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On refuting David Barton's work

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1/12/2012 6:19:25 PM
Posted: 4 years ago
[For those unfamiliar with David Barton, he is--in general--an American evanglical Christian historian whose works have been noted for supposed revisionism and rank disregard of historical fact or method.

The following is a critique on refuting David Barton's work by Paul Havery....., history professor at the University of Colorado [

"I don't question the necessity of pointing out Barton's history of outright falsehoods, explaining the fallacies of his presentism (as in using a 1765 sermon or a 1792 congressional vote to show that the original intent of the founders was to oppose bailout and stimulus plans), and introducing to non-experts the abundant evidence calling his historical worldview of the Christian Founders into question. Yet while these kinds of refutations are necessary, they are not sufficient. That's because Barton's project is not fundamentally an historical one.

That's why historians' takedown of his ahistorical approach ultimately won't matter that much. Nor will historians' explanations of his presentism, and his obvious and unapologetic ideological agenda (albeit considerably muted for his appearance on The Daily Show). While all the historians' refutations are good and necessary, ultimately they won't matter for the audience which exists in his alternate intellectual universe, one described in much greater detail in my colleague Randall Stephens' forthcoming book The Anointed: Evangelical Experts in a Secular Age...

After all the refutations and belittling of pedigree, Barton still appears in a New York Times "puff piece," argues with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, and fields calls from congressmen and presidential candidates. In short, if this were a basketball game between Barton and professional historians, in some ways it's already a rout, with Barton far ahead and the scrubs in to play out the garbage time.

Some of that is because of the skill of Barton and his organization WallBuilders at ideological entrepreneurialism. Barton's intent is not to produce "scholarship," but to influence public policy. He simply is playing a different game than worrying about scholarly credibility, his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. His game is to inundate public policy makers (including local and state education boards as well as Congress) with ideas packaged as products that will move policy.

Historical scholarship moves slowly and carefully, usually shunning the public arena; Barton's proof-texting, by contrast, supplies ready-made (if sometimes made-up) quotations ready for use in the latest public policy debate, whether they involve school prayer, abortion, the wonders of supply-side economics, the Defense of Marriage Act, or the capital gains tax. And Barton's engagingly winsome personality, fully on display on The Daily Show, doesn't hurt. He fires facts faster than they can be fought off, and he does so with a sort of Gomer Pyle sincerity that makes his critics look churlish.

Besides this sort of organizational skill and personal charisma, however, Barton's success at withstanding the phalanx of professional critics comes because he taps into a long history of "Christian Nation" providentialism.

In short, perhaps the best way to understand Barton is as a historical product of Christian providentialist thinking, one with significant historical roots and usually with a publicly convincing spokesman. He is the latest in a long line of ideologically persuasive spokesmen for preserving American's Protestant character." []

"Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto." --Terence

"I believe that the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things, so that all our thoughts shall be tinged with triviality."--Thoreau