Friday, August 10, 2012

Barton, Jefferson, and Lies - But Whose?

At last!

David Barton, creator of the "Christian" parachurch ministry, WallBuilders, and a hero of right-wing revisionist history fans, has been caught in the act.

His recent book on Thomas Jefferson has been found to be fraudulent.

I haven't mentioned Barton by name on my blog until just now, because even though I've doubted him for years, he claims to be a born-again Christian, so part of me wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt.  Barton is the guy from right here in north Texas who's been touring the country as a teacher of right-wing propaganda about how "Christian" America's Founding Fathers were, and supposedly uncovering new evidence about how America is a "Christian" nation.

Virtually all of his books and speeches have elicited cat-calls and guffaws from professional historians and history professors, virtually all of whom have been unable to corroborate anything Barton has said.  Yet many evangelicals and right-wingers have been eating his stuff up, because many of us have a poor grasp of history ourselves, and we desperately want to believe good things about our beloved country.  It's also become quite popular for conservatives to dismiss anything with which we don't agree as liberal revisionism.  Instead of simply disagreeing with academia's elite who tend to be left-wingers, how much better to twist the past into something that supports our side.  It's not like anybody's still alive from the Revolutionary War to prove us wrong.

Wrapping Our Flag Around His Cross

If right-wingers simply wanted to spite liberal academics, perhaps little harm would have been done by right-wing revisionism.  The problem came when conservatives tried to wrap the American flag around the cross of Christ, and issued platitudes about the sanctity of America's history.  Many people of faith have become hardened skeptics of public education, so even though the "facts" people like Barton claimed to be digging up seemed contrary to what we'd all learned in public school, it became fashionable to simply whitewash criticism of Barton and his cohorts as the product of an evil education system.

Not to say that public schools these days haven't gone off the accuracy rails themselves.  Indeed, some school districts, particularly in the Northeast and on the West Coast, seem more intent on brainwashing future generations of learners with new social theories instead of teaching basic readin', writin', and 'rithmatic skills.  But how much worse is it to flat-out lie about something, than to merely shroud the academic process in an overtly socialistic ideology?

Judging by our falling place among international education scores, and our struggling academic standards, it's not like our kids these days are learning much of anything in school anyway.

I hadn't paid much attention to Barton's latest book, a goofy treatise attempting to prove Thomas Jefferson was in fact an orthodox, evangelical Christian.  The book was entitled The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson, but some professors at the far more credible Grove City College in Pennsylvania smelled a rat.  After some scholarly research of their own, Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter petitioned Barton's publisher, Thomas Nelson, with proof of Barton's egregious inaccuracies and outright fallacies regarding the life of America's third president.

And Thomas Nelson pulled the book, cancelled its contract with Barton, and will not be publishing any more of his works.

A while ago, I'd read an article about Grove City College's attempts at refuting Barton, but I guess I didn't realize that a book contract with such a powerhouse Christian publisher was on the line.  Grove City is a conservative, evangelical institution of considerable repute, even though few evangelicals probably know much about it.  As a Christian liberal arts school, it's carved out a niche as, perhaps surprisingly, an unapologetically pro-patriotism community advocating for many of the flag-wrapped-around-the-cross ideologies people like Barton espouse.  Indeed, some of the things I've read about them have made me as uneasy as the stuff Barton as written about the United States.

It's this similarity in mission, apparently, upon which Barton has seized as his personal defense.  On his website, Barton attacks professors Throckmorton and Coulter as being jealous of his success in getting his book on Jefferson published, after they unsuccessfully shopped their own Jefferson manuscript to publishers.  Barton accuses the professors of hostility towards him, and basically brushes off their concerns as nothing more than the academic elitism for which lesser-educated writers such as himself have already belittled degreed, tenured college professors.

If Barton truly understood the rigors of academia, he would understand how embarrassing this rant on his website is for him.  He tries to pick apart certain aspects of the professors' arguments with the naivete of many Tea Partiers, who have no clue about politics in general, or historical cultural norms during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.

And speaking of Tea Partiers, one of Barton's long-time supporters has been none other than Glen Beck, somebody who I genuinely worry about, because of his twisted sense of reality and historicity.  While it's surprising that Barton would lash out so towards kindred spirits at Grove City who are simply trying to hold him accountable to the grand theory of American theocracy, it's no surprise whatsoever that Barton and Beck have gotten along so well together.  Barton even sits on the board of Beck's non-profit charity, Mercury One.

Cease, Desist, and Trust

In the end, despite all of Barton's bluster, the dust he kicks up on his website that he hopes obscures his weak defense has merely settled on a major decision by a major publishing house with more on the line that just Barton's shaky reputation.  For Thomas Nelson to put the kibosh on a book after it's been released is a major step that they did not take lightly.  Or without proof.

Regular readers of my blog will recall that I'm not a fan of Thomas Nelson, because I think they typically put profit before principle.  Which, were my opinion of them to hold any merit, further proves their action against Barton is not insignificant.

What Barton doesn't seem to understand about historical investigation is - and, being a graduate of Oral Roberts University, his cluelessness may be understandable - that you can't just throw a bunch of old newspapers and manuscripts on a table, pick apart sentences, and put together your own collage of what those scraps of information depict.  For historical research to be valid, it needs to be like science:  your results need to be replicated by more than one person.*

Another fact apparently lost on Barton involves the quality of newspapers in Jefferson's day.  Newspapers as a reliable source of fact-based journalism were still an evolving invention back then, and generally full more of gossip and hearsay than even our media today.  Personal correspondence, too requires researchers today to understand what the letter writer was trying to communicate to the recipient in that time and place, not just what the words in the letter say.  Perhaps most significantly, Barton seems to always commit the cardinal sin among researchers:  he approaches his projects with an end result already in mind, and he seeks to manipulate all of the proofs he thinks apply into a framework that supports the end result he's already envisioned.* 

Not that I'm an ugly, unpatriotic American who believes the birth of our nation took place more to pacify economic greed than spiritual freedom.  I do think economics played a far greater role than many right-wingers want to believe, especially since freedom was so far down on the Founding Fathers' list of goals, slaves and women couldn't vote.  To the extent, however, that there was a broad recognition among many early Americans that the Bible served as a reliable guide for social formation and the establishment of civil governance, we should not be ashamed to remind our fellow citizens today of the type of country the crafters of our republic intended us to be.  Frankly, were Washington, Adams, and even Jefferson to come back and plop onto Pennsylvania Avenue this very moment, I think they'd be appalled at the mess we've made of their grand experiment.

But to base our legitimate arguments for change on severely flawed guesstimates on the spiritual condition of our Founding Fathers only marginalizes the virtue of our cause.  That's why what Barton and his ilk have been doing these past few years has been so damaging to the credibility of evangelicalism, and has inhibited any genuine opportunities for real change.

Instead of trying to protect his tattered reputation, Barton needs to fade into the woodwork, at least for a while, and allow the rightful message of righteous society-building to begin to heal.

After all, if this is not about him, or Jefferson, or Throckmorton, or Coulter; but it's about God, won't what people believed 230 years ago be less important than how we honor God today as Americans?

Who is lying about Thomas Jefferson?

To be painstakingly correct, it's Dabney Carr, a close friend of Jefferson's; Jefferson's wife and their two daughters; and his son-in-law, Governor Thomas Mann Randolph.

OK, sorry:  it was kind of a trick question.

You see, Jefferson's body lies in Monticello's private family cemetery, and his family lies about him.  Testaments to a mortality we should all keep in mind.  And my point is this:  even if Jefferson was as righteous as Billy Graham, why bother basing a sociopolitical revival in the United States on a mere mortal?

Especially when we're supposed to be trusting in God.

* These also serve as reasons for why the theory of Evolution is dubious at best.

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