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Real Historian Eviscerates Barton Book

Real Historian Eviscerates Barton Book October 19, 2011

The Texas Freedom Network has a new document on their website, a review of a history textbook written by David Barton and actually intended for use in public and private schools. It’s written by Prof. Steven Green of Willamette University, who teaches law and has a PhD in constitutional history and a master’s in American religious history. He writes in this report:

In my opinion Drive Thru History America: Foundations of Character is inappropriate for use in public schools because it includes devotional religious content that seeks to impose particular religious truth-claims on students…

There is nothing objectionable with informing students about the role of religion in the nation’s development – in fact, such instruction can be an important part of a well-rounded education. Nor is there anything wrong, pedagogically or legally, with informing students about the religious beliefs of historical figures and how those beliefs impacted their lives. These laudable objectives should not be interpreted, however, as granting license to curricular material that seeks to impress religious fealty and devotion among public school students.

Some of the more specific criticisms:

The presentation also fails to explore the other influences in the Founders’ lives that affected their worldviews and personal character. The members of the founding generation were widely read and drew their ideas for republican government from many sources: the common law, Whig political theories, classical republicanism, and Calvinism. Without question, however, the most influential ideological source was Enlightenment rationalism. The Founders were most influenced by the Enlightenment political writers of the previous two generations: John Locke, Baron Montesquieu, Hugo Grotius, Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, among others. Most of these writers were religious nonconformists or skeptics. Also influential were those writers of the so-called Scottish Enlightenment – Frances Hutcheson, David Hume, and Thomas Reid – whose “common sense” rationalism influenced many of the Founders including James Madison, John Adams, and James Wilson. Secular theories were more influential in forming the Founders’ ideas about natural law and civic virtue than was religion…

Second, the curriculum engages in “proof-texting,” a practice refuted by professional historians. The writers extract selected religious quotations of the various figures without explaining the larger context of the statements (and usually without providing a citation to authority). The curriculum then uses the statement as “proof” of the speaker’s sentiments, disregarding or omitting other likely influences. It fails to account for the sincerity of the speaker’s statement (such as whether the speaker was using irony or pandering to his audience) or whether the speaker likely intended that particular statement on the subject to represent his views, as opposed to other possible statements on the subject…

The additional problem with religious proof-texting is that it fails to explain the role of religious discourse during the founding period and early nineteenth century. As stated, religious rhetoric and imagery were ubiquitous in speeches and other writings because the Bible was one of the few generally available books. The narratives and allegories of the Bible were the stories that were most familiar to people. Unlike today, a person’s use of religious rhetoric during the eighteenth century tells little about his or her own religious devotion. That religiously heterodox figures such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine employed religious language should warn against drawing conclusions about a Founder’s personal piety from his statements.

Here’s just one good example — Barton’s distortions about Benjamin Franklin.

Contrary to the impression created in Drive Thru History, Franklin’s religious beliefs were unconventional and non-doctrinaire. Franklin was raised Presbyterian, not Quaker as claimed in Drive Thru History (p. 15), but rejected his Calvinist upbringing as a teenager. From that time on, Franklin was a religious skeptic.32 He rejected the divinity of Jesus, miracles and the Bible as divinely inspired. Franklin, like Thomas Jefferson, set out to revise the Bible, removing material he believed to be inaccurate and superstitious superstitious, such as accounts of miracles. His motivation was to demystify the Bible by making it consistent with Enlightenment rationalism and more accessible to the average person. Historians disagree over whether Franklin was an atheist, a deist (and then, whether he was a “warm” or “cold” deist, with the former believing in an active providence), a polytheist, or simply a rationalist-theist. Historians agree, however, that he was not “a Christian, orthodox or otherwise.” Franklin did believe in the existence of a deity, and that he governed the world by his providence. Belief in God’s providence was common for deists, as it suggested a general “divine” plan for humankind. But deists and many others viewed such providential influences as being indirect, not as representing the presence of a god who was an active agent in human affairs. According to biographer Gordon Wood, Franklin “came to believe that the only important thing about religion was morality, and the only basis for that morality was utility.”

Also, while Franklin was familiar with the Bible and no doubt had read Romans 14:7 (as had all educated people of the era), there is no evidence that that passage inspired or directed his scientific endeavors (p. 18). Because Franklin completely rejected his Calvinist upbringing, it is unlikely that he would have seen any early instruction in the Bible as determinative of his philosophy or worldview.

Franklin’s appeal for prayer at the Constitutional Convention is attributed to his frustration with the divisions and intransigence among the delegates and his belief that it would be helpful to appeal “to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings.” Too much can be read into this statement, as Franklin wrote frequently about providence, often in contradictory ways. (Franklin was infamous for using satire and irony to make a point.) The statement was a strategic move to embarrass the delegates to action rather than a declaration of faith. Contrary to the assertion in Drive Thru History (p. 26), the delegates did not respond favorably to the proposal. According to Madison’s Notes, which are considered the authoritative source, delegates expressed concern that resorting to prayer would “lead the public to believe that the embarrassments and dissensions within the Convention had suggested this measure” and “bring on it some disagreeable animadversions.” Also, the assertion in Drive Thru History (p. 26) that Franklin’s speech “seemed to change the tone of the convention” and a “three-day recess was called, during which time many of the delegates attended church together” is outright fiction. Franklin’s proposal occurred on Thursday, June 28. According to Madison’s Notes, the Convention did not adjourn but met the following day (Friday, June 29) and again on Saturday (June 30), continuing with their rancorous debate over representation. As historian John Murrin has remarked, “Beyond any doubt, the Founding Fathers empathically refused to pray together while they were drafting the fundamental charter of the new nation. . . . The Constitution’s failure to invoke God was no mere oversight. In that respect the document faithfully mirrored the attitudes of the delegates who wrote it.”

The whole thing is very much worth reading.

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