Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: Barton history isn’t credible
Ryan Summerlin September 30, 2012
David Barton, the historian Republicans admire the most, spins dubious claims about our nation’s founding. He sells historical fiction through Texas-based Wall Builders.
Barton’s right-wing website describes itself as a “pro-family organization that presents America’s forgotten history and heroes with an emphasis on our moral, religious and constitutional history.”
Barton attended Oral Roberts University but wasn’t trained there as a historian. He wrongly asserts the founding fathers were mostly “orthodox evangelical” believers who regarded our nation’s origins as Christian. To make such a faulty theory work, Barton rejects Jefferson’s separation of church and state and remakes the Sage of Monticello into an evangelical Christian.
This is the same Jefferson who Gordon Wood, the pre-eminent U.S. historian, accurately describes.
“It’s easy to believe in separation of church and state,” Wood writes, “when one has nothing but scorn for all organized religion. That was the position of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s hatred of clergy and established churches knew no bounds. He thought that members of the ‘priest craft’ (clergy) were always in alliance with despots against liberty. For him, the divine Trinity “was nothing but ‘abracadabra’ and ‘hocus-pocus’ … Ridicule, he said, was the only weapon to be used against it.”
Last April, Christian publisher Thomas Nelson released Barton’s pseudo-intellectual biography, “The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed about Thomas Jefferson.” This book is crammed with factual inaccuracies.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts.” Barton treats his errant opinions regarding Jefferson as God-given facts.
Some evangelical scholars have written rebuttals, exposing Barton’s wrong-headed conjectures about Jefferson. Negative reaction to his book has grown. Historians who question Barton’s veracity label his shoddy scholarship as “Barton’s Lies.”
If Barton’s historical script holds true, then slavery is less significant, lest evangelical Christian founding fathers get a bad name. Barton overlooks that Jefferson owned 140-200 slaves to run the four land parcels forming his plantation.
If Barton can fashion history to his liking by forgiving the founders of slave-holding, then his major contention of our nation’s divine origins gains credence. He blames strict Virginia law rather than Jefferson for slavery.
Such false claims angered Cincinnati-based African-American and caucasian pastors who threatened to boycott Thomas Nelson publishers. In response, editors pulled Barton’s book from stores because his questionable scholarship was “not adequately supported.”
Barton’s downfall leads us to question whether Republicans credibly read American history. They fall in line with Mitt Romney’s pollster Neil Newhouse, who declared: “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.”
Mike Huckabee, Baptist pastor and Republican presidential wannabe in 2008, gushed over Barton, introducing him at a 2011 “Rediscovering God in America” conference. “I almost wish,” he declared, “that there would be something like a simultaneous telecast and all Americans would be forced – forced at gunpoint, no less – to listen to every David Barton message. And I think our country would be better for it.”
What a grisly picture! A firing squad lines up citizens against an execution wall and pumps them with Barton’s historical inaccuracies.
In 2010, Glenn Beck, deposed talk show host on Fox News, matched Huckabee’s hype, calling Barton “the most important man in America right now.” Barton served as point man for rallying clergy to right-wing causes in George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign.
Even Newt Gingrich, a former university historian who knows better, assured the nation that what Barton does is “wonderful” and “most useful.”
Lutheran retired professor Martin E. Marty, dean of American historians who taught at the University of Chicago Divinity School, asks, “Does any of this matter?”
“One, basic honesty is at issue,” writes Marty. “Do American religionists need to invent such stories (as Barton does) in order to prevail? Two, what if they did prevail? Most of the founders thought that religion was most honest and compelling when its leaders and gatherings did not depend upon lies about the state.”
Using godly references, Barton wraps historical lies in the American flag. Does this make them OK?
“Whatever is true …,” teach the scriptures, “think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).
If the Republican Party continues to support Barton’s phony interpretation of our nation’s origins, they make more murky anti-intellectual history.
Stupidity in things of the past is no virtue. It’s a vice right-wing politics uses to prop up historical lies. Then the Republican Party jumps off a cliff into the abyss of fractured facts that leaves our nation’s historical memory in shambles.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.