U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Keeping the Faiths

Today, the entire academy, and especially those of us who are part of the American historical profession, owe a profound debt of thanks to several of our colleagues for a truly thankless task:  fighting the farcical, fraudulent, fatuous pseudo-historical pseudo-scholarship of David Barton.

In case you haven’t heard, the Thomas Nelson publishing company has decided to stop the presses on Barton’s infamous book The Jefferson Lies, and pull all copies from distribution.   Thomas Kidd, who broke the story yesterday at World Magazine, reports:

Casey Francis Harrell, Thomas Nelson’s director of corporate communications, told me the publishing house “was contacted by a number of people expressing concerns about [The Jefferson Lies].” The company began to evaluate the criticisms, Harrell said, and “in the course of our review learned that there were some historical details included in the book that were not adequately supported. Because of these deficiencies we decided that it was in the best interest of our readers to stop the publication and distribution.”

I don’t know who in particular contacted the publisher.  But I do know that a number of historians and other scholars have done yeoman’s work in demonstrating the evidentiary flimsiness and downright fabrications underlying many of Barton’s claims.

John Fea, who blogs at The Way of Improvement Leads Home and who will be commenting on a panel at the fifth annual S-USIH conference this fall, has spent the past several months documenting and debunking Barton’s distortions and outright lies. See especially his six-part series of blog posts analyzing Barton’s historical argumentation.  Type “David Barton” into the search window at the top of Fea’s blog, and you will get a sense of how much time this highly-regarded professional historian has spent doing battle against (really bad) popular “history.”  In these posts you will also see that Fea frequently links to the work of other historians and scholars from a range of academic disciplines who have taken the time and care to refute Barton’s propaganda — scholars such as Stephen Prothero, Warren Throckmorton, Michael Coulter, Clay Jenkinson, Alan Pell Crawford.

Similarly, at the Religion in American History blog, historians Randall Stephens, Kelly Baker, Paul Harvey, Chris Beneke, and other contributors and commenters have situated Barton’s work where it belongs:  not as history, but as a particular (and particularly virulent) strain of right-wing Christian nationalist propaganda. 

Barton’s propaganda has never been aimed at swaying the judgment of the historical profession; though he has apparently been able to dupe the Texas board of education into accepting his propaganda as history, he is not writing anything that has a chance of passing muster with professional historians.  People who practice critical thinking skills for a living are not his target audience.  So professors at places like Messiah College, Grove City College, North Park University — Christian institutions all — might have been excused for doing what most of us do when we run across some of the laughable nonsense that sometimes passes for reliable history with popular audiences:  as academics and professionals, they could have simply ignored Barton.  Instead, they took the time and trouble to refute him — drawing the predictably martyrological response from Barton that their criticism should be dismissed as the work of “academic elitists” who are attacking his “personal religious beliefs.” 

Presumably, the group of Cincinnati pastors who recently called for a boycott of Thomas Nelson publishing over Barton’s book are not part of the anti-Christian academic elite.  Bob Allen at the Associated Baptist Press reports that these evangelical pastors “were concerned that the book glosses over Jefferson’s heretical views about Jesus Christ and excuses him for owning slaves.”  In other words, they fault not only Barton’s historical argumentation but the moral judgment from which it proceeds and which it supports.  For them, Barton’s work is not just bad history, but bad history in the service of bad theology. 

Indeed, I assume that Barton’s work is “bad theology” in the view of the many Christian academics and scholars who have taken the time and trouble to expose the propagandist’s falsifications and distortions.  In fact, I would surmise that their own pastoral and confessional concerns as scholars and teachers in faith-based institutions, their sense of responsibility to teach not only well but truly, might have spurred them to take on this particular vapid but vicious wolf. 

As a historian, I am not the least bit interested in promulgating good theology or bad theology or any theology at all.  I just want to write and teach good history.  What is interesting — and not a little problematic for me — about this case is the way in which good theology appealed for support to good history, and good history emerged at least in part from a commitment to good theology.

Why do I find this problematic?  Well, that has to do with a book review I have not yet written, and my reasons for not yet writing it.  I will explain my problem in another post.  For now, though, I would like to congratulate and thank these scholars and their colleagues for fighting the good fight and keeping the faith. I’m just not quite sure which faith or faiths they’re keeping, and how they fit or ought to fit together.  But this I know:  if we are to judge a tree by its fruits, this latest small victory for good history tastes pretty sweet indeed.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Your insight into the way the quest for good theology led to the goal of good history is right on the money. Coming at this as someone in American religious studies I can’t help but see the takedown of Barton not as historian vs. amateur historian but as one kind of evangelical Christian vs. another. I have a lot of respect for the history Fea, Kidd, and other evangelicals have written, but I don’t think this argument was only about getting the history right. To some extent there was another battle about what it means to do *Christian* history (or maybe history as a Christian) and what it means to be an evangelical intellectual. It is telling, however, that it took the work of other Christians to take Barton’s book down. For whatever reasons, reasons I’m interested to figure out, secular historians (for lack of a better term) couldn’t do it.

    This offers and interesting counter-example to Hollinger’s claim that secularists and religious liberals should work together against wrongheaded conservatism. Neither of those groups could touch Barton, it took respected intellectuals within conservative Christianity to do it.

  2. i’d missed this–thanks for posting.

    Michael: “It is telling, however, that it took the work of other Christians to take Barton’s book down. For whatever reasons, reasons I’m interested to figure out, secular historians (for lack of a better term) couldn’t do it.”

    Isn’t it just that christian historians have a great deal more credibility here? that is, it seems to me that the ‘ability’ in question is flatly political. it’s harder to accuse them of bias. no?

    I agree that the most interesting aspect of this is the conflict between forms of christian historiography, but it does not seem to me that this means there isn’t a matter of pretty straightforward historical method. this could apply even to Barton’s objection to reading (or maybe just citing?) secondary sources–although that also implies a theological position.

    LD: i’m curious about that book review.

  3. The Texas board wasn’t duped. With board members such as Cynthia Dunbar, Ken Mercer, Don McLeroy, Bill Ames and other conservative Christians, this board got exactly what it wanted. David Barton used to be a co chair of the Texas G.O.P. There has been a war in Texas over history, sex ed, and science since 1980. The current battles make me nostalgic for the battles over the National History standards.

  4. Thanks to all for the great comments.

    I do think there was a lot more at stake here than getting history right, as Michael notes, and I also think that getting it right is, as Eric suggest, not just methodological but epistemological.

    As to the Texas board being duped, Brian — probably not the best or smartest choice of words on my part. To the extent that anyone sincerely believes that Barton has rescued “real” history from (liberal) distortions, s/he has been sold a bill of goods. Of course, as you suggest, that bill of goods might be made to order, with veracity left off the requisition.

    I’ll go into this more in my next post or two, but I think the best way to think about these Christian historians is as wanting to gain/maintain legitimacy within both “faiths” — Christianity and history. Those may or may not present competing claims for loyalty, but it seems to me that to the extent that this was about good history, it served to make a claim for (greater?) legitimacy within the academy for “confessing” historians and their fellow travelers.

  5. To put a bit of a historical face on Barton-bashing, see Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Nathan Hatch, THE SEARCH FOR A CHRISTIAN AMERICA (1989). Professing evangelical historians have been after Barton, Schaeffer, LaHaye, and their kin for years. The real question, growing to Paul Harvey’s overall point regarding this debate, is if debunking Barton’s project is worth it. If he falls, it’s as a martyr to his cause. 10 more are waiting to take up his case (including his briefcase filled with all the money from book and video sales and speaking engagements and, gasp, public funds).

  6. Paul, thanks so much for posting. I saw that piece and meant to add the link — your account really highlights the breadth and depth of the scholarly response to Barton among academics with pretty impeccable Christian bona fides. Of course, if you oppose David Barton’s version of history, how can you really call yourself a Christian?

  7. I don’t like to leave unfinished business in my posts. But I think it will be a cold day in Texas before I end up writing the promised sequel to this post, in which I would presumably discuss the critical conundrum confronting me as I contemplate reviewing a particular work.

    But for the record, the book I have not yet reviewed — and most likely won’t — is Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation — edited by Fea, Jay Green and Eric Miller. However, I have found someone else to review it.

    So, on this topic — at least for now — that’s all she wrote.

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