Barton’s Fall From Grace

Back in June I wrote about a new book by two conservative evangelical writers who took great issue with the take on Thomas Jefferson’s church-state views offered by the famous controversialist David Barton, who more than any one person is cited by Christian Right folk as “proving” America was intended by its Founders to be a “Christian Nation.” At the end of the post I expressed pessimism about the impact of this debunking given Barton’s enormous political usefulness, particularly to the vast Teavangelical interests who claim the Declaration of Independence set out divinely established permanent edicts protecting everything from fetal rights to absolute limits on taxes and business regulations.

But turns out I underestimated conservative evangelical scholarship, which has turned against Barton with a vengeance, as noted by Thomas Kidd in the latest issue of World magazine:

Jay W. Richards, senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, and author with James Robison of Indivisible: Restoring Faith, Family, and Freedom Before It’s Too Late, spoke alongside Barton at Christian conferences as recently as last month. Richards says in recent months he has grown increasingly troubled about Barton’s writings, so he asked 10 conservative Christian professors to assess Barton’s work.

Their response was negative. Some examples: Glenn Moots of Northwood University wrote that Barton in The Jefferson Lies is so eager to portray Jefferson as sympathetic to Christianity that he misses or omits obvious signs that Jefferson stood outside “orthodox, creedal, confessional Christianity.” A second professor, Glenn Sunshine of Central Connecticut State University, said that Barton’s characterization of Jefferson’s religious views is “unsupportable.” A third, Gregg Frazer of The Master’s College, evaluated Barton’s video America’s Godly Heritage and found many of its factual claims dubious, such as a statement that “52 of the 55 delegates at the Constitutional Convention were ‘orthodox, evangelical Christians.'” Barton told me he found that number in M.E. Bradford’s A Worthy Company.

And on top of that, the biggest blow, per TPM’s Casey Michael:

Thomas Nelson Publishers announced this month that it has ceased publication of The Jefferson Lies, Barton’s latest work.

Casey Francis Harrell, the director of corporate communications at the publishing firm, said that, due to a spate of recent complaints, Thomas Nelson had “lost confidence in the book’s details.” The Jefferson Lies, a New York Times bestseller, has been pulled from Thomas Nelson’s website, and the company has asked online retailers to cease offering the work to the public.


In Kidd’s damning account of the uniformly negative assessment of Barton’s most recent work by conservative evangelical scholars, he adds this afterthought:

Barton has received support from Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, and other political leaders.

No kidding. I think it’s safe to say that a whole lot of conservative political argumentation about church-state relations, the Constitution, and the Founders has always rested on Barton’s authority, which is now been taken down many notches.

So next time you hear some pol or gabber say confidently that it’s a “well-known fact” this was intended to be a “Christian Nation” with eternal constitutional rules of governance which happen to coincide with the conservative movement’s economic and social prejudices, you might want to ask: “Who Says?” If it’s David Barton, it might be time to laugh.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.