Erik Eckholm has written an informative piece on the powerful role that David Barton is playing in Republican politics these days.
The piece quotes Derek Davis of Baylor University who says that “the problem with David Barton is that there’s a lot of truth in what he says.” I agree. He is calling our attention to the fact that many of the founding fathers thought religion was important to the republic and that Americans have long understood themselves as being part of a Christian nation. I make similar arguments in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.
The problem is that many evangelical Christians think that Barton is doing history. He is not. He is in the political propaganda business. (When a historian is the vice-chair of the Texas Republican Party, a red flag goes up for all historians who worry that their craft is degenerating into propaganda). He is not interested in promoting the past in all its fullness and he has made some assumptions about the relationship between the past and present that are suspect at best.
For example, I challenge you to go to Wallbuilders website and find much of anything about the fact that the many of the most important founding fathers rejected orthodox Christian doctrines such as the Trinity and the resurrection of Jesus. Good luck finding any sustained discussion about Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s successful attempt to separate church and state in colonial Virginia or the fact that their efforts were supported by evangelical Baptists with a theology similar to Barton’s. These facts of history do not help Barton promote his ideological agenda, so why bother with them?
Moreover, Barton’s claims that the removal of prayer in public schools has resulted in lower SAT scores, more crime, and unwed births do not hold up to logic. One could explain these social ills by appealing to dozens of reasons that are probably more plausible than the removal of prayer from schools.
Barton now has the ear of folks like Huckabee, Gingrich, and Bachmann–all potential GOP presidential candidates in 2012. (It is ironic that Michelle Bachmann’s son attends (or did attend) Wheaton College, a school with a history department that has historically been on the front lines of opposing the Christian nationalism of writers like Barton. I wonder if her son is a history major? That would make for some good dinner conversation). Barton is not going away any time soon.
Here is a taste of the Times article:
It is hard to know when Mr. Barton finds the time to pore over documents and write, let alone ride the horses he keeps on a small ranch. Beyond his hundreds of speeches, he tapes a daily radio program, manages a staff of 25 and keeps in touch with his national network.
“He doesn’t sleep much,” said his wife, Cheryl, who stayed near through an interview and helped him recall key dates in his improbable career.
Mr. Barton burst onto the conservative scene in 1988, when he published a study that blamed a decline in SAT scores and other social ills, like violent crime and unwed births, on the Supreme Court decisions in 1962 and 1963 that banned prayer in public schools.
Mr. Barton had gathered data on nights and weekends while teaching math and science and managing the Christian school he founded here in association with the evangelical church his father established.
Scholars derided his report as a classic confusion of correlation and causation. But Mr. Barton still thinks otherwise. “The nation walked away from God,” he said, and the consequences came swiftly.
In 1988, the message found ready ears. Mr. Barton set out in a Ford van with Cheryl and their three small children, giving 72 speeches in 52 days — a pace that has never flagged.
He also dived into politics, serving as vice chairman of the Texas Republican Party from 1997 to 2006. In 2004, he was hired by the Republican National Committee to mobilize Christians for George W. Bush.
Barton is Jon Stewart's guest on The Daily Show tonight.
John Fea says
Thanks for the tip, LD. I caught most of the interview.
No prob. I just gave you a plug on my blog, too, for being a freakin' saint. If I went out week after week to talk to people who are fed a steady diet of this Christian nationalist crap, I would pitch a fit and fall in sideways.
Clearly, I am going to have to work on this, since David Barton's pernicious programming is being peddled in K-12 systems across the country. My future students, Christian nationalists. Fabulous.
Barbara Bachmann's son attends Wheaton College
Do you mean Michelle Bachmann, John? If so, I imagine there's already some tension between mother and son given that Harrison (the son, if it is indeed the same son) is currently working for Teach For America, a group Bachmann railed against as part of dangerous “re-education camps.”
John Fea says
Yes, I did mean Michelle Bachmann.
Not much an of an article, in my opinion. For example: “But many professional historians dismiss Mr. Barton, whose academic degree is in Christian education from Oral Roberts University, as a biased amateur who cherry-picks quotes from history and the Bible.” As if the main reason historians don't take him seriously is that he went to Oral Roberts?
Tom Van Dyke says
For the record, on the unitarian controversy, and more, since I already wrote this up for the Religion and American History blog:
If “we” are indeed having a discussion on Barton, let me say that I acknowledge I'm defending a guilty man.
I'm just asking for the pillory instead of the gallows, the latter being what most of his critics want.
[Many of his critics aren't proper historians either, and have their own measure of errors. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? In the least, Barton's critics should not be used as source material. Misrepresentations are rife, and the man's guilty enough already.]
For the record, I've heard Barton explicitly acknowledge that Ben Franklin was no orthodox Christian.
Now it's true that Barton elides the unitarian controversy religiously [!]. However, it has yet to be shown that unitarianism had much of an impact on the American founding theology. For instance, Samuel Adams was a devout Calvinist, his cousin John a unitarian, yet they were peas in the revolutionary pod.
Further, John's unitarianism only comes out after he leaves public life. His thxgiving proclamation of 1798 lists “the Father of Mercies,” “the Redeemer of the World,” and “His Holy Spirit.”
This surely was plenty Trinitarian enough for the unsuspicious reader. Adams the public man “passed” for a Trinitarian.
I'd further submit that normative doctrine isn't the only measure of “Christianity.” The “unitarian Christians” of the Founding era still acknowledged Jesus as Messiah, and the Bible as Holy Writ. Since I have no skin in the evangelical game, I would not insult a modern Stone-Campbell Protestant who is “soft” on the Trinity by the appellation “non-Christian.”
And from what I gather about modern “Meliorists”
they hold the Bible as less literally the Word of God than many of the “unitarian Christians” of the Founding era.
Can the historian call such folks “non-Christian?” What grounding does “the historian” have in theology? [For many, no grounding atall; the theological issues pass by uncomprehended.] By what scholarly authority does “the historian” decide who/what is Christian and who/what is not?
None of this is to excuse David Barton's errors. Neither does he seem to have the necessary chops to defend himself along these lines, where at least he could make a go of it with his secular critics.
But he is not bound to respect the round hole they have prepared for him, drawing a distinction between the sacred and the secular. Stipulated, he is a square peg, and stipulated further that he's not always on the square.
The ironic thing about the Inquisition[s] was that the accused's lawyer was supplied by the Church, so that those guilty of heresy or error were found guilty of only their actual heresies and errors, no more or less. I reckon that's where I'm coming from here, watching the watchers.