Frazer vs. Barton on Jefferson

Frazer vs. Barton on Jefferson February 22, 2013

I have for many years regarded Gregg Frazer, a historian from The Master’s College, as one of the finest scholars on the subject of religion and the Founding Fathers (he is the one who coined the phrase “theistic rationalist” to describe the views of the key founders, which I use often). In World Magazine, he and Barton have an exchange over Barton’s many distortions about Thomas Jefferson.

David Barton’s fundamental claim in chapter 7 of The Jefferson Lies is that Jefferson was orthodox for the first 70 years of his life and only rejected the fundamental doctrines of Christianity in the final 15 years of his life. In support of this claim, Barton said that in his 1776 Notes on Religion, Jefferson “affirmed that Jesus was the Savior, the Scriptures were inspired, and that the Apostles’ Creed ‘contain[ed] all things necessary to salvation’” (p. 168). That is simply not true.

In his Notes on Religion, Jefferson wrote, “The Apostles creed was by them taken to contain all things necessary to salvation [emphasis mine].”[i] In the context, “by them” refers to “the people they were written to” (i.e., the early church). Jefferson did not say that he believed this. Of the original, Barton only quoted “contain[ed] all things necessary to salvation.” Barton did not offer any other direct statement by Jefferson—doctored or not—in support of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity because there are none.

Jefferson never affirmed the core doctrines of Christianity, whether in his first 70 years or the last 15. For him, Christianity was simply the moral teachings of Jesus—not all of Jesus’ teaching, only the morality. That, along with Jefferson’s opinion of the Apostle Paul, is why Jefferson repeatedly dismissed the rest of the New Testament as a “dunghill.”

This is absolutely standard behavior from Barton, not just quoting out of context but deliberately leaving out words that clearly change the meaning of the quote. He provides another example. I have quoted many times Jefferon’s statement, in a letter to Benjamin Rush, about not believing Jesus was divine or claimed to be. Here’s how Barton quotes it:

“To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus Himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense He wished any one to be; sincerely attached to His doctrines, in preference to all others”

But as Frazer notes, he left off the next clause, which is “ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other.” Frazer also notes that the pronouns for Jesus are not capitalized in Jefferson’s original but they are in Barton’s quote from the letter. This is the sort of thing that is very disreputable among real historians; for Barton it is standard operating procedure.

Barton purports to respond to this but says absolutely nothing about these clearly dishonest examples from his book. He merely restates his conclusion and says there’s no point in quibbling about such details:

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.

A typical non-response response, absolutely devoid of a substantive defense of his claims. Frazer replies, noting that he focused only on a couple of examples because he was limited to 1000 words. And then:

Besides, what has been in question all along is not Barton’s standing as a cultural battler, but his standing as a historian. That is determined by how accurately one writes history, not how well one stems the progressive tide.

Barton doesn’t try to defend himself on the substance because he can’t. Because he knows he’s lying. And his entire response is really just an attempt to change the subject.

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  • gshelley

    Throckmorton’s original assault on my book managed to avoid its major points and instead criticize minor and even obscure facts

    I have read Throckmorton’s book, and while it is not as thorough as the work Chris Rhodda has done, to claim it avoided Barton’s major points to criticise minor and obscure facts is not so much putting a distorted spin on it, as an outright lie.

  • Ichthyic

    Markuze running loose again.

    Cleanup, isle 2.

  • I’ve noticed in my own reading of 17th and 18th c. Enlightenment writers a much greater variety of religious opinion than is covered by the usual definition of “deism.” I think a phrase like “theistic rationalism” is very much needed here–and I’ll be looking further into Frazer’s work.

  • tfkreference

    Barton: My conclusions are the important part, not the flaws in the supporting evidence.

  • Well, if you put Barton’s words in the right order, he may even be telling the truth:

    [M]y book … invokes Jefferson … [in] cultural battles … to beat back the secularist progressive movement. [F]acts … [are] relatively inconsequential.

    And I probably have done much less damage to Barton’s intent then he does to Jefferson’s.

  • jameshanley

    Hmm, the Master’s College is in my wife’s hometown. I should see if Frazer would let me buy him lunch next time I’m out there.

    I’m curious whether he gets much blowback, considering it’s a pretty evangelical religious college.

  • lancifer

    Barton is a completely dishonest shill for evangelical Christianity

    I was taken aback when I recently visited the Jefferson Memorial by the religious seeming quotes on the panels. But when I did a little research I found that they had been quote mined to make them sound more pious then they actually were.

    No doubt some “historian” like Barton was responsible for the distortions. I wonder if there is anyway that the quotes can be restored to their original meanings?

    Given the number of congressman and senators that would love to be seen as the “defenders of the true Judeo-Chrsitian heritage of Amerka” probably not.

  • lancifer

    Err, I should hit the review button more often. There should be a period after Christianity, “then” should be “than”, “anyway” should be “any way”.

    Apologies for those and any others I may have missed.

  • Michael Heath

    jameshanley writes:

    Hmm, the Master’s College is in my wife’s hometown. I should see if Frazer would let me buy him lunch next time I’m out there.

    I’m curious whether he gets much blowback, considering it’s a pretty evangelical religious college.

    I continue to follow Jon Rowe at American Creation. He’s been linking to a handful of evangelical academics who are starting to speak out about David Barton’s dishonesty. So if there is some blowback criticizing Barton, there also could be others from the same tribe who’ve had enough with Barton and the style he and others like him use. So Frazer and Throckmorton do have some inside allies.

    This is a debate conservative Christianity badly needs. However, even if they squelch historical revisionism on the founding, I have near-zero confidence they’ll consider the systemic flaw that allows such revisionism that extends well beyond American history and into denialism and revisionism on a wide array of other topics. They may contain Barton and his ilk, but they lack the courage to consider the root cause that gives rise to people like Barton and those who believe him.