Like Jared, I think it’s evident that David Barton struggles to understand what historians do and how we do it. That’s especially true whenever he gets to the intersection between faith and learning. Consider his recent mini-tirade against John Fea:
He [Fea] said the founding fathers didn’t want ministers–the founding fathers were ministers in office [sic]. So they’re doing this to keep secularizing history and to keep Christians from being involved. So we will call out Fea, we will call out all these other profs who are doing the same thing….
People say “why do Christian profs do that?” Well, Luke 6:40 [says] “Every student when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.” These guys were all taught by Ph.Ds from Harvard and Yale and all these other secular schools, so they’re just like ’em now. They may be Christian. They may have their fire insurance. But they don’t think right. So that’s what we try to do.
Now, let’s first recognize that Barton is cherry-picking one verse out of a longer passage that is more than a little pertinent here:
[Jesus said] “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
He also told them a parable: “Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. (Luke 6:37-42)
But in the spirit of seeing logs instead of specks… I want to take seriously Barton’s critique of Christian professors like John, Jared, and myself. Are we “just like” the Ivy League-trained scholars who trained us? Have we become Christians who “don’t think right”?
Though only a couple of the historians who trained me had been educated at Harvard and Yale, I’m probably even more guilty in Barton’s eyes: I received my master’s degrees and doctorate from Yale.
It was twenty years ago that I started that phase of my education, so it’s worth reflecting on how that experience shaped me. And I can’t dismiss Barton out of hand, for there is much about graduate schooling that is formative.
Grad schools don’t tend to make the same kinds of promises (“Transformational! Whole-person!”) as the Christian liberal arts colleges where John, Jared, and I work. But they do far more than deepen the knowledge, sharpen the skills, and expand the networks of their students. Graduate programs shape beliefs, values, and virtues (and vices).
How could it be otherwise? I started grad school two months before my 21st birthday, at a stage of life when I had considerable intellectual, emotional, and relational development left to complete. It was intimidating and intoxicating, as I found myself surrounded by people smarter than me, conducting cutting-edge research at a world-class institution. Far more than happens in most of those colleges that promised “low student-to-faculty ratios,” my peers and I were thrown into intimate pedagogical settings — tiny seminars held over meals in professors’ houses, one-on-one mentoring by dissertation directors. And because this stage of schooling is less about general education than professional preparation, we were seeking models of what it looks like to do what we so badly wanted to do with our lives.
Not that anyone actually emerges from that experience “fully trained,” but it’s not unreasonable to expect that we’ll look something like our teachers. In some ways I do, and am largely grateful for it — John Gaddis, Paul Kennedy, and my other professors are brilliant historians and conscientious teachers who taught me to seek truth as part of a community that spans borders and eras.
But here’s where Barton clearly doesn’t understand the graduate education of Christian history professors, perhaps because his own seems to have been quite different. In terms of my formation as a Christian scholar, graduate school did shape me — but not in the way Barton thinks.
Here I’m going to revisit a 2012 post from a series on Confessing History, the stimulating collection of “Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation” that John co-edited with Jay Green (the current president of the Conference on Faith and History and author of an excellent book on Christian historiography) and Eric Miller. I’ll start where I ended that post, with Beth Barton Schweiger’s thought-provoking essay on love.
I often recommend it to my students who want to pursue a PhD, since Schweiger engages in a clear-eyed assessment of the way that graduate school inculcates both virtues and vices. Here’s how I summarized her argument about vocation and graduate education:
Taught by graduate schools to be both intellectually curious and arrogant, clear-thinking and overly critical, skillful and cynical… those Christians called to the life of scholarship can easily acquire a “stable [professional] identity that hinders Christian practice.” To Schweiger, professionalism promotes the notion that, as experts, historians are more intelligent and more powerful than their subjects, leaving little room for mercy or wisdom, let alone love.
So yes, there is risk for Christians being trained in universities like Yale. But it’s not that they’ll be bullied into covering up the role of Christianity in American history. And it’s not that they’ll become raging secularists eager to un-disciple their young evangelical charges. (On the contrary, a place like Yale is far more likely to condition you to believe that undergraduate teaching is a burden to be minimized, lest it get in the way of the research and writing that will secure your position in a similar kind of institution.)
The risk is that the power that the living have to interpret the actions and ideas of the dead will tempt Christian historians to forget that love is the core virtue of any Christian vocation. It’s a temptation that David Barton, whose army of admirers lets him entertain the affections of ambitious politicians, must know all too well. But so long as we seek to love our neighbors in the past — including Founding Fathers who may not have shared my evangelical piety and beliefs, nor my views on race, gender, and citizenship — I don’t think we need to fear graduate training in secular institutions. (Schweiger, by the way, is on the faculty of the University of Arkansas.)
In that 2012 post, I also found helpful the reflections of Catholic historian Una Cadegan. She admitted that her graduate experience (at University of Pennsylvania) was jarring, placing her in conversation with professors and peers who found “exceedingly strange… the continued practice of religion. It was my first encounter with one of the foundational assumptions of the modern academy—the disenchantment of the world.”
(My own Ivy League experience was rather different: I took multiple seminars with a politically and religiously conservative professor, and while neither of my primary advisors thought all that much about religion in the context of their own scholarship, they weren’t dismissive of it — or my job applications to Christian colleges. Instructors in everything from intellectual to African history took religion seriously as a category of historical study, even if they were not themselves people of faith. For example, I wrote a paper on Christian just war thinking for a legal history course.)
But in the end, Cadegan appreciated the challenge: “If I was going to be a scholar in the company of these people who so dazzled me even as they were shaking the foundation of my beliefs, and the same time maintain the religious identity that was too central to who I am to imagine relinquishing it, it was up to me to take responsibility for working out how they could fit together.”
And that describes well my own transition from a secular research university to a Christian liberal arts school. Yale neither indoctrinated me as an active agent of disenchantment nor gave me resources for the integration of faith with learning. Instead, it set me up to help Bethel students ask questions that I was still sorting out for myself: What does it means to think historically and Christianly about the past? Where do those two adverbs overlap, and where do they come into tension with each other?
Without much prompting from me, my Christian students have time after time rejected the counterfeit of Christian history that David Barton practices. Instead, they seek to understand the past in all of its complexity, allowing their own assumptions to be challenged as they seek to interpret historical evidence objectively and to empathize with people who are both fundamentally different from and fundamentally similar to them.