Why You Need To Know About David Barton

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Sarah Jones’ blog Anthony B. Susan It was originally published on August 16, 2012.

News that Christian publisher Thomas Nelson had decided to pull David Barton’s latest book, The Jefferson Lies, catapulted another major figure of the religious right into the public consciousness. Like Dan Cathy, Barton has been known to evangelical Christians for years. Think of him as the Ken Ham of US history: an apologist for an alternative reality that enshrines American exceptionalism as the manifestation of God’s work on earth. In Barton’s version of history, Thomas Jefferson professed orthodox Christianity, never raped his slaves, and mandated Christian worship services in the US Capitol. It is a version of history so far removed from fact that it has come under attack from other conservative Christian historians.

Yet Barton’s influence in the evangelical world clearly dwarfs whatever power these genuine historians wield. He is a prolific writer and the history he tells is exactly the sort of mythology necessary to sustain the existence of America’s religious. For this reason, Time has named him one of America’s 25 most influential evangelicals, and he enjoys his own personal webpage at the Southern Poverty Law Center, where he is listed as one of the leading figures of the contemporary radical right.

Barton’s credentials as a historian have been repeatedly shredded. It’s common knowledge that he holds only a bachelor’s degree in Christian Education from conservative Oral Roberts University, and therefore possesses no training whatsoever as a professional historian. But this lack of credentials appeals to a right wing movement that associates intellectualism with secularism and leftist bias. That is exactly why universities like Oral Roberts (and my own alma mater) exist. They’re ostensibly a sanctuary from secularist brainwashing. It’s also why the homeschool movement is dominated by evangelical families that rely on books published by institutions like Bob Jones University and Pensacola Christian College.

The version of history taught in these books mimics Barton’s work: America is a Christian nation, and liberalism has perverted it. The fact that this a minority view, considered discredited by mainstream historians, only bolsters evangelical support for it. Barton is a prophet, crying out in America’s liberal wilderness.

You can consider Barton and his organization, Wallbuilders, directly analogous to Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis. Neither actually possesses any credentials in their fields and both enjoy positions of respect because they act as the public faces of the religious right’s alternative to academia. They legitimize the evangelical movement and promote it in the political sphere. Barton has been active with the Texas GOP, and acted as an “expert consultant”  to the Texas School Board. That same school board voted to approve changes to the state social studies curriculum that included the claim that the Founding Fathers were Christians.

Despite the controversy over the Jefferson Lies, the religious right will not abandon David Barton. It needs him to legitimize itself. It does not matter how times his books are debunked, any more than it has ever mattered that Ken Ham’s version of biology can be torn apart by anyone with a high school diploma. These controversies merely reinforce the right’s perception that it is a martyred movement, ordained to struggle because of its adherence to “traditional values.” These are the roots of Chik-fil-A “Appreciation Day” and statements like this. It’s why, as a veteran of homeschooling and private Christian education, I had to reteach myself history. It’s how I made it to graduate school without ever sitting through a basic lesson in evolutionary theory.

If that disturbs you, I urge you to educate yourself about Barton and his version of America, because education is the best defense against the movement he represents.

15 comments

  • Whenever Barton’s credentials get shredded, people lean on the excuse that he has a large collection of original source materials. They don’t realize (or don’t care) that having access to materials doesn’t equal being able to understand them correctly. I once listened to a speech by Barton in which he clearly demonstrated he had no understanding whatsoever of how statistics work, and yet he got a standing ovation, just because he said what the audience wanted to hear. It’s the same with his history work.

    Also, I really, really don’t understand this need for American Exceptionalism to remain untouched. It’s like people have equated “American” values with “Christian” values. Which is not only inaccurate, but is incredibly racist.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    To anyone who is not certified as 100% White:

    Barton’s history also includes defending the Confederate States of America as the most Godly nation in history (until it was destroyed by the Heathen Apostate North), INCLUDING its Peculiar Institution involving certain Animate Property.

    This guy is about as much a historian as the Thule Society or the Ahnenehrbe. And for much the same reason: History(TM) as Cult Supremacy Mythology.

  • I recommend Chris Rodda’s site and book “Liars for Jesus” which tears the Christian nationalism movement apart piece by piece:
    http://www.liarsforjesus.com/

  • And I remember thinking that David Barton was the most amazing thing….ugh.

  • Just for the record, Dan Cathy is not the man many people think he is when they drop his name in an accusatory manner. His beliefs may differ from yours, but he is willing to examine them: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/shane-l-windmeyer/dan-cathy-chick-fil-a_b_2564379.html

  • Mary Ann, Cathy hasn’t actually ended his donations: http://mediamatters.org/blog/2013/01/29/memo-to-media-chick-fil-a-hasnt-ended-its-anti/192434. Furthermore, I don’t particularly care if he has. If he believes it’s wrong to be gay, and does not support marriage equality, then he is homophobic. End of story.

  • What puzzles me the most is the absolute denial of facts. No matter if its’ Ken Hams’ denial of basic biology and geology or David Barton’s denial of basic history and his habit of distorting quotes, they simply won’t acknowledge any facts outside of their world view.

    Without the ability to self-correct their ideas, they can’t claim to be scholars or scientists. They should be acknowledged for what they are, hucksters.

  • Pingback: Gay marriage ban challenged ­– by NC pastors!

  • In the early 90’s my Sunday school class was watching a David Barton series. It horrified me that Christians might take his view of American history seriously.

  • You know I have really been interested in the fair analysis from HA on various Christian homeschool figures and curriculums, but I’m starting to lose any interest in following anymore. Maybe David Barton is not a good historian, but why bash this country and it’s foundation. Your analysis is no different than David Barton’s. He’s on one extreme, and your on the other. I believe things are much more complex than meets the eye and an intelligent person would read history with a critical mind. Your also making Chritian homeschoolers look ridiculous! This is quite unfair and over reaching. HA has certainly moved into it’s own liberal corner and left the fair analysis of problematic homeschooling. This site has just become another liberal, anti-Christian, traditional values hating facebook page of which I rather not read anymore. You have lost my interest.

    • This article is relevant to the Christian private school & homeschooling movement because Barton is respected in these circles. I was taught his version of history in elementary school (via A Beka). I listened to him speak at church just last year – homeschooling parents count it as a history seminar. This man somehow still has immense and undeserved credibility.

      I don’t think it’s “liberal” to spread the truth about how bad some homeschooling education is. I don’t think it’s “anti-Christian” to call out Christian figures on lies and distortions. And if it’s “traditional values hating” to show how some leaders and curricula are, in truth and fact, ridiculous? Then the traditional value is ideology, not truth.

    • We don’t have to contrive to make anyone look ridiculous. They do just fine on their own. Perfect example: David Barton. All we do is tell people’s stories. Stories are only threatening if someone’s trying to hide something.

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