Sunday, June 3, 2012

Some Thoughts on David Barton's "The Jefferson Lies"--Part Four

This post is part of a continuing series on David Barton's recent book, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You've Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson.  For earlier posts in the series, click here.

The third "ism" that David Barton says is undermining our understanding of Thomas Jefferson is "modernism."

I think Barton is confused here.  He defines modernism as a philosophy that "examines historical events and persons as if they occurred and lived today rather than in the past."  He is confusing "modernism" with "presentism,"  He also seems to be creating his own definition of "modernism."  (Barton does not provide a footnote showing where he got this definition).

If Barton wants to decry presentism, I am with him.  For example, no one in the 18th century would have called Jefferson  a "racist" or a "secularist."  These terms were not in common use at the time.  Anyone who wants to use these labels to criticize Jefferson may be practicing good moral philosophy, but they are not practicing good history.  It is absolutely essential for a historian to understand historical figures in the context of the world in which they lived.

But I find this sudden condemnation of presentism quite a surprise. Barton has built his entire career on a presentist view of history.  He wants to take the distant, foreign world of the eighteenth-century and apply those standards to present day politics and culture.  (Unless, of course, it doesn't fit his political agenda, which seems to be the case with Jefferson).  Good historical thinking (and the rejection of presentism) is not very useful when you have a present-day agenda to promote.

The more I read in The Jefferson Lies, the more it appears that Barton is not trying to claim Jefferson as an evangelical Christian or even enlist him in the modern-day culture wars in the way he does with other founders. Rather, he is trying to use his denunciation of presentism to neutralize Jefferson. By showing that Jefferson believed Christianity was important, Barton limits the way that the secular Left can use him.

This is a manipulation of the past for modern-day purposes.  (By both Barton and those on the secular Left).  It is the quest for a useable past gone terribly wrong.

For another treatment of Jefferson and the role of religion in the founding, as well as a different view on how to think about the past, see Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.  I heard that it's pretty good :-)