Last month I wrote about Religious Right pseudo-historian David Barton’s new book The Jefferson Lies, which attempts to prove that Thomas Jefferson was an orthodox Christian and not really a strong advocate of church-state separation.
Reading that thing just about drove me bonkers. Barton wrenches material from context, tells half of the story and sometimes just makes things up. It’s an appalling example of what I call “historical creationism.”
I’ve been debunking Barton’s revisionist history since 1993 – and pointing out repeatedly that the man is not a qualified historian. He has a bachelor’s degree in Christian Education from Oral Roberts University.
But to be honest, I’ve felt a bit hamstrung myself because I’m not an academic either. Neither is another prominent Barton critic, Chris Rodda of Liars for Jesus. Chris does great work, but it’s just too easy for some to dismiss her research (and mine) because it doesn’t come from the academy.
Now the academy has spoken – and Barton is not going to like what it has to say. Two Grove City College professors holding doctorates have just released Getting Jefferson Right: Fact-Checking Claims About Our Third President.
Authors Warren Throckmorton, a psychology professor, and Michael Coulter, a humanities and political science professor, are both conservative Christians. (Grove City is a private Christian institution where, according to its website, the “ethical absolutes of the Ten Commandments and Christ’s moral teachings guide the effort to develop intellect and character in the classroom, chapel, and cocurricular activities.”)
I started the book last night after dinner and couldn’t put it down. To be blunt, it’s a hammer. Throckmorton and Coulter look at numerous pieces of disinformation spread by Barton and give the real story, usually backing up their claims with words from Jefferson’s own writings.
Here are three examples:
* Barton says Jefferson helped found the Virginia Bible Society. Did he? Nope. Jefferson made a one-time contribution to the Society because a business associate asked him to. In reality, Jefferson wasn’t too keen on Bible societies, criticizing them in letters to friends for meddling in the religions of other countries.
* Barton says Jefferson added the phrase “In the Year of Our Lord Christ” to official government documents. Did he? No. The documents referred to were called “sea letters,” a type of passport that enabled ships to move between nations. By the terms of a Treaty with Holland ratified in 1782, Jefferson was obligated to use language on pre-printed forms provided by that nation. Officials in Holland added the “Lord Christ” language.
* Barton says that while Jefferson was a state legislator in Virginia, he proposed a bill that would have punished anyone who worked on Sunday. Did he do this? He did not. Jefferson was part of a committee charged with the task of revising Virginia’s law after the Revolution. Rather than start from scratch, the committee took 126 existing laws and revised some of them. The committee’s work actually liberalized the Sabbath law. They added a huge loophole allowing work done “in the ordinary household offices of daily necessity, or other work of necessity or charity.” The law Barton sees as favoring Christianity actually liberalized a provision that had been much more stringent.
There is much, much more in this book. It’s first-rate scholarship.
So why did Throckmorton and Coulter write it? Their answer is remarkably refreshing: “The duty of Christians as scholars is first to get the facts correct…. Engaging in scholarship as a Christian is not about who is on our team; it should have as an aim of uncovering the facts about a subject, whether it is a historical figure or a theory of social science, and following the data where they lead.”
See more on Throckmorton and Coulter’s website. You can learn there how to download the book, which is a bargain at $4.99. For the price of a cup of fancy coffee at Starbucks, you can get a book that utterly demolishes Barton/Religious Right “scholarship.” (And if you don’t believe Barton has influence, check out his recent appearance on “The Daily Show.” I was really annoyed that Jon Stewart never laid a glove on him. Throckmorton and Coulter should be invited on to set things right.)
If Barton has any shame, he would disappear in the wake of Throckmorton and Coulter’s book. He won’t do that, of course, and millions of right-wing fundamentalists will continue to believe his version of “history” over the real thing.
But thanks to Getting Jefferson Right, the truth will be out there for anyone who takes the time to look for it.