The David Barton Controversy





Jefferson-Lies-0809I haven’t had time to write on the story that Thomas Kidd of World Magazine broke earlier this month about Thomas Nelson Publishers’ decision to pull David Barton’s new book The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed about Thomas Jefferson.  Their decision came after several conservative Christian scholars criticized Barton’s work.

Some examples: Glenn Moots of Northwood University wrote that Barton in The Jefferson Lies is so eager to portray Jefferson as sympathetic to Christianity that he misses or omits obvious signs that Jefferson stood outside "orthodox, creedal, confessional Christianity." A second professor, Glenn Sunshine of Central Connecticut State University, said that Barton’s characterization of Jefferson’s religious views is "unsupportable." A third, Gregg Frazer of The Master’s College, evaluated Barton’s video America’s Godly Heritage and found many of its factual claims dubious, such as a statement that "52 of the 55 delegates at the Constitutional Convention were ‘orthodox, evangelical Christians.’" Barton told me he found that number in M.E. Bradford’s A Worthy Company

…A full-scale, newly published critique of Barton is coming from Professors Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter of Grove City College, a largely conservative Christian school in Pennsylvania. Their book Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President (Salem Grove Press), argues that Barton "is guilty of taking statements and actions out of context and simplifying historical circumstances." For example, they charge that Barton, in explaining why Jefferson did not free his slaves, "seriously misrepresents or misunderstands (or both) the legal environment related to slavery."

Another conservative evangelical  scholar, Greg Forster, said he isn’t a scholar of Thomas Jefferson, but that he is a scholar of John Locke.  He decided to look at an essay that Barton wrote on John Locke and found numerous errors.

Barton responds throwing Throckmorton and Coulter in with liberal professors, saying they are academic elitists, basically they shouldn’t be taken seriously because their book was printed as an e-book, and they haven’t seen his collection of historical documents.  Throckmorton responds to Barton’s statement with three challenges.

Some are rallying around Barton.  And Marvin Olasky the editor of World Magazine issues a statement about their coverage.

On one side are David Barton and his many readers. Barton has provided a useful service for many years in fighting the left’s interpretations of history. On the other side are other Christian conservatives who point out what they believe are inaccuracies in Barton’s work.

Left-wing historians for years have criticized Barton. We haven’t spotlighted those criticisms because we know the biases behind them. It’s different when Christian conservatives point out inaccuracies. The Bible tells us that “iron sharpens iron,” and that’s our goal in reporting this controversy. As the great Puritan poet John Milton wrote concerning Truth, “Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”

As we’ve received mail from both sides, I’m happy to say that most have emphasized the question of accuracy (which is part of truth). A few Barton defenders have argued that his critics are not true Christians. Personal invective like that is not helpful here. After all, biblical writers emphasize accuracy. Luke starts his gospel by noting that he has “followed all things closely for some time” and is therefore in position “to write an orderly account.” Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 says if he is factually mistaken about Christ’s resurrection, the faith he proclaims is futile and “we of all people are most to be pitied.”

Accuracy is also crucial in American history. The most popular American history book at colleges, Howard Zinn’s leftist A People’s History of the United States, is full of inaccuracies, and folks on the left don’t seem to mind because they need fables to increase their faith. Folks on our side want to build up—but if we are inaccurate, we are not following the example set by the Bible, and we are giving America’s opponents opportunities to undermine the credibility of what is true.

David Barton should not be, nor does he want to be, defended as if he were inerrant: If his history writing does include some inaccuracies, I trust he’ll make corrections. The harder questions involve interpretation, and on that Christians may disagree.

My thoughts: I’ve had the opportunity to hear David Barton speak on three different occasions.  I’ve briefly interviewed him once.  My wife and I homeschool, but we have not used any Wallbuilders materials.  When listening to him speak one thing that did strike me is that he is supremely confident in what he presents and he presents his material very, very quickly.  I’m a note taker, and I can recall being very frustrated by that and was uncomfortable by how many “facts” were thrown out to audience without having the ability to write it down, take it home, and check it out.  That is obviously just a personal observation and not evidence of errors presented or the like.  I’ve not watched his videos or reviewed his books.  I am not a Jefferson scholar.

Also I’d like to point out that I am in agreement with Barton (and I might add most of his current critics) that the modern view of the “separation of church and state” is flawed, and agree with Olanksy that Barton has provided “useful service.”

I am however a lover of truth and believe that we should pursue the truth and let the facts come out and lead us to whatever the truth may be.  We need to be devoted to Jesus, not to a public figure regardless of the side.  Thomas Jefferson’s faith or lack thereof frankly makes little difference in how I view my faith and how it intersects with public life.

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Comments

  1. AlCashier says

    we have complete faith in Mr Barton as we HAVE done our homework and have found all his facts one by one are true AND documented. 

    those “christian conservatives” saying they disagree with him –and vilifying him–  are the same type of self-righteous anti-semitic hypocrites who call Catholics ‘papists’ because they are not evangelical Christians and who do not support Israel because Jews are Jews..

    • says

      Al, I’ve met David, he seems like a nice guy, he’s not infallible.  To question somebody’s faith in Christ because they question David Barton is not only foolish, but unnecessarily divisive.

  2. Kevin Subra says

    David has some excellent material, and many of his historical quotes seem irrefutable. I agree, though, that no man’s work is infallible, and someone’s eagerness to prove things may cloud their interpretations. My biggest concern is not his material (though this book is of concern because of the reaction of so many), but his affiliation and alignment with Beck on a religious level (not just a political one).

  3. says

    Barton was infamous for cherry-picking quotes to favor his pre-existing opinion/narrative well before this controversy arose. The Jefferson book is an example of this practice unrestrained and taken to its extremes. Scholars like Throckmorton who criticize him are widely respected in the Christian social sciences, so while Barton’s sloppy scholarship is bad enough, what troubles me more is how he responded to his critics. The defensiveness reveals an ugly side of his character and a prideful intellect not open to new information.

    He aims to counter secular narratives, but badly over-corrects and does more damage than good. I wish less polemic voices got more play, but that is a media/PR problem at heart.