Not into History

Randall Stephens

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?

Right on.

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."


Tom Van Dyke said…
If "we" are indeed having a discussion on Barton, let me say that I acknowledge I'm defending a guilty man.

I'm just asking for the pillory instead of the gallows, the latter being what most of his critics want.

[Many of his critics aren't proper historians either, and have their own measure of errors. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? In the least, Barton's critics should not be used as source material. Misrepresentations are rife, and the man's guilty enough already.]

For the record, I've heard Barton explicitly acknowledge that Ben Franklin was no orthodox Christian.

Now it's true that Barton elides the unitarian controversy religiously [!]. However, it has yet to be shown that unitarianism had much of an impact on the American founding theology. For instance, Samuel Adams was a devout Calvinist, his cousin John a unitarian, yet they were peas in the revolutionary pod.

Further, John's unitarianism only comes out after he leaves public life. His thxgiving proclamation of 1798 lists "the Father of Mercies," "the Redeemer of the World," and "His Holy Spirit."

This surely was plenty Trinitarian enough for the unsuspicious reader. Adams the public man "passed" for a Trinitarian.

I'd further submit that normative doctrine isn't the only measure of "Christianity." The "unitarian Christians" of the Founding era still acknowledged Jesus as Messiah, and the Bible as Holy Writ. Since I have no skin in the evangelical game, I would not insult a modern Stone-Campbell Protestant who is "soft" on the Trinity by the appellation "non-Christian."

And from what I gather about modern "Meliorists"

they hold the Bible as less literally the Word of God than many of the "unitarian Christians" of the Founding era.

Can the historian call such folks "non-Christian?" What grounding does "the historian" have in theology? [For many, no grounding atall; the theological issues pass by uncomprehended.] By what scholarly authority does "the historian" decide who/what is Christian and who/what is not?

None of this is to excuse David Barton's errors. Neither does he seem to have the necessary chops to defend himself along these lines, where at least he could make a go of it with his secular critics.

But he is not bound to respect the round hole they have prepared for him, drawing a distinction between the sacred and the secular. Stipulated, he is a square peg, and stipulated further that he's not always on the square.

The ironic thing about the Inquisition[s] was that the accused's lawyer was supplied by the Church, so that those guilty of heresy or error were found guilty of only their actual heresies and errors, no more or less. I reckon that's where I'm coming from here, watching the watchers.
Paul Harvey said…
To "Our Founding Truth" -- You'll note that your comment was deleted without posting. The internet is full of outlets for hate and idiocy, you're free to post your Paleolithic theological views there.

Just to restate blog policy: I post nearly all comments sent here, save for spam, but Randall and I reserve the right to omit hate-filled homophobic rants. Regrettably we do sometimes get them (and a huge volume of spam), hence the need for moderation.
Matt Sutton said…
Great piece Randall!
LD said…
Amen, Randall.

I especially appreciate your wonderful analogy about the amateur Bible scholar who thinks he can claim expertise without knowledge of context. That's the equivalent of Barton's "scholarship."

However, as you no doubt know, that sort of stance does pass for serious Biblical scholarship among many Fundamentalists. The whole point of Fundamentalism is a rejection of history, of context. That goes for Biblical scholarship as much as it does for history.

Historical context is something to be used and cherry-picked for corroborating sermon illustrations, but no Fundamentalist worth his salt would ever concede that it's necessary to be familiar with the Epic of Gilgamesh to understand Genesis. In a Fundamentalist hermeneutic, the Bible is its own guide to interpretation.

This is why Barton's harping on "the original documents" strikes such a chord with his sympathizers/followers. This is why they can and will consider him a scholar.

And those of us who suggest that historical context might be just a little bit important in understanding history can be dismissed as obscurantists who are conspiring to hide or distort "the truth."

I never posted any hate-filled rants. I apologize if you think I did.
Brad Hart said…
My $0.02:

The problem with historical extremists/revisionists like Barton is that they almost always rely on half truths and obscure provisos to support their ridiculous conclusions. Much like the heroin dealer who must "cut" his drug in order to reduce the potency of the product he is selling, so too does Barton "cut" his history in order to better infect his target audience. And in consequence, Barton followers become addicted to the belief that he alone understands the "true" nature of American religious history, while the evil, fascist, socialist, Marxist, progressive, liberal college historians (Dr. Harvey and Dr. Fea) are only interested in removing Christianity and subverting all of our freedoms. I used to be in a few of Dr. Harvey's classes and I am still infected to this day :)

And yes, Our Founding Truth, there are idiots on the left that are guilty of the same stuff (Howard Zinn, anyone?).

But the problem with Barton is much larger than his idiocy. Sadly, his extreme agenda has been made out to be mainstream by the likes of Glenn Beck (who is just a few brain cells away from playing with his own poop) and his "university", and Mike Huckabee, who thinks we all need to listen to Barton AT GUNPOINT! This is what separates Barton from others. The "walking Smithsonian" (as Beck calls him) has the backing of some of the most influential culture warriors out there. And as Barton is often fond of saying, "God help us."

In conclusion, I think Martin Luther King Jr. put it best when he said, "Nothing is more dangerous to the world than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity."

BTW, since when did Religion in American History become American Creation? Thanks for stealing my thunder, Dr. Harvey. =)

So David Barton is an idiot? I wouldn't call him that. Moreover, I never posted any hate-filled rant like I was accused of.

Barton makes mistakes like everyone else, which includes his claim "unitarians believed in the Trinity. He shouldn't be doing that. We all know belief in their H.S. is different than their belief in the Trinity. That has nothing to do with the Christian Nation thesis, but he's wrong anyway.

Barton should have said we were formed a Christian Nation because the framers explicitly said so.
Brad Hart said…
Yes, OFT, Barton is an idiot. Enough said.

Ever wonder why you keep getting banned from all kinds of blogs, or have your comments removed?
Tom Van Dyke said…
I happen to agree with my blograther Mr. Hart here that Barton is in some real way an "idiot."

"Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence."

...said somebody wise, probably apocryphally. I have found Mr. OFT a vivid example of this, seeing in source texts things that are not plainly there. Plainly not there. The seeds of republicanism in the Torah.

I have found David Barton of the same stripe. I give them both the benefit of the doubt that they are, to their own minds, men of good faith and honestly believe they see what they think they're seeing.

I do not attribute their errors to malice or dishonesty. In fact, Paul, I don't attribute NPR's leftism to either, either. I reckon they reckon they're playing it straight-up.

NPR fans probably even think Garrison Keillor sings passably in tune, as if he's fooling the rest of us. So it goes.

I'm sure your family wouldn't like anyone calling you an idiot. I have been posting on plenty of blogs that have an open mind, and not intolerant of views different than your own.

I've also learned most of the name-calling is against Christians. I've learned to shrug it off. I have more important issues to deal with in my life than worry about getting called names or being attacked for my views. It is what it is.
Tom said: The seeds of republicanism in the Torah.

18th Century Evangelical Pastors such as Ezra Stiles, Timothy Dwight of Yale, and Samuel Langdon of Harvard, echoed the same Republicanism in Exodus 18 that Evangelical Pastors do today. Furthermore, Langdon was brilliant. The University of Aberdeen gave him the degree of Doctor of Divinity in 1762. He was a charter member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, that most of the Northeastern intellectual framers joined. He published Summary of Christian Faith and Practice (1768); Observations on the Revelations (1791); Remarks on the Leading Sentiments of Dr. Hopkins's System of Doctrines (1794) and many sermons. In 1761, in connection with Colonel Joseph Blanchard, he prepared and published a map of New Hampshire.
Brad Hart said…
Whatever makes you feel better, OFT. Keep playing your Don Quixote role. Just glad you aren't bugging our blog anymore.
Bruce Kelly said…
When looking at religious history it would be preposterous to try and separate political slant. As we all know any writing is the product of its time. The fact that Barton is just half of our contemporary left/right culture shouldn't be the mark against him. While David Barton won't hold the same scholastic values as John Fea, he still contributes the opposing values of a two sided debate. He might argue that historical writing outside of academia has no value unless it affects political policy. For all I know that may be right.
James Ferguson said…
I followed the link from Paul Harvey's piece in religion dispatches magazine. I recently read The Jefferson Lies, which lives up to its name, and posted a negative review at amazon which has received scores of hits (pro and con) as well as comments. My review is under James Ferguson,

What I noticed from the comments and other reviews is that those who most vehemently defended the book had obviously not read it. I think this is the case with Barton's books in general, save maybe children's stories like The Bulletproof George Washington. The books appear to be an extension of his web site and copious videos available directly on the Internet. As such, their only purpose appears to be to lend weight to his many dubious claims, by adding a slough of endnotes, as if these books were a product of research.

Mr. Harvey is correct in that you can't argue against the Bartonites by pointing to the many egregious factual errors. They are unfazed. They see Barton's ahistoricism akin to those politicians who proclaim themselves as "outside the beltway." Any criticism simply means you are one of the cultural elite and therefor immediately suspect.

I've noticed that not one major magazine or news periodical has reviewed his books, not even the Christian Science Monitor. It seems that most book critics and historians choose to keep their distance. It is kind of like the "debate" on evolution, which Randy Olsen summed up so well in Flock of Dodos. Historians are simply not taking the bait, at least not yet.

But, that doesn't stop him from seeking attention. His second appearance on The Daily Show worked for him again, as he showed his followers he was willing to go into the "lion's den" for them and come out intact. Stewart played softball with him once again. He even promotes his books on his website. This is what I find bothersome. Sure, Stewart can keep a friendly tone, but why plug this guy?

Barton does need to be challenged. Maybe the best way of doing so is by Obama showing more respect to leading historians as he did by carrying around Goodwin's Team of Rivals during the 2008 campaign, which will soon be made into a movie. Hopefully, it will be an engaging movie.

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