The Quixotic Task of Debunking David Barton

When all the trees fall in David Barton’s historical forest and no one hears it, did they really fall? If we get history “right” but do so only by playing a game set by rigged rules, and engaging in debates with those whose projects are basically political and entrepreneurial rather than intellectual, do we feed the very beast we are trying to tame? 

I pondered these questions while reading Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter’s excellent, blow-by-blow refutation of David Barton’s take on Jefferson, Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims About Our Third President

The authors are professed evangelical Christians who teach at Grove City College, a school whose mission statement rejects “secularism and relativism” and promotes intellectual and social development “consistent with a commitment to Christian truth, morals, and freedom.” They begin with an encomium to George Marsden’s The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, one of whose principles is to seek the truth with detachment and “avoid tendentiousness.” Barton, who is obsessed with Poststructuralists and Deconstructionists, would not appear to have reason to worry about that with these reviewers, who write with a calm, measured voice and have created a website to update and fact-check their own material.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Damned Misleading Lies

As the poster child for tendentiousness, Barton makes easy pickings for dispassionate truth-seekers like Throckmorton and Coulter. One by one, they consider, historicize, and debunk Barton’s claims: that Jefferson used federal funds to promote missions to the Indians, that he sought a theological professorship at the University of Virginia, that in only a very few of his letters did he attack basic Christian theological beliefs, that he believed not in a “wall of separation” of church and state but in a Republic that would actively promote Christianity, that his sexual morality was unimpeachable, that he didn’t really edit out the miraculous stories of the New Testament, that he founded the Virginia Bible Society, and on and on.  

They find without fail that the claims fall into one of the following categories: 1) complete falsehoods (there are plenty of those); 2) misleading falsehoods (such as the story about wanting Christian imagery on the national seal—true, but on the other side of the seal, had Jefferson gotten his wish, would have been a pagan story); 3) true, but entirely irrelevant and ultimately misleading statements (such as signing documents with “the Year of our Lord,” which he did because pre-packaged treaty forms had that language, and had about as much meaning as signing “Dear” in our salutations in letters to complete strangers); 4) statements with a “kernel” of truth but blown so far out of proportion as to end up being false (such as Jefferson wanting federal funding for Indian missions, when in fact the titles of the bills simply took on the name of already existing religious societies); 5) baffling assertions that are so far out of the realm of reality as to be neither “true” nor “false,” but simply bizarre (such as Barton’s defense of Jefferson’s views on race, which were disturbingly ugly even by the standards of his era). 

In each of these categories, as Throckmorton and Coulter gently put it, “we find the reality is often much different than the claim.” That’s their way of saying that the claims are, mostly, “pants on fire,” to use the language of Politifact, the Tampa Bay Times’ fact-checking project. Others rate a “false” or “mostly false” label, while there isn’t a single one (other than minor statements of fact, such as date of birth or dates of his presidency) that rates “true,” or even “mostly true.” 

Getting Jefferson Right is an excellent example of the art of historical contextualization, of trying to tell the whole story, not just part of it. For those reasons, the work should become a standard reference. 

And for that reason, most historians will assume this settles the matter. But they would be wrong, just as they were wrong when a previous generation of Christian historians (Mark Noll and others) allegedly settled the matter with their own patient refutations of Barton’s bogus empiricism. 

I’ve considered these questions a number of times recently in observing historians struggling to deal with the popularity of figures such as David Barton, who bowdlerize history but get the kind of attention few actual historians receive for their work. 

To What Effect?

These debates go back a long way. When I was in college at a Baptist denominational school in Oklahoma, the biology professor, a man about as committed to the Baptist intellectual tradition as one could imagine, refused all offers to stage “debates” with creationists who wanted to come to campus for a big showdown. There’s no point in fighting with scientific frauds, he once told me, because by appearing on the stage with them, it simply gives the appearance that this is an actual “argument” with “both sides” represented, in which people “make up their own minds” in an ostensibly free and open forum. He refused to engage in that charade. Would that Jon Stewart had done the same with Barton.

Should historians take the same tack with the likes of Barton? It’s not clear. In recent months, a number of voices have demanded that historians rise to the task of debunking Barton’s claims, insisting that they cannot remain in their ivory towers. Even some historians who consistently have done so, such as John Fea, were criticized; evidently for not doing it enough. In a more popular and polemical vein, Chris Rodda has also exposed Barton’s distortions. 

Not surprisingly, this has had scant effect on Barton’s audience, which pays little or no attention to voices outside of their particular ideological cocoon. For example, Barton recently appeared at a public event in Ft. Collins, Colorado, on “Faith, the Founding Fathers, and Limited Government,” where he was introduced as “one of the nation’s most distinguished scholars.” He dispensed the requisite red meat to the pep rally’s attendees, giving divine sanction to Republican talking points and arguing that secular government cannot be limited. 

Meanwhile, Barton’s latest text, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson, sells briskly on Amazon, where you can conveniently purchase this latest text in a three-pack along with his works on separation of church and state (“a myth,” of course) and the Second Amendment (wherein the founders are invoked to oppose measures such as 1993’s Brady Bill). Even a devastating rebuke from a reviewer in the Wall Street Journal, who points out that “Jefferson’s religious beliefs are central to Mr. Barton’s thesis, in the service of which straw men are consumed in bonfires,” will (I believe) have little effect on the true intended audience. And for that reason, too, my question is why, with so many books worthy of extended attention, did this one deserve the attention of the Wall Street Journal?

It’s Not About Jefferson At All

The reason all the refutation in the world will have little or no effect on Barton’s target audience is that his book, The Jefferson Lies, is not really about Jefferson at all; it’s about Barton’s own skewed view of the context of historical scholarship and the academic enterprise—and, for that matter, of what constitutes “truth.” Barton spends a good deal of his Jefferson book not on Jefferson, but on his supposed bogeymen of the academic world, “Deconstructionism, Poststructuralism, Modernism, Minimalism, [and] Academic Collectivism.” 

No, this doesn’t mean Barton’s been studying his Foucault or Judith Butler; these words, as he uses them, bear no relationship at all to their common usage or intellectual derivation (a point Throckmorton and Coulter cover in their introduction, and historian John Fea discusses in his series of posts; how they kept a straight face in covering the virtual self-parody Barton performs with these words is beyond me). They constitute instead a private language that validates Barton’s own self-conception as a defender of Truth against those who, according to him, do not believe in any Truths of any sort. 

It’s a case study, in some ways, of recent depictions of the neuroscience of political differences, and in particular the way “righteous minds” conceive of the world. And it’s a perfect example of the thesis that Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson have outlined in The Anointed—the ways in which evangelical experts have created alternate intellectual universes that provide large audiences with a complete explanation of the world. In this case, Barton is the go-to historian with an explanation of America’s founding as a Christian nation and its providentialist mission in the world. There’s a pseudo-historian like that in every generation, from Parson Weems to David Barton. 

Thus, in a book ostensibly about Jefferson, Barton has in reality sketched out his case connecting liberalism of any sort with a rejection of Truth. His specific claims about Jefferson can be, and will be, debunked to death, probably nowhere more effectively than in Getting Jefferson Right, but the pseudo-philosophical worldview behind them, complete with Big Words such as “Poststructuralism or (gasp) “Academic Collectivism,” is the intellectual red meat that his sizable audiences show up to hear. And for that reason, when all the trees in his forest fall, his detractors yell “timber!,” and scholars analyze the reason for their crash to the ground, no one in his audience will be there to notice. They already know the Truth, and the Truth has set them free.