David Barton’s Influence

Posted on September 19, 2013 by

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Politico ran a story recently attesting to David Barton’s controversial influence within the Republican Party and the Christian community. For those who may not know, Barton is a famous figure among conservative Christians, primarily for his persistent belief that America was founded as a Christian nation.

Barton’s influence is beyond argument. He is the most prominent and popular advocate for America’s Christian foundation, and he has leveraged this popularity into political clout. Politicians vie for his blessing, and legislatures treat him as an expert witness on educational policy.

Barton’s power has not waned in the face of serious criticisms, not only from progressive academics, but from fellow Christians. Most recently, Barton’s book, The Jefferson Lies, drew fire for some outright inaccuracies. Professors Throckmorton and Coulter, from Grove City College (hardly a bastion of Ivy League progressivism), were so exorcised they published a rejoinder, Getting Jefferson Right.

The controversy heated to the point that Thomas Nelson, who published Barton’s book, pulled the title.

There is no question that America’s founding has often been interpreted for current political purposes. Progressive historians might assert that America’s founders were overtly secular and largely devoid of religious influence (see Kramnick and Moore’s The Godless Constitution as one example), and that they deliberately erected a wall of separation between church and state. The proper response to this phenomenon, however, is not to craft a politicized history from the right, like Barton’s, but to do good scholarship that articulates the truth in all its complexity. For solid, authentic work on the founding and religion, see The Founders on God and Government (edited by Dreisbach, Hall, and Morrison) or Philip Hamburger’s Separation of Church and State. What you will find, quickly, is the founding era cannot be reduced to simple labels, and that our founding fathers were complicated men who, both individually and collectively, espoused a variety of positions that were sometimes compatible with, and sometimes hostile to, Christian orthodoxy.

Countering Barton is, in some ways, self-defeating. Few, if any, academics have Barton’s pulpit. Even more trying, people have a fundamental difficulty when they are presented with facts that challenge their longstanding commitments, especially when those commitments are connected to perceptions of religion and patriotism. People yearn for the past to fit snugly into their conception of the present and to verify their own political preferences. History is difficult and messy. Politics, all too often, pushes history into soundbites for marketing purposes. We should resist this simplification as academics and as Christians.

As believers, we must articulate the truth even when it does not advance our ideals, for only that will buttress, and not undermine, our witness. The goal is not to seek relevance, either by refusing to challenge mainstream academia or by simply affirming conventional academic wisdom with a shiny coat of ‘Christian’ paint. Neither should we strive to indoctrinate through simplicity for political purposes. Our goal should be to search earnestly for the truth and to enshrine that commitment as a key value for Christian academics. Only then will we be perceived as honest brokers. Of course, there are consequences for such honesty, but we should bear those gladly.

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