David Barton is like “Party in the U.S.A.” Despite my scrupulous efforts to avoid them at all cost, one little hook—be it that opening guitar line of the inane Miley Cyrus hit or a classic Barton line about Founders’ “seminary or ‘Bible school’” training— sets the whole tune rattling around my unwilling skull for days. Barton’s latest book, The Jefferson Lies, has led to a flurry of responses: huge sales, point-by-point refutations, a recall by its publisher, and a number of excellent blog posts and articles. But I try not to read them. Why spend my time on this? I have a thesis to write. I want to talk about something “serious.”
But David Barton is serious. His books have sold millions; his ideas influence education policy; his supporters include members of Congress. While I am glad that others have taken up the task of refuting Barton’s ideas on historical grounds, there is further inquiry to be done. What interests me is not so much the content of Barton’s work but its context. Barton may have failed to historicize Thomas Jefferson, but scholars of American religions should not fail to historicize and theorize Barton and his audience. What are the epistemological systems—and the history of those systems—that undergird Barton-devotees’ allegiances? How does Barton fit in the context of the Religious Right? What about Common Sense Realism? What about the history of American education? Which theorists can help us understand Barton and his audience? Questions like these, and the complexity of their answers, are what keep me coming back to Barton, besting my efforts to ignore him: “Ok, one more YouTube clip, then back to work. Just one more article. Ok, now I’ll write one.”
David Barton most recently imposed himself upon my brain as I was reading Maurice Halbwachs’s On Collective Memory. Though published nearly a century ago, Halbwachs’s work is remarkably useful, and it holds up well in light of later theorists and new understandings of human psychology. In On Collective Memory, Halbwachs demonstrates the ways that community identity, informing and informed by individuals’ self-understanding, relies on reconstructions of the past. Those reconstructions, though, are never exact, as they are inevitably influenced, on a cultural as well as psychological level, by present circumstances. In short, for Halbwachs, memories work within “social frameworks.” These frameworks help determine collective and individual behaviors, including memories but also feelings and emotional expression, religious beliefs, and systems for evaluating truth. So, taking our lead from Halbwachs, we can ask—by what social frameworks do Barton’s devotees evaluate knowledge? Halbwachs offers some general theoretical guidance, which can be added to historically-based analysis, to this question.
Some popular recent books have argued that, on a psychological level, the “conservative” mind and “liberal” mind are different. Halbwachs would probably agree with this, though he would emphasize that these mindsets are reinforced, if not created, by one’s family, religious community, class, and locality. For these reasons, though I am grateful for the work to refute Barton, I think that much of it will miss its mark. It is never about history with Barton, at least not in the way historians understand “history.” Thus, to engage with him in historical debates does not really work. For Barton, it’s about the present. Barton peddles not in history but in collective memory. What Halbwachs says about family stories can apply also to Barton’s mythologies: These stories are not (just) narrations of fact; they “are at the same time models, examples, and elements of teaching. They express the general attitude of the group; they not only reproduce its history but also define its nature and its qualities and weaknesses” (59).
Halbwachs’s analysis of family mythology can, I think, be reasonably and fruitfully extended to American subcultures today. Halbwachs singled out family stories for their extreme locality. However, American culture, though less split along regional lines, is still very highly fragmented. Substitute “subculture” for “family” in the following passage from On Collective Memory: “Each family ends up with its own logic and traditions, which resemble those of the general society in that they derive from it and continue to regulate the family’s relations with general society. But this logic and these traditions are nevertheless distinct because they are little by little pervaded by the family’s particular experiences and because their role is increasingly to insure the family’s cohesion and to guarantee its continuity” (83).
Barton draws on the logic and traditions of the “general society” by talking about the Constitution, emphasizing the Founding Fathers, etc. Barton wrote about Jefferson because Americans, writ large, think Jefferson is important. However, Barton’s (and, of course, his audience’s) traditions and even his very logic is influenced by the logic and tradition not only of “general society” but also of a conservative evangelical subculture. For instance, there seems to be a clear connection between Barton’s shunning of secondary sources and relentlessly textual approach that rings true to conservative evangelicals. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that Barton’s approach must feel familiar—and true—to those whose biblical hermeneutics are ahistorical, textual, and presentist.
So, there is my brief Halbwachsian take. But there is still much more analysis undone, articles to be written, and RSS feeds to fill. Let us press on through our Barton fatigue! It is in this spirit that I now pass the baton to you, dear reader. Since we can’t stop talking about him—and I don’t really see why we should—what are some other ways, historical and/or theoretical, to talk about David Barton?