David Barton, Civil Religion, and Patriotic Idolatry

David Barton, Civil Religion, and Patriotic Idolatry October 10, 2012

Guest Post by Miles S. Mullin, II, of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s J. Dalton Havard School for Theological Studies

A few weeks ago, popular Christian history writer David Barton presented his standard two-hour presentation at a church in my area.  At the urging of colleague John Wilsey, who has written against the concept of Christian America that Barton advocates, I attended.  I’m glad I went.  As an historian, the problems with the story that Barton weaves have been obvious to me for quite some time.  Yet, that evening, I gained clarity regarding why Barton’s narrative troubles me as an evangelical.

In several ways, Barton’s presentation surprised me.  First, Barton was interesting and engaging.  Second, although he played to the evangelical penchant towards anti-intellectualism, I did not find him arrogant.  In fact, he came across as pleasant, not haughty.  Third, he prominently featured African Americans as historical actors.  He spent some time discussing important black patriots such as Peter Salem and Lemuel Haynes, rightly noting that Americans “have done a poor job with black history.”

The first half of Barton’s presentation was fairly innocuous.  Combining a litany of facts, quotes and visuals with his skillful storytelling, Barton presented the founding generation as more religious than many standard treatments portray.  They quoted and alluded to the Bible, they showed confidence in God, and they participated regularly in religious activities.  Further, Barton rightly pointed out that Americans have been trained to religiously interpret the entire founding generation as Franklin and Jefferson writ large, an approach that downplays the significance of religion in the revolutionary era.

Had the implications of his presentation stopped there, I might have quibbled over some factual issues but would not really have objected to the overall thrust of the effort.  Albeit with greater quality, effectiveness, and persuasiveness, historian Thomas Kidd offers a similar corrective, while Richard Bushman, Nathan Hatch, and Rhys Isaac and others have demonstrated the crucial role that religion played in birthing the revolution.  But much more was implied, and therein lay the biggest problems.

After the break, Barton reminded us of Proverbs 14:34: “righteousness exalts a nation (NIV).”  From that point forward, his endgame emerged.  Prior material now became the basis for standard fare American exceptionalism: the United States has been uniquely blessed because of its Christian character.

Problems of fact became secondary as the larger interpretive problem emerged.  Presentism, reading the past through the eyes of the present, became a tool for Barton’s agenda, functioning as the lens through which Barton’s auditors were expected to interpret the founder’s words.

If the founders used Christian words, they must mean what we mean.  Divorced from their context, quote after quote made founder after founder sound evangelical.  Even Charles Carroll, the sole Roman Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, came across sounding like a good Baptist.  (Barton never mentioned that Carroll was Catholic.)

At the end of the presentation, Barton’s auditors were left with the following impressions: the founders were religious.  They were religious just like me.  Because they were religious like me, God has uniquely blessed America, per Psalm 33:12.  And, if we want the blessings to continue, we need to elect righteous people.

I then realized that the biggest problem with David Barton is not bad history or proof-texting.   The biggest problem is his version of Civil Religion, wherein the nation displaces the church, and America emerges as the new Israel with whom God has a special covenant.  Even the setting reinforced this idea: we sat on pews in a sanctuary; the American flag was prominently displayed; we recited the pledge of allegiance; and prayers were offered for the nation.

Consequently, in Barton’s scheme, politics replaces discipleship, and the nation, not the church, becomes the focus of our efforts towards righteousness.  Further, the church becomes a servant to the state, extolling America’s blessed history, proclaiming its righteous mission, and praising its glorious leaders.  And thus, by taking Christ’s place in the church, the nation becomes an idol. And that is something my evangelical convictions cannot countenance.


Miles S. Mullin II (PhD, Vanderbilt) is Assistant Professor of Church History at the Houston campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.  His research centers on religion and American culture, specifically focusing on mid-twentieth century evangelicalism.

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  • “…politics replaces discipleship, and the nation, not the church, becomes the focus of our efforts towards righteousness…” Well said.

  • I guess what I would say is that Barton’s view of American exceptionalism bothers me as a Baptist. Is it possible for a country like the US to be a “Christian nation”? It is essentially the same issue the Reformers faced in the 16th Century. Luther, Calvin and Knox would almost all have said “most certainly.” The Anabaptists saw it otherwise.
    Calvin was a good example. A friend of mine once said that Calvin was a horrible monster who ran a police state. What Calvin did, of course, was to attempt to impose biblical standards of church discipline on the entire city of Geneva, working on the model of a state church. His admirers could point to how orderly and well run the city was. His detractors could point out that you could wind up in jail for criticizing last Sunday’s sermon!
    So what does it mean to be a Christian society? I would agree with the Anabaptists. A genuinely Christian society is only possible within the context of a believers’ church. A largely unconverted nation like the US could never be truly “Christian.”
    Of course, the basic problem with Barton’s historical analysis is that what made America exceptional was the fact that it separated church and state. Britain professed to be a Christian nation!

  • Melanie Seibert (@melanie_seibert)

    Interesting. I agree but I genuinely wonder how Barton would say one chooses the “righteous” candidate? Is it the Democrat who professes Christianity but differs from my view on abortion? Or the Republican who doesn’t profess Christianity at all?

    Politics is complicated. Or at least it should be, if we are doing it right.

  • Joshua Wooden

    Melanie, I am quite certain that Barton is quite sold out to the Republican party, which is why he can support Mitt Romney, a mormon, and not President Obama, a Protestant.

    This is something that my former professor, Kurt Peterson, also noted in an article against Barton’s vision of Christian America (originally published in Christian Century, but found online here: http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3454). It has been something I have noticed since I was first introduced to the WallBuilders movement and David Barton: the true problem underlying Barton’s endeavor and relative success is not bad history per se (though it is), but bad theology.

  • Andrew Alcock

    Surely one of the bigger isssues is the tendency, beyond the Presentism that has been mentioned, to identify the majority of the “White” American history as the plan and purpose of God. Statements from mid 19th century politicians talking about “Providence” and “The great experiment of Liberty” clearly indicate that the Christianisation of American history pervades much more than the revolutionary period. Surely, to the mind of British man anyway, the foundation of the American Nation is one of rebellion and empire building and therefore mcuh of the rhetoric used in expansion, revoution and modern periods is tainted by an unclear view of the non-Christian foundation of the nation.

  • Larry Linn

    “The United States of America should have a foundation free from the influence of clergy.”— George Washington

    “The United States Constitutional Convention, except for three or four persons, thought prayers unnecessary.”— Benjamin Franklin

    “This nation of ours was not founded on Christian principles.”— John Adams

    “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise.”— James Madison, letter to William Bradford, 1771

    “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion;…” ~Treaty of Tripoli 1796

  • Miles Mullin

    Thank you Gary.

  • Miles Mullin

    I also have a critique that stems from my Baptist convictions regarding ecclesiology. Alas, one can only do so much in single post.

  • Richard Pierard

    Miles Mullin gave an excellent paper at the Conference on Faith and History meeting in Wenham, Mass. (Gordon College) last week and I am glad to see him share his ideas in this forum. As for David Barton, I got his number a long time ago. He is basically a Republican political operative with no real credentials as a historian. A couple years ago when the Texas State Board of Education was rewriting the American historytextbook standards, this quack was brought in as a “consultant” while the many fine American historians in the state were ugnired. as were the protests of professional historians around the country, including the American Historian Association.

  • Joshua Wooden

    Larry, the irony of what you just did is that it ultimately employs the same method as Barton, coming from the opposite direction: taking quotes from people out of context they were written in. That’s not history.

  • Miles Mullin

    I am humbled by your compliment, Dr. Pierard. Thank you for attending my paper.

  • Thanks for the analysis, Miles. Enjoyed the article.

  • JoFro

    Is Obama a Protestant? Even the Church he attended for years was a Marxist black power church, which hardly, if ever, mentioned Jesus. It’s theology was Social Justice and how the White man was causing all the problems for black people

  • What’s the correct context for the Treaty of Tripoli quote?

  • Philip Jenkins

    For what it’s worth, I do have a comment about the Treaty of Tripoli quote, and I am dragging this from the recesses of memory. My understanding is that the “not a Christian nation” phrase occurs in the ENGLISH-language version of the Treaty, but not the Arabic. It’s almost as if someone was making an internal political point, rather than trying to engage with a Muslim power.

  • Andrew Karl

    Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and Madison were self-described Deists. I doubt many evangelicals would consider their beliefs, which valued rational though over dogma, Christian. Larry Linn’s comments weren’t out of context. I would be happy to add dozens more if you like. “Lighthouses are more useful that churches” is my personal favorite. Thomas Jefferson rewrote the New Testament removing all the supernatural events- please explain how that could be “taken out of context”.

  • Denis

    I went to David Barton’s Facebook page. I saw many posts under his name (i.e. either by himself or by people acting with his authority), emphasising that “America was founded as a christian nation”.

    I responded with many quotes from the founding fathers , and naturally the obvious passage from the treaty of tripoli, all contradicting this viewpoint.

    The immediate response was to ban me. This made it VERY clear that he is not the slightest bit interested in facts, but has his own view of how America’s history should be presented. and that anything that contradicts it must be rejected.

    I see absolutely no value whatsoever in studying his material. Maybe he should try to present his works as a dramatic fantasy novel, but in so far as history is concerned he has zero credibility for me.

  • Jess

    Dear JoFro,
    Please look up the history of the Congregational and Reformed Churches before making wild accusations. UCC churches are Christian, and they do mention Jesus quite frequently. They baptize in His name.

    Some of their pastors do make the same mistakes as their brothers in more conservative denominations — namely, confusing politics with discipleship. But I would never claim that say, the Southern Baptists, or any other denomination are not “true” Christians because I disagree with their politics. I accept them as baptized, believing Christians. Please do the UCC the same courtesy.

    Peace and love,

  • Mark Temporis

    Wiki’s bio of Rev. Wright says his church, Trinity Church of Christ was affiliated with the UCC. Makes him a Protestant. But then, there’s a longstanding tradition of Protestants not accepting other denominations as ‘legitimately Christian’.

    Rev. Wright, BTW, is a former soldier in the USMC. Not having served myself, I would find it churlish to question the man’s patriotism.

  • WyominJim

    Re: David Barton, Civil Religion, and Patriotic Idolatry

    I am deeply saddened to see Christian ministers and theologians critiquing, arguing, and bickering over each other’s philosophical interpretation of this country’s political history; as though they were politicians, themselves. Are we becoming “American Pharisees”?
    Enough with the college level debates! Should we not be concentrating our efforts elsewhere? Respect each other’s “scholarly” ideas and get on with HIS business!

    “For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.
    For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
    But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another!” (Galatians 5:13-15)

  • WyominJim, this is a common response from David Barton’s supporters (i.e. we should not discuss potential problems with his work), but as Dr. Mullin notes, this is hardly an academic debate about the founding alone. It has much broader theological and political implications. I thought Marvin Olasky’s comments at WORLD on this topic were quite apt. Olasky, “A message to WORLD readers on the David Barton controversy,” http://www.worldmag.com/2012/08/a_message_to_world_readers_on_the_david_barton_controversy

  • Those last two paragraphs are golden. So well said!

  • John C. Gardner

    This is a well written post. Good sources on the relationship between religious freedom and various groups in colonial American can be found in the research by Thomas Kidd, John Witte Jr, and Mark Noll. as well as John Fea. Fortunately, there is plenty of outstanding Christian scholarship rather than simple partisan writings by Barton and others.

  • Matt Higginbotham

    That final paragraph is awesome! It lays out a significant issue in conservative evangelical churches today. And it hampers the actual evangelical work of the church by driving people apart. Thanks Miles.

  • Miles Mullin

    Thanks, Matt. Students like you have helped me clarify my thinking on such things over the last few years.

  • Maria Mitchell

    I wish more evangelicals thought this way. A year or two ago our church put on one of David Barton’s “history” courses during the summer on Sunday nights. I didn’t attend, but some of my fellow homeschoolers attended and it made my life pretty complicated because of the fallout of “God and Country” patriotism infiltrating some of the co-op’s history classes. And you don’t realize how much love of country is associated with love of God until you’ve been to AWANA or just a regular church service on any Sunday closest to a “patriotic” holiday. Also, “Christian” media is rife with people who spout off neoconservative jargon and nobody calls them on it – nobody! Two recent examples that I can think of right off the bat are Janet Parshall and David Jeremiah.

  • Ima Fundie

    Pompous, prevaricating FOOL! Psalms 14:1 The fool hath said in his heart no God . . .

    Romans 1:18-32 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; (19) Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. (20) For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: (21) Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. (22) Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, (23) And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things. (24) Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves: (25) Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen. (26) For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: (27) And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet. (28) And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient; (29) Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, (30) Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, (31) Without understanding, covenantbreakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful: (32) Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.

    Revelation 20:11-15 And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. (12) And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. (13) And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. (14) And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. (15) And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.