Earlier this fall, Politico’s Stephanie Simon chronicled the amazing rehabilitation of faux-historian David Barton.
Last year, Barton’s reputation was in free fall after seventy evangelical historians criticized the blatant inaccuracies in Barton’s The Jefferson Lies. These scholars weren’t upset that Barton interpreted American history from a conservative perspective–most of them do the same. They were troubled, nay outraged, because Barton was peddling falsehood on a grand scale.
When Barton’s publisher, Thomas Nelson, pulled the book in response to a chorus of hostile reviews, many assumed that Barton was finished as an evangelical icon.
Not a bit of it. By October of this year, Glenn Beck was encouraging Barton to run against Republican John Cornyn and Ted Cruz was inviting the evangelical “historian” to appear with him at political rallies.
If the criticism hurt Barton it doesn’t show. In fact, suffering for righteousness’ sake was a disguised blessing.
There is nothing wrong with writing history from a particular point of view. Every historian is biased in one way or another. The late Howard Zinn made no pretense of being objective. He was writing history for the people who had traditionally been left out of the history books. If white people were the heroes of the American story up until 1960; Zinn was determined to make them the villains (an easy feat, it turned out).
Some have suggested that David Barton is a credible historian who writes history with a conservative bias–a little Barton ying to Zinn’s yang. But that’s not the problem. Zinn didn’t make up false facts; his bias was a matter of emphasis and selective oversight. Barton, on the other hand, shamelessly creates an America that never was, but should have been. That’s why so many conservative evangelical historians are so upset by his flawed research; he makes them look bad.
In a Patheos article, Warren Throckmorton, the Grove City College professor who has emerged as Barton’s critic-in-chief, expresses his amazement at the Barton rebound.
Doesn’t it matter that much of Mr. Barton’s “historical research” has been deemed to be off the mark? Mr. Cruz, aren’t you concerned in the least that these millions are now seriously misinformed? The same questions can be posed to Christian right organizations which use Barton’s work even though they know it is off the mark.
Throckmorton thinks Barton has survived because his message is “politically useful”. I think “therapeutic” is a better word. Barton is popular for the same reason that R. Albert Mohler is popular; he tells fearful, insecure Christians what they are dying to hear.
The academic world has not been kind to the fundamentalist strain of Christianity. It is now taken for granted that the world has existed for billions of years, that the theory of evolution effectively explains the emergence of a vast array of life forms, and that the scientists can explain the world quite nicely without positing a Creator.
Historians have also rocked the evangelical boat. You can’t write credible history these days without confronting inconvenient facts like chattel slavery, Jim Crow oppression and the holocaust of the Native American peoples. Y0u can argue that some of the folks in Africa owned slaves, or that the American natives could be ruthless and cruel. But they didn’t have the power needed to shape the American story. White folks were free to be as nasty as we wanted to be, and we made the most of the opportunity.
Kids from conservative evangelical families can’t attend humanities classes at state universities without having their fundamental narrative challenged at every turn. You can be a patriot and a Christian after four years of humanities classes, but not without a long series of alterations and adjustments to your belief system.
Al Mohler and David Barton assure the faithful that adjustments and adaptations are unnecessary. In fact, they constitute sin. Serious, damnable sin. The world must be just the way the Bible describes it or Jesus is a farce. America must be the culmination of human cultural evolution because Christians were in charge from beginning to end. Remove the hand of God from the American story and we’re must a more populous version of Canada.
That doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t feel good, at all.
Al Mohler writes therapeutic theology. David Barton writes therapeutic history.
American evangelicals like being blessed and virtuous and superior in every way. Say these things at a conservative political or religious event (it can be hard to tell the difference sometimes) and you will receive howls of ascent. Imagine standing in front of a crowd of several thousand people who leap to their feet in acclamation every time you open your mouth. You just have to say a few magic words. It feels good. It feels really, really good.
Moreover, therapeutic narratives generate real cash. Not the kind of money Hollywood churns out, but real coin. In fact, Hollywood is all about providing therapeutic narratives–just to a slightly different audience.
The entire entertainment industry (if you will allow me to state the obvious) works on the same principle. Miley Cyrus has a fine set of pipes, but then, so do thousands of other young women. To set herself apart from the crowd, Miley had to do something outrageous. And if that something sparked a tsunami of denunciation, so much the better. Miley’s sales went through the roof. The twerking was working.
The same principle applies to Al and David. If you insist that, all evidence to the contrary, the earth is 6,000 years old, critics will question your sanity. If you say Thomas Jefferson was a theological conservative who opposed church-state separation, sophisticates will rage in perplexity. But who cares, if your stock in the evangelical world is rising. If Ted Cruz is on the phone, you must be doing something right. The twerking is working!