American Scripture: How David Barton Won the Christian Right

Why do millions of people support a discredited writer adamant to prove America is inextricably linked to Christianity?

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David Barton wants you to know that America is a Christian nation. He has been making that point for two decades in speeches, books, pamphlets, and videos, in which he claims to unearth the forgotten history of the nation's founding. He has, in the process, amassed a large and loyal following. But it is the praise lately showered upon him by presidential aspirants Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, and Michele Bachmann that has brought him into the public eye.

In the last week, he has been featured on the front page of the New York Times and on the Daily Show.  The week before, Mother Jones and Religion Dispatches took their shots, and People for the American Way updated its indictment.

Barton's errors, exaggerations, and elisions have been exhaustively cataloged; no credible historian defends his work or his conclusions. And yet millions continue to find his message compelling. Why do they trust him?

Barton himself provides an answer on his organization's website:

The heart of our educational work, and that which makes WallBuilders so unique, is our library of rare books. We have collected thousands of first-edition works of our Founding Fathers -- including their own handwritten documents -- and it is primarily in these original sources that we conduct our research.

This emphasis on primary sources is the cornerstone of Barton's pitch. He explained to Jon Stewart that he is in the business of "historical reclamation," adding that he has "about a hundred thousand documents from before 1812." He took the Times reporter on a tour of his library, showing off his volumes and their yellowed pages. And he uses these documents to brush aside complaints that he lacks any formal academic training in history. "I don't have a doctorate in that, no," he told Stewart. "I've got a lot of documents ... and what I got taught and what I've seen in the actual documents aren't the same thing."

Perhaps most crucially, Barton insists that the meanings of these texts should require no additional context.

The same emphasis marks his attacks on the revisionists he disdains. "A simple means by which revisionism in any of its forms may be identified is its nearly universal failure to cite primary-source documents," Barton explains. And he urges his followers to scrutinize footnotes and to assess works by their use of original documents.

Barton's focus on returning to the original text, and his pointed disdain for the scholars whom he accuses of distorting its plain meaning, seems to resonate with his largely evangelical audience. There is a reason for this. It echoes the general doctrine of sola scriptura, the bedrock of the Reformation, that the text of the Bible alone contains the knowledge necessary for salvation. It draws on the tradition of prooftexting, using verses lifted from a larger text to buttress specific points. And in particular, it mirrors the notion of the perspicuity of Scripture -- that its essential teachings are sufficiently clear that "not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them."

In other words, Barton frames historical texts in the manner that his audience is accustomed to encountering the other texts that it routinely studies. He discards the accreted mass of scholarly interpretations, just as Reformation preachers jettisoned the layers of scholastic traditions. He selects key passages for use as texts, and constructs his historical sermons around them. And, perhaps most crucially, he insists that the meanings of these texts should require no additional context; that they are readily evident to all who have eyes to see, and a mind to understand and discern. He proclaims a professoriate of all believers.

When his critics insist that he subject his work to peer review, or disparage his credentials and his logic, they only reinforce the strength of his appeal to his target audience. He deals not in history, but in hermeneutics. When Barton denounces the corruption of our institutions, and the obduracy of our leadership, he is effectively calling for an American Reformation. And his guide in that enterprise, he claims, will be the founding texts themselves.

His error, of course, is that the hundred thousand documents he treasures were all written by men, bereft of divine inspiration, muddling through as best they knew how. Their authors were creatures of their time and place, seized by the usual sets of contradictory impulses and passions, changing and evolving with the passage of time. To apply the same exegetical principles to the works of man as to those of God is folly.

In textual analysis, as in so much else, it helps to separate Church from State.

Image credit: Fox News

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Yoni Appelbaum is a social and cultural historian of the United States. He is a lecturer on history and literature at Harvard University.

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