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.


MikeW said...

John, here via Right Wing Watch, and I share your exasperation over the persistence of the success the right-wing organizations like Wallbuilders has had in propagating their propaganda as real history.

But given the fact that people like Beck, Barton, Limbaugh, et al. have been very successful in inoculating the majority of right-wing conservatives against the the very notion that academics play a valid role in educating Americans about their history, I'm not sure if any amount of head-on confrontations with Barton's nonsense would have much effect.

Barton's books are not popular because they are about history. They are popular because they espouse a conspiracy theory that the establishment has buried the true nature of America's historical place at the center of God's plan for the world. Once a true believer bites, no amount of evidence from academic sources (or elsewhere) is going to help since if they can't dismiss the argument, they will simply impeach the source as being part of the conspiracy. You can't win.

In some countries, like the UK, there are still popular media outlets with enough sway to push back against such nonsense. A popular entertainer, like say, Stephen Fry, can get the BBC to commission a major documentary series that examines some aspect of history, and it will be watched by several million people (e.g. I think there have been at least three British documentary series on the Crusades in the past few years alone). But while PBS, and perhaps The Discovery Channel (Nazi Week), might carry some poplar history programming like that, the fragmentation of US TV greatly blunts their reach (not to mention that PBS is also held in deep contempt by the right anyway).

Therefore I'm sorely tempted to give up on the present generation of "true believers" who see Beck and Barton as the vanguard in the battle against the evil secular horde. It's the next generation that matters. You can already see it in the demographics. Young people today are far less likely to go along with their parents' rigid beliefs concerning religious orthodoxy than they were twenty or thirty years ago.

So that's where I believe you, and your fellow professional historians and educators need to continue to focus your efforts. Keep teaching our children the actual history of America, and teach them about the scientific method and to think critically about history and historical evidence. Show them how to recognize a conspiracy theory when they see one, and that there are no short cuts in the quest for knowledge, no matter how convincing they may seem.

I am sure you are doing all of those things -- though I would be interested to hear if there was a venue in college where professors can teach students (not just history students) about the likes of Barton and their duplicitous ways. Perhaps there is a place for offering a general course on skepticism and conspiracy theories given how prevalent they have become in America today (and not just in the field of history)?

Tom Van Dyke said...

The "debunkers" seldom concede the points that Barton gets right. Thus, it's a battle of half-truths either way.

And in their zeal to trash Barton as a "liar," they send many people into his arms.

Is Barton worse than his critics? OK, fine. But that doesn't make them good.

Tom Van Dyke said...

If you don't mind, John, I'll drop this in here, a reply I posted @ AC:

Kudos to Eric Marrapodi of CNN Blogs for being specific for once, rather than a blanket condemnation.

Frankly, in my view, although Barton's exaggerations seem scandalous to his ideological enemies, I would think its seems like niggling that makes his supporters' eyes glaze over.

In a version of the film made available for screening and in clips posted online, Barton shows Cameron the “Thompson Hot Press Bible,” which Barton said was printed in 1798 and was funded by 12 signers of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, including John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

“They wanted the word of God out to every family,” Barton says in the clip. “If these guys happen to be Christians it makes a lot of sense.”

Barton then picks up a small rare Bible known as the “Aitken Bible.” “The Bible of the Revolution was printed by the Congress of the United States. So Congress printed the first English Language version of the Bible,” Barton said. He goes on to say the Congress said, “This was a neat edition of the Bible for use in our schools.”

Warren Throckmorton, an associate professor of psychology at Grove City College, a private Christian school in Pennsylvania, has criticized Barton’s version of history and Cameron’s films.

About much of the history featured in the film, Throckmorton said, “That’s just not what happened.”

After seeing clips of the documentary, Throckmorton fact-checked some parts.

He said he found that the “Thompson Hot Press Bible” was not funded in total by 12 Founders. Instead, he said, the Bible was funded by a subscription base of 1,200 customers that included 12 Founding Fathers. “The printers funded that Bible, the Founders didn’t fund it. It was a business venture for them.”

As for the quote Barton attributed to Congress about putting the Bible in schools, it actually came from Robert Aitken’s petition to Congress. Aitken was a colonial printer. The Journals of Congress from 1782 shows Aitken completed the Bible on his own and sought the blessing of Congress.

The record shows a report from two congressional chaplains who examined the work, which they praised.

Congress passed a resolution to recommend “this edition of the Bible to the inhabitants of the United States and hereby authorize him to publish this recommendation in the manner he shall think proper.” That resolution did not mention it being put in schools.

“David Barton gets the facts wrong when it comes to these two Bibles,” Throckmorton said. “The facts of the case are stretched and embellished to create a narrative that is misleading.”

Well, yes and no, w/all due respect, Dr. Throckmorton. The exaggeration is beyond question. however, Jefferson DID contribute 50 bucks [a lot of dough back then] to pay for Bibles for the Poor, and the Aitken Bible, altho not financed by Congress, WAS endorsed ["recommended"] by it.

So, the narrative is sort of "misleading," but not totally so. Barton's supporters [like Kirk Cameron himself] would tend to dismiss the criticisms as agenda-driven more than in service of historical purity.

Cameron defended Barton’s work. “No one is more guilty of cherry picking evidence than those who bow to the god of political correctness, especially historians,” Cameron said. “Everyone is going to select the information that is important to their thesis. If you’re bent on being politically correct, it’s very easy to fall into that trap.”