Confirmation bias has taken many victims over the years. And it’s a sure bet that anyone who parrots David Barton is one of them. Best known for providing inaccurate portrayals of the religious views of the founders of this nation, Barton’s fact-deprived tales have found vast refuge in the religious right of America. Glenn Beck (who penned the foreword) has even called him “one of the most important men alive today.” If only.
The Texan native claims to be rescuing history, despite no formal training in the subject. (He has a bachelor’s degree in religious education from Oral Roberts University.) His books and sundry guest appearances regularly feature ideas at odds with field consensus and well-established facts, such as the claim that America was founded not as a constitutionally secular democracy but as an explicitly Christian nation. According to Barton, Jefferson and his co-founders wanted more religion, not less, in the public sphere, information that’s somehow been suppressed by a liberal, anti-Christian educational agenda. These and other similar claims may be historically untenable, but such rhetoric is music to many evangelical ears.
Barton’s reputation as a serial disinformer came to a head when his 2012 book, ironically titled The Jefferson Lies, was recalled for historical malpractice four months after publication. The book’s release was met with a blitz of controversy when it was found that he literally fabricated several of the quotes that appear in the book. As many as a dozen quotations had no primary source to support them. The History News Network later called it “the least credible history book in print.” After additional alarms were raised by actual historians pointing out the spurious content of the book, including two exposés on NPR, publisher Thomas Nelson promptly pulled it from shelves, citing a “loss of confidence”:
Casey Francis Harrell, Thomas Nelson’s director of corporate communications, told me the publishing house “was contacted by a number of people expressing concerns about [The Jefferson Lies].” The company began to evaluate the criticisms, Harrell said, and “in the course of our review learned that there were some historical details included in the book that were not adequately supported. Because of these deficiencies we decided that it was in the best interest of our readers to stop the publication and distribution.”
Nelson’s Senior VP later told NPR, “The truth is, withdrawing a book from the market is extremely rare. It’s so rare I can’t think of the last time we’ve done this.” It’s true. Only in the worst cases of plagiarism or fabrication are works rescinded from publication. Barton is in exclusive company.
His record of spreading falsehoods extends beyond his single work on Jefferson. Barton’s website is littered with historical inaccuracies and his earlier DVD, “America’s Godly Heritage”, is a monument of lies and deceptions. Among his many howlers are that the American Revolutionary War was fought over slavery (it wasn’t), that the founders came down on the creationist side of the evolution-creationism debate (despite the awkward fact that Darwin’s masterstroke didn’t show up until a century later), that the Constitution quotes the Bible (it doesn’t), and that Ronald Reagan opposed the Brady Bill (he favored it). Such rampant revisionism may be best explained as evidence of pseudologia fantastica; perhaps meds are the answer.
Nor is it just those on the left who have come out in protest. Barton has been hounded even by the Christian right for his habitual whitewashing of American history, and in fact, they’ve been some of his loudest critics. Shortly after The Jefferson Lies was released, two professors at Grove City College (a conservative Christian school) published a rejoinder titled Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President. It’s essentially what you’d expect: a point-by-point refutation of the fact-averse mess Barton should have never churned out in the first place.
Even Jay Richards, a well-known creationist and senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, was so incensed by Barton’s impostures that he asked Gregg Frazer, a history professor at Master’s College, to write a rebuttal to Barton’s work. Yesterday, Warren Throckmorton uploaded Frazer’s full review on his site. In clear and certain terms, Frazer punctures the many distortions, half-truths and false quotes popularized in the “America’s Godly Heritage” DVD.
It’s worth reading if only because you have one Christian disputing another’s patently idealized heritage of America. Not all Christians sweep inconvenient facts under the rug and invent fictions in their stead. Unlike Barton and his ilk, in other words, other Christians have academic and personal integrity.
“This leads to one last area of concern in America’s Godly Heritage which can best be expressed as a question: Who counts as a “Founding Father?” This issue reappears frequently in Barton’s works. He seems to count anyone of whom he approves who was living at the time of the Revolution, the founding of the political system under the Constitution, or within fifty or sixty years of those times as a “Founding Father.” For example, he says that “the American Tract Society was started by the Founding Fathers.” First, not one of those listed as a Tract Society founder signed the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. By what standard are they “Founding Fathers?” Furthermore, the Society was started in 1825 – 36 years after the Constitution was ratified. Madison was the last living framer and he died in 1836. How many Founding Fathers were even alive in 1825? Similarly, in his discussion of Vidal v. Girard, he said it was decided in “the time of the Founders.” It was decided in 1844 –55 years after the Constitution went into effect and, as was just mentioned, the last framer died in 1836! Barton refers to John Quincy Adams as a “Founding Father.” At the time of the Constitutional Convention, he was a 20 year-old just out of law school (he was 8 when the Declaration was signed) – by what standard is he a “Founding Father?” Barton also claims that the “Founding Fathers” established the New England Primer as a text, but the Founding Fathers did not establish any texts for schools – that was left to local communities to decide. Apparently, by Barton’s standards (whatever they are), local school boards were “Founding Fathers.” Finally, Barton says that the state constitutions indicate that the “Founding Fathers” wanted to be sure that Christians held public office. But the Founding Fathers, in Article VI of the Constitution, specifically disallowed any religious test for office. That would seem to be a strange and counterproductive prohibition to be put in place by those who want to ensure that Christians hold the various offices.”
Just as creationists subordinate modern science to the primacy of Bronze Age texts, so do ideologues like Barton warp history to suit their conservative religious agenda. It’s despicable, because he knows full well what he is doing—manipulating those predisposed to believe what he has to offer. Want more irony? The founders he so blatantly refashions in his own evangelical image would utterly despise him and everything he stands for.