“Christian nation” pseudo-historian David Barton is on the defensive. It’s a place I’ve wanted to see him for a long time.
If you’re just joining us, Barton is a Texas Religious Right activist who makes his living peddling a revisionist history of America designed to prove that the country was founded to be a Christian nation.
I’ve been writing about Barton and his group WallBuilders since 1993. I’ve pointed out that Barton, who is not a historian (he holds a degree in Christian education from Oral Roberts University), is just a far-right political activist who twists history to suit his partisan ends. Barton is to history what creationists are to biology.
Recently, Barton went too far. He published a book called The Jefferson Lies that asserts that Thomas Jefferson was really an orthodox Christian most of his life and that he didn’t advocate strict church-state separation.
Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter, two professors at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, debunked Barton’s new tome in their e-book Getting Jefferson Right. At first, Barton tried to ignore the book and even told his radio audience that he didn’t intend to read it.
Barton has apparently had a change of heart because he has issued a rebuttal to the book – kind of. Much of the rebuttal is just an ad hominem attack on Throckmorton, Coulter and other scholars who have criticized Barton’s work. For example, Barton accuses his critics of being “academic elitists” – a curious charge to level against two guys who issued their book in an electronic format for $4.99. (You can read Throckmorton's reply to Barton here.)
Barton then attempts to establish his credentials by noting that he has been summoned as an expert by some state education officials. But this is irrelevant. The fact that some ultra-conservative politicians brought Barton in to promote a political agenda during textbook disputes does not give him any credibility. Barton seems to believe that because some people are foolish enough to believe the lies he peddles, that makes him a historian. Please.
But I was most amused by these passages by Barton: “[P]eople are willing to pay good money to learn the simple, uncomplicated history that used to be taught in school” and the academics’ “real objection is that I make history uncomplicated, and thus make them irrelevant.”
I almost fell out of my chair with laughter. I read a lot of history, and the last thing it is is uncomplicated. The complications are what make history so fascinating. Uncomplicated history isn’t worth reading.
Look, the founders weren’t demigods. They were human beings with the same flaws and moral imperfections that afflict us today. Yes, they did great things – but sometimes they missed the mark. Yet they still managed to forge a nation that has survived more than 220 years. That’s a story – warts and all – that’s worth telling.
Barton does not want to tell that story. What Barton calls “simple and uncomplicated” history is really just the “rah, rah/America first/we’ve never done anything wrong because God is on our side” claptrap that turns people away from history in droves. His “simple and uncomplicated” history is a fairy tale for adults designed to help them sleep well at night. Those of us with a conscience -- or even some simple curiosity – would rather hear the real story and spend an occasional sleepless night grappling with the moral implications of living in a great country that has sometimes done bad things.
And if you think this is just some airy squabble between a handful of academics and a wannabee historian in Texas, think again. This matters.
Barton’s “history” was written for political ends. It was written to motivate people to vote and behave in the way Barton and his Religious Right allies want them to vote and behave. It was written to motivate theocrats to “take back” a country they never owned in order to recapture a great “Christian nation” heritage that never actually existed. It was written to provide a justification to the people who seek to take away your rights. (Interesting fact: Barton argues that the First Amendment protects only monotheists.)
This is history pressed into the service of right-wing politics. It is history bent and twisted to serve an ideology. It is history with a political agenda.
Scholars, many of them Christians, are now seeing Barton for the threat that he is and are standing up to him. (Throckmorton and Coulter are hardly the only ones. John Fea, author of Was America Founded As a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction, is also on the case.)
Barton knows that he’s intellectually outgunned by these real scholars, so he’s lashing out at them with all of the name-calling and straw-man arguments that have marked his work over the years.
That’s the real story – simple and uncomplicated.