Attention to David Barton’s treatment of Thomas Jefferson has died down since the controversy that led to Thomas Nelson rescinding their endorsement of The Jefferson Lies back in 2012. But Barton remains active and his popularity among the evangelical right’s rank and file has rebounded. Barton’s continued popularity, it seems to me, raises several issues about the nature of Christian scholarship and the role that scholars should play in helping their fellow Christians understand the complexities of history. I recently caught up with Warren Throckmorton, who teaches Psychology at Grove City College and who has been one of Barton’s most consistent critics, and asked him to weigh in on these issues. (Readers can check out recent thoughts on Barton at the Pietist Schoolman here.)
Jared: When and how did you first become familiar with David Barton’s writings and public career?
Warren: In early 2011, I responded to a claim by Bryan Fischer at the American Family Association that the founders meant to exclude other religions from First Amendment protections. Researching his claim, I came to David Barton’s work. Fischer frequently cites Barton so I looked into his writings. Even as a non-historian, I came away puzzled about what I read and decided to fact check various claims. The rest, as they say, is history.
Jared: You’ve become one of the most outspoken provocateurs about Barton’s work. Where could readers find your responses to Barton?
Warren: With Grove City College political science and humanities professor, Michael Coulter, I have focused on Barton’s claims about Thomas Jefferson via our book, Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President. This led to an online debate at the World magazine website with an excerpt of our book, followed by a rebuttal from Barton, followed by two articles, one by Gregg Frazer and a final one from Coulter and me. More recently, I was a part of a group of Christian academics (mostly historians) who approached both the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family about problems in material authored by Barton which was promoted by those organizations. In the case of FRC, the owner of the footage, FRC VP Ken Cureton, took down Barton’s Capitol Tour video, and then Focus on the Family actually edited two major errors from previous broadcasts but left the rest of the broadcast up on their site. When Focus was asked by Politco reporter Stephanie Simon why they edited the material, a representative denied the edits. I should add that multiple efforts were made to contact Mr. Barton and offer to engage in dialogue prior to the public controversies of 2012.
Jared: If there are so many problems with Barton’s work, why do you think his message is so attractive to American evangelicals?
Warren: Evangelicals believe that life has meaning and that there is a purpose for events. Deciphering the grand design is something Barton claims to do. He finds the evangelical God everywhere in history, even in the Constitution. Thus, the stories he tells have an appeal beyond his considerable communications skills. He places his history lessons in a larger narrative of the Christians vs. the enemies of God, and more broadly of good vs. evil. To do this, he purports to reveal to his audiences the hidden history that the secular historians hide. In this way, he is aligned with the side of good and those other historians (increasingly he lumps in the Christian historians who disagree with him) are aligned with the enemies of God.
Jared: In my mind, Barton’s problem is a methodological one rather than simply getting things wrong. And often the issue is that his faulty approach leads to misguided interpretive conclusions. Simply put, Barton does not engage in the critical study of history. Historians are trained to be critical, which means they must be ruthless questioners and skeptics – especially of themselves. They seek to maintain a certain amount of distance between themselves and the events they narrate so the conclusions are as objective as possible. Historians are expected to make arguments, or course, but one’s judgment is supposed to be free from bias. This is not to say that this is a perfect process; perceptive readers can usually detect at least some bias in all sorts of historical writing. Sometimes we even categorize historians in one school of thought or another based on their bias. But sometimes it becomes apparent that a writer’s presuppositions or a particular political or religious agenda is overtaking the careful process of questioning that makes for solid and useful historical writing. This is certainly the case with Barton. Warren, would you agree? If you could boil it down to a few sentences, what is the crux of the matter regarding Barton’s historical work? In other words, is there a root issue, which in your opinion, leads to “bad history?”
Warren: Yes – I alluded to it above. History is used instrumentally to support his religious and political views. Historical events must either serve his view of Christianity or the opposition to Christianity. He seems to lop off the details which allow a presentation of events which encompasses the fullness of the event. In short, I am talking about the negative effects of confirmation bias. Mr. Barton appears to have a preferred narrative and the facts must fit that narrative or they will be tortured until they do. A good example is Barton’s story about Congress printing the first English language Bible for the use of schools. The truth is that Congress commended Robert Aitken for his fine work and recommended the Bible to “the inhabitants of the United States.” Aitken was the only one talking about using it in schools and he printed the Bible himself at his own expense. He eventually lost money on the deal. However, Barton turns an interesting story into an effort to prove that Congress wanted the Bible read in schools.
Jared: It seems to me that there is a “disconnect” between the work of Christian historians and the opinions and assumptions that pervade Christian circles at the popular level. Is this just inevitable, or should the gap be narrowed somehow?
Warren: Yes, there is a huge disconnect. Many Christian history professors can tell stories of running into students who believe they have an advantage on their peers because they have read some of Barton’s books or taken in some of his videos. What a rude awakening! On a broader level, I cringe when I hear Christian confidently arguing with ideological opponents over some false history story they have heard from a preacher or a Christian ministry. Many people believe they are more prepared to argue when in fact the opposite is true. Some of this is understandable because Christian academics go deeper into their discipline than others but I believe we have a responsibility to engage in our communities for our mutual benefit.
Jared: So this raises other questions for me. I wonder to what extent Christian scholars and historians should commit their time and resources to responding to Barton. I mean, doesn’t it take valuable time from your own career to consistently review Barton’s work, craft responses, and network with others? What is more, scholars have a responsibility to remain dispassionate observers and objective narrators of what takes place in a given historical context. Is it then possible for historians to get too involved with the fray of cultural battles, including those battles that surround historical interpretation?
Warren: I joke that fact checking Barton’s claims is so easy even a psychologist can do it! But more seriously, I really enjoy history and it is often challenging to examine these claims. My father was a history teacher, and I grew up fascinated with history and geography. That is probably what I would have done if I hadn’t become a mental health professional. Beyond my own interests, however, I also believe that Christian scholarship should be known for integrity and accuracy. Given that Barton is often identified as a “Christian historian,” I believe Christian academic historians have a responsibility to reclaim that title and vocation. On the question of getting too involved in the culture wars, I would say that anyone can engage in confirmation bias as Barton does. Scholars engage in defense of theories and interpretations just as others do. So yes, we should be concerned that we not use history or any other domain simply to advance ideological positions. However, I do not believe that this particular concern should keep us from offering a corrective voice within our own communities.
Jared: Thanks for the insights, Warren.