David Barton’s great embarrassment (and why it matters)

By Alan Bean

Therapeutic historian David Barton is looking for another publisher after his publisher, Thomas Nelson, decided to cancel Jefferson Lies.

Barton’s history provides therapy for conservative Americans who have been traumatized by the ugly truth about slavery, native American genocide and the religious deism and unabashed racism of our founding fathers.

It is difficult to confront the bald truth about our nation without experiencing a deep sadness.  To be sure, there is much to admire in the American experiment.  Though we have frequently teetered on the verge of fascism, we have generally been able to pull back from the brink.  Most Americans have been on the wrong side of the big moral issues most of the time, and yet we have learned from our mistakes.

By the standards of history, America is a bastion of freedom–the competition isn’t that strong.

Weighed in the balance with the kingdom of God, we don’t do so well.  Nobody does.  As a nation, we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

No one disputes this last point, and yet we want to believe that we are special, that we are better and, most importantly, that we are chosen of God.  We want to believe the Creator loves America, and not just in that generic way in which God loves all people.  God’s love for America must be special.  We must be the apple of God’s eye, the last and best hope of a world that can’t compete with American greatness.

And if that’s the kind of America you want to believe in, David Barton is your man.  Barton has suggested that his critics in the academy are driven by envy.  His books are best-sellers and theirs are not.  There is likely a grain of truth to this assertion. There isn’t much of a market for genuine historical writing.  Every year, three or four historical works garner some fleeting attention, but most historians are pleased if they can sell out an initial printing of 10,000 copies.  The truth is too tangled, tentative and often tedious for mass consumption.  Serious historians can be forgiven for envying a guy like Barton who is feted by politicians like Texas governor Rick Perry and lionized by TV personalities like Glenn Beck without having to sweat through five years of post-graduate education.

But why do Barton’s books sell so well?  Because he tells people what they desperately want to believe.  Christianity has always enjoyed a privileged status in America, but our founders never had the slightest intention of letting Jesus of Nazareth inside the corridors of power.  Barton lets you believe otherwise.

Thomas Jefferson was a learned and eloquent genius, but he owned slaves (when he didn’t have to) and he rejected orthodox Christianity.  Jefferson didn’t discuss the full range of his religious views in public, that would have been disastrous, but when you sift through his entire written legacy the truth is apparent.  That is why a novice like Barton can rifle through material Jefferson produced for public consumption and conclude that the master of Monticello was an evangelical Christian who accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Savior and Lord (just like you).

Barton wasn’t the first evangelical Christian to reinvent the third American president.  In the late 1980s my wife Nancy home schooled our daughter Lydia for an entire year.  While attending a conference for homeschoolers in Casper, Wyoming I was surprised to find a book on Jefferson.  I was a bit taken aback since the conference was organized by and for conservative evangelicals.  But a quick skim through the table of contents revealed that Jefferson had been recreated in the image of a conservative evangelical homeschooler.

David Barton wrote Jefferson Lies for a similar audience.  He knew the kind of Jefferson people wanted and that’s what he served up.  Moreover, Barton assured his readers that those horrible liberals who control the American academy know the truth about America’s evangelical roots but, knowing that Americans don’t know much about history, have been peddling intentional lies.

Is David Barton the real liar here?

I don’t think so.  If Barton had the training of a legitimate historian we could accuse him of peddling self-evident falsehoods.  You can’t understand eighteenth century deism  or the tragic history of American racism without realizing that Thomas Jefferson was an unapologetic slave owner who dismissed the supernatural elements of the Bible out of hand.

But David Barton is a self-taught dilettante not a trained scholar.  You can’t take quotes out of context if you don’t know the context you’re dealing with.  Instead, you stumble across pious pronouncements designed for popular consumption and take them at face value.   Jefferson likely believed that both orthodox Christianity and human slavery would ultimately disappear.  But he was a realist who played of the cards he had been dealt.  If most Americans were Christians he would patronize their piety; if there was money to be made off the slave trade, he would make the most of the opportunity.  To understand the man, you must reckon with the world he inhabited; and that’s what Barton does not, and probably cannot, do.

What’s the relation between criminal justice reform (the theme of this blog) and David Barton?

Simply this.  To evaluate the present we must understand the past.  That’s why I frame the story of Curtis Flowers against the backdrop of Fannie Lou Hamer and the civil rights movement in the Mississippi Delta.  That’s why I can’t talk about the Jena 6 without talking about the overwhelming support David Duke, the neo-Nazi Klansman, received from the voters of LaSalle Parish or the fact that, as late as the 1970s, Speedy Long, a congressman who evolved into the district attorney of LaSalle Parish, invited the Klan to march in full regalia at his rallies.  That’s why my book Taking out the Trash in Tulia, Texastalks about a 1998 drug sting in the context of Swisher County’s racial and economic past.

We cannot understand what is happening unless we know what happened.  More to the point, we cannot believe that we are complicit in great evil (mass incarceration and mass deportation, for instance) unless we understand that men and women just like us supported slavery, Jim Crow segregation and Japanese internment.

David Barton’s message is simple: America is great because America is good–so it was, and so it must be.  The truth reflected in this blog is just as straightforward: the sins of the fathers have been visited upon the children.  What was is what is but must not become what will be.

Barton isn’t saying that Americans always get it right, and I’m not saying we haven’t accomplished great things; but the implications of our opposing perspectives for civil rights and criminal justice are strikingly different.  Follow Barton’s lead and you will conclude that, on the whole, we have been, and continue to be, a just and fair nation.  Adopt my perspective and you realize that America has always been, and continues to be, a nation riddled with injustice and gross inequity.

David Barton and his intended audience are scared to death that a glorious heritage is being swept away on a tide of godless secularism.  As a progressive, I want to keep the tragic momentum of historical injustice from despoiling the future.

Do I worry about the loss of traditional values?  Sure I do.  Does David Barton long for a future free from overt racism?  Sure he does.  It’s just that Barton is more worried about preserving traditional virtue than about saying no to the sins of America’s fathers; the weight of my logic moves in the opposite direction.

To preserve the things that make us great we must renounce the things that make us evil.  That’s why I reject the therapeutic history of David Barton.

2 thoughts on “David Barton’s great embarrassment (and why it matters)

  1. David Barton’s historical reconstruction may make some folks feel good. I would not call it therapeutic. Is David Barton a liar? You are being kind in saying no. But he is peddling falsehoods. And while not a trained historian he has the capacity to know they are falsehoods.

  2. PS: I like Thomas Jefferson in spite of his context conditioned sins. I have a lot more trouble with Andrew Jackson and his trail of tears. But I am a Jefferson Jackson Democrat. And I think FDR was possibly the greatest president of all, possibly excepting Lincoln. I remember the sorrow of the day FDR died. I was 11 years old, and he was an icon at our house. I think we probably didn’t know about the internment of the Japanese, but Pearl Harbor would have excused that in most people’s minds. Context, context, context.

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