David Barton on the Daily Show

Last night’s program with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show was underwhelming at best. Stewart did not get to Barton’s use of quotes out of context until the end of the 2nd clip and then Stewart did not pin him down on specifics.

In the extended sections embedded below, Stewart tried to pin Barton down about the effect of the First Amendment but Stewart provided no quotes from Barton. Barton has said that the First Amendment only applies to denomination establishment of Christianity but does not apply to other religions. However, Barton side stepped Stewart’s efforts on that topic.

In Part 2 & 3, Stewart read the John Adams Holy Ghost letter (more on this later) where Adams was clearly making fun of people who believed the Holy Spirit set governments of church or state. Barton did not directly address his out of context use of the letter and Stewart did not get Barton to acknowledge how he uses it.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Barton says he has never had to retract a single thing. He says he doesn’t use things out of context. In my view, Stewart was way too willing to give up on the contradictions that have been documented.


Ed Brayton at Science Blogs also expressed his disappointment over the Daily Show appearance.

Right Wing Watch is taking apart some of Barton’s claims.

Preliminary post, part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5

Yesterday’s New York Times has an article about Barton. There is not much new in it…

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  • Bernie

    After I saw the entire interview, I was left saddened. There was the perfect opportunity to nail him, yet it seemed that Stewart was ill-prepared or unwilling to do that. A perfect moment to point out his falsehoods, and, alas it was thrown out the window like yesterday’s news.

  • Hmmm… unlikely as it may seem, I may have to (slightly and provisionally) defend Barton on one point.

    RightWingWatch says:

    First Barton lies about [John] Adams’ faith, positing that he was a ‘Trinitarian Unitarian.’ Unitarianism, however, is based on the rejection of the Trinity and noted Unitarian thinker James Freeman Clarke writes that “Unitarians, strictly speaking, are those Christians who reject the Church doctrine of the Trinity, and do not believe that Jesus is God the Son, equal with the Father, or that he is the Supreme Being.”

    Actually, it’s not obvious to me that Barton was lying (or confuse, or sloppy) when he said that John Adams was “a Unitarian who believed in the Trinity”.

    Those familiar with Christianity (and with the history of Christian “heresies”) can appreciate that it’s possible to believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost while simultaneously rejecting the Nicene formulation of the Trinity that describes the inter-relationship and the specific characteristics of “Big Daddy, Junior, and Casper.” Or in other words, you can reject the Trinity™ but still believe in some sort of Celestial Troika. To the best of my knowledge, for example, Mormonism emphatically repudiates Trinitarianism, and yet speaks of the Father, Jesus, and the Spirit.

    But at the colloquial level, it’s normal to conflate “believing in the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” with “believing in the Trinity.” And since Jon Stewart is secular, from a non-Christian background, and offering “edutainment” rather than meticulous scholarship, it seems pretty defensible for Barton to use a loose, colloquial definition of what the Trinity means.

    For that matter, Jon Stewart (and RightWingWatch) seem to be using a modern definition of Unitarianism — God is One, Jesus was not divine at all, and “Holy Spirit” is simply a synonym for “God”.

    But from Googling and wikipedia, I get the impression that some 18th-century Unitarians (though not necessarily John Adams himself) would’ve accepted that Jesus was in some sense an Incarnation of the Divine, and was bodily resurrected, while totally rejecting the doctrine that JC was coeternal with the Father.

  • (I’m just researching and learning as I go along, here…)

  • mlargles

    Actually, Throbert McGee, I think the name dropping of 1839 might shed some light on this. That’s when the transcendentalist/traditionalists debate within the early American unitarian community started to get heated with some traditionalists declaring transcendentalists non-Christian. If he somehow conceived of transcendentalism as the elevation of the Holy Ghost to the level of God and the traditionalist front the “real, true” unitarians, then he could conceivably think that they worshiped both God the Father and God the Holy Ghost up until that point.

    Which is a colossal misinterpretation of unitarianism, but this is David Barton we’re talking about, who insisted that George Washington’s self description as Christian disqualified him from being unitarian, so I’m not surprised.

  • PS: I don’t know what Adams believed, and can’t find any real sources on that currently, so to clarify I’m talking about the characterization of “unitarians” (a bit of a nebulous group considering a lot were pretending not to be unitarian at that point in history) as worshiping the Holy Ghost until 1839.

    (And to link to my blog that has a post on this that I just wrote).

  • mlargles — Thanks for the reminder about that unexplained “1839” date mentioned by Barton. During my cursory Googling about unitarianism, I did see some references about the Transcendentalist influence on Unitarians during several decades of the mid-1800s. And the wikipedia entry on Transcendentalism mentions 1836 (the year Emerson’s essay “Nature” was published) as an unofficial “founding date” for American Transcendentalism, so a major reaction to T-ism within the American Unitarian movement presumably would not have been earlier than 1836.

    However, I didn’t see anything about a distinct event in 1839 that produced a sudden sea change in how Unitarians may have thought and talked about the Trinity the three avatars of the Supreme Being.

    If I had to take a guess at what Barton is talking about, it may be that one particular Unitarian minister published a theological polemic against the Holy Ghost in 1839, and that in subsequent decades, more and more Unitarians adopted the language. But this hardly means that no Unitarians prior to 1839 had challenged either the existence of the Holy Ghost or the distinctness of the HG from the Father. And it tells us nothing about what John Adams beliefs were.

    Of course, the most significant point is that in John Adams’ letter to Benjamin Rush, Adams is very clearly talking about traditional Christian teachings on the Holy Ghost, but he is not necessarily affirming his own beliefs about the Holy Ghost (except insofar as he disparages the traditional understanding of the HG’s role in human affairs).

  • If I had to take a guess at what Barton is talking about, it may be that one particular Unitarian minister published a theological polemic against the Holy Ghost in 1839

    When I wrote this, I hadn’t yet read mlargles’s blog post, which suggests that a 1839 speech by Unitarian theologian Andrews Norton, entitled “The Latest Form of Infidelity,” is the thing that Barton vaguely referred to in his Daily Show appearance.

    I haven’t fully digested Norton’s essay yet, but as far as I can tell from a quick skim, he was one of those Unitarians who in some sense “believed in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost”, yet rejected the Trinity.

    I think it may be the case that Norton regarded the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost as being (in modern Internet slang) “sock puppet” identities of the One God — or perhaps more like Peter Sellers playing the U.S. President, the British officer, and the German scientist in Dr. Strangelove.

    The idea that Jesus the Son of God was a “sock puppet” or “role” performed by the Supreme Being is obviously incompatible with any traditional formulation of Trinitarianism, but is also at odds with the “secularized liberal Christian” notion that Jesus was merely a gifted rabbi who attracted a lot of followers, but not Divine in any special sense.

  • Richard Willmer

    Reminds on of the Councils of Nicea (‘gifted rabbi’ vs. ‘trinitarian orthodoxy’) and Chalcedon (‘trinitarian orthodoxy’ vs. ‘sock puppet’)!

    (The Chalcedon controversy was finally ‘settled’, after a fashion, in AD 1996, I believe.)

  • From Religious Dispatches…

    It seems that David Barton is used as a text book at Liberty Law School.

    The Foundations class is unlike anything offered at secular law schools, its purpose being to guide students toward a “Christian worldview” of the law. In the 2008-09 academic year, the required texts included David Barton’s Original Intent, which Barton’s website describes as “essential resource for anyone interested in our nation’s religious heritage and the Founders’ intended role for the American judicial system,” and Francis Schaeffer’s Christian Manifesto.

    They also seem to be instructing law students that they should have encouraged Lisa Miller to go to Nicaragua. They even put it on an exam.

  • Throbert, I think Andrews Norton wasn’t a unitarian of that stripe, but I can’t find any sources on how he perceived the divine, just how he didn’t think the trinity made sense. He was extremely rationalist (ie: a watch therefore a watchmaker type Christian) who didn’t seem to think God interfered much in human affairs. That doesn’t quite sound like a Christian who turns trinitarian entities into unitarian roles.

    Honestly though, I can’t figure out where Norton fits on that scale from more liberal unitarians (who completely throw out the Holy Ghost) to more conservative ones (who usually are more inclined towards the “roles” or “sock puppet” type explanation). He was more conservative than many unitarians, in that he completely rejected transcendentalism and all of those more liberal conceptions of God, but he still fiercely seems to have disliked the trinity. I’m not sure where he fits in (if anywhere without qualification).