We've been having a lively discussion on this blog, thanks to Paul's post, and there have been other discussion raging in the blogosphere about David Barton and the uses and abuses of history. The selective use of anecdotes, prooftexts, and the decontextualized way of doing history are closely connected. And, thanks to David Barton and his recent headline grabbing, we have a case in point.
Suppose an amateur Bible scholar said "I know everything there is to know about the Old Testament books of Genesis and I and II Chronicles." Then imagine you asked him/her about what he/she knew about Bronze and Iron Age religion and society, or the development of monotheism in the ancient Near East, or the Epic of Gilgamesh, or the original languages, or the extensive secondary literature written by thousands upon thousands of scholars who know way more about the subject. Then suppose he/she replies "no" on every count. Now, how is it again that this person really knows something important about Genesis and I and II Chronicles? This is a Theron Ware situation if there ever was one. Ignorance of context sometimes gives people remarkable confidence!
Barton does not recognized the idea that the past is like a foreign country. Instead Barton tends to flatten out time and space and make it almost seem as if the Founders are our contemporaries, motivated by the same concerns that motivate us now. Yet people in the past--whether we're talking about leaders of Bronze Age tribes or bewigged 18th century nabobs who tinkered on their mansions, read Montaigne in their spare time, or enjoyed arm-chair speculation about nature and providence--are not the same as us. This seems like a kindergarten point, but it's apparently lost on David Barton. (See his famous and repeated misuse of the word "seminary," in which he makes no effort to explain how that word meant something markedly different in the 18th century.)
At the Way of Improvement Leads Home John Fea makes an excellent, related point about context and Barton's ignoring an avalanche of inconvenient information:
I challenge you to go to Wallbuilders website and find much of anything about the fact that the many of the most important founding fathers rejected orthodox Christian doctrines such as the Trinity and the resurrection of Jesus. Good luck finding any sustained discussion about Thomas Jefferson and James Madison's successful attempt to separate church and state in colonial Virginia or the fact that their efforts were supported by evangelical Baptists with a theology similar to Barton's. These facts of history do not help Barton promote his ideological agenda, so why bother with them?
Nearly any trained historian worth his or her salt who takes a close look at Barton and his hyper-politicized work will see glaring gaps in what he writes and talks about. He dresses his founders in 21st-century garb. He's not interested in knowing much about the history of colonial America or the US in the early republic. Why? Because he's using history to craft a very specific, anti-statist, Christian nationalist, evangelical-victimization argument in the present. (Remember the many unconfirmed quotations Barton used in the 1990s? He did so because, first and foremost, he was trying to make a political point.)
In history circles this is what we call "bad history."