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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