The hits just keep on coming. Paul Harvey offers his take on the sudden rise of David Barton. Here is a taste:
I don’t question the necessity of pointing out Barton’s history of outright falsehoods, explaining the fallacies of his presentism (as in using a 1765 sermon or a 1792 congressional vote to show that the original intent of the founders was to oppose bailout and stimulus plans), and introducing to non-experts the abundant evidence calling his historical worldview of the Christian Founders into question. Yet while these kinds of refutations are necessary, they are not sufficient. That’s because Barton’s project is not fundamentally an historical one.
That’s why historians’ takedown of his ahistorical approach ultimately won’t matter that much. Nor will historians’ explanations of his presentism, and his obvious and unapologetic ideological agenda (albeit considerably muted for his appearance on The Daily Show). While all the historians’ refutations are good and necessary, ultimately they won’t matter for the audience which exists in his alternate intellectual universe, one described in much greater detail in my colleague Randall Stephens’ forthcoming book The Anointed: Evangelical Experts in a Secular Age.
Read the entire post here, but allow me to quote Harvey’s conclusion:
The Christian Nation “debate” is not really an intellectual contest between legitimate contending viewpoints. Instead, it is a manufactured “controversy” akin to the global warming “debate.” On the one side are purveyors of a rich and complex view of the past, including most historians who have written and debated fiercely about the founding era. On the “other side” is a group of ideological entrepreneurs who have created an alternate intellectual universe based on a historical fundamentalism. In their drive to create a usable past, they show little respect for the past as a foreign country.
I largely agree with Harvey. Sometimes I wonder if I am spinning my wheels by doing this series on Barton’s appearance on The Daily Show and spending so much time countering his views. I get nice e-mails from fellow scholars thanking me for doing this, but I can’t help but wonder if they are really thinking that I am wasting my time. Maybe I should let Was America Founded as a Christian Nation cut its own path and just move on to other projects. (Any advice on this front would be much appreciated).
But I think what prevents me from doing so is the fact that there are many people out there–mostly evangelical Christians–who embrace Barton’s ideas because they are unaware that any other Christian position on this Christian nation debate exists. I have seen this first hand as I have traveled to churches and taught Sunday School classes. There are a lot of people who can’t imagine that a fellow evangelical could disagree with Barton. When evangelicals learn that such a position exists some of them are open to change. They begin to think about the relationship between Christianity and nationalism in a more nuanced way. I have seen it happen. I will admit that this does not happen often, but it does happen.
Maybe I should write a memoir. Something like: “On the Road with Christian America.” Similar to Richard Bushman’s excellent On the Road with Joseph Smith. I have been keeping a diary related to my speaking engagements and radio interviews. Perhaps there is a publisher out there who might be interested in this because my experience thus far, while largely anecdotal in nature, has taught me a lot about the views of “Christian America.” I also have some good stories.
In the end, Harvey is right. The battle over whether or not the United States was founded as a Christian nation is not a contest between two “legitimately contending viewpoints.” But at what point does the public historian make an effort to engage the “alternative intellectual universe” of the David Barton’s of the world? More books by major university presses on this issue is not going to change things. (Don’t get me wrong, I am supportive of publishing works of scholarship with university presses. I am just saying that they will not necessarily work to change minds on this issue). These books will continue to preach to the choir and provide more fodder for Christian nationalists like Barton.
So I keep tilting at windmills. At least for now.
John, I think your book and your several speaking engagements that put you face to face with the Christian public to discuss these issues are exactly the sort of things needed. Keep up the good work.
Maybe I should write a memoir. Something like: “On the Road with Christian America.” Similar to Richard Bushman's excellent On the Road with Joseph Smith. I have been keeping a diary related to my speaking engagements and radio interviews. Perhaps there is a publisher out there who might be interested in this because my experience thus far, while largely anecdotal in nature, has taught me a lot about the views of “Christian America.” I also have some good stories.
That would be a fascinating read. I'd buy and read a copy. Also, I'd be very interested in your thoughts on Bushman's book sometime.
Like I said, you are a saint.
A book aimed at Barton's audience, written by a historian who also has impeccable evangelical credentials and a good ear for when and how to sound suitably Jesus-y on the page might possibly change someone's mind who has a mind to change. (The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there isn't one, etc.)
But at what cost? It's not worth forfeiting good history in order to fight bad theology.
So maybe a memoir could work, but a history aimed at Barton's audience would have to appeal to Barton's audience. And if it did that successfully it wouldn't be history; it would be a Sunday school lesson.
I should have made clear in my previous comment that a book about a historian addressing Sunday school classes wouldn't be a Sunday school lesson. It would be very meta, which makes it very interesting to a reader like me. And, I suspect, it would be interesting to readers who identify with the adult-evangelical-Sunday-school-going population.
Chris Beneke says
I'm with Christopher. I think you're doing great work, John. Exactly the work that needs to be done, in fact.
Those of us who teach and preach Holy Scripture each week know all about giving another view to those in the pews from what they've heard about, say, eschatology. Or how the Bible came to be. There is more to eschatology than Tim LaHaye and more to how the Bible came to be than what some TV preacher has said. I've seen the shock on the faces of people when I've told them LaHaye, et al is not part of the historical stream of Christian theology.
So, keep on keeping on. I still say you're going to get a star in your crown for reading anything Barton writes or listening to what he says. He gives this history buff a headache.
Tim Lacy says
I'll join the chorus of “keep it up!”
John, as chair of the history department at a Christian college, you are uniquely positioned to issue challenges involving the misuse of history by Christians, particularly of the Evangelical stripe. That position is buttressed by your specific work (the new book).
Also, don't underestimate the power of your colleagues (e.g. me) who don't study this issue daily to lean on your work and represent it to others—leavening the academy, if you will. – TL
John Fea says
Thanks for the encouragement to keep moving forward!