U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Myth, History, And David Barton: Required Reading On The New Christian Right

Like many of you, I’m in the midst of grading finals and conducting the necessary business of wrapping up a semester. As a result today’s post will be brief.

Read this. Here are some teaser excerpts:

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“[David] Barton is a self-taught historian who is described by several conservative presidential aspirants as a valued adviser and a source of historical and biblical justification for their policies. He is so popular that evangelical pastors travel across states to hear his rapid-fire presentations on how the United States was founded as a Christian nation and is on the road to ruin, thanks to secularists and the Supreme Court, or on the lost political power of the clergy.

Through two decades of prolific, if disputed, research and some 400 speeches a year on what he calls the forgotten Christian roots of America, Mr. Barton, 57, a former school principal and an ordained minister, has steadily built a reputation as a guiding spirit of the religious right. Keeping an exhaustive schedule, hhttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gife is also immersed in the nuts and bolts of politics and maintains a network of 700 anti-abortion state legislators.
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Many historians call his research flawed, but Mr. Barton’s influence appears to be greater than ever. …

Mr. Huckabee, who has known Mr. Barton since his days as governor of Arkansas, calls him ‘maybe the greatest living historian on the spiritual nature of America’s early days.’ “
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For more on Barton at a site without a paywall, try Religion Dispatches (particularly here, here, and here—all authored by Julie Ingersoll).

Let’s discuss. – TL

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Barton was Jon Stewart’s guest on The Daily Show last night. I posted the unedited interview on my blog, prefaced by my splenetic rant about David Barton’s dreams of conquest.

    Here’s the link to my post: David Barton

    I should confess to what W. James calls “a certain blindness” where the thinking of someone like Barton is concerned. But Barton’s schtick does not strike me as some benign little idea, some quaint difference of opinion on an issue which has no bearing on the present. It is an ideology very much designed to affect how people vote, how people govern, etc.

  2. LD: I missed last night’s *Daily Show* appearance. I’ll watch it in a day or so. In the meantime, it seems like Barton’s most persistent historical fallacies are presentism (reading the past in light of today’s values) and confusing correlation with causation. His anti-intellectual (esp. in relation to professional historians) ideology is indeed dangerous to some—violates the “do no harm” dictum.

    Shelley: Several of the Beatitudes and the Golden Rule seem to possess enough universalism to keep Bible-focused Christians out of political trouble in a pluralistic society. – TL

  3. Here’s something from Paul Harvey at Religion in American History on the NYT article (as well as Barton’s appearance on The Daily Show). The forthcoming book Harvey mentions by Stephens and Giberson looks like an excellent addition to your reading lists, or at least your USIH bibliographies. – TL

  4. An important reminder that “popular memory” is not something that forms entirely by itself through some mysterious, “bottom-up,” natural process.

    Reading about David Barton made me think of the Wood-Lepore dustup that David blogged about several months ago. Much of Gordon Wood’s argument against Jill Lepore’s take on the Tea Party’s view of history was built on the notion that “public memory,” unlike academic history, is an organic, bottom-up activity that (like the American Revolution itself) is fundamentally misunderstood if thought of in any other way.

    Certainly there are “organic”/bottom-up aspects to the evolution of public memory (and also academic history, I’d argue), but there are also strategic, “top-down” aspects of it. And the story of David Barton’s success is an example of the latter.

    There is power, use, and, most importantly, truth in calling Barton’s work “bad history,” full stop, rather than romanticizing it as part of a conception of “public memory” that can be neither good nor bad, but simply is.

  5. The NYT article uses the sloppy habit that is becoming increasingly standard in American journalism: one side says the Earth is flat, the other says it’s a globe, the controversy continues.

    Instead of saying in a way straightforward enough that a normal reader would understand it that Barton is a scamster pushing pseudohistory, they let the haughty perfessers take the Other Side: “But many professional historians dismiss Mr. Barton, whose academic degree is in Christian education from Oral Roberts University, as a biased amateur who cherry-picks quotes from history and the Bible.”

    Which his followers will happily read as: Even the liberal New York Times says these fancy-pants intellectuals are against him because he’s a Christian!

  6. Bruce: Well said. The NYT is using the “new” fair-and-balanced approach to journalism, which does nothing to advance which side makes better arguments and, dare I say it, is closer to the truth. – TL

  7. Ben, thank you for this very sensible and helpful perspective, not just on Barton and his agenda, but on the Wood-Lepore dustup.

    It’s really important for me as a self-respecting human being not to give in to the constant temptations to snark and snobbery in the blogosphere, and I have worried that my response to Barton carried a lot of that baggage, which is frankly unnecessary.

    But I think it’s important to recognize, as you have here, the strategic deployment of bad history to gain power. Barton strikes me as a propagandist. He may be saying things that many people have believed or thought or (mis)understood for a long time, but he is saying them systematically and strategically in order to provide a unifying motivational narrative for a political movement which is very much about amassing real-world power.

    There is in fact a “bottom-up” conception — or competing conceptions — of American history which Barton is magnifying, distorting, and exploiting. And it’s hard to know the extent to which people who agree with Barton are newly persuaded to their opinions or merely grateful to find “confirmation” for something they have believed all along.

    One thing that probably makes people especially receptive to Barton’s ideas is the intellectual framework of Fundamentalism. Treating “the documents” as syllogistic proof texts and cherry-picking for “the truth” expresses a particular relationship to texts which makes sense to Fundamentalists.

    Another thing which makes sense to Fundamentalists is the nostalgia for a return to pure origins. The idea that it is possible to re-instantiate “the New Testament church” in the 21st century has its corollary in the idea that it is possible to return to the principles of “the Founders.” It’s an implicitly — pardon me, but a fundamentally — ahistorical and antihistorical way of thinking.

    Unfortunately, the academy doesn’t have much to do any more with the teaching of history at the K-12 level. We participate in a professional discourse with our academic peers, but we don’t as a general rule worry about producing scholarship for a K-12 audience. The idea of historians as “public intellectuals” can often mean in practice that we are only speaking to other intellectuals. Jill Lepore might be entirely correct about the Tea Party’s whacked-out view of history — but she is preaching to the choir.

    Who is serving as an alternative to Barton when it comes to shaping K-12 curriculum? I’d be interested to know what universities or history departments are doing to bring good scholarship and good history to our future students.

  8. Great conversation. To answer your question, LD, about what history departments are doing or can do to close the chasm between professional history and what’s often taught in the secondary schools. There’s a slow but growing movement to move secondary-level teacher training back to the disciplines. So at my university–Illinois State University–if you want to be a history-social studies teacher, you are required to major in history, and then double minor in education and the social sciences. We have three tenure-track faculty, including me, who teach, in addition to regular content courses, history pedagogy courses. Thus, my students are learning how to teach history from a trained historian. They learn how to ask the questions that historians ask and to, ideally, get their students asking those same types of questions.

    I think this is the best approach to influencing what’s taught in the schools, more than attempts to, say, write textbooks, which is a difficult proposition because the textbook industry is a tough nut to crack and is driven by the need to please state boards of education in big states like Texas where theocons like Barton wield enormous influence.

  9. For those of you who care about modifying or refuting theocon Barton’s interpretation of America’s Christian history, Messiah College’s John Fea is going to look at Barton’s appearance on *The Daily Show*, piece by piece. Here’s Part I of Fea’s installment at his weblog, The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

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