Selling the Idea of a Christian Nation: David Barton’s Alternate Intellectual Universe

I come not to bury David Barton. Like Banquo’s Ghost, he will not down, for reasons I will explain here. Nor do I come to praise him. Instead, I offer a historian’s perspective on the basis for Barton’s project of ideological entrepreneurialism.

David Barton’s appearance in Friday’s New York Times and with Jon Stewart has been the subject of much comment. This includes Julie Ingersoll’s analysis of his skillful Daily Show appearance, John Fea’s patient summary and refutation of his assertions on the program, and Randall Stephens’ explanation of the bases of Barton’s historical fallacies.

I don’t question the necessity of pointing out Barton’s history of outright falsehoods, explaining the fallacies of his presentism (as in using a 1765 sermon or a 1792 congressional vote to show that the original intent of the founders was to oppose bailout and stimulus plans), and introducing to non-experts the abundant evidence calling his historical worldview of the Christian Founders into question. Yet while these kinds of refutations are necessary, they are not sufficient. That’s because Barton’s project is not fundamentally an historical one.

Barton v. the Historical Profession

That’s why historians’ takedown of his ahistorical approach ultimately won’t matter that much. Nor will historians’ explanations of his presentism, and his obvious and unapologetic ideological agenda (albeit considerably muted for his appearance on The Daily Show). While all the historians’ refutations are good and necessary, ultimately they won’t matter for the audience which exists in his alternate intellectual universe, one described in much greater detail in my colleague Randall Stephens’ forthcoming book The Anointed: Evangelical Experts in a Secular Age.

And it’s also why insinuations about his pedigree (a degree in education from Oral Roberts University) will only heighten his followers’ sense of the cultural elitism of his critics. And besides, the question really has to do with the influence of his assertions about history and their relation to the present, not his scholarly pedigree. In a previous generation, Will Herberg never bothered to get his Ph.D., but it didn’t affect the huge public influence of his classic Protestant-Catholic-Jew, nor should it have.

After all the refutations and belittling of pedigree, Barton still appears in a New York Times “puff piece,” argues with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, and fields calls from congressmen and presidential candidates. In short, if this were a basketball game between Barton and professional historians, in some ways it’s already a rout, with Barton far ahead and the scrubs in to play out the garbage time.

Ideas Packaged as Products

Some of that is because of the skill of Barton and his organization WallBuilders at ideological entrepreneurialism. Barton’s intent is not to produce “scholarship,” but to influence public policy. He simply is playing a different game than worrying about scholarly credibility, his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. His game is to inundate public policy makers (including local and state education boards as well as Congress) with ideas packaged as products that will move policy.

Historical scholarship moves slowly and carefully, usually shunning the public arena; Barton’s proof-texting, by contrast, supplies ready-made (if sometimes made-up) quotations ready for use in the latest public policy debate, whether they involve school prayer, abortion, the wonders of supply-side economics, the Defense of Marriage Act, or the capital gains tax. And Barton’s engagingly winsome personality, fully on display on The Daily Show, doesn’t hurt. He fires facts faster than they can be fought off, and he does so with a sort of Gomer Pyle sincerity that makes his critics look churlish.

Besides this sort of organizational skill and personal charisma, however, Barton’s success at withstanding the phalanx of professional critics comes because he taps into a long history of “Christian Nation” providentialism.

In short, perhaps the best way to understand Barton is as a historical product of Christian providentialist thinking, one with significant historical roots and usually with a publicly convincing spokesman. He is the latest in a long line of ideologically persuasive spokesmen for preserving American’s Protestant character.

Prophets of the Past

Barton represents a sort of historical character that should be more familiar to us than is often presented. For example, the rise of providentialist history writing in the early to mid-nineteenth century already had begun reinterpreting America’s founding and expansion as God’s plan for his American nation. Mason Locke Weems, the self-styled “Parson” Weems, constructed his own quasi-WallBuilders outfit in the early nineteenth century. As Rebecca Goetz, a historian at Rice University, has written,

Weems had a habit of recreating the colonial and revolutionary American world for his readers, and he did it, I think, to show readers a lost world of religiosity and virtue, and to urge them to begin that lost world anew. Weems was a prophet of the past as well as the future, fashioning each to suit his vision of what America was and would be yet again.

That would sound familiar to Lost Cause historians of the late nineteenth century, most especially John William Jones, author of Christ in the Camp. In this case, the lost paradise was the religiosity of the revivals in Civil War Confederate camps, where men recaptured the Christian spirit of their founding forefathers. Like Weems, and like Barton, Jones was a traveling salesman, and pitched his product of American religiosity to a highly receptive Gilded Age audience seeking relief from the social conflicts of their day.

And it would sound familiar, as well, to scores of conservative Christians in the nineteenth century who sought to protect the Protestantism of public schools from the inroads of Catholic competitors, and those in the first half of the twentieth century, who fought in churches, schools, and legislatures to retain the Christian basis of the American nation. William Jennings Bryan defended their cause for a Christian Nation, albeit with a significant strand of political progressivism, bordering on Christian Socialism, utterly foreign to the coldly libertarian economics of Barton and his peers.

A Manufactured “Debate”

The issue, then, is not Christian conservatives advocating their views in the public square. The problem, rather, is their claim (at least in places such as The Daily Show or the New York Times) that their Providentialist beliefs and readings of documents from the past represent a kind of legitimate scholarship that should have its place in the public “debate.”

Aside from its remarkable influence on the writing of American textbooks, perhaps the biggest success of the Christian nationalist intellectual ideological universe is to insert points of controversy where there aren’t any in actuality. At one point in the Obama “birther” controversy, the media reported “rumors” and “controversies” where there were in fact simply outright lies and misinformation being peddled. Thankfully, that day may be over. But the presentation of the American certificates of birth—the “short form” of the Declaration of Independence, and the “long form” of the Constitution—will not quiet the Christian Nation “debate.”

I use the term “debate” in quotes because it is fraudulent. Even advocates of the viewpoint of the “godless Constitution” (such as historians Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore) fully understand the religious base of American history. They suggest simply (as Jon Stewart was trying to get at) that the framers rather deliberately excluded religion, not because they sought an exclusion of religion from the public square, but simply to avoid any special privileges for it at the federal level. Eventually, those views were incorporated into state laws through the 14th Amendment, through the pluralization of American life in the twentieth century, and through the epochal court cases of the 1940s through the 1970s.

The Christian Nation “debate” is not really an intellectual contest between legitimate contending viewpoints. Instead, it is a manufactured “controversy” akin to the global warming “debate.” On one side are purveyors of a rich and complex view of the past, including most historians who have written and debated fiercely about the founding era. The “other side” is a group of ideological entrepreneurs who have created an alternate intellectual universe based on a historical fundamentalism. In their drive to create a usable past, they show little respect for the past as a foreign country. 

pharvey@uccs.edu'

Paul Harvey runs the blog Religion in American History and teaches history at the University of Colorado.