About one year ago, David Barton, the Christian Right activist and politician who writes about the past, appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I blogged extensively about his appearance. You can read the multi-part series here.
Last night Barton was back on The Daily Show to promote his new book, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You've Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson. Here are a few of my thoughts about the interview (and the extended web interview). You can watch the interview here.
At the 1:05 mark of Part One, Barton says that the biggest misconception people have about Thomas Jefferson is that he is an "atheist" or a "secularist." When Stewart pushed Barton to give an example of someone who thinks Jefferson is an atheist he mentioned an atheist group who paid for a billboard somewhere in the "Northwest." This is a straw man. I do not know of any historian (academic historians are the great bogeyman in Barton's world view so one might expect that they would be promoting this view) who would say that Jefferson was an atheist. Check out my chapter on Jefferson in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction? Barton will get no argument from me on this specific point. In fact, there are very few people who would argue with him here. So why is there a need to write an entire book about it? I'll tell you why. Barton wants his followers to think that everyone "out there" says Jefferson was an atheist. What a great way to get his follows to continue in their culture war battle to "take back America."
At the 2:25 mark, Barton engages in a major non-sequitur (Latin for "it does not follow"). He misleadingly (actually, I don't think he is deliberately trying to mislead here, I think he just doesn't get it) implies that the personal beliefs of the founding fathers will naturally translate into their view of church and state. Or to be more specific, if we can prove Jefferson was not an atheist, then he must have championed a view that government should be promoting religion in public life. Here Barton misses the complexity of the founding era. It was certainly possible for someone in the eighteenth century (and today) to be a devout Christian and believe that religion and public life should not mix. The Baptists are the primary example here. Jefferson was no Baptist. And as I argue in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, he was no Christian. But he did find a lot in common with Baptists and other evangelicals on religious liberty, especially the belief that the Virginia government should not be promoting religion in any way, shape, or form. To state it another way, Jefferson's connection to the Virginia Baptists had nothing to do with their doctrine, but had everything to do with their belief in the separation of church and state.
(I should add that Jefferson did think that religion was good for the public, as long as it was producing good American citizens. This is why he liked the moral teachings of Jesus so much. But he did not believe that the government should be sponsoring religion--in either Virginia or the nation. It is on this latter point that Barton wants to claim Jefferson. Finally, Jefferson did acknowledge the fact that states could make their own decisions about these questions).
At about the 4:30 mark, the discussion of Thomas Jefferson is mostly over. Stewart would rather discuss contemporary issues related to church and state. The very nature of this discussion proves a point that I have been making about Barton for a long time. If you listen to him here, you realize that he is more of a political advocate than he is a historian. He uses the past (in this case Jefferson) for his own political, cultural, and religious agenda. He studies Jefferson and the other founders to somehow save the country. With the help of Stewart, he moves from the eighteenth-century to the present with no sense of the fact that these were two very different worlds.
Historians, on the other hand, know that the past is complex. They also know that it is very difficult to use the past--particularly the views of the eighteenth-century founders--to address contemporary problems. This is not to say that the past has no relevance for the present. For example, if we somehow decided to eliminate one of the branches of government or say that the first amendment should no longer protect free speech, we might turn to the beliefs of the founders to argue against these decisions. But the first amendment or the personal convictions of the founding fathers does not often provide definitive answers to specific issues about prayer in public schools or commencement exercises. Historians realize this. Barton does not. Instead, he tries to draw a direct line between Jefferson and contemporary matters of religion and public life.
Barton is a bad historian for two reasons. First, and most obvious, he gets things wrong. On this front, I would recommend Michael Coulter and Warren Throckmorton's forthcoming response to Barton's book. (It will be out this week). Second, he fails to be prudent and cautious about making links between the past and the present.