The David Barton Controversy
I am beginning to think that as Gail Riplinger was to textual criticism, David Barton is to American history. He is the conservative equivalent of Howard Zinn.
If you don’t want to read through my “opinion,” at least make sure to scroll to the bottom and hit the audio links. Believe me: they are worth your time.
If your family homeschools, or if you send your kids to a Christian school, or even if you are actively involved in Republican politics, listen to talk radio, and consider yourself a TEA party oriented person, the name David Barton has circled around your orbit at least a few times.
Barton heads up WallBuilders, a ministry that claims to “present America’s forgotten history” regarding our Christian faith, morals, and constitutional heritage.
If you have watched any of Barton’s DVD presentations, he travels around Washington D.C. and other historical venues showing his viewers important landmarks and documents pertaining to Colonial America, the Revolutionary War, the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. When Barton is interviewed on Christian TV programs, or even conservative TV shows like Glenn Beck, he always has with him a collection of “original” documents to show the audience. Things like Ben Franklin’s Bible, or John Adam’s personal letters to some Baptist minister, or some unknown speech George Washington gave at a Methodist church.
Barton’s basic assertion in his DVDs, his books, and those TV interviews is that America’s founding Fathers – you know, the guys with their faces on our currency – were practicing evangelical Christians. When they wrote up the Declaration of Independence and eventually the Constitution, they intended on founding a Christian nation. Radical secular leftists, Barton contends, have hijacked American history over the last 50 years, revising it to teach that all the founding fathers were really deists and anti-Christian atheists and the last thing on their agenda was founding any country supportive of biblical Christianity. His mission with WallBuilders is to set the historical record straight.
If you have heard him speak, his presentations are impressive and compelling. Again, when he is making his case, he will have old, yellow documents with him that are laminated, which means they are really important. He also has stacks of old, brittle looking books that were supposedly printed in 1798 or there abouts.
Those documents and books are intended to bolster his case for his “evangelical founding fathers” view of American history because he says they are original source documents, meaning they haven’t been altered by secular leftists. Of course, the audience, upon watching Barton lift up one of those documents to wave in front of the TV cameras, has to assume he is accurately relaying to them what that document really says. Honestly. What average person, let’s say living in Wisconsin or Maryland, really has carefully examined one of John Adam’s original letters to Thomas Jefferson? Barton says he has and so that person has to trust him that he is relaying accurate information about the contents of the letter.
In recent months, however, Barton has come under fire for just that: Other historians – [and by “other” historians, I mean Christian historians, and by “Christian” historians, I mean Bible-believing, Jesus loving historians, not those prissy liberal “the-Bible-is-full-of-errors” “Christians”] – have taken issue with Barton claiming he has the bad habit of cheery-picking historical citations and spinning them in such a way so as to present his evangelical narrative of American history. In other words, he abuses the historical documents to embellish and exaggerate the truth.
A big example of this is found in the controversy surrounding his book published this past summer titled, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed about Thomas Jefferson. In that book, Barton presents the case that what we are told about Jefferson is for the most part a leftist fabrication. In reality, he was really a faithful evangelical Christian and it wasn’t until later in his life as he grew senile, that he began to write negative things about God and Christianity.
The claims Barton makes did not sit well with just any historians, but particularly a number of those Christian historians I noted above. They worked together to challenge Barton’s views of Jefferson by showing the gross, factual errors he has in his books and his outright re-reading of history. In short, they demonstrate that Barton was doing the exact same thing he accuses his secular liberal critics of doing: Selectively citing sources and reinterpreting them so as to revise history.
The vetting these historians made to Barton’s book was so devastating that Thomas Nelson, the publisher, dropped it. The management cited the overwhelming number of factual errors contained in the book as the reason for their canceling it. I thought their reaction was ironic, seeing that they are so willing to toss out Barton’s book over “factual errors,” but still publish a bizarre book in which a child claims to have gone to heaven. Barton didn’t make them enough money, I suppose; but I digress.
I personally have never read anything by Barton. I have seen one or two of his DVD presentations and I have watched him on a number of television interviews. I have always been dubious of his assertions about the founding fathers. When he waves the yellow, laminated letter on the TV screen, I’m a tad suspicious. Having read enough history in my lifetime, including a few original source documents, I thought his “evidence” never passed a sniff test. There were question marks in my mind.
Liberals of course hate the man’s guts. That is because they relish having a proctologist view of American history and reject America’s exceptionalism that makes it the most unique and special country in the world. So when Barton gives his exaggerated claims about America’s founding fathers, they pounce on them as proof of how out of touch Christians are with reality and what hypocrites they truly are. Certainly that is a moon-bat reaction, but while they may go overboard in the other direction to maintain their distorted anti-American narrative, I’d have to admit they have a point about Barton.
I have also been troubled with how Christians, and I mean respectable, ought-to-know-better Christians, go to Barton as a reliable source on American history. Conservative pundits like Glenn Beck, I can understand, but Christians who have made a name for being pillars of spiritual discernment? I’ve seen him interviewed by Todd Friel in the past, as well as Kirk Cameron for his Monumental documentary that was released early this spring, and many Christian reconstructionists have always recommended his materials.
One of Barton’s historian critics has been Gregg Frazer who teaches history and political science at the Master’s College. He published a book earlier this year called, The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation, and Revolution that puts our founding fathers in a more balanced and accurate perspective. He argues that they weren’t rank atheists and deists, but nor were they committed Christians. They were, as Dr. Frazer calls them, “theistic rationalists.”
At the behest of my pastor, John MacArthur, Dr. Frazer has been going around to the various fellowship groups on Sunday mornings at Grace Church giving a presentation on America’s founding fathers, as well as addressing many of David Barton’s claims about them and what he calls “the Christian America movement” that is growing among homeschoolers. My hope is that Dr. Frazer will be given a break-out seminar at this next year’s Shepherd’s Conference in March 2013. I imagine many, many pastors have encountered promoters of Barton’s materials in their churches.
He gave two presentations recently that are worth downloading and considering.
The first presentation gives historical background to the men we call “founding fathers,” where as the second presentation addresses specifically what David Barton claims. If you want to hear his rebuttal and refutation of David Barton, listen to the second one first. But make sure to get the first one, as well.
Christians need to be advocates of truth, even when the truth is not what we may want it to be.