Pseudo-Historian David Barton in the Times and on The Daily Show

David Barton, the favored “historian” of right wing figures like Glenn Beck and Mike Huckabee, had a good day yesterday. Marking his widening influence among those currying favor with the tea party, Barton was the subject of a fluff piece in the New York Times followed by an interview with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show (video below, after the jump).

Barton’s slipperiness was evident in both, though only Stewart seemed plainly frustrated by it. Those of us who write about Barton have been busily dissecting his appearances and Right Wing Watch has posted a great multipart analysis here.

Rather than explore the disagreements between the “self taught historian” and “professional historians” who “dismiss Mr. Barton, whose academic degree is in Christian education,” the Times treated Barton and the world of scholars who’ve devoted their lives to disciplined historical analysis as though their analyses are of equal weight and that we should just pick the one that best comports with our larger view of the world.  

For example, the Times notes:

Mr. Barton burst onto the conservative scene in 1988, when he published a study that blamed a decline in SAT scores and other social ills, like violent crime and unwed births, on the Supreme Court decisions in 1962 and 1963 that banned prayer in public schools… Scholars derided his report as a classic confusion of correlation and causation. But Mr. Barton still thinks otherwise. “The nation walked away from God,” he said, and the consequences came swiftly.

But maybe they could have told us a bit more about the study so the reader could have some basis for judgment about who was right..

The first 148 pages are reproduced graphs that show changes in society as described by the Times: lower SAT scores, higher crime rates, teen pregnancy rate and so on. Barton attempts to quantify the “volume” of prayers by calculating the number of school children and the amount of time they were spending in daily prayers. He then overlaid that with graphs showing cultural decline in order to ostensibly demonstrate the effect of the Supreme Court rulings that removed school-sponsored prayer from the classroom:

“Envision a hypothetical machine which can tabulate the annual volume of the prayers being offered. For years it has recorded great numbers of prayers. But suddenly in 1961-63, the index tumbled; millions of prayers were no longer being prayed…the termination of millions of individual public school prayers had a significant impact.”

Confusing correlation with causation is bad enough but Barton actually argues that the decline is demonstrably due to the fact that all those school children were no longer praying. This amateur approach to sociology mirrors Barton’s approach to history and it’s irresponsible of the Times to present it as though it’s just another opinion.

But I had higher hopes for Stewart. I’m a fan and always remember the classic interview with Jim Cramer where Stewart repeatedly nailed his guest by showing numbered clips of Cramer doing exactly what he denied doing. It was so damning that the expression “roll 212” became slang for using someone’s own words against him.  

Stewart’s central question to Barton was why, if the founding fathers intended America to be a Christian Nation, did they not clearly say so in the Constitution.  

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Exclusive – David Barton Extended Interview Pt. 1
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog The Daily Show on Facebook
The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Exclusive – David Barton Extended Interview Pt. 1
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog The Daily Show on Facebook

 

But the two consistently spoke right past each other. Barton repeatedly relies on anecdotes in which this person or that has been hassled over a religious practice while Stewart keeps trying to examine the larger framework of the role of religion in civil government as intended by the founders. At one point Stewart seems to have won the point that the founders debated the religious character of the nation and that when the Constitution was written, the side that wanted religion separate from Government had won. Barton seems to agree and then switches focus to the Federalist Papers. Rather than a logical progression of ideas linked together to form coherent conclusions, the exchange seems more like a shotgun blast of disconnected quotes.  

But to answer the original question about whether the founders founded a Christian nation, Barton says we have to start with the definition of a Christian nation. He asks Stewart what he thinks the phrase means and Stewart starts to say “well I’d assume that that means following the laws… He is interrupted by Barton who says, “no that’s never been the definition…not once have we ever said you have to be a Christian (Stewart might have been going there but he hadn’t gotten there yet).”  

Barton insists that the definition of “Christian Nation” he promotes is merely one that recognizes that the “nation’s institutions and cultures have been shaped by Christianity”  

He says there “is no exclusivity at all;” that the reason the phrase “under God” is permissible in the Pledge of Allegiance is because “there’s no coercion involved.” He says, we “have the right to worship according to the dictates of conscience regardless of what the majority says.” He says, “we have the right of conscience protected” and points to the Jehovah’s Witnesses rights not to participate in the pledge which he claims is protected “from the beginning in ’47.” (Its not “from the beginning”; the protection against being coerced to say the Pledge is from a 1943 ruling [Barnette] in which the Supreme Court actually overruled its own opposite ruling from three years earlier [Gobitis]).   

But this rational, tolerant, pluralist view of the place of religion in America is simply NOT what Barton typically promotes. Going all the way back to that first book cited in the Times, Barton wrote:  

“Currently this nation has no religious preference. It permits diversified religious freedom and extends no special recognition to any particular faith. This nation was not founded as it now exists. It was from its inception outspokenly Christian.” [italics in original]  

While there was to be no federal religious test for public office, the states had such a test and the founders intender that a “candidate was required to be a Christian to hold office…if they did not profess a belief in the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Divine inspiration of the Bible they could not hold public office.” ” [italics in original]

At every point where Stewart tries to engage Barton on things he has said, Barton says “I didn’t say that.” Finally, Stewart, flipping through his index cards, says he feels like he got the wrong dossier to prep for the interview: “Here’s the story I have and you can tell me if I am entirely wrong like you have the whole time….”

Near the end of the interview Stewart gets Barton to agree that he believes the public practice of religion should be left up to the local community. Stewart then asks so you believe that “in Dearborn Michigan …where it’s a majority Muslim…you’d be alright with Sharia Law and all that.” Barton said: Sure.

But again, this is simply not the case. Have a listen to the fear mongering Islamophobia on his radio show; it’s in his take on the “collision” between Islamic culture and American culture and the “flood of Muslims into the United States” here, the “victims of Islamic Lawfare” here, and the threat of Islam taking over the country by imposing “Sharia Law” here.

With Barton advising at least a few of the Republican Presidential candidates, it would be helpful to get clear on what he’s telling them. All I could think was, “Jon: Roll 212, PLEASE.”  

jingerso@unf.edu'

Julie Ingersoll is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Florida. She is the author of Evangelical Christian Women: War Stories in the Gender Battles and is currently writing a book on the influence of Christian Reconstructionism.