Friday, May 6, 2011

Blogging David Barton's Appearance on Jon Stewart: Part 1

As many of my readers know, David Barton's appeared on Jon Stewart on Wednesday night.  I have received a lot of e-mails and Facebook notes from readers of this blog asking me to respond to the show, so over the next several days I will try to engage some of the salient points of the interview.

For a fuller treatment of the relationship between Christianity and the American founding and the Christian nation debate I would encourage you to get a copy of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.

I should say at the start that Barton is very good in situations like this.  Very good.  I recently spoke to my father on the phone--a non-historian--who thought that Barton was very impressive.  He said that if he did not have a son who was a historian who could correct some things that Barton said, he would have felt that Barton got the best of Stewart.  I am sure millions of Americans of the Christian/evangelical persuasion felt the same way after they watched this.

I am blogging off of the video/online extended version of the interview.  Which is longer than the televised interview.  Let's begin with the first segment.  Here it is, just in case you want to follow along.

:20: Barton asks Stewart a very good question: "How do you define Christian nation?"  Barton wants to define it based upon court cases that have declared the United States to be a Christian nation.  Fair enough. The United States courts have noted on numerous occasions that the United States was a Christian nation.

But one is left with the impression that the purpose of these court cases was to decide whether or not America is a Christian nation.  Many of them, such as the Trinity case of 1892, was primarily about immigration.  Moreover, if you are going to appeal to the Supreme Court as an authority, then you can't pick and choose which Supreme Court decisions you like.  You must also appeal to the 1947 Everson vs. Board of Education case in which the Supreme Court declared that there was a wall of separation between church and state and that it was is "high and impregnable."

What strikes me about these first few minutes of the interview is that Barton appears to be trying to make an objective argument.  Stewart asks him if the Everson case of 1947 was decided wrongly, and Barton says that he is not saying whether the case was a "mistake," only that "we have reversed policy since 1947, so what we have for 150 years and what have had for 50 years are two different things."

Now Barton just seems to be stating a historical fact here, but what he is really implying, and I argue in this light of his other public statements, such as his appearance on Glenn Beck, that the Everson case was decided wrongly.  Barton is implying that the decision was wrong because it erased 150 of previous practice. (Or at least this is how his conservative Christian followers will interpret him).  Once again, he appeals to a golden age--an age he want to return to--when the court did not interfere with public displays of Christian religion. 

But I am sure Barton would agree that sometimes it is necessary to erase 150 years of previous practice.  Sometimes the courts and the government much be progressive.  I hope Barton would agree, for example, that the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments (which freed the slaves, gave them citizenship, and the right to vote), though a reversal in policy, was a good thing.  I hope he would think that a reversal in policy on something like the Dred Scott case was a good thing.

More to come.