To continue in the theme of public figures that make me hesitant to call myself “conservative,” David Barton has been making some headlines lately.
Barton is an evangelical minister from Texas who has made a career for himself as a sort of amateur historian. He became quite popular among the Christian conservative crowd when he was promoted by Mike Huckabee several years ago, and is now essentially the historian-in-residence with Glenn Beck’s program.
According to Barton, much of America’s history has been lost, twisted, and misinterpreted by liberal academic elites, and his organization, Wallbuilders, is trying to recover what has been lost. Essentially, his goal is to prove that the Founding Fathers were all conservative orthodox Christians. Needless to say, he hasn’t met with a great reception outside of the Huckabee/Beck type crowd.
Barton’s most recent book is called The Jefferson Lies, which effectively tries to claim Thomas Jefferson for the Religious Right – something no one before had tried to do, and with good reason. In his eagerness to overturn the current understanding of Jefferson, Barton goes so far that a number of conservative Christians have called him out.
In response to Barton’s latest work, two history professors from Grove City College published Getting Jefferson Right: Fact-Checking Claims About Our Third President, a 300-page academic assessment of his claims. Drs. Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter accuse Barton of “taking statements and actions out of context and simplifying historical circumstances.” Dr. Jay W. Richards of the Discovery Institute and other conservative Christian academics have also weighed in against Barton, saying that his work is full of “embarrassing factual errors, suspiciously selective quotes, and highly misleading claims.”
When confronted with this criticism, Barton wrote them off as “academic elitists” (code for “liberals,” despite the fact that Grove City College is a solidly conservative institution). Barton, who has a bachelor’s degree in Christian Education from Oral Roberts University, argues that trained historians are not the “sole caretakers of historical knowledge.” In a conference call with United in Purpose’s One Nation Under God event, Barton said that those who disagree
have entire websites smashing me, trashing me, but they’ve never been able to go after the content, they just don’t like what’s there. So what they’ll do is…the same tactic they used with Jesus. When Jesus had content that would change people’s lives…they would make things up about him.
WORLD Magazine, which tends to cater to much the same crowd as Barton, has run several articles covering the controversy. Due to the poor publicity, and saying they had “lost confidence in the book’s details,” the Thomas Nelson publishing company has decided to cease publication and circulation of The Jefferson Lies and removed all mention of the book from its website. They just discovered why Barton’s own Wallbuilder’s Press has published most of his books.
Barton’s assessment of Jefferson isn’t his only work that has come into question lately. On Wednesday, Dr. Greg Forster of the Kern Family Foundation and the Acton Institute posted a blog on First Things discussing Barton’s treatment of John Locke. Forster is a Locke scholar, and the results aren’t pretty.
Hopefully in the wake of all this uproar, the conservative Christians in America will wake up and realize that Barton is right: academically trained historians don’t need to have a monopoly in that field. It’s not that Barton is a bad person, or necessarily wrong on everything he’s ever said.
But he is one bad historian.