Monday, April 23, 2012

I Am Accused of Not Stepping Up to Challenge David Barton's Pseudo History

Kyle Mantyla of the People for the American Way's "Right Wing Watch" blog has been very good to me and my book, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.  He has promoted the book at his website, drawn traffic to The Way of Imoprovement Leads Home, and generally linked to stuff I have written about Christian nationalism.  I am very thankful for all of these things.

Since Mantyla knows my work, and is fully aware of the fact that I have made an effort to challenge some of the bogus historical claims of Christian nationalist authors like David Barton, I am a bit baffled by his post today.  Mantyla chides me for not devoting my time to debunking Barton's latest book, The Jefferson Lies.  He refers to this post, which appeared earlier today at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

Mantyla writes:

Fea is an Associate Professor of American History at Messiah College and the author of the excellent book "Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction" which I  wrote about several times last year, and his comment raises a question that I have been wondering about for a long time, which is why bona fide historians seem so unwilling to take a stand against Barton and his partisan manipulation of history. 

For academic historians to generally remain silent as Barton's brand of pseudo-history becomes increasingly popular seems, to me, to represent a serious disservice to their field of expertise. Barton's brand of partisan history remains popular, at least in part, because actual historian so rarely speak out against Barton's flagrant misuse and misrepresentation of history.

Fea laments that Barton's book is so popular while simultaneously saying he doesn't even know what to say about this video.  Those two things are not unrelated. 

If historians, and especially evangelical historians like Fea, remain reluctant to get involved in the task of debunking and discrediting Barton and his pseudo-history, they can expect to continue seeing books by the likes of Beck and Barton at the top of the best-sellers list.

Reluctant to get involved?  Unwilling to take a stand?  Granted, I am extremely busy trying to survive the Spring semester here at Messiah College and thus decided to take a pass on critiquing the latest Barton interview with Glenn Beck, but I would hardly say that I have been "reluctant to get involved" in challenging Christian nationalist views of history.

Having said that, I am a bit jaded and tired.  Thirty years ago Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden wrote The Search for Christian America in order to debunk the faulty views of history promoted by an earlier generation of Christian Right activists.  The book provided thoughtful Christians with a guide to make sense of the faulty views of American history being promoted by the likes of Jerry Falwell and Francis Schaeffer. But as I mentioned in my talk at the Cushwa Center at Notre Dame earlier this month (with Noll and Marsden present), the book did little to stop Christian nationalists from using the American past to promote their political agenda.  In fact, one might argue that the Christian nationalist view of American history, thanks to David Barton and Wallbuilders, has grown stronger since the appearance of The Search for Christian America.

In the end, Mantyla is correct.  Professional historians need to be willing to challenge Barton's view of the American past.  I think Was America Founded as a Christian Nation made an indirect attempt at doing this.  But individual professors writing books can only make a small dent.  We do not have the kind of organization and donor base of a place like Wallbuilders.

I have tried to think about a creative way of engaging the public more fully on these questions and many others related to the role that American history can play in forging a more civil and informed society.  Many have encouraged me in my efforts and patted me on the back for trying, but very few have been willing to get behind the vision in any meaningful way.  Perhaps I have not worked hard enough.  (If interested, I would be happy to send along my white paper/vision statement for a center on American history for a civil society).

I will continue to press on, but I can't do it alone.  That is why I am grateful for folks like Jon Rowe, Chris Rodda, John Wilsey, and Warren Throckmorton who have been willing to get down in the mud to challenge Barton in a point-by-point fashion.  None of these folks are historians by training, but they are doing good work.  I am also grateful for pastors and Sunday School teachers like Clay Knick, Brian Roberts, Brad Jensen, Sterling Fritz, Greg Carey, Debbie Hough, Neil Pitchel, Henry Brinton, Brian Bademan, Phil Lawlis, Dave Weaver-Zercher, and many others who have invited me to their congregations and church groups to address these questions.