Monday, May 9, 2011

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

I am still working my way through the second segment of David Barton's appearance on Jon Stewart last week.  In case you want to follow along, I have posted the segment below.  In case you want to learn more about Christianity and the founding or the idea of America as a "Christian nation" check out Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.

7:44:  Barton is talking here about his book Original Intent: The Courts, the Constitution, & Religion.  I have a copy sitting in front of me as I write this.  Barton is correct when he says that the book has a lot footnotes.  (I counted 1433, not 1700, as Barton claims).  He compares his well-researched book to Isaac Kramnick and Laurence Moore's The Godless Constitution: A Moral Defense of the Secular State, which does not contain any footnotes.  Now granted, The Godless Constitution is a very frustrating book because it does not contain footnotes.  I have no idea why W.W. Norton decided to leave the footnotes out, but in doing so the book lost some credibility against the very people it hoped to reach. (Unless, of course, Kramnick and Moore were preaching to the choir with this book, hoping to reach liberals who already believe the Constitution is "godless.").   I think the Godless Constitution is worthy of critique because it does not look at the full complexity of church-state relations in the late eighteenth-century.  It fails to address the question of federalism, or the notion that many of the states had either religious establishments or Christian qualifications for office-holding.  I generally agree with Daniel Driesbach review of the book.  I think Barton would agree as well.

But there is something more at work here.  Barton is very impressed with books that footnote primary sources.  He has criticized other Christian historians--such as Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden--for citing too many secondary sources and not enough primary source material in their The Search for Christian America.

Here is a quote from Barton's Original Intent (p. 316-318):

A simple means by which revisionism in any of its forms may be identified is its nearly universal failure to cite primary-source documents.  Consider for example, the work mentioned earlier, The Search for Christian America, wherein three scholars purported to investigate whether America really did have a Christian founding.

They ultimately concluded that it did not, based in part on their use of "psychohistory" to impugn the Founders' motives, as well as on their rejection of the Founders definitions of Christianity in deference to their own...Yet the most glaring evidence of their revisionist approach to the American founding is revealed by an examination of the bibliography list at the conclusion of their book.  While allegedly examining the Founding Era, strikingly, 88 percent of the "historical sources" on which they rely postdate 1900, and 80 percent postdate 1950!"

This quote is interesting for several reasons:

1.  Barton calls the lack of primary citations a "universal failure" among revisionists.  Wow!  Maybe he should pick up a copy of Noll's America's God or Hatch's Democratization of American Christianity.  According to Barton, all historians fail to use primary sources.  This is an outrageous claim.

2.  Barton likes to pick on a certain genre of book--the kind of book that attempts to form a bridge between scholarship and the popular reader.  This is why he targets Godless Constitution and The Search for Christian America instead of more formal works of scholarship.

3.  I am baffled by Barton's claim that Search employs "psychohistory."

4. Barton sees "revisionism" as a bad word, not realizing that he is doing it himself.  Whether he is right or wrong, Barton is trying to "revise" much of the historical scholarship of the 1960s and 1970s--scholarship that he disagrees with.  Revisionism is the lifeblood of history, but Barton has demonized the term.

5.  Barton believes that simply citing primary sources is enough.  He is not particularly interested in interpreting them.  He has no use for the 5 c's of historical thinking:  change over time, context, causality, contingency, and complexity.  He fails to recognize that secondary works of scholarship offer interpretations of primary sources and often-times those interpretations are sound.

So when Barton tells Stewart that Original Intent has 1700 footnotes, he sounds very scholarly.  I am sure this will impress many of his followers, especially since he has set up The Godless Constitution as his straw man.

8:35: Here Barton shows his ignorance of historical scholarship when he suggests that scholars are saying that religion was not part of the founding of this country.  How do you reconcile that with the fact that religion is the most studied topic among members of the American Historical Association or that American Religious History is the most thriving subfield in American history right now?

More later.