Today David Barton, the GOP activist who uses the American past to promote his political agenda, appeared on the Eric Metaxas Show. Thanks again to Warren Throckmorton for providing an audio clip of the part of their conversation related to Metaxas’s book If You Can Keep It.
As some of you know, I have been critical of Metaxas’s book. I have also been critical of the work of David Barton.
This is what Metaxas and Barton had to say today:
Metaxas: David, one thing I have to say that I have in common with you other than writing about American history and God’s role in it, and the role of Christians and faith and virtue, is that I have been outrageously attacked…I was thinking of you because, man, you took it on the chin. There are some people that are just… My thesis is that they are annoyed by our conclusions so they kind of nitpick and they find one little thing. If there’s something that’s in my book that’s wrong I want to change it, I don’t want it to be there. But they kind of jump on that and they write a whole essay on the thing that is wrong.
Barton: Or they take it out of context too. Not only will they nitpick, but they never tell the reader to go read the book and look at the context. That’s what these guys notoriously do. We’ll have a thirty minute broadcast and they will take a seven-second clip out of it and say “look what you said.” Well, listen for thirty minutes [and] it’s a whole different thing.
Metaxas: It is extraordinary I have to say. And I feel like because you’ve been through it I take it as a point of pride, you know. Because I thought to myself “I know what I’m writing is true.” You know, a number of people were criticizing me for interpreting John Winthrop on the Arbella when he preached this sermon about that we’re a city on a hill, and that whole thing. It’s real clear to me, it underscores my larger thesis, that America has always been a nation for others–that we want to be a shining beacon of liberty and truth and the gospel. That’s been who we are and a number of folks have said that I totally take that out of context, it meant something else. And I thought to myself, that is simply wrong. You can “quibble”–that would be the verb–you can quibble with what I’m saying, but really you cannot say that what I am saying is wrong, and I am sure it’s not wrong.
Barton: Well, in my case, we actually have the original documents. Give me a break. But they say “yeah, but we got all these Ph.Ds who say you’re wrong. Well, that’s alright–I’ve got the original documents. But they don’t go there. The same with your. They’re going to criticize your through academic channels because they don’t like your conclusions.
Metaxas: It’s so funny. It’s so funny. It’s a lot of angry quibbling. I take it as a point of pride because I’m called by God to do what I am doing. It doesn’t mean that God is always on my side, but it does mean that I care about my country, I love my country. It goes way beyond this country. If you care about the world you need to care about America. God has a point to this country as a beacon to the whole world, a share our liberties. So it really is something I consider important. Your work has been foundational. I want to thank you for the tremendous work you have done.
Listen to the exchange here.
Just a few quick points:
- Metaxas’s view of Winthrop’s use of the phrase “city on a hill” IS taken out of context. I encourage you to take David Barton’s advice and read the original source– “A Modell on Christian Charity.” You should also read Hillsdale College professor David Gamble’s In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth. And don’t forget the post by Tracy McKenzie, chair of the history department at evangelical Wheaton College.
- I am sure I have addressed this before, but it needs to be said again. For years Barton has been telling the ordinary evangelicals who follow him that he is right about American history because he owns a lot of documents. He claims that he reads the original documents and suggests that professional historians do not. This is a completely absurd claim. ALL professional historians read and interpret primary sources. This is what we do. Doing history–especially the history of political ideas– has very little to do with whether or not someone one can hold an original document in their hands. For example, if Barton had a copy of the Declaration of Independence would he be in a better position to interpret the ideas in the document than someone who was merely reading the Declaration of Independence online or in a textbook? I have never been to Wallbuilders or seen David Barton’s collection of documents, but I am pretty certain that most of the documents he possesses are easily accessible for historians in online and print collections. Unless one is writing a history about these books, letter, and manuscrpts as physical objects or pieces of material culture (which is not how Barton uses the documents–he peddles in ideas), the fact that Barton owns these documents and can actually them does not make his interpretations of history any more right or wrong.
- I will admit that many websites do take Barton’s words, especially when he is on the radio, out of context. But the best and most thorough critiques of his work do not.
- Metaxas claims that he is called by God to write such flawed history. He thus sees the criticism of his work as a “point of pride.” As an evangelical Christian who also believes he has a calling, I find this sort of “blessed are the persecuted” mentality to be offensive.