Barton’s Inversion

If you pay much attention to the religion-and-politics beat, you are probably familiar with the infamous name of David Barton, the “historian” who has had enormous success in supplying talking points for the ever-growing ranks of American conservatives who are convinced that “separation of church and state” is a nefarious “myth” that perverts the Founders’ design for a Christian nation.

I’ve been fascinated by Barton and his infernal work as someone who still has trouble grasping that the Southern Baptist denomination in which I was raised has briskly moved in the course of my lifetime from a traditional position on church-state separation indistinguishable from that of the American Civil Liberties Union to one that is violently hostile to any limits on theocracy. Barton and his acolytes–very much including the conservative evangelicals whose very strength in this country is a testament to the Jeffersonian principle of state agnosticism about religion–have very nearly inverted the traditional understanding of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, and it’s no surprise that Barton’s latest project is claiming Jefferson himself for his ideology.

So it was with great interest that I read Paul Harvey’s review at Relgiion Dispatches of a new book, Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims About Our Third President, by two evangelical critics of Barton who take apart his profanement of Jefferson’s teachings and set the record straight:

The authors are professed evangelical Christians who teach at Grove City College, a school whose mission statement rejects “secularism and relativism” and promotes intellectual and social development “consistent with a commitment to Christian truth, morals, and freedom….”

They find without fail that [Barton’s] claims fall into one of the following categories: 1) complete falsehoods (there are plenty of those); 2) misleading falsehoods (such as the story about wanting Christian imagery on the national seal—true, but on the other side of the seal, had Jefferson gotten his wish, would have been a pagan story); 3) true, but entirely irrelevant and ultimately misleading statements (such as signing documents with “the Year of our Lord,” which he did because pre-packaged treaty forms had that language, and had about as much meaning as signing “Dear” in our salutations in letters to complete strangers); 4) statements with a “kernel” of truth but blown so far out of proportion as to end up being false (such as Jefferson wanting federal funding for Indian missions, when in fact the titles of the bills simply took on the name of already existing religious societies; 5) baffling assertions that are so far out of the realm of reality as to be neither “true” nor “false,” but simply bizarre (such as Barton’s defense of Jefferson’s views on race, which were disturbingly ugly even by the standards of his era).

But Harvey despairs that Getting Jefferson Right will have any impact on Barton or his religio-political followers:

The reason all the refutation in the world will have little or no effect on Barton’s target audience is that his book, The Jefferson Lies, is not really about Jefferson at all; it’s about Barton’s own skewed view of the context of historical scholarship and the academic enterprise—and, for that matter, of what constitutes “truth.” Barton spends a good deal of his Jefferson book not on Jefferson, but on his supposed bogeymen of the academic world, “Deconstructionism, Poststructuralism, Modernism, Minimalism, [and] Academic Collectivism….”

[In a book ostensibly about Jefferson, Barton has in reality sketched out his case connecting liberalism of any sort with a rejection of Truth. His specific claims about Jefferson can be, and will be, debunked to death, probably nowhere more effectively than in Getting Jefferson Right, but the pseudo-philosophical worldview behind them, complete with Big Words such as “Poststructuralism or (gasp) “Academic Collectivism,” is the intellectual red meat that his sizable audiences show up to hear. And for that reason, when all the trees in his forest fall, his detractors yell “timber!,” and scholars analyze the reason for their crash to the ground, no one in his audience will be there to notice. They already know the Truth, and the Truth has set them free.

To put it another way, the heirs of the evangelicals that Jefferson’s heritage protected have thrown away their birthright for a mess of political pottage, and if pursuing their very secular lust for power means turning Jefferson upside down and inside out, that’s just fine.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.