What David Barton Doesn’t Understand about Graduate School and Christian Scholarship

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:

Cover for revised ed. of Fea, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?
Speaking of John… The revised edition of his acclaimed Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? is coming soon.

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.

Hall of Graduate Studies, Yale University
Yale’s Hall of Graduate Studies – Wikimedia

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.

Fea, Green & Miller, eds., Confessing HistoryHere 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.)

Una Cadegan
Una M. Cadegan – University of Dayton

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.

12 thoughts on “What David Barton Doesn’t Understand about Graduate School and Christian Scholarship

  1. Thank you for your honesty. Although your experience does not, Dr. Cadegan’s lends elegant support to Mr. Barton’s indictment of the modern academy.

    Just because Barton’s done some crap history doesn’t mean his larger thesis–the whitewashing of our religious heritage–is all wet.

  2. David Baron does a great deal of damage to the study of religious history. He and others like him manipulate history to support their ideology. Then they use their pulpit to communicate to their followers a warped version of the past which is really damaging to everyone involved. To put it mildly, Barton is not telling people the truth. His recent attempt to pass off a fake degree as a legitimate doctorate demonstrates his willingness to mislead people to achieve his ends.

    The biggest problem with religious history is not the whitewashing of it, but instead that problem is people like Barton who only want their version of religious history taught…even when that history is a deliberately constructed fraud designed to advance a particular ideology. Some people may not like it when the facts do not support their version of the past no matter what the subject is. We see that with the lost cause heritage types all the time. The same goes on with religious history.

    To blame the academy is not the answer. The academy seeks to use the facts. It is not the academy’s fault the facts don’t fit someone’s ideology or belief structure.

    1. Jimmy, very well stated. There is a temptation to grab a presupposition from an authority figure, and then stand against others who do not agree with the original assumptions. They oppose experts, and they oppose the academy as you have clearly written. Graduate school encourages students to challenge their assumptions, and to develop their own understanding of their chosen field.

      1. The university as a place where prevailing wisdom is challenged is an increasingly questionable proposition.


        I start from the ostensibly weakest, yet most ‘professional’, account of academic freedom: the idea that it is the freedom to say whatever one finds to be the case within one’s disciplinary domain. Stanley Fish calls this the ‘It’s Just a Job’ school of academic freedom. This account presents the academic institution as broadly equivalent to a medieval guild: it is autonomous in the sense that its practitioners determine its practices, and give legitimacy (or not) to specific actions within its own purview. The practitioners determine their own constitution, in all senses. They determine who can be a member; and the members determine what passes as appropriate and proper action of the institution or guild as such.

        This has the attraction of being a modest claim, governed by purely professional interests that serve to respect and even to guarantee guild-autonomy in its fullest sense. However, it quickly runs into the buffers of failed definitions. What are the limits of my discipline? How are they defined? Fish holds that these are consensually agreed by the community of academics already within and constituting my discipline. Yet that is, in the first place, a circular argument: I become a member of the guild by agreeing to the consensual frameworks of the guild’s self-descriptions, and these, in circular turn, are what legitimise my membership in the first place. This is not autonomy; it is a closed-shop mentality, rooted in the refusal to answer to critical scrutiny from those outside the guild. It is governed by the logic of atomisation: to every profession its own closed private space; to every constituent her own private office, doors closed against the world.

  3. Isn’t it interesting how the author of that article thoroughly refuted what Fish said in the section you quoted, Tom?

    1. Fish’s take is an accurate “is.” It is a guild. I have friends and acquaintances in academia but outside the bubble. Not only are they at the mercy of those in the ideological “in-crowd,” the “in-crowd” are scared to death of each other, lest they take one false step and lose everything.

      This is not to say this treacherous path cannot be negotiated, as Dr. Cadegan seems to have done. But it should not be denied that the path is indeed treacherous.


      My concern is more toward those who self-censor because of the potential damage to their careers. This is how David Barton got a foothold in the first place–not that Howard Zinn-ism and “The Godless Constitution” thesis have great influence [although they do], but that those who know better are so tepid in their opposition [a tepidness, BTW, not in evidence when it comes to fish-in-a-barrel like David Barton].

      When normal people see the historical narrative so obviously perverted, so obviously bleached clean of our religious heritage, Barton begins to sound downright reasonable. Simply arguing that David Barton is a poo-poo head still leaves only Zinn and Kramnick and Moore. Hunting down error is not the same thing as seeking truth.

      1. You have your opinion. I have mine. That is academic freedom. What you really dislike is that your version of history is not being taught. David Barton dislikes that his version of history is not being taught. Instead of becoming professors who earned degrees and worked with the facts, both of you use what you want to support your ideology. That is what you don’t like about academia.

      2. Please to not ad hom, sir. I am not David Barton. “My” version of history is not idiosyncratic: Estimably accredited and accomplished scholars state the same thesis compellingly. I shan’t drag their names into this, but I cite them often in my little internet ghetto.

        What “I don’t like about academia” is its clubbiness and tyranny against any dissenters against the prevailing ideology and hermeneutic. As I’m not an academic and the bastards can do nothing to me–my career, and thus how I feed my family–I enjoy a freedom to “speak truth to power” that most do not.

        The operative word here is “career.” I don’t blame any professional academician for thinking of their family first, where their children’s bread and butter depends not on their scholarly brilliance–or even honesty–but their “collegiality” per the politics of the edu-industrial complex.

        Therein lies the corruption of the truth. David Barton makes his living off–perhaps a very good living–off his act. But the difference between him and those who hold their tongues to go along-get-along is not as great as they want to think.

        via Instapundit:

        FREE SPEECH: Academic Freedom Dying Because Profs Too Scared to Use It: Report.

        “Universities are trapped ‘worshipping at the altar of progressive opinion’, and individual scholars self-censor to avoid the wrath of their peers, according to the publication by Civitas, an independent think tank.”

    2. To wit:

      “The book, called Why Academic Freedom Matters, features essays from 14 writers and experts laying bare a the timid, safe-space-obsessed intellectual culture from academics and students alike in British higher education.

      The book, edited by commentator and academic Joanna Williams, says that a culture of self-censorship in the academic community is so far advanced that there is no need for formal curbs on freed speech, since they exist in practice anyway.

      Williams said: “The tendency for academics to police themselves and each other means that formal restrictions on academic freedom, although problematic, are actually rarely needed. One danger is that self-censorship becomes a routine part of academic life.

      “New lecturers quickly learn how to avoid upsetting the student-customers who pay their wages and how to please the peer-reviewers who will green-light their work for publication and them for promotion. They learn how to comply with all manner of speech codes, safe-space and anti-harassment policies.

      “Routine self-censorship not only does away with the need for too many overt restrictions on academic freedom it also reinforces an intolerance of dissent.”

      Self-censorship by academics is undermining open and robust debate. Great new book by @jowilliams293.

      Some scholars explicitly criticise the concept of academic freedom, she says, for “doing nothing to challenge the structural inequalities that make it more difficult for less powerful groups to have their voices heard”.

      “Knowledge advances through the freedom to provoke, cause offence and upset the status quo. There is simply no point in higher education without academic freedom.

      “Universities risk returning to being medieval institutions, only instead of paying homage to the church they now worship at the altar of ‘progressive’ opinion.”

      “It ignores the fact that many scholars choose to conform to a dominant disciplinary consensus rather than push the boundaries of what can and cannot be said.

      She continued: “For academic freedom to be more than just rhetoric it must be exercised. This requires scholars to have something interesting, perhaps even controversial, to say as well as the tenacity to say it.”
      [BF mine.]

  4. I’m left with the idea that David Barton’s research is not as good as yours. And that does nothing for me. Please prove your argument point by point, and please include original sources, complete, unedited sources.
    I want to learn, not hear arguments, over who does the best and most honest research.
    Prove you know more true history.

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