Conservative historian David Barton has built a well-respected career educating the public and politicians, alike, about America's roots. In a special, three-part series, TheBlaze will be examining Barton's work, what his critics have to say and we'll also invite him to speak directly with our readers (via Spreecast) in the coming days. Also, Barton will be appearing at some of the events surrounding Glenn Beck's "Restoring Love" initiative in Dallas, Texas, this week (tickets for "Restoring Love" can be found here).
In this article -- part one of the series -- we will be delving into what his critics say. It's important to note this is merely a recap of what others have said about him, not a reflection of opinion. In part two, we'll level the playing field and give Barton the chance to respond; the final segment will consist of a Spreecast web interview with the historian.
Like anyone who attracts a massive audience, Barton, naturally, has his critics. The founder of WallBuilders, a group that prides itself on "presenting America's forgotten history and heroes," works to remind the American public of the nation's religious and constitutional foundations. But while Barton sees a historical America that is rooted in Judeo-Christian tradition, others disagree with his assessment -- even in light of the compelling evidence he provides.
In a 2011 profile, The New York Times perfectly captured the leftist arguments that are so typically waged against Barton:
Many historians call his research flawed, but Mr. Barton’s influence appears to be greater than ever. Liberal organizations are raising the alarm over what they say are Mr. Barton’s dangerous distortions, including his claim that the nation’s founders never intended a high wall between church and state.
The critics are plentiful. Take, for instance, Stephen Prothero, a religion professor at Boston University and the author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation." In a recent article for the USA Today, Prothero tackled Barton's views on the nation's founding, expressing his disagreement with his take on the Founding Fathers, among other related issues.
Of particular mention in Prothero's article is Thomas Jefferson, the United States' third president. While the professor admitted that Barton has it right that Jefferson was, by no means, an atheist, he said that the historian is "driven by desire rather than by evidence" and that his writings are "more 'truthy' than 'truthful.'" Prothero writes:
In his new book, "The Jefferson Lies," Barton argues that academics have spread a series of falsehoods about Jefferson — that he was a racist, a secularist and an advocate of strict church/state separation. Barton thinks he knows better. His Jefferson, who died (appropriately enough) on July 4, 1826, wasn't just an "American hero." He was an orthodox Christian, too.
To be fair, Barton is right to observe that Jefferson was no atheist. He also correctly points out that Jefferson gave money to churches, attended worship services and revered Jesus as a great moral teacher. But does that make him an "orthodox" Christian? Not by a long shot.
Prothero claims that Jefferson dubbed the Biblical book of Revelation as the "ravings of a maniac" and that he never accepted the divinity of Jesus. The professor also claims that the virgin birth was rejected by the Founding Father and that the Trinity was "hocus-pocus phantasm." As for Barton, Prothero called him a "slipshod" historian (i.e. not overtly caring in his work).
Others, too, have taken similar stances on Barton. Warren Throckmorton, an associate professor of psychology at Grove City College, has regularly criticized him. This month, alone, he tackled some of the claims Barton made in the Jefferson book. For example, Throckmorton wrote on his blog that Barton is wrong that Jefferson was unable to free his slaves as a result of Virginia law (this is just one of the many points of debate).
Coincidentally, Throckmorton and Michael Coulter (a humanities and political science professor at Grove City) penned a book called "Getting Jefferson Right" aimed at "fact-checking" Barton's claims about Jefferson.
But the criticism doesn't end there.
In 2011, Barton was purportedly such a threat to the left that The People for the American Way published a report entitled, "Barton’s Bunk: Religious Right ‘Historian’ Hits the Big Time in Tea Party America." In it, Barton was described as a massive -- and dangerous -- force to be reckoned with. Here's just a sampling of the group's warning:
Barton’s growing visibility and influence with m embers of Congress and other Republican Party officials is troubling for many reasons: he distorts history and the Constitution for political purposes; he encourages religious divisiveness and unequal treatment for religious minorities; and he feeds a toxic political climate in which one’s political opponents are not just wrong, but evil and anti-God.
Scholars have criticized Barton for presenting facts out of context or in misleading ways, but that hasn’t stopped him from promoting his theories through books, television, and, yes, the textbooks that will teach the next generation of Americans. He promotes conspiracy theories about elites hiding the truth from average Americans in order to undermine the nation from within. Last summer, he declared that liberal and media attacks on the Tea Party were just like attacks on Jesus. In February, Barton spoke at the Connect 2011 Pastors Conference, where he said that Christians needed to control the culture and media so that “guys that have a secular viewpoint cannot survive.” Said Barton, “If the press lacks moral discrimination, it’s because we haven’t been pushing our people to chop that kind of news off.”
The extensive report covers Barton's views on the environment, immigration, the GOP and plenty of other issues. And, in the end, its text encourages all those reading it to take action to educate themselves against the historian. While it paints a dire picture, it fails to provide the perspective of people who agree with Barton's stances on Judeo-Christian values in the American historical landscape.
"It is urgently important for scholars, public officials, and responsible media outlets to vigorously challenge efforts by Barton, his supporters, and the movements they represent to miseducate current and future generations of Americans on the Constitution and the abiding American values of religious liberty, equal opportunity, and equality under the law," the document concludes.
Darek H. Davis, the director of church-state studies at Baylor University, believes that some of what Barton discusses is rooted in truth. That being said, he claims accuracy sometimes falls to the wayside.
"The problem with David Barton is that there’s a lot of truth in what he says," Davis told The Times. "But the end product is a lot of distortions, half-truths and twisted history."
These, of course, are only anecdotal examples. While liberals and some skeptical conservatives may criticize Barton, many prominent individuals revere his take on the nation's founding. Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich and Rep. Michele Backmann (Minnesota) are only some of the prominent figures who have relied upon and spoken out favorably about Barton. In 2004, too, he was hired by the Republican National Committee to help rally Christian voters for George W. Bush.
The more prominent Barton becomes, the more flagrant the criticisms against him prove themselves to be. The historian, though, chalks much of the critiques up to cherry-picking and an oversimplification of historical events. For instance, Jefferson is often dubbed by the left as a secularist, but Barton notes that there were different theological phases in the president's life. He believes that it's unfair to define him by a small period of time during which he was less religious (at the end of his life).
We'll allow Barton to respond to his critics in the second part of this series, which will be published on Thursday.