Earlier this year David Barton, a self proclaimed historian and Christian reconstructionist who is considered responsible for the miseducation of millions of Americans about their country’s history, published his latest book titled “The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson.” Three months after its publication, on the 16th of July, the book – already a bestseller – was voted “the least credible history book in print.”
In this controversial work Barton, who is not a historian and only has a bachelors degree in Christian Education, sets out to “correct the distorted image of a once-beloved founding father, Thomas Jefferson.” Academics think he is a pseudo-intellectual fraud who practices misleading historical revisionism, with readers of the History News Network having voted Barton’s work “the least credible history book in print.” Nevertheless Barton is hugely popular and his books have sold millions of copies. Key figures in the Tea Party Movement such as Glenn Beck, Michelle Bachmann and even Newt Gingrich, can’t seem to get enough of him.
Because of his influence with members of Congress and other Republican Party officials, many also consider him dangerous. They feel Barton distorts history and the Constitution for political purposes and encourages religious divisiveness and unequal treatment for religious minorities. Since most people condemn censorship and support free access to information, banning the book is not an option. Which brings up the question; besides writing damning book reviews, what do we do with people like Barton who “alter reality”?
Within academia there are two different schools of thought when it comes to pseudo-historians like Barton. One school feels that it is the duty of academics to refute Barton’s claims and engage in debates with him. Another, much larger school, is of the opinion that there is no point in fighting with religious scientific frauds because any debate with them gives the appearance that there is an actual argument to be had with both sides represented. But what if pseudo-historians publish “research” that endangers a country’s stability? Within other fields, in particular medical sciences, there is more urgency to debunk pseudo-science for the simple reason that people’s lives might be at stake. Which leads to the question: should more academics come down from their ivory towers and join the efforts of those academics who have been actively debunking Barton? Before discussing both schools more in depth and attempting to answer this question, it’s important to have a closer look at Barton’s book.
The Jefferson Lies – What is all the fuss about?
In The Jefferson Lies, Barton explains his motivations to write the book. He feels that an investigation of Jefferson’s faith and morals was necessary, because of “the deplorable slip in accurate historical knowledge over the past half century”. Barton blames Jefferson’s “fall” on the evils of what he terms “deconstructionism, postculturalism, modernism, minimalism, and academic collectivism.”
Barton attempts to reclaim many of the puzzle pieces of the image of Thomas Jefferson that have been discarded and lost in the twentieth century. He discusses seven contemporary claims about Jefferson’s faith and morals including: “Did Thomas Jefferson really have a child by his young slave girl, Sally Hemings?” “Was he a racist who opposed civil rights and equality for black Americans?” and “Did he, in his pursuit of separation of church and state, advocate the secularizing of public life?” After studying Jefferson’s own words and the eye-witness testimony of those who knew him best, Barton refutes each claim and concludes that Thomas Jefferson is “an American hero,” a devout Orthodox Evangelical Christian, whose moral reputation was subjected to baseless attacks by his enemies. Rather than being a racist, he calls Jefferson a lifelong unwavering advocate for emancipation and civil rights. Furthermore, according to Barton, if alive today he would be one of the loudest voices against a secular public sphere. .
A number of credible academics have already actively debunked Barton’s findings. Three are especially worth mentioning: John Fea, history professor at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, Warren Throckmorton, Associate Professor of Psychology at Grove City College and his colleague Michael Coulter also a professor of humanities and political science at GCC. Fea, author of Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction (2011), has criticized Barton extensively on his daily blog The Way of Improvement Leads Home. Throckmorton and Coulter published their book Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President, which is an intellectual and historical take down of Barton’s work, just weeks after The Jefferson’s Lies came out.
Their book examines most key claims made by Barton. Based on Getting Jefferson Right, the conclusion can be drawn that Barton’s claims fall into four different categories: 1) falsehoods (the clearest one is Barton’s statement that Thomas Jefferson could not free his slaves due to Virginia law), 2) misleading statements (Barton mentions for example that Jefferson wanted Christian imagery on the national seal, which is true but Barton fails to mention that Jefferson wanted a pagan story on the other side, 3) statements based on truth but exaggerated or blown out of proportion that they end up being false (in an attempt to show how religious Jefferson was, Barton states that Jefferson personally helped fund a ground breaking Bible, in reality, he paid a subscription fee to get a copy of the Thompson hot-pressed Bible, just like the other 1271 subscribers did. Jefferson was even late in paying his final subscription fee) and lastly, 4) assertions that are just plain bizarre (like lifting up Jefferson as an abolitionist and civil rights champion, whilst it is widely known that Jefferson had some very dubious and contradictory ideas about race and slavery).
When it comes to Barton’s discussion of the terms “deconstructionism,” “postculturalism,” “modernism,” “minimalism,” and “academic collectivism,” Throckmorton and Coulterpoint point out that “Barton uses these terms in ways that are peculiar at best and generally misrepresent the general practices employed in the academic study of history.” Barton doesn’t get “deconstructionism” right, implying it is a system of belief when it is in fact a system of reading aimed at “uncovering the full meaning of a term or concept.” He also fails to understand the definition of American Exceptionalism – another term he tries to tackle in his introduction.
Throckmorton and Coulter, both practicing Christians who teach at a conservative Christian college, emphasize throughout their book that the first duty of a scholar, Christian or otherwise, is “to get the facts right and in their proper context.” They also that “This is a matter of scholarly integrity and getting the facts right, which is more important than re-making a historical figure in our own image.” It is clear that Barton had decided on his version of Jefferson before writing about him.
Former U.S. Senator Arlen Specter wrote in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy that Barton’s “pseudo scholarship would hardly be worth discussing, let alone disproving, were it not for the fact that it is taken so very seriously by so many people.” But still, not many academics are willing to disprove Barton’s pseudo science for the simple reason that so far critique has had a minimal effect on Barton’s audience, which pays little attention to voices outside of their ideological cocoon. In fact, it seems that the more negative attention he gets, the more he is being admired: last month Rick Green, former Republican member of the Texas House of Representatives, stated during an interview that the fact that Barton is being criticized is proof that Barton is telling the truth. One can only imagine how incredibly hard it must be to convince people who are guided by this kind of logic that Barton could be a fraud instead of an evangelical martyr.
The public attacks on Barton create a strong us-and-them mentality with Barton’s supporters convinced that they and they alone have God on their side. Before all the media publicity (The New Yorker and the Wall Street Journal both published articles on Barton, Time magazine has called him one of the 25 most influential Evangelicals in America and he has appeared on The Daily Show), Barton was ‘just’ a self-proclaimed historian. Now ‘Dr.’ Barton is being introduced by his supporters as “one of the nation’s most distinguished scholars.” His dedicated audience may not be as interested in historical facts or academic integrity, as they are in propping up a preacher who uses the past and history as a means of promoting a political agenda. Which would make an academic debate between Barton and his critics redundant.
In general, a debate where one side has religious or other non-academic arguments and the other side has purely scientific arguments, is not going to be successful. It is like comparing apples and oranges. In order to analyze Barton’s presentation, one must have access to accurate definitions of terms like deconstructionism and post-culturalism and both sides must agree on these definitions. Barton doesn’t seem to understand what these important schools of social and literary criticism stand for, which is not only embarrassing, it also makes it very difficult for real academics to make sense of his argument. Barton’s work is nothing more than a form of historical creationism and because of the religious motivations behind his work, engaging with him in an academic debate is very similar to a debate between an evolutionary biologist and a creationist.
Most evolutionary biologists feel that engaging in a “debate” and thus even for a second implying that creationism stands on the same ground as evolution is completely ludicrous. Barton’s claims, ideas, and arguments fall into a similar category. He is a great example of the thesis that Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson have outlined in The Anointed –Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age (2012). Trying to find an answer to the question of why anyone would value Evangelic gurus over trained authorities who are far more qualified to comment on subjects like the origins of life or the worldview of the founding fathers, Stephens and Giberson argue that “intellectual authority works differently in the ‘parallel culture’ of evangelicalism.” “In this world of prophecy conferences and homeschooling curriculums, a dash of charisma, a media empire and a firm stance on the right side of the line between us and them, matter more than a fancy degree.” And this basically sums up why academics should stay in ‘their ivory towers’, rather than engaging in an impossible debate.