Genuine Christian Scholars Smack Down an Unruly Colleague

By Garrett Epps

The phony evangelical "historian" David Barton meets his match at last.

Thomas Jefferson (Library of Congress)

Since at least 2001, the national dialogue on the Constitution has come more and more to resemble a sewage lagoon. There's no sign of a turnaround soon, but at least this week may mark the beginning of the end for the toxic geyser that is David Barton.

Barton's book, The Jefferson Lies, was withdrawn Thursday by Thomas Nelson, the world's largest Christian publisher. It's rare enough for a publisher to withdraw a book that has already been printed; rarer still if the book has been on The New York Times bestseller list. Thomas Nelson spokesman Casey Francis Harrell announced that the publisher had received a number of complaints that the book is inaccurate. "Because of these deficiencies, we decided that it was in the best interest of our readers to cease its publication and distribution," Harrell said.

This is good news indeed. For at least the past 20 years, Barton has been a tireless producer of books and pamphlets designed to demonstrate that America was founded by Christians and should be governed by Christians, that the separation of church and state is a myth, and that Protestant Christianity should be a part of government. In that time, he has come to occupy a position of influence within the Republican Party. His success is appalling, first because he is not a historian of any kind (his sole degree is from Oral Roberts University in religious education), and second because, even by the standards of today's right wing, he is an obvious crackpot.

If you doubt me, consider that in his 2000 book Original Intent: The Courts, The Constitution, and Religion, Barton explains that the religious faith of the Founders has been deliberately obscured by a sinister godless cabal of historians. As one item of evidence, he cites the musical comedy 1776, which shows Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin dancing around the stage and singing silly songs about the Declaration of Independence. "There is absolutely no evidence to support any of these exchanges," Barton sniffs. If that's not crazy enough for you, consider that he once claimed that John Randolph of Roanoke, one of the most influential Jeffersonians during the early Republic, was a secret Muslim.

In a sane era, Barton would be peddling hand-typed manifestos on a street corner in his hometown of Aledo, Texas. But in our time, his deviant "history" has been assiduously mainstreamed by politicians eager to use religion as a divisive force. Barton has been an adviser to both Michelle Bachmann and New Gingrich, has been praised by Mike Huckabee, and is called by Glenn Beck "the Library of Congress in shoes." In 2005, Time called him one of "the 25 most influential evangelicals in America."

The truly good news about Barton's recent setback is that it has come from his own side. The Jefferson Lies portrays America's third president as an orthodox Christian who favored religious support for Protestantism, and as an early hero of the struggle against racism and slavery. It's more than just a whitewash of this fascinating, complex figure; it's invented out of whole cloth. And though it was challenged by the media -- History News Network's readers last month voted it "the least credible history book in print" -- its downfall occurred not because of secular opposition but because genuine Evangelical intellectuals took it on.

In May, Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter published an ebook called Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President. They are hardly pointy-headed secular humanists: Both teach at Grove City College, a Christian college in Pennsylvania. Throckmorton was formerly a proponent of "conversion" therapy for gay people; now he espouses "Sexual Identity Therapy," which encourages clients to evaluate and adjust to their sexual identity along with their religious commitments, even when their religious values condemn homosexuality; Coulter is the co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought, Social Science, and Social Policy. Getting Jefferson Right was endorsed by a number of Evangelical intellectuals, including John Fea, a genuine historian at conservative Messiah College, whose Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction is an invaluable resource for anyone wanting a sophisticated understanding of the debate Barton has fouled for so long.

There's no hope that this rebuke will persuade Barton to be silent, or even to rethink the gibberish he spouts. From my study of his work, I have concluded that he frequently stoops to knowing falsehoods to further his theocratic agenda. Most of his books are self-published and will never be withdrawn.

But the rebuke from Christian scholars and a Christian publishing house is a mark of shame he will carry from now on. It should remind us all to be skeptical about certain religious claims. Barton claimed to be a spokesman for Christian values; but American Evangelicalism is a huge, complex tradition, one that has made major contributions to American culture. As a former religion reporter, I have learned that those outside a religious tradition should be careful not to accept quacks and fakers as exemplars.

In some ways, the worst thing about Barton's career is the way he has seduced other Christians with lies and half-truths. The Second Epistle of Peter warns the faithful to beware of false teachers, "by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of." We should be grateful to Christian scholar who expose frauds like Barton, and respectful of the faith commitments that led them to do this work.

Barton himself might consider the Psalmist's warning: "The mouth of them that speak lies shall be stopped."

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/08/genuine-christian-scholars-smack-down-an-unruly-colleague/260994/