David Barton and the conservative rediscovery of integrity

One of the most hopeful things that I have witnessed in recent times was the decision of evangelical Christian publisher Thomas Nelson to discontinue publishing David Barton’s Jefferson Lies. For those of you who are unfamiliar, David Barton is a historical revisionist very popular in the Michelle Bachmann/Glenn Beck circles for trying to advance the claim that America’s Founding Fathers were 21st century evangelical Christians and not 18th century Deists. The reason Thomas Nelson dropped his book is because other conservative evangelical historians cried foul at the way that Barton distorted history to support his ideological propaganda. This is a very significant development because what most turns people off about today’s “conservatism” is actually not the part that is conservative, i.e. its commitment to ancient, timeless truths, but rather the hijacking of conservatism by populist demagogues who reveal their lack of conservatism with their contempt for the truth. So if American conservatism is in fact rediscovering the importance of integrity, this will be much better for its long-term health than continuing to foment short-term political power through fact-free, sensationalist rabble-rousing.

In Barton’s book, he claims that what has been taught about Jefferson is driven by a secular liberal agenda. This is the standard ruse by which Christian culture warriors excuse themselves of being obedient to the truth. Since all of the scholarship available is encased in the inherently secular liberal historical and scientific methods, the Christian has no obligation to be faithful to what really happened in history or what actually happens in a Petri dish, as long as s/he can scrape together some Bible verses for ideological support. Christians often find justification for a contempt for integrity in the distinctions that Jesus draws between the world and His kingdom. If information comes from a non-Christian “worldly” source such as the New York Times or the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, then it is guaranteed to be corrupt and false. Only people who quote scripture throughout their writings are to be trusted.

What’s fascinating is how radically postmodern evangelical culture warriors really are. Postmodernity tells us that objectivity is impossible because people always have some kind of agenda behind what they believe. Every discourse draws boundaries and privileges presumptions in a certain way which serves the interests of whatever power-brokers have established the discourse. But to hold this episteme of cynicism in absolute is recklessly dishonest. It is true that science cannot tell us anything about God, because the scientific method precludes the consideration of divine intervention in its empirical observations. But this does not mean that everything science tells us is untrustworthy. When we say that because every thought system has privileged presumptions, truth as such doesn’t exist, then we fall into the “moral relativism” that conservative evangelicals decry about postmodernity. And this is precisely the trap that they themselves fall into when they champion people like David Barton who play loose with the facts since facts themselves are a secular liberal conspiracy.

The tragedy of Barton’s historical revisionism with Thomas Jefferson is that it keeps Barton’s fan club from learning an important lesson about how to grapple with truth that comes from worldly, not-entirely-Christian sources. Just because Thomas Jefferson was a Deist doesn’t mean that the Constitution he wrote isn’t an amazing document that constitutes the perfect summary of what democracy is supposed to look like. We don’t have to discredit the Constitution if we admit that Jefferson cut all the miracles out of his Bible not just to create a summary of the philosophy of Jesus as Barton tries to argue, but because Jefferson believed that they didn’t happen. All truth belongs to God, no matter who discovers it and who shares the news of its discovery. God uses fallible people all the time to reveal His truth. It’s okay to admit that Jefferson was a Deist. It’s also okay to recognize that despite America’s separation of church and state, we have mostly been a Christian nation for most of our history. I agree with John Milbank’s thesis in Theology and Social Thought that Western secularism is in fact grounded in Christian values. Secularism as we understand it could not happen in a Muslim country; neither could separation of church and state as we understand it.

Don’t be afraid of the truth. It might seem like our arguments can be stronger if we twist and manipulate it, but as Romans 3:4 says, “Let God be true and every man a liar.” If we are “obedient to the truth,” as 1 Peter 1:22 exhorts us, then God wins the argument over all our competing ideologies and we submit graciously to His truth, which is about as perfect a definition of being conservative as I can think of.

13 thoughts on “David Barton and the conservative rediscovery of integrity

  1. I heard Dr. Barton interviewed, and he clearly didn’t claim Jefferson was an orthodox, evangelical Christian… only that for most of his life–he was a typical educated Christian of his day, and that only in his last 15 years–AFTER his presidency and public life, did he move away from orthodoxy into a kind of unitarianism…since he denied the divinity of Christ and the trinity.

    To be called a “Deist” at that time was similar to being called an Atheist today in American politics; a serious slur–which Jefferson denied. I’ve never seen evidence that founders other than Franklin or Paine were Deists (or an atheist, in Paine’s case) anyway–as, like I said, in early America (unlike say the salons of Paris or London at the time) to be called a “Deist” was a serious insult.

    How does a Deist, (barely) believing in an absent, clockmaker God, say, speaking of slavery, prescient of the Civil War: “I tremble for my country when I reflect God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever?”

    Many founders–like many typical American church-goers today, were very private on religion, and simply didn’t talk about their faith, or did so only referring to Providence (viz Washington). Were they “evangelicals?” No–as biblical higher criticism had not yet divided the Church at that time, so there were no “evangelical” or “liberal” Christians as we have today. Neither however, were they a bunch of secularist Diests–as is typically taught in the university today.

    I am NOT a Barton fan–and I don’t buy everything he says, as I think he exagerates his case, but I do respect a man who stands up to the withering tides of secularism in the academy. I have read one of his works–and it was NOT filled with Bible verses on every page–and did give reference to a LOT of original sources.

    One correction for you: Warren Throckmorton, the key “conservative evangelical historian” who “cried foul” is not an historian at all, rather the man is a professor of Psychology at Grove City College.

    You don’t prove your case with sweeping generalizations about Barton as a dishonest postmodern cultural warrior–without a single example of how he is wrong about Jefferson–and your assumption that everyone knows the founders were Diests. I’m sure you will, however, win and keep friends who do love the New York Times.

    • The purpose of this post was to enter into the debate directly but share my hopefulness that the conservative evangelical community is actually engaging in self-critique even when the object of critique is saying things that it wants to believe. The lack of integrity that I witnessed growing up in this community is what drove me away. The more that there ceases to be one party line and one Caesar-shaped agenda, the more I will take them more seriously again and stop being a reactionary.

    • I’m sorry we drove you away. Hope you’ll come back someday when American Christianity looks more like what Jesus was doing.

  2. “Let God be true and every man be a liar” is easier said than done, otherwise the church would not now and always be caught up in the current of its time and have a hard time offering a counter-cultural word.

    Also, reading you on true conservatism is just an odd experience, though enjoyable 🙂

    When ‘Christian’ and ‘conservatism’ are closely aligned anywhere the result is usually a bastardization of both. The same is true for ‘Christian’ and ‘progressive’.

    • We can’t really be anything except Christian without polluting it but what we need to be includes components of being conservative and progressive I think. Not as a clunky average but rather as people who can somehow “be all things to all people” at the same time that we are rooted in a truth that comes from beyond us and is not subordinate to our reason.

  3. Bravo! As a conservative evangelical, I couldn’t have said it better myself. I totally agree that all truth is God’s truth, no matter the source. We should not be afraid of the truth, for “the truth will set you free.”

  4. I really enjoyed your article until I read this:

    “Secularism as we understand it could not happen in a Muslim country; neither could separation of church and state as we understand it.”

    Actually, Turkey is a secular, Muslim country with seperation of church and state written into their consitution. So’s Khazakstan. And Albania. Syria’s a really bad example right now, but at present they remain a secular, Muslim country. There are many, many other secular, Muslim countries in Asia and Europe. I could look them up for you, but you really need to do this research yourself. The reason people aren’t aware of them is certain elements in The United States try to present countries such as Iran, or others where Islamists are trying to impose Sharia law on the rest of their countrymen as the norm. It isn’t the norm; that’s a lie. I’m not saying their aren’t extremists that peaceful Muslims need to be on the watch for, but we have plenty of ‘Christian’ Dominionists on our side of the fence working equally to impose their legalistic, Pharasitic version of ‘Christianity’ on everyone else. The bottom line is secular, Muslim countries most certainly exist.

    • Fair enough. Thanks for pointing out those examples. I do think American secularism has a unique origin in Western Christendom just in the sense that ideas which were originally theologically bound evolved over time into secular philosophy. So when people say America has Christian origins, they’re not completely wrong though the Founding Fathers were about as secular as the 18th century allowed.

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