(Edit 8/17/12: Because I put my foot in my mouth, and said some things I can’t defend, I decided to cut out the problem paragraph in this post. I was rightfully called out for it, and I’ve changed it.)
If you haven’t heard of David Barton, you should know that he is a self-taught and mostly self-published “historian” who is quite popular among conservative Evangelicals for his brand of history and politics. Glenn Beck and Mike Huckabee love him. He makes the argument that America was founded, constitutionally speaking, to be a Christian nation, and that almost all of the founding fathers were Christians. No legitimate Christian historians I know of have high regard for David Barton’s work.
Several of the most respected scholars in the field of American Church history happen to be Evangelicals. These include Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden. Back in 1989, they together wrote The Search For Christian America in an attempt to counter the claims of Barton, Jerry Falwell, and Tim LaHaye that America was founded with the intent of being a distinctly Christian nation, that the Constitution is a Biblical document, and that the founding fathers were mostly Evangelical Christians. I remember Falwell publicly referring to those who disagreed with his version of history as “so-called Evangelicals” who are “history revisionists.” I’ve read several works from Noll, Hatch, and Marsden, and they are at the top of the pile when it comes to American religious history. They have all written in disagreement with Barton’s version of that history. Of course, you’ll never see any video of him engaging in debate with a legitimate historian, Christian or otherwise. As far as I can tell, he only goes on TV with sympathetic audiences and debates against atheists and those on the fringe left. Be careful of supposed “experts” who avoid debates with real scholars.
Turns out that Thomas Nelson Publishers agreed that Barton’s work is lacking sound evidence for his conclusions. They are the publishers of The Jefferson Lies, and have begun the very rare process of pulling his book off the shelves. See the story at the WSJ, and NPR. Interestingly, I couldn’t find the story on the Fox News site. Thomas Nelson Publishers is owned by News Corp, as is Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. That Barton is a favorite of Fox News, it makes one wonder about “Fair and Balanced” reporting if it doesn’t suit the agenda. Go to foxnews.com and search for David Barton. Hmmm.
In a statement on Friday, Thomas Nelson said it “was contacted by a number of people expressing concerns about the book. We took all of those concerns seriously, tried to sort out matters of opinion or interpretation, and in the course of our review learned that there were some historical details included in the book that were not adequately supported.” The publisher decided to withdraw the book last week but didn’t disclose it at that time.
Why does this matter? That America was founded intentionally as a Christian Nation is one of the main pillars of support for conservative culture warriors, and one of the main motivators for those who want to “take America back for God.” But what if the pillar is, at the very least, a distortion of actual, verifiable fact?
For your own information, I link to a really good review of the book in question. The comment thread is good too.
Moderator Edit 8/15/12 : Admittedly, I may be wrong in some of the examples I stated above. However, after the discussion in the comment thread, I didn’t want to leave anyone with the impression that it is only NPR criticizing Barton. Here’s a link from the theologically conservative World Magazine reporting the quite a few theologically conservative historians find Barton’s work to be suspect.