Barton’s Book Getting Pulled From Shelves

(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?

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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.

http://www.worldmag.com/articles/19837

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10 thoughts on “Barton’s Book Getting Pulled From Shelves

  1. “what if the pillar is, at the very least, a distortion of actual, verifiable fact?”

    In that case, I suspect that a number of intellectually honest Christian pundits and talk show hosts would need to change their positions. Perhaps they would also consider becoming a little less strident in some of their pronouncements.

  2. Where do I begin? I have been so busy that I only read Simply Profundity blog posts when I have some spare time. Regrettably, I made time to read this one. At first, I just shook my head and walked away. It just kept eating at me, so I stormed back and read it again. This time after I read the post, I was mad.
    The first question I would like to ask is, “What was the purpose?” The tone reflects a smug conceit that – by all accounts – a faithful believer was slapped down by Thomas Nelson publishers. On the other hand, was the purpose to take supercilious swipes at Jerry Falwell, Tim Lahaye, Mike Huckabee, and that sly devil –Glen Beck? Maybe a shot a Thomas Nelson publishing, whose fact checkers missed “so many” glaring errors the first time around (Hopefully, they were all terminated for permitting such an error filled work be published) . Or was the blog entry to point out, that evil entity, Fox News – tool of the anti-christ- has been known to broadcast David Barton’s opinion?
    Moving on . . . In the one example sited of Barton’s specious claims, a creative straw man argument is presented. The blog states, “One of Barton’s claims that is fairly easily countered is that Congress authorized and commended a Bible for the public school system. Congress never printed any Bibles, as is Barton’s claim.” Is that really, what Barton states? Does Barton really believe that after a session of congress, the congressional representatives ran downstairs, put on their printer attire, and started printing Bibles?
    Barton states on page 107 of Original Intent, “Robert Aitken, publisher of the The Pennsylvania Magazine, petitioned Congress on January 21, 1781, for permission to print the Bibles on his presses here in America rather than import them. He pointed out to Congress that his Bible would be ‘a neat edition of the Holy Scriptures for the use of schools’. Congress approved his request and appointed a committee of James Duane, Thomas Mckean, and John Witherspoon to oversee the project”.
    Late summer of 1782, James Duane, chairman of the committee reported to congress “He [Mr. Aitken] undertook this expensive work at a time when from the circumstances of the war and English edition of the Bible could not be imported, nor any opinion formed how long the obstruction might continue. On this account particularly he deserves applause and encouragement”
    Barton continues, “On September 12, 1782, the full Congress approved that Bible which soon began rolling off the presses. Printed in the front of that Bible (the first English-language Bible ever printed in America) was the Congressional endorsement:
    “Whereupon, Resolved, That the United States in Congress assembled . . . recommend this edition of the Bible to the inhabitants of the United States”.
    What the blog states David Barton says and what David Barton says in his book do not seem to match. That seems so strange. Is there an agenda that would cause the discrepancy? Did they selectively pull quotes? “History revisionists”? Well, when the information comes from that paragon of the Truth, Justice and the America Way, NPR, what can one say – “Fair and Balanced” – no agenda under this slimy rock. Maybe I missed it, but I did not see a link to Barton’s response so I’ll post it. http://www.wallbuilders.com/LIBissuesArticles.asp?id=118208 Interestingly, I did find a link to a link to a customer review on Amazon.com. Hmmm?
    My purpose is not to defend David Barton – he does not need it, nor do I completely agree with him. I think he is off base on the slavery issue but I would never revel in the fact that a brother in Christ was hurt. Hopefully, Thomas Nelson Publishing had better information than the blog post . . .

  3. James,

    I know you and I will always disagree on this. I have heard Barton in interviews make the claims I’ve attributed to him. I wish I had done a better job tracking those down. You can accuse me of being smug and disagree with my take on these things, that’s fine. I’m not a political historian, and I won’t debate you point for point. I have read quite a lot of religious history, and Barton’s claims that most of founders were Christians is simply false. It was a mixed bag of people with range religious beliefs. Many were orthodox/biblical Christians, but many others were not. Their writings and mentions of God, Jesus, religion, and the nation need to be read in that light. They lived in a highly religious time, and their language was laced with it. However, just because a person uses religious language, and says nice things about Jesus and Christian morality does not make him a Christian. This is the nuance that has always seemed to me to be lacking in this politically, not theologically, motivated movement.

    I would encourage you to read religious historians in order to put the religious statements of the founders in their proper historical context. Reading those words as if they were written today in today’s theological and social context makes them sound differently that if you were to read them with the theological and social context of their time in your mind. Those historians I’ve mentioned are a good place to start in gaining that perspective. Have you read any of them?

    Fox didn’t report on the story, and it seems obvious to me why that is. When a news outlet ignores a story that might directly impact their own credibility, well, that is just suspicious. Surely you wouldn’t deny that?

    Does the fact that Christian book publisher Thomas Nelson (also owned by News Corp) pulled the book hold no sway with you? Are they part of the conspiracy to hide the truth? Did they bow to political pressure, or did they do their homework and find his work lacking?

    Are Christian historians that disagree with Barton also part of a conspiracy or are they legitimate scholars who have spent decades researching the topic of religious history in America?

    I linked to the Amazon review, because that review pretty well sums up the type of objections people have to Barton’s work. You don’t have to agree with it, but there was nothing wrong with me directing people to a review containing a good explanation of common objections.

    And please don’t paint Barton as an innocent victim who was hurt. He’s a big boy playing a big boy game. Your comment about me being “smug” and “reveling” in a brother’s hurt is a disingenuous attempt on your part to shame me, and I won’t fall for it.

  4. Is David Barton correct? I don’t know. I have done some reading on early American Church history but I prefer political history.

    What I thought was ironic, here is a post reveling in a Christian writer having his book pulled for “errors” and the “facts” presented in the post were full of errors. Do you realize you have you combined two different stories? The first English Bible printed in America (I explained in detail in my previous post) and the Thompson Hot-Press Bible “Some Congressmen invested their personal resources in the publishing company that did print the bible in question, but the government never gave money or support to the project except to allow their chaplains to proofread the text”. As you stated in your reply, “I have heard Barton in interviews make the claims I’ve attributed to him”. You must have heard them so many times, they became one.

    The Thompson Hot-Press Bible story is one the “errors” Dr. Warren Throckmorton, a “psychology” professor at Grove City College, noted. The Hot-Press Bible was new printing method. The publisher asked for subscriptions to fund the project and so he would know how many Bibles to print. A portion of the Bible would be sent out every two weeks at a cost of 50
    cents for two years. At the end of two years, the individual would have a complete Bible.

    Summary of the two arguments:

    Dr. Warren Throckmorton – “Barton says that Jefferson and some of the Founders invested in that bible to get the word of God to families”, but Jefferson didn’t finish paying for his subscription until 1799, well after it was done and over. “Jefferson just bought [one] Bible…Jefferson bought one and he didn’t even finish paying for it until after it was done.”

    David Barton – Used the terms “put up the financial backing” and “funded by”. He then explained, ““A subscription is very much like taking out a bank loan. You’re pledging ahead of time that you’re going to purchase. It’s very much like having an IOU in hand. When the book came out, they listed all of the subscribers — all the guys who said they’d pay for the book…there’s a whole lot of books that never got printed…subscribers really are investers. The fact that Jefferson put his name in as a subscription — he was pledging to invest.”

    It’s true David Barton is a big boy. He already has a new publisher lined up.

    I enjoy research. It is very hard to prove or disprove, “I heard . . .” statements.

    Don’t you think it is a little dramatic that my post is attempting to silence you. IT YOUR BLOG! My only regret is you did not fall for my “disingenuous attempt . . . to shame [you] into silence”. Rats!

  5. Go in peace Jim. I surrender. You’re probably right that I conflated story lines, and should’ve left it alone. Lesson learned.

    That said, I find your unwillingness to listen to other voices troubling. Your default reaction is to defend Barton. That historians from the evangelical camp are starting to speak up about this guy should give you pause. Are they all part of the liberal conspiracy or are they trained people who’ve spent decades carefully studying the issues? Are they sincere followers of Christ who are seeking truth or something else? Again, here I refer to Noll, Marsden, and Hatch, as good places to start. I strongly recommend “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” by Noll. It was a mind blower for me.

    Bringing up that Throckmorton, a professor at Grove City College, is a psychologist doesn’t really help your case against his criticism of Barton. Barton has a teaching degree from Oral Roberts University. Not only does he not have an advanced degree, but the theology of Oral Roberts is often on the fringe of Christian belief. I didn’t mention that because I didn’t want to muddy the water, but since you did, I think Barton loses that particular comparison big time.

    We need to study religious historical context so we properly interpret the religious elements of historical political documents. This is basic hermeneutics.

    As to your quote about Barton’s explanation of subscriptions. One question…Why would Jefferson invest?

    One camp might say it was because he really was a Christian who believed the Bible was important to get into the hands of the masses.

    Others might say it was politically expedient to go along with what most people believed in those days even though he was radically anti-Christian.

    Still others might argue that as a deist, Jefferson thought the moral teachings of Jesus were good and useful for the building of a healthy society even though he had no use for the supernatural elements within the Bible. He could then invest in the Bible as a moralistic teaching tool, and have it be no indication whatsoever that he believed Jesus was the Christ.

    Good historians don’t just give facts and data, they also provide context to aid in interpretation. Almost everyone I can find in the field of historical studies argues that Barton does not have a good grasp on historical context. Whether or not he gets his facts right (many scholars find some of his claims to be dubious), simply reading documents and pulling quotes does not help us gain full understanding. People do this with the Bible all the time and that’s how cults are born.

    You asked why I mentioned Falwell in my post. I am concerned for the health the Church in America. I believe that the message preached first by Falwell et al. is based on a bad theology that God has a special relationship with America because it was founded as a Christian nation. This theology is scripturally unsupportable. God has only ever had one covenant with one nation. That is Old Testament Israel. America is merely a nation of this world, albeit a good nation that has more right than wrong, but a nation of this world nonetheless. As such, it is systemically opposed to the Kingdom of God plan in this world. Barton’s work lends credence to the argument that America is special in the eyes of God and as long as we do things God’s way we’ll be blessed. This rips the Old Testament promises of God to Israel out of their biblical context and applies them directly to America through the Church. The problem: God doesn’t make those same promises to Christians, and he certainly doesn’t make those promise to modern nations. It is bad theology, bolstered by a simplified version of history.

    Remember, I’m a Liberty grad, and I heard Falwell use this line of reasoning many times. I mean, I listened to the guy speak every Wednesday morning for four years. I know how he used this bad theology and simplified vision of America’s supposed golden age to motivate the students for political action. Pure manipulation. This is a politically — not theologically — motivated movement. As such, it is dangerous for the Church. Barton has a similar agenda as Falwell, which is why I’ve started keeping an eye on him. It is also why I threw in Beck, and Huckabee. I see them as the next generation of pundits pushing bad theology on the church, and they use a simplified version of history to do it.

    Ironically, Barton wasn’t on my radar screen until we used his material in our church. I personally walked away from this movement a long time ago because of its theology. I don’t really care what the founding fathers thought because it isn’t relevant to true gospel preaching or the destiny of man in the Kingdom of God.

  6. Sometimes wives can be very wise or just point out the obvious. “Pastor Eric is not your brother. He may not appreciate debating, arguing, and being sarcastic as much you and your brother.” (My brother and I view arguing as a sport. He hates Fox News too – maybe that is what rung the bell! It is much more “fun” when it is topics you are passionate about.) So with that understanding, I did not mean to be offensive or over the top. If that was the case, I do apologize.

    My background is very similar to yours. (I toured Liberty College in ’78 or ‘79). I attended a Fundamentalist Christian College for three years.

    I never really stated my opinion of David Barton in the posts. I believe he has some to many valid points. I have one of his books and a couple of DVD’s. However . . .

    I view him as I view all historians (degreed or not) – with many grains of salt. For example and less controversial, most respected historians have a love and admiration for Abe Lincoln. I think Abe was a political figure that would make William Jefferson Clinton jealousy. For every anti-slavery quote, there is a let slavery stand quote – along with an action (See Corwin Amendment). The respected historians have (agendas, biases, and world-views) along with the less respected. Sometimes stating the majority opinion, even if it is done poorly, makes you respected. This is the absolute truth in Lincoln scholarship. They look at what they believe is the whole picture and arrange the facts to fit their view. A quote I never forgot in regards to history – It is written by the winners!

    Again, no disrespect or malice was intended.

  7. Thanks Jim. I was having a particularly rough day yesterday, and I didn’t handle your initial post well. I should’ve been calmer.

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