    When you mentioned that the rapture wasn’t a notion Christians had thought up in colonial times, I read that it was mostly cooked up by Scofield or Scofeld of the “Scofield Study Bible.” Any truth to this?

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      You will find the answer in my End Times series. Basically, the rapture was invented by John Nelson Darby in England in the mid-nineteenth century, and he did tours in the U.S. where he brought it here. Then, in the late nineteenth century, the hardline evangelicals who would eventually become known as fundamentalists began holding “prophesy conferences,” discussing the end times and Revelation and all that, and Scofield’s reference Bible made “dispensational premillenialism,” the end times view that emerged from those conferences and remains today, popular and widespread. So there you have it. In a nutshell.

  • http://ripeningreason.com/ Bix

    I’m glad this happened. Good history education is terribly undervalued in the United States, and I think that has direct cultural and political consequences.

  • machintelligence
  • http://www.freeratio.org/ Brian63

    “They believe it all, facts be damned, because they want to believe. And we can’t change that.”

    You can, but it is just really, really, really difficult for a variety of reasons. One of them (how our beliefs are interconnected and make a psychological fortress together) is described very well in this old—but still very insightful—article:

    Why Bad Beliefs Don’t Die
    http://www.csicop.org/si/show/why_bad_beliefs_dont_die/

    Cheers,

    Brian

  • Pingback: Evangelicals Admit Confirmation Bias for David Barton

  • http://paulw.org Rep. Paul Weselhoft

    I have read some Barton books and heard him speak on several occasions. He has not nor would he say the founding fathers were trying or wanted to create a Christian government.

  • http://paulw.org Rep. Paul Weselhoft

    I have read some Barton books and heard him speak on several occasions. He has not nor would he say the founding fathers were trying or wanted to create a Christian government. Barton is a good scholar.

    • Nox

      You mean David Barton? The demonstrably innaccurate idea that “the founding fathers were trying or wanted to create a Christian government” is the central thesis statement of his entire career. You couldn’t read one book by him without seeing him claim that.


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