David Barton is very unhappy that people don’t believe his lies about Jefferson, as spread in his fiasco, The Jefferson Lies (2012), which I reviewed here. His book has been criticized by scholars, but Barton won’t argue history: he’s more interested in character assassination – and his own martyrdom.
He has lashed out at Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter, both professors at a conservative Christian college, Grove City College (whose book, Getting Jefferson Right, I also reviewed here), and two Jefferson scholars, Clay Jenkinson and Alan Pell Crawford - you know, people who have made the study of Jefferson their life’s work. People whose only real sin is academic integrity.
He has not, for whatever reason, gone after John Fea, historian at Messiah College, and author of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction, who is one of his most persistent critics online, and Professor Fea seems to be feeling a bit left out, as he notes on his blog.
Barton, as only a fundamentalist believer can, is feeling persecuted, comparing himself to none other than Paul of Tarsus, who was not a persecuted person but a persecutor, by his own admission. Paul actually brags about his good relations with the Roman authorities and Paul nowhere complains of persecution by Jews in his extant epistles. Barton, to his credit, seems to realize this, for as history professor John Fea of Messiah College points out, “Barton seems to compare the attacks on his work to the attacks on St. Paul in Acts 13 and 14.”
Those scholars Barton despises so much recognize that Acts aren’t in line with Paul’s genuine writings. Barton would no doubt take issue with this being an issue, but he so far hasn’t tried to invent something to be put into the epistles as evidence. Would that he showed the same restraint here for Thomas Jefferson. But he doesn’t. As I noted in my review, he pulls out all the stops in attempting to present Thomas Jefferson as a good conservative and not only a good conservative, but a modern Evangelical.
On his WallBuilders blog, Barton immediately goes for the straw man he created in his book, that the actual experts, rather than being experts, are elitists determined to silence the truth through their slavish devotion to their own exalted status, each simply repeating what the other has written rather than appealing to primary source material:
For generations, America recognized an equality of individualism that made the carpenter as important as the university president and the shopkeeper the equal of the statesman. But today, under the influence of Poststructuralism, America has begun to divide itself into groups based not only on identity (e.g., black/white/Latino, straight/gay, union/right-to-work, conservative/liberal, etc.) but also on distinctions such as economic income, social standing, and even degree of academic knowledge – and especially in the latter category as pretentious scholars in law and academics claim exclusive knowledge they believe places them above ordinary citizens.
To this end, Barton tries to raise himself up as the true expert - in true patriarchal fashion - by comparing collections, if you take my meaning. He whips out his 100,000 documents (without telling anyone which documents these are) and defies anyone to match the girth of his acquistitiveness. But as John Fea observes, “This makes Barton a good collector, but does not make him a good historian.”
Warren Throckmorton, on his blog, also answers this charge:
Barton leads his response to Getting Jefferson Right by claiming that we are part of the academic elite with a need to publish or perish. His criticisms are not consistent; he says we are academic elites but demeans the book because we published it as an ebook first. Publishing a digital book for $4.99 is not an elitist move. If anything, an argument can be made that digital publishing allows authors to bypass the elitist system. Barton says we are part of the “publish or die” mentality of academia. That criticism shows how little he knows about Grove City College where Michael and I teach (Barton incorrectly called it Grove College). While publications are appreciated around here, the real value is on excellence in the class room.
Barton even claims simple jealousy as a reason for scholarly criticism of his book:
Conversely, typical history works by modern elitist professors generally sell very poorly; and seeing their own influence wane, they often lash out and condescendingly criticize the more popular documentary works. But this practice is not new.
At one point, Barton claims that “elitist professors” are jealous of his work and this is the primary reason they are attacking him. Actually, history professors are “jealous” of Barton’s hold over some of the American people and the way that he is teaching them history. Here I am using the following definition of “jealous”: “Feeling or showing suspicion of someone’s unfaithfulness in a relationship.” This is the kind of jealousy that the patriots exercised regarding the protections of liberty during the American Revolution.
Oh dear, he did not just go there, throwing founding patriotism in a Tea Partier’s face. You know where John Fea’s books are going to end up when Barton is calling the shots. Crackle, crackle, crisp, crisp.
Barton may claim that scholars are jealous and maybe as Fea says, they are (being one, he should know) but Barton is the one behaving insecurely, as though he has something to compensate for, and he does: any training in historiography and lack of any relevant degree.
He claims he is “simplifying” history for the masses because it’s too complex four our simple minds to comprehend but what he is really doing is falsifying it. Simple isn’t an answer when the subject is complex, and history is complex, as has been pointed out repeatedly to Barton, both by Fea and by Throckmorton and Coulter. That’s why people go to college, get degrees, get advanced degrees, and then, being fairly well-versed in their fields, teach them.
Reading a lot of books and owning a lot of documents do not make you a historian. Because he cannot argue the case on its merits, all Barton is left with are ad hominem attacks, accusing his conservative critics of being America- and Christian-hating liberals. To this Throckmorton says, “we are approaching this topic because we are citizens and Christians who seek to speak to our communities. We did not write our book to attack Christianity but to be faithful to it.” And as Fea points out,
Barton has become such a product of the political culture wars that I am afraid he is hurting the larger witness of the church in the world. Where is the humility? Where is the willingness to listen to his critics? I guess I had hoped that Barton’s response to his critics would have been something different–something more humble, more conciliatory, and more Christian. But I was apparently wrong.
Not being a Christian, I am not concerned with Christianity’s image, which I see as already irredeemably tarnished by twenty centuries of abuse, including pouring molten metal down my ancestors’ Heathen throats, but I see Fea’s point and I have often wondered here and elsewhere why more Christians are concerned by this consequence of the culture wars, where humility and even charity, seem utterly lacking. When did Jesus’ message get subsumed into Old Testament Judaism’s fire and brimstone?
But history in the end is not about feelings and it’s not even so much about who is doing the history. As archaeologist William G. Dever observes, we all have ideologies. No historian is completely without bias, no matter how hard they try or how well-meaning they are. History is about facts and the interpretation of those facts and having the biggest document collection is far less important than an ability (and training) to interpret those documents.
Barton does history a disservice, he does his readers a disservice, and he does himself a disservice by being so wedded to his particular ideology that he cannot see the forest for the trees – or admit when he has made a mistake. But then he’s backed himself into that “Bible as my witness’ corner from whence no such admissions can be made. And that is why Throckmorton and Coulter’s careful analysis of Barton’s book, their point-by-point appraisal of his lies of omission and commission both, elicit not a scholarly debate but character attacks on his critics.
It is the last resort of a man without an argument to make.
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.