John Fea

Why is David Barton Ducking Debates About his Work?

Last year, Warren Throckmorton began writing a series of blog posts about the false claims made by David Barton about Thomas Jefferson, which eventually culminated in a new book he co-authored called "Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President."

At the time when Throckmorton was just beginning this undertaking, he was invited to appear on a radio program hosted by Paul Edwards to discuss his work alongside Barton himself, who had initially agreed to appear on the program but then reneged once he learned that he'd actually have to defend his work against someone who could challenge his false claims and set the record straight. Barton eventually agreed to appear on the program but refused to debate Throckmorton directly, insisting that he would only speak with Edwards.

Throckmorton has not been the only one working to debunk Barton's brand of right-wing pseudo-history, as history professor John Fea has also taken on Barton's work in both his book "Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?" as well as on his blog.

Today, Fea reported that he and Barton were invited to appear on a radio program hosted by Jerry Newcombe of Truth in Action Ministries last night to discuss Barton's work ... and once again, when faced with the prospect of having to defend his work against someone capable of setting the record straight, Barton backed out

Newcombe didn't waste any time bringing up David Barton's new book on Thomas Jefferson. He thought that Barton's argument in the book was on the mark and he questioned why I had called him a "pseudo-historian." He reminded me that "pseudo" was a derivative of the Greek word for "liar."

I responded to Newcombe by saying some of the same things I have written about numerous times here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. I think Barton's work is problematic for two reasons.

First, he often gets his facts wrong. (On this point I gave a plug for Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter's e-book, Getting Jefferson Right). Newcombe defended Barton by pointing to the numerous "unconfirmed quotations" that Barton put on his website after he was called out by historians. He saw this as a mark of Barton's integrity. I wonder if Barton will do the same thing about some of his factual inaccuracies and misleading interpretations in The Jefferson Lies.

Second, Barton misrepresents the past by manipulating it for his own partisan political views. Historians need to be somewhat removed from the political process so that they can interpret the past in a disinterested and nonpartisan way. If they get too broiled in promoting causes they lose some of their integrity as historians.

...

I was originally supposed to appear on the show with David Barton, but Barton backed out.

UPDATE: Fea clarifies that Barton was not necessarily scheduled to be on at the same time as him, but rather later in the program:

I think I should clarify. I was never scheduled to be on the Newcombe show AT THE SAME TIME as Barton. He was going to follow me. In other words, we were never scheduled to be on the air together. All I know is that I was contacted by a publicist (who was contacted by Newcombe) who asked me to appear on the show. I was told that Barton would be on the air following my interview with Newcombe. Then a day or two later I was told that Barton would not be on the show. I should say that this has happened more than once. Draw your own conclusions.

Right Wing Round-Up

David Barton Is Not A Historian

As we have noted before, actual historians tend to agree that David Barton is not a historian but rather a Religious Right activist who intentionally misrepresents history in order to promote his political agenda.

And with every presentation he delivers, Barton just reinforces that fact. 

For instance, Focus on the Family ran a two-day broadcast last week featuring one of Barton's presentation in which he made the following assertion:

You see, even in previous generations, we fully expected our military and our political leaders to be highly religious. You've probably seen lots of pictures of George Washington kneeling in prayer. And the reason you've seen so many of them is there's so much evidence to that. You have so many eyewitness testimonies of ... of people like General Henry Knox and people like General John Marshall and people like General Marquis de Lafayette. You've got the eyewitness testimony of all sorts of congressional leaders, Charles Thompson, etc. You've got the testimony of his own children, his own family, his own ministers.

There's so much out there and isn't it interest ... interesting that today George Washington has become one of our leading deist Founding Fathers? "Why, he didn't even believe in God. He wasn't religious." Now why that? Well, you find that, that has a great impact on public policy. You see you wouldn't really want it to appear that someone with the credibility of George Washington might actually endorse public religious expressions. So, what we do is make him into a nonreligious individual.

People probably have seen pictures of Washington praying, especially since Barton himself used it as the cover for his book "America's Godly Heritage":

But, as Professor John Fea explained, the incident featured in the painting probably never happened: 

There is one major problem with Potts's story of Washington praying at Valley Forge - it probably did not happen. While it is likely that Washington prayed while he was with the army at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-1778, it is unlikely that the story reported by Potts, memorialized in paintings and read to millions of schoolchildren, is anything more than legend. It was first told in the seventeenth edition (1816) of Mason Lock Weem's Life of Washington. Weems claimed to have heard it directly from Potts, his "good old FRIEND." Potts may have owned the house where Washington stayed at Valley Forge, but his aunt Deborah Potts Hewes was living there alone at the time. Indeed, Potts was probably not even residing in Valley Forge during the encampment. And he was definitely not married.  It would be another twenty-five years before he wed Sarah, making a conversation with her in the wake of the supposed Washington prayer impossible. Another version of the story, which appeared in the diary of Reverend Nathaniel Randolph Snowden, claims that it was John Potts, Issac's brother, who heard Washington praying. These discrepancies, coupled with the fact that Weems was known for writing stories about Washington based upon scanty evidence, have led historians to discredit it.

In fact, Fea dedicated an entire chapter in his book "Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction" to examining Washington's faith.  In it, Fea explained that, contrary to Barton's assertion, Washington's faith was very private and that often those close to him had no idea what his beliefs really were:

Lest one thing that this debate is a new one, it is worth noting that many of Washington's contemporaries also wondered whether he was a true believer. Reverend Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale College and one of the leaders of the evangelical revival known as the Second Great Awakening, felt confident that Washington was a Christian, but he was also aware that "doubts may and will exist" about the substance of his faith. Reverend Stanley Griswold, the pastor of the Congregational Church in New Milford, Connecticut knew that there were many who objected to the belief that Washington was a Christian. Thomas Jefferson was also fascinated by the question of Washington's religion. In 1800 he recorded in his private diary a bit of gossip surrounding this questions:

Dr. Rush tells me that he had it from Asa Green that when the clergy addressed Genl. Washington on his departure from the Government, it was observed in their consultation that he had never on any occasion said a word to the public which showed a belief in the Christian religion and they thought they should so pen their address as to force him at length to declare publicly whether he was a Christian or not. They did so.

However he observed the old fox was too cunning for them. He answered every article of their address particularly except that, which he passed over without notice. Rush observes he never did say a word on the subject in any of his public papers except in his valedictory letter to the Governors of the states when he resigned his commission in the army, wherein he speaks of "the benign influence of the Christian religion".

I know that Gouverneur Morris, who pretended to be in his secrets & believed himself to be so, has often told me that General Washington believed no more of that system than he himself did.

...

Many of Washington's contemporaries and people who knew him well had a lot to say about his religious faith. Bishop William White, the Episcopal bishop of Pennsylvania and Washington's pastor while he lived in Philadelphia during his years as president, said that he didn't know anything that would prove Washington believed in Christian revelation.

As Fea notes, some who knew Washington believed him to be a "truly devout man," while others said they knew nothing about his personal faith at all, leading Fea to conclude that Washington's "religious life was just too ambiguous."

But acknowledging any ambiguity would only undermine David Barton's entire professional enterprise, so he instead asserts that there is overwhelming eyewitness testimony to Washington's deep and public Christian faith ... which only goes to demonstrate, once again, that Barton has no interest in teaching, or even recognizing, history that does not promote his political agenda.

Right Wing Round-Up

Historians Agree: David Barton Is No Historian

David Barton has been in the spotlight lately.  In recent weeks, he was featured in a New York Times profile, interviewed on "The Daily Show," and was even the focus on a long report we released chronicling his career of peddling right-wing pseudohistory for political gain.

The upside of Barton's recent high profile is that bona fide historians who, unlike Barton, actually have training and credentials, are starting to stand up to Barton's flagrant and intentional misuse of history.

For instance, yesterday Paul Harvey, a Professor of History at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, wrote a piece for Religion Dispatches explaining that Barton is not in any sense a historian, but rather a propaganda artist who seeks to create the impression that there is some sort of "debate" over the issue of America's identity as a Christian nation that he can use to promote his right-wing political agenda:

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. ...

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 ... The Christian Nation “debate” is not really an intellectual contest between legitimate contending viewpoints. Instead, it is a manufactured “controversy” akin to the global warming “debate.” On the one side are purveyors of a rich and complex view of the past, including most historians who have written and debated fiercely about the founding era. On the “other side” is a group of ideological entrepreneurs who have created an alternate intellectual universe based on a historical fundamentalism. In their drive to create a usable past, they show little respect for the past as a foreign country.

That point was echoed by Randall Stephens, an Associate Professor of History at Eastern Nazarene College, who has no time for Barton's "kindergarten" understanding of history or his "hyper-politicized work":

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.

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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."

Finally, John Fea, author of "Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction," and Associate Professor of American History at Messiah College, has been writing an ongoing series debunking Barton's appearance on "The Daily Show," along with a piece warning Christians not to fall for his propaganda:

Wallbuilders is a political organization that selectively uses history to promote a religious and ideological agenda. Barton believes that America's last, best hope is a return to its so-called Christian roots. In his most famous book, Original Intent, Barton argues that the removal of Christianity from the public square has resulted in a rise in birth rates for unwed girls, a spike in violent crime, more sexually transmitted diseases, lower SAT scores, and an increase in single parent households. And he has convinced thousands and thousands of Christians that he is right.

Barton claims to be a historian. He is not. He has just enough historical knowledge, and just enough charisma, to be very dangerous. During his appearance on The Daily Show, Barton impressed the faithful with his grasp of American history and his belief that Christians are being subtly persecuted in this country. But if you watch the show carefully, you will notice that Barton is a master at dodging controversial questions. He refuses to admit that sometimes history does not conform to our present-day political agendas.

...

Here is the bottom line: Christians should think twice before they rely on David Barton for their understanding of the American founding. Let's not confuse history with propaganda.

As Fea says, "the more popular Barton becomes, the more his views will be debunked by what I am imagining will be an ever-growing chorus of critics" ... but that task sure would be made easier if  Republican leaders like Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, and Mike Huckabee would stop actively embracing and promoting Barton's pseudohistorical propaganda.

Fact Checking Barton Part IV: "I Never Had To Retract A Single Thing"

David Barton tells Jon Stewart that he never took President John Adams’ ideas on the relationship of church and state out of context. First Barton lies about Adams’ faith, positing that he was a 'Trinitarian Unitarian.' Unitarianism, however, is based on the rejection of the Trinity and noted Unitarian thinker James Freeman Clarke writes that “Unitarians, strictly speaking, are those Christians who reject the Church doctrine of the Trinity, and do not believe that Jesus is God the Son, equal with the Father, or that he is the Supreme Being.”

After misrepresenting Unitarian beliefs, Barton defends his use of Adams’ quote. As People For the American Way details in the report, Barton’s Bunk, David Barton absolutely cherry picked from Adams’s remarks:

One of the most damning fact-checks concerns a letter from John Adams to Benjamin Rush from 1809. Barton cites a long section of the letter in which Adams says, in part, “There is no authority, civil or religious –there can be no legitimate government - but what is administered by this Holy Ghost. There can be no salvation without it – all without it is rebellion and perdition, or, in more orthodox words, damnation.” But Barton does not include the sentence which immediately follows, which is “Although this is all Artifice and Cunning in the secret original in the heart, yet they all believe it so sincerely that they would lay down their Lives under the Ax or the fiery Fagot for it. Alas the poor weak ignorant Dupe human Nature.” In other words, Adams was mocking the very point that Barton claims he was making.

Later, the beginning of the third part of the interview, Barton told Stewart that he “never had to retract a single thing.”

Oh really? As noted in Barton’s Bunk, Barton “edited and renamed one book (The Myth of Separation became Original Intent) after critics pointed out false material.”

Here are just a few erroneous quotes of the Founding Fathers used by Barton in his books and documentaries that he later admitted were questionable:

We have staked the whole future of all our political constitutions upon the capacity of each of ourselves to govern ourselves according to the moral principles of the Ten Commandments. – Falsely attributed to James Madison

The highest glory of the American Revolution was this: It connected in one indissoluble bond the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity. - Falsely attributed to John Quincy Adams

It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible. - Falsely attributed to George Washington

I have always said and always will say that the studious perusal of the Sacred Volume will make us better citizens. - Falsely attributed to Thomas Jefferson

It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ. - Falsely attributed to Patrick Henry

It appears now that David Barton has to mislead others to cover-up his own falsehoods.

He also dismisses historians who disagree with him simply as secularists. But many of his major critics are indeed Christian historians, such as J. Brent Walker of the Baptist Joint Committee, John Fea of Messiah College and Warren Throckmorton of Grove City College. Barton may be an expert in dodging questions, but he has holds little respect for the study of history.

The Founding Fathers Had a National Motto: E Pluribus Unum

Rep. Randy Forbes is on a mission to pass a resolution affirming that the national motto "In God We Trust" and House Republicans are playing right along, so it is no surprise that Religious Right activists like the Family Research Council's Ken Klukowski are stepping up to make their contribution to this important effort as well:

Odds are good the Founding Fathers would be astounded by the religious controversies of this past week.

First, Rep. Randy Forbes, R-VA, introduced a resolution reaffirming “In God We Trust” as our national motto. He did so in part after President Obama wrongly claimed the national motto is “E Pluribus Unum.”

Forbes’s resolution failed last year when he introduced it under House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her Democratic majority. Now under Republicans, the resolution is headed to a floor vote after being approved by the House Judiciary Committee.

Even so, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-VA, claimed the words “In God We Trust” are unconstitutional, an assertion that would likely stun James Madison and members of the first Congress who approved the First Amendment.

Can I just point out that "In God We Trust" did not become our national motto until the 1950s, as John Fea explained in "Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction":

In 1954 Congress approved an act to add the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance ... In 1955 this connection between God and the United States was further strengthened when Congress opted to put the words "In God We Trust" on all United States coins and currency. The following years it changed the national motto from "E Pluribus Unum" to "In God We Trust."

Allow me also to point out that in 1776, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin were tasked with designing Great Seal of the United States, which they did - and it carried the phrase "E Pluribus Unum."

In fact, "E Pluribus Unum" was considered the de facto motto of the United States for nearly two hundred years ... until it was changed to "In God We Trust" in 1955.

So I am pretty sure that the Founding Fathers would be stunned to learn that the national motto is "In God We Trust," given that Congress adopted the Great Seal with its motto of "E Pluribus Unum" in  1782.

Random Book Blogging: The Faith of the Founding Fathers

In the final episode of "Random Book Blogging" based on John Fea's "Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction," I want to highlight two passages that relate to the Religious Right's insistence that the Founding Fathers were ultra-religious Christians who intended to create a Christian nation.

From the moment he began running for president, Barack Obama has been relentlessly criticized by the Religious Right whenever he speaks about his faith.  In fact, for years now, we have been hearing how Obama is not actually a Christian and that his understanding of the Christian faith is woefully inadequate.

John Adams, on the other hand, is held up as a paragon of what it means to be a true Christian and a statesmen.  But, for some reason, the Religious Right never bothers to mention that, like Thomas Jefferson, Adams did not believe that Jesus was God or that he died for the sins of mankind and actually mocked the idea:

[Adams] could not accept the historic Christian belief that Jesus Christ was God or that his death atoned for the sins of the world: "An incarnate God!!! An eternal, self-existent omnipresent Author of this stupendous Universe suffering on a Cross!!! My Soul starts with horror, at the Idea." Adams thought the notion of "a mere creature, or finite Being," making "Satisfaction to the infinite justice for the sins of the world" was a "convenient Cover for absurdity." These doctrines were not part of the pure and undefiled teachings of Jesus as found in the Gospels, but were rather created by the leaders of the early Christian church who "misunderstood" Jesus' message and thus presented it in "very paradoxical Shapes."

Can you imagine the reaction of the Religious Right today if President Obama were to make such a claim?

But perhaps nothing better sums up the misrepresentation and pseudo-history peddled by the likes of David Barton than this:

That is the cover of Barton's "America's Godly Heritage" and it is a famous painting of George Washington kneeling in prayer while his troops were camped at Valley Forge.  As the story goes, a man named Issac Potts owned the home where Washington was staying at the time and stumbled upon him making supplication to God on behalf of his army and the American cause, and Potts rushed home to tell his wife Sarah what he had seen.

There is only one problem:

There is one major problem with Potts's story of Washington praying at Valley Forge - it probably did not happen. While it is likely that Washington prayed while he was with the army at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-1778, it is unlikely that the story reported by Potts, memorialized in paintings and read to millions of schoolchildren, is anything more than legend. It was first told in the seventeenth edition (1816) of Mason Lock Weem's Life of Washington. Weems claimed to have heard it directly from Potts, his "good old FRIEND." Potts may have owned the house where Washington stayed at Valley Forge, but his aunt Deborah Potts Hewes was living there alone at the time. Indeed, Potts was probably not even residing in Valley Forge during the encampment. And he was definitely not married.  It would be another twenty-five years before he wed Sarah, making a conversation with her in the wake of the supposed Washington prayer impossible. Another version of the story, which appeared in the diary of Reverend Nathaniel Randolph Snowden, claims that it was John Potts, Issac's brother, who heard Washington praying. These discrepancies, coupled with the fact that Weems was known for writing stories about Washington based upon scanty evidence, have led historians to discredit it.

So while actual historian discredit the legend about Washington praying in the woods at Valley Forge, a psuedo-historian like David Barton plops a painting of it on the cover of his book and DVD about "America's godly heritage."

And that should pretty much tell you all you need to know.

Random Book Blogging: The Godless Constitution

In the last "Random Book Blogging" post, we excerpted a few sections from John Fea's "Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction" where he explained that, contrary to pseudo-historians like David Barton and his supporters, the Founders never intended the Declaration of Independence to be understood as establishing a Christian nation.

In today's post, Fea explains that there is nothing in the Constitution that suggests the Founders intended to create a Christian nation.  In fact, the lack of God in the document was one of the reasons Anti-Federalists regularly cited for opposing it:

While Anti-Federalist opposition was always more political than it was religious, many Anti-Federalists rejected the Constitution because it did not make any appeals to God. Even some statesmen who were prone to give their support to the Constitution on political grounds wondered why the framers had not made the slightest mention of God in drafting the document. The writings of these constitutional skeptics present an interesting dilemma for those today who want to argue that the Constitution was a Christian document. In the eighteenth century it was those who opposed the Constitution who made the strongest arguments in favor of the United states being a Christian nation ...

One of the most scathing critiques of the godlessness of the Constitution came from William Petrikin, an Anti-Federalist from Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Writing under the pseudonym "Aristocrotis," Petrikin attacked the framers of the Constitution as elitists who preferred a refined religion of "nature" over a religion of "supernatural divine origin." In doing so, he sounded a lot like a twenty-first century working-class evangelical complaining about the so-called secular liberal elites who had no respect for the Constitution. The difference, of course, was the Petkikin was attacking the U.S Constitution and the men who framed it ...

The Anti-Federalists wanted to insert an acknowledgment of God or a Christian requirement for officeholding into the Constitution because they took seriously the idea that religion was absolutely essential to a virtuous republic ... In the end, the Anti-Federalists lost. The Constitution was ratified and remains the foundation of American government today. The framers of this document chose deliberately to reject the notion that the U.S. government was a "Christian" government or that those who served in that government should acknowledge Christianity or even a belief in God. Today, many of the Anti-Federalist ideas about God and government can be found in the arguments made in defense of the notion that the U.S. Constitution was a Christian document that established a Christian nation. As far as history is concerned, the defenders of Christian America today cannot have it both ways. If they continue to defend the Constitution as a Christian document, they must be willing to part ways with some of the strongest eighteenth-century defenders of a Christian America, the Anti-Federalists. On the other hand, if they want to continue to make arguments in favor of a Christian America, then they might find some strong allies in the Anti-Federalists. But this would mean that they would to be a lot more skeptical and critical of the framers of the Constitution.

Random Book Blogging: The Declaration of Independence Did Not Establish a Christian Nation

I am continuing my "Random Book Blogging" posts this week with another excerpt from John Fea's "Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction," with this section focusing on the Religious Right's false claim that Declaration of Independence was a Christian document rooted in Christian principles because it contains four references to God, including the famous proclamation that all men "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights."

Fea explains that those who cite the mentions of God the Declaration as evidence that America is a "Christian nation" are completely ignoring the document's "original intent":

Focusing too heavily on these passages, however, neglects the eighteenth-century motivation behind the writing of the Declaration. In other words, it misses the "original intent" of the document. For all the effort that Christian conservatives place on discerning and interpreting the "original intent" of the U.S. Constitution, there has been little effort to understand the meaning and purpose of the Declaration of Independence as the founders intended it.

Most would agree that the Declaration of Independence was not a theological or religious document, but neither was it designed primarily to teach Americans and the world about human rights. Americans have become so taken by the second paragraph of the document that they miss the purpose of the Declaration as understood by the Continental Congress, its team of authors, and its chief writer, Thomas Jefferson. In the context of the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence was just what it claimed to be - a "declaration" of "independence" from England and an assertion of American sovereignty in the world.

Historian David Armitage has argued convincingly that the Declaration of Independence was written primarily as a document asserting American political sovereignty in the hopes that the newly created United States would secure a place in the international community of nations. In fact, Armitage asserts, the Declaration was discussed abroad more than it was at home. This meant that the Declaration was "decidedly un-revolutionary. It would affirm the maxims of European statecraft, not affront them." To put this differently, the "self-evident truths" and "unalienable rights" of the Declaration's second paragraph would not have been particularly new or groundbreaking in the context of the eighteenth-century British world. These were ideals that all members of the British Empire valued regardless or whether they supported or opposed the American Revolution. The writers of the Declaration of Independence and the members of the Second Continental Congress who endorsed and signed it did not believe that they were advancing, as historian Pauline Maier has put it, "a classic statement of American political principles." This was a foreign policy document.

The writers of the Declaration viewed the document this way. In an 1825 letter to fellow Virginian Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson explained his motivation behind writing it:

"When forced, therefore, to resort to arms for redress, an appeal to the tribunal of the world was deemed proper for our jurisdiction. This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles or new arguments, never before thought of ... but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take."

Tomorrow, Fea examines the tension between today's Christian conservatives who claim that the Constitution established a Christian nation and the fact that the Anti-Federalists vehemently opposed the ratification of Constitution on the grounds that it was wickedly godless.

Random Book Blogging: David Barton's Misuse of History

Last year, during the debate over curriculum standards in Texas, we came across a quote from John Fea, Associate Professor of American History at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, on the way in which David Barton misuses and misrepresents history to further his Religious Right agenda:

"I'm an evangelical Christian, and I think David Barton and Peter Marshall are completely out to lunch. They are not experts on social studies and history. Neither of them are trained in history. They are preachers who use the past and history as a means of promoting a political agenda in the present." 

Last month, Fea released a book entitled "Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction" that he hopes will become a valuable resource between those who claim that America was founded to be a Christian nation and those who assert it was designed to be a purely secular state.

I received a copy of it last week and eagerly read through it and Fea's conclusion is that the question is complex and the answers are mixed in that Christian ideas and the Christian faith most certainly did play a important role in the founding of this nation, but that neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution can be considered Christian documents and that many of the Founding Fathers, while considering themselves to be Christians, held a variety of views that were deeply at odds with Christian orthodoxy.

I will be posting excerpts throughout the week, but for the purposes of this post, I want to highlight a few paragraphs relevant to David Barton and his fundamental misuse of history:

The discipline of history was never meant to function as a means of getting one's political point across or convincing people to join a cause. Yet Americans use the past for these purposes all the time. Such an approach to the past can easily degenerate into a form of propaganda or, as the historian Bernard Bailyn described it, "indoctrination by historical example."

This sort of present-mindedness is very common among those Christian writers and preachers who defend the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation. They enter the past with the preconceived purpose of trying to find the religious roots of the United States. If they are indeed able to gather evidence suggesting that the founders were Christians or believed that the promotion of religion was important to the success of the Republic, then they have gotten all that they need from the past. It has served them adequately as a tool from promoting a particular twenty-first century political agenda. It has provided ammunition to win the cultural war they are engaged in ...

Such an approach to the past is more suitable for a lawyer than for a historian. In fact, David Barton, one of the leading proponents of "Christian America," counter his opponents by suggesting that his research is done in accordance with the practices of the legal profession. Barton "let's the Founders speak for themselves in accordance with the legal rules of evidence." The difference between how a lawyer uses the past and how a historian interprets the past is huge. The lawyer cares about the past only to the degree that he or she can use the legal decision in the past to win a complex case in the present. A lawyer does not reconstruct the past in all its complexity, but rather cherry-picks from the past in order to obtain a positive result for his or her client. Context, change over time, causality, contingency, and complexity are not as important as letting the Founders speak for themselves," even if such speaking violates every rule of historical inquiry. The historian, however, does not encounter the past in this way.

...

For these writers revisionism is not only about the practice of removing references to God from the narratives historians tell about the past, but also about the way historians treat their sources. Revisionism is dangerous because it implies looking critically at primary sources rather than simply accepting them as face value. For example, if Puritans believed that they were God's new Israel, and this assertion can be supported by primary documents, then it must be true that the Puritans were indeed God's new Israel. Good historians must always believe what the primary sources tell them. Such an approach does not allow a place for any type of theological critique of those sources. If John Witherspoon, the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence, wrote that God was on the side of the patriots in the American Revolution, then it must be true - a theological certainty - that God was on the side of America. To suggest that Witherspoon was wrong or misguided is the kind of interpretative work these writers such as a mark of dangerous revisionism.

The fear of revisionism is why the defenders of Christian America make such a big deal about grounding their research in primary sources. If a historian makes an argument based on the ideas of another historian's work, rather than the primary sources, then she has succumbed to revisionism. Barton calls his historical method a "best evidence" approach. This way of dealing with evidence allows him to let the founders speak for themselves, but it rarely explores deeply the context in which such words were uttered.

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Quote Of The Day

John Fea, a history professor at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, weighs in on the "expert advice" offered by people like David Barton and Peter Marshall in their effort to shape Texas' social studies curriculum - from the Austin American-Statesman:

"I'm an evangelical Christian, and I think David Barton and Peter Marshall are completely out to lunch. They are not experts on social studies and history. Neither of them are trained in history. They are preachers who use the past and history as a means of promoting a political agenda in the present."

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John Fea Posts Archive

Kyle Mantyla, Tuesday 06/12/2012, 10:45am
Last year, Warren Throckmorton began writing a series of blog posts about the false claims made by David Barton about Thomas Jefferson, which eventually culminated in a new book he co-authored called "Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President." At the time when Throckmorton was just beginning this undertaking, he was invited to appear on a radio program hosted by Paul Edwards to discuss his work alongside Barton himself, who had initially agreed to appear on the program but then reneged once he learned that he'd actually have to defend his work against... MORE >
Kyle Mantyla, Monday 08/22/2011, 4:46pm
Peter Montgomery @ Religion Dispatches: Paranoia and the Progressive Press: A Response to WaPo’s Religion Columnist. Alvin McEwen: 16 reasons why the Family Research Council is a hate group. John Fea: Palin: The National Endowment for the Humanities Needs to Go. Media Matters: Restoring Hyperbole: Beck's Jerusalem Rally Will Be "A Planet Course-Altering Event." Ian Millhiser @ Think Progress: Just One Week Into His Campaign, Rick Perry Disavows His Nine-Month-Old Book. Joe Sudbay @ Americablog: Prof. says Boehner’s DOMA lawyer "... MORE >
Kyle Mantyla, Tuesday 07/05/2011, 11:03am
As we have noted before, actual historians tend to agree that David Barton is not a historian but rather a Religious Right activist who intentionally misrepresents history in order to promote his political agenda. And with every presentation he delivers, Barton just reinforces that fact.  For instance, Focus on the Family ran a two-day broadcast last week featuring one of Barton's presentation in which he made the following assertion: You see, even in previous generations, we fully expected our military and our political leaders to be highly religious. You've probably seen lots of... MORE >
Kyle Mantyla, Tuesday 05/31/2011, 4:44pm
PFAW: Why is the GOP keeping women and people of color off the bench? Joanna Brooks @ Religion Dispatches: Mormons & Romney Presidency “Dangerous” According to Evangelical Author. Layla Pena @ Iowa Independent: Roy Moore sees ‘moral crisis’ and mulls run for presidency. Eric Kleefeld @ TPM: Bachmann’s Prayers Answered: ‘I’ve Had That Calling’ To Run For President. Steve Benen: Romney: ‘I don’t like vampires personally.’ John Fea: The U.S. Constitution and "the Year of our Lord.... MORE >
Kyle Mantyla, Wednesday 05/11/2011, 1:02pm
David Barton has been in the spotlight lately.  In recent weeks, he was featured in a New York Times profile, interviewed on "The Daily Show," and was even the focus on a long report we released chronicling his career of peddling right-wing pseudohistory for political gain. The upside of Barton's recent high profile is that bona fide historians who, unlike Barton, actually have training and credentials, are starting to stand up to Barton's flagrant and intentional misuse of history. For instance, yesterday Paul Harvey, a Professor of History at the University of Colorado at... MORE >
Brian Tashman, Thursday 05/05/2011, 3:00pm
The Daily Show - Exclusive - David Barton Extended Interview Pt. 2 Tags: Daily Show Full Episodes,Political Humor & Satire Blog,The Daily Show on Facebook The Daily Show - Exclusive - David Barton Extended Interview Pt. 3 Tags: Daily Show Full Episodes,Political Humor & Satire Blog,The Daily Show on Facebook David Barton tells Jon Stewart that he never took President John Adams’ ideas on the relationship of church and state out of context. First Barton lies about Adams’ faith, positing that he was a 'Trinitarian Unitarian.' Unitarianism, however, is based on... MORE >
Kyle Mantyla, Tuesday 03/22/2011, 10:08am
Rep. Randy Forbes is on a mission to pass a resolution affirming that the national motto "In God We Trust" and House Republicans are playing right along, so it is no surprise that Religious Right activists like the Family Research Council's Ken Klukowski are stepping up to make their contribution to this important effort as well: Odds are good the Founding Fathers would be astounded by the religious controversies of this past week. First, Rep. Randy Forbes, R-VA, introduced a resolution reaffirming “In God We Trust” as our national motto. He did so in part after... MORE >
Kyle Mantyla, Friday 03/11/2011, 4:49pm
In the final episode of "Random Book Blogging" based on John Fea's "Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction," I want to highlight two passages that relate to the Religious Right's insistence that the Founding Fathers were ultra-religious Christians who intended to create a Christian nation. From the moment he began running for president, Barack Obama has been relentlessly criticized by the Religious Right whenever he speaks about his faith.  In fact, for years now, we have been hearing how Obama is not actually a Christian and that his... MORE >