Monday, January 11, 2010

I Apologize to David Barton and Peter Marshall

As some of my readers know, I have a particular interest in the debate going on in Texas over what kind of content should be included in the state social studies standards. You can read my extensive commentary on this topic here.

I was recently contacted by a reporter from the Austin Statesman-American to comment on the situation in Texas. She asked me a bunch of questions about David Barton and Peter Marshall--two of the curriculum reviewers chosen by the more conservative members of the Texas Board of Education. The reporter was writing a feature article on this week's meeting to revise the social studies curriculum in light of the reports presented by outside reviewers (6 in total, including Barton and Marshall).

The article appeared in yesterday (Sunday's) Austin Statesman-American. I am not sure how long it will be posted on the Statesman-American website, so I pasted the entire thing into my last post.

I am quoted twice in the article. Here is the first and more extensive of the two:

I'm an evangelical Christian, and I think David Barton and Peter Marshall are completely out to lunch," said John Fea, a history professor at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, a Christian institution. "They are not experts on social studies and history. Neither of them are trained in history. They are preachers who use the past and history as a means of promoting a political agenda in the present.

Let me say up front that I have some major disagreements with the way Barton and Marshall think and write about American history. Anyone who reads this blog or some of my other popular writings will be aware of this. But Barton and Marshall also make a few good points about the place of religion in the American Founding--points that are often overlooked by secularists. In fact, in my forthcoming book on Christian America I try to give them the benefit of the doubt whenever it is possible to do so.

My major gripe with Barton and Marshall and their connection to the Texas social studies standards is that they are not historians. Yet they have been chosen to help decide what school children in Texas will learn about the past. On this point, I stand by my quote.

What bothers me about this quote, however, is that I do not remember telling the reporter that Barton and Marshall were "completely out to lunch." Frankly, I do not think I have ever uttered the phrase "out to lunch" before in my life.

I could, however, be wrong about this. So if I did actually say this, I apologize to Barton and Marshall. While I disagree with much of their work, I feel uncomfortable with the tone of this phrase. The phrase "out to lunch" does not represent my commitment to civil dialogue about these kinds of questions and only encourages the kind of hostility that has long characterized our culture wars. While I do not think I said this in the course of my interview, if I did, I am sorry.

The piece actually has a few more errors in it. The reporter writes:

Barton, a Texas-based GOP activist and nationally known speaker, and Marshall, a traveling evangelist whose father was a U.S. Senate chaplain in the 1940s, are aligned with American University law and history professor Daniel Dreisbach — one of four academics on the review panel — in the belief that America was intended to be a "Christian nation" with no separation between church and state.

As far as I know, I have never read anything by Daniel Dreisbach promoting the idea that the United States was "intended to be a Christian nation." While he has made scholarly arguments that question a more secular view of the relationship between church and state, his views are not propagandist in nature. I made it abundantly clear to this reporter that Dreisbach was a legitimate scholar, fully qualified to discuss what students should learn in a social studies curriculum, but, alas, I was apparently misunderstood.

I also think it is incorrect to portray Barton, Marshall, and Driesbach as opponents of the idea of "separation of church and state." While Barton and Marshall do not seem to care for the term, and Driesbach has argued that the supposed "wall" between church and state does not apply to the individual states, none of them are actually promoting a theocracy.

Now back to finishing up my manuscript: "Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Primer."