July/August 2012 Church & State | People & Events

Two scholars at a conservative Christian college in Pennsylvania have just issued a new book that exposes the numerous errors and misconceptions put forth by “Christian nation” advocate David Barton.

Barton, a Texas-based historical revisionist popular with the Religious Right, recently wrote a new book titled The Jefferson Lies. In the tome, Barton attempts to prove that Thomas Jefferson was a conservative Christian who didn’t really support church-state separation.

The Barton book is riddled with errors and distorts the historical record, say Warren Throckmorton, a psychology professor, and Michael Coulter, a humanities and political science professor, at Grove City College.

Throckmorton and Coulter’s book Getting Jefferson Right: Fact-Checking Claims About Our Third President, was issued in e-book form and as a download in May through the website gettingjeffersonright.com.

Throckmorton and Coulter examine several Barton claims and find them wanting. They give the real story, usually backing up their claims with words from Jefferson’s own writings.

Examples include:

• Barton says Jefferson helped found the Virginia Bible Society. In fact, 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, telling friends he opposed meddling in the religions of other countries.

• Barton asserts that Jefferson added the phrase “In the Year of Our Lord Christ” to official government documents. This is false. 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 claims that while Jefferson was a state legislator in Virginia, he proposed a bill that would have punished anyone who worked on Sunday. In reality, 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.

In the book, Throckmorton and Coulter say they undertook the project in part due to their religious beliefs.

“The duty of Christians as scholars,” the professors write, “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.”

AU Senior Policy Analyst Rob Boston, who has been debunking Barton’s claims since 1993, says the book is long overdue.

Writing on AU’s “Wall of Separation” blog, Boston observed, “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.”