World Magazine has been shining extraordinary light on the David Barton controversy. Friday, the evangelical publication printed a brief article by Gregg Frazer which contradicted Barton’s contention that Jefferson was orthodox for most of his life and only questioned orthodoxy after 1813.
Frazer’s article is clear and convincing but that does not surprise me for two reasons. One, Gregg was right on this in his earlier writings and two, we covered similar ground and so much more in Getting Jefferson Right. What is stunning is Barton’s response already up on the World website.
Gregg Frazer disagrees with my interpretation of one document in one of The Jefferson Lies’ nine chapters. I appreciate his position but remain convinced that, as I wrote in my response to Warren Throckmorton:
“Early in life Jefferson apparently was a typical Anglican gentleman, but later in life he embraced unorthodox beliefs. [In fact, I devoted 16 pages in my book to documenting Jefferson’s heterodox beliefs.] But throughout all phases of his life he maintained an open respect and admiration for Jesus Christ and Christian values and morality, and he regularly promoted Christianity in ways that make today’s secularists and separationists uncomfortable.”
Throckmorton’s original assault on my book managed to avoid its major points and instead criticize minor and even obscure facts, and this new attack by Frazer seems to suggest that this “debate” may become a never-ending discussion over less and less. With so many important cultural battles that desperately need our focused attention, it seems a misuse of time and energy to continue arguing over relatively inconsequential points with those who profess to hold the same common Christian values, so I will now resume my efforts attempting to beat back the secularist progressive movement that wrongly invokes Jefferson in their efforts to expunge any presence of faith from the public square.
I am grateful to WORLD for allowing this “debate” to occur, and consistent with my regular practice, if errors in my work are called to my attention I will continue to address them in subsequent editions.
Those hoping for recognition of those errors will be disappointed. In his article, Frazer demonstrates that Barton overlooks Jefferson’s relationship to Joseph Priestley as well as Jefferson’s views prior to 1813. These are not minor matters of interpretation but Barton dismisses them as trivial.
Furthermore, his response to me and to Frazer changes the subject. In his book, he claimed that Jefferson did not question the Trinity until 1813. That is clearly false and yet Barton does not admit it. Instead, he changes his position, calling Jefferson “an Anglican gentleman” and saying he went heterodox “later in life.” However, this is still a misleading narrative. In his book, Barton claims Jefferson was orthodox until he was turned away from traditional Christianity by Restoration preachers in central Virginia. As Frazer notes in his World piece and we document thoroughly in our book, Barton claimed but never documented that connection. In his book, Barton presents but does not establish a fundamentally flawed historical picture of Jefferson’s religious views. Historically speaking, these are not trivial matters.
In recent weeks, Barton has claimed that Ronald Reagan opposed the Brady Bill (Reagan favored it), the National Rifle Association was founded to oppose the KKK (it wasn’t), that school children in the 1850s saved a teacher from an assailant by brandishing their weapons (no documentation has been offered, the story may have come from a Louis L’Amour novel), and that there were only two gun accidents during the founding era of history (of course there were many more).
Besides these errant claims, Barton also claims that the Constitution quotes the Bible “verbatim” (it doesn’t), that the first English Bible in America was printed by Congress (it wasn’t), that the state of Texas uses reading levels in the third grade to predict the need for prison beds in the future (it doesn’t), and that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court dismissed a murder conviction because a prosecutor recited the Bible in court (it didn’t).
As regular readers know, I am only scratching the surface. Our book is full of illustrations of how Barton uses partial quotations, incorrect sourcing, and legends presented as a fact. In private, some have argued to me that these matters are significant but that the left distorts the truth too so this is not important. A few evangelical leaders have written to take me to task for our book, saying it helps the secular left. They argue that the end justifies the means (accuracy is not important if your cause is right). On the plus side, others have taken the position that Christians need to reject such relativism (e.g., Tom Gilson - we need more of this).
I am on record as believing these objections are false defenses.
World Magazine has now put these matters on the front burner. My question is what will evangelicals do about it?