Vail Daily column: Skewed U.S. history cons conservatives
Up-close, surface cracks mar Thomas Jefferson’s Mount Rushmore profile. Workmen in roped harnesses rappel down stony presidential faces to patch fissures in weather-beaten granite.
Tourists buy touched-up photos of Mount Rushmore’s presidents. They like ideal depictions of our national heroes, featuring unblemished stony complexions.
Like visitors to Mount Rushmore, so-called historian David Barton has written an airbrushed biography of Jefferson. Conservatives give it unqualified approval. Rightwing readers of U.S. colonial history who accept as credible Barton’s peculiar history are gullible. These folks demand an edited AP history curriculum. They read about the past through lens of American exceptionalism that’s driven by free-market enterprise.
Barton founded Texas-based WallBuilders after getting an education degree from Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Mostly self-taught, he lacks formal academic training in U.S. history.
He serves as WallBuilders president and lead teacher. Its website describes this center as a “pro-family organization that presents America’s forgotten history and heroes, with an emphasis on our moral, religious and constitutional heritage.”
In 2005, Time magazine hailed Barton as one of America’s “25 most influential Evangelicals” because his “books and videotapes can be found in churches all over the U.S.”
Evangelical scholars who teach colonial history censored him in 2012 because of his slanted biography “The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed about Thomas Jefferson.” Christian reviewers rejected its skewed history, slovenly researched. This book brought shame to Christian publisher Thomas Nelson, which confessed it contained “some historical details … not adequately supported.” Editors pulled Barton’s false tale off the shelves, but conservatives still swear by it as the most-accurate Jefferson biography in print.
I went head-to-head with Barton in the mid-1990s when the Christian Coalition’s Texas business executives invited us to headline a program in the Vail Valley’s Chapel at Beaver Creek. Portraying Jefferson in period costume, I shared the president’s religious convictions that born-againers direly needed to accept but didn’t want to hear.
Jefferson lauded Jesus’ ethical teachings as reliable. They ranked as “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals,” he declared. Jefferson blasted evangelicals in his day, particularly Presbyterians from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), for erecting beliefs on tottering “artificial scaffolding.”
What were these beliefs that Jefferson dismissed as silly superstition? He retained trust in Jesus’ morality but rejected dogma of the Trinity, Christ’s divinity, the Virgin Birth and miracles that defied natural laws.
Gordon Wood, dean of U.S. colonial historians, sums up Jefferson’s anti-evangelical message. “It’s easy to believe in the separation of church and state when one has nothing but scorn for organized religion,” writes Wood. “That was the position of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s hatred of the clergy and established churches knew no bounds. He thought that members of the ‘priestcraft’ were always in alliance with despots against liberty. For him, the divine Trinity was nothing but ‘Abracadabra’ and ‘holy-pocus’ … Ridicule was the only weapon to be used against it,” he said.
Barton contrived a bogus Jefferson. He concurred with presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, who asked 1980 Republican Convention delegates, “Can we doubt that only a divine Providence placed this land, this island of freedom, here as a refuge for all those people in the world who yearn to breathe freely?” Reagan’s Jefferson fit Barton’s errant view as a founding father who regarded the U.S. as God’s ordained Republic.
Barton depicts Jefferson as a closet evangelical, influenced by born-again Christians who lived in central Virginia near Monticello. He contends Jefferson would have released his slaves if only state laws didn’t block emancipation. Barton spins spurious history to absolve Jefferson of owning 600 slaves during his life.
Who wants to introduce this fiction into AP history curriculum?
Sen. Ted Cruz told Politico.com in September 2013, “… David Barton is a good man, a courageous leader and a friend…. David’s historical research has helped millions rediscover the founding principles of our nation and the incredible sacrifices that men and women of faith made to bequeath to us the freest and most prosperous nation.”
At a 2011 Rediscovering God in America conference, GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee reverently introduced Barton, “I almost wish 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.”
Barton’s skewed history skips Jefferson’s vices and hypes his virtues. Legitimate historians create space for differences of opinion about Jefferson. But Barton’s muddy depiction of “born-again Jefferson” sinks into stupidity’s quicksand.
Smart Americans roundly endorse what former New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan declared, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts.”
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.