David Barton’s therapeutic history

This isn’t really about Thomas Jefferson

Faux historian David Barton has written a book about Thomas Jefferson that portrays the deist slave holder as a Christian patriot who espoused enlightened views on slavery and race.  But Barton’s primary aim is to expose a cynical liberal academy that lies to the American people.  This quote from the book’s blurb is typical:

America, in so many ways, has forgotten. Its roots, its purpose, its identity―all have become shrouded behind a veil of political correctness bent on twisting the nation’s founding, and its founders, to fit within a misshapen modern world.

The time has come to remember again.

Evangelical historians Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter learned about David Barton’s book from their students at Grove City College.  What they were hearing sounded strange enough to warrant a careful reading of Barton’s book. 

The history professors were horrified by what they discovered.  Virtually every claim Barton makes in Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims About Our Third President was either misleading, flawed or downright false. 

In a fascinating review of Throckmorton and Coulter’s Getting Jefferson Right, University of Colorado historian Paul Harvey congratulates the authors on an effective demolition project, but wonders if it will make any difference.  He opens with his central question:

When all the trees fall in David Barton’s historical forest and no one hears it, did they really fall? If we get history “right” but do so only by playing a game set by rigged rules, and engaging in debates with those whose projects are basically political and entrepreneurial rather than intellectual, do we feed the very beast we are trying to tame?

Harvey cites comedian Jon Stewart’s interview with Barton as exhibit A.  Stewart’s limited familiarity with the primary sources, and his good-hearted willingness to treat Barton as a credible scholar, produced an unsatisfying ping-pong match that left Stewart clearly frustrated.  Barton was like the tar baby; every punch Stewart threw at him just got the comic host of the Daily Show more deeply stuck in the muck.

According to Paul Harvey, Barton’s book isn’t really about Jefferson at all; it’s about discrediting the mainstream academy.  Barton’s The Jefferson Lies is

a perfect example of the thesis that Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson have outlined in The Anointed—the ways in which evangelical experts have created alternate intellectual universes that provide large audiences with a complete explanation of the world. In this case, Barton is the go-to historian with an explanation of America’s founding as a Christian nation and its providentialist mission in the world. There’s a pseudo-historian like that in every generation, from Parson Weems to David Barton.

Conservative Christians (and politicians like Rick Perry) read Barton because he tells them what they want to hear.  Barton is too ignorant to realize he’s getting it all wrong.  He begins with a blank slate, embraces a conclusion, and then goes rummaging through historical documents in search of bits and pieces that line up with his preconceptions.  He can ramble on all day about his amazing findings, never realizing that he has lashed together a frail raft of prooftexts adrift on an ocean of ignorance.

There is a good reason that both books mentioned in this post get only three of five stars on Amazon.com: they get fives and ones from reviewers who either love them or hate them.  If you want to believe that liberals have abandoned the very concept of truth, you will swallow Barton’s book whole.  If you are an historian, you will revel in the refutation of Barton’s “facts”. 

Which brings us back to Harvey’s question; is it even worthwhile to debunk ideas that are treasured for their therapeutic value?  Asked about the intended audience of their book debunking Barton, Throckmorton and Coulter said this:

Generally speaking, the audience is readers of Barton and promoters of his books, such as ministries, radio hosts and the conservative religious community. That audience needs to see that they are being offered a distorted and misguided presentation of Jefferson. In addition, the book will be valuable for anyone who wants to see Jefferson more clearly and evaluate historical claims more completely.

But will Barton fans read a book clearly designed to shatter their fondest illusions?  Why would they?  Unless the readers are freshman history students eager to refute the refuters on Amazon.com.

A number of excellent critiques of conservative evangelical “scholarship” have appeared recently.  Mark Knoll’s Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible and Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson’s The Anointed.  I like these books.  I read them and find them helpful. 

But it doesn’t matter what scholarly evangelicals think about their crackpot colleagues.  This isn’t about the canons of scholarship; it’s about giving the people what they want, keeping the customers satisfied, putting butts in the seats.  If a paranoid public wants to believe that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, that biological evolution is a hoax, or that Thomas Jefferson was an evangelical patriot who wanted to marry church and state, books asserting these “facts” will appear on the shelves of evangelical book stores and do a brisk business on Amazon.com. 

Currently, the alternative universe cobbled together by the religious right is the most powerful driver of American cultural and political life at the moment and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.  Informed evangelicals are embarrassed by the Alice in Wonderland quality of the American exceptionalism myth, and mainstream opinion writes off the David Bartons of this world as intellectual lightweights.  But the power of this narrative is magnified by the absence of competition.  The religious and political left hasn’t produced a compelling American narrative that inspires large masses of people and moves them to action.  The liberal narrative is essentially a critique of radical conservatism, there is no positive story.  The right is powerful because, thanks to folks like David Barton, they have a unifying story that, however flawed, works for millions of people.  This is why the right is energized while the left is dispirited.

6 thoughts on “David Barton’s therapeutic history

  1. If your last paragraph is accurate, we’re in for a long dry spell. I don’t think it is accurate. The polling I’ve seen on the subject tells me Americans are not at all enamored of the religious right.

  2. Charles: You are right about public opinion. I have edited my conclusion to clarify my position. The religious right isn’t popular; but it is unified and on message while the left is neither. AGB

  3. I’m glad you edited the last paragraph. The religious right is somewhat unified, but there are cracks in its unity. Folks who tend that way will believe the message of the right because they want to. Folks mildly right-center, left-center and left do not buy the message because it is not really credible.

  4. Again, my point isn’t that most Americans are convinced by the religious right’s American exceptionalism narrative; the point is that politics is driven by narrative, they’ve got one, and we don’t.

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