Is this the beginning of the end of David Barton’s influence?
I certainly hope so. The phony history being peddled by the “Christian nation” propagandist is under increasing fire from critics – and here’s the rub: They’re all conservative Christians.
As you might recall, Barton runs a Religious Right group called WallBuilders in Aledo, Texas. His central arguments are that the United States was founded to be a Christian nation, the Constitution is based on the Bible, most of the founders were evangelical Christians and church-state separation is a myth.
Barton is not a historian. He holds a degree in Christian Education from Oral Roberts University. I’ve been debunking his sloppy work since 1993. Other critics, such as Chris Rodda (author of Liars for Jesus) have joined the fray.
But Chris and I represent the pro-separation-of-church-and-state community and are thus easily written off by Barton and his pals as “radical secularists.” The new flock of critics will not be so easy to dismiss.
Why are so many of these Christian critics speaking up now? I think it’s a simple case of Barton going too far. He recently penned a book about Thomas Jefferson titled The Jefferson Lies. In the tome, Barton argues that for most of his life, Jefferson was an orthodox Christian who really didn’t support church-state separation.
Unlike Barton’s earlier books, The Jefferson Lies was not self-published. It even appeared briefly on The New York Times bestsellers list.
This proved to be too much for some of Barton’s Christian critics, and they fired back. Among the first out of the gate were Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter of Grove City College in Pennsylvania, who penned a thorough take down of Barton titled Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President. (You can buy it as an e-book on Amazon for $4.99.)
Jon Fea, author of Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction, has also been highly critical of Barton’s work. Fea, associate professor of American History and chair of the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., can’t exactly be described as a raving secularist.
World magazine has also called out Barton. This really surprised me because it’s a pretty conservative publication that in the past has advocated for “biblical” government.
World reported that Jay W. Richards, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute (a creationist organization AU has tangled with in the past), recently asked 10 conservative Christian professors to examine Barton’s work.
“Their response was negative,” observed World. “Some examples: Glenn Moots of Northwood University wrote that Barton in The Jefferson Lies is so eager to portray Jefferson as sympathetic to Christianity that he misses or omits obvious signs that Jefferson stood outside ‘orthodox, creedal, confessional Christianity.’ A second professor, Glenn Sunshine of Central Connecticut State University, said that Barton’s characterization of Jefferson’s religious views is ‘unsupportable.’ A third, Gregg Frazer of The Master’s College, evaluated Barton’s video America’s Godly Heritage and found many of its factual claims dubious, such as a statement that 52 of the 55 delegates at the Constitutional Convention were ‘orthodox, evangelical Christians.’”
Picking up on the World piece, First Things, a publication featuring conservative Catholic thought, criticized Barton’s take on John Locke. Blogger Greg Forster charged that Barton is guilty of “numerous distortions” and “a number of incidental factual errors” about Locke.
All of this may seem like inside baseball reaching a limited audience. But what happened yesterday was decidedly not. National Public Radio struck.
Yesterday’s segment by religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Haggerty was simply devastating. Haggerty mostly lets Barton trip himself up through his own outlandish claims.
Two of my favorites: He argues that the Constitution is laced with biblical quotations and that Thomas Paine advocated teaching creationism in schools. (Paine died in 1809 – 50 years before Charles Darwin outlined the theory of evolution in On The Origin of Species.)
Haggerty also asked several of Barton’s critics to fact-check his claims. The results were posted online and can be seen here. It’s not good news for Barton.
To be sure, many fundamentalists who idolize Barton will not care about any of this. And we all know that lots of folks have a deep ability to engage in self-delusion and believe what they find comforting, heedless of the facts. Witness the ongoing popularity of “creation science.”
But with the academic attacks on Barton mounting, his support is increasingly being relegated to radio ranters like Glenn Beck and political foghorns like Newt Gingrich. One can hope that Barton will be marginalized and eventually exiled to where he has always belonged: the wilderness of the lunatic fringe.
It may be a dream, but it’s one well worth having.
Update: Thomas Nelson, the publisher of The Jefferson Lies, has just announced that it is pulling the book. More here.