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This blog grows out of my conviction that every aspect of our lives is sacred and is to be nurtured and celebrated as a good gift of God. Most of the posts will be the sorts of things you would expect from a historian and worldview teacher, but some are likely to be a bit surprising. Since God created all things good, including all aspects of human life, everything is interesting and important from the perspective of a biblical worldview. Everything under the Sun and under Heaven is thus fair game here. I hope you find it interesting and enjoyable.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

David Barton, The Jefferson Lies


I’ve gotten pulled in on the periphery of the controversy surrounding David Barton’s book, The Jefferson Lies. I was asked for an evaluation of the book my Jay Richards. I sent him my comments, which were then forwarded with my permission to World magazine. In light of the controversy which followed, I would add a few additional remarks now which I may put in a future post, but for those who are interested, this is what I wrote:

I would like to preface my comments by addressing the key historiographic issue at play in Mr. Barton’s work. There has been a tendency among secularists to argue that the Founding Fathers were all Deists and/or Free Thinkers rather than adherents of historic Christianity, and that they intended religion to be eliminated completely from the public square. Mr. Barton rightly recognizes that this is an untenable reading of the Founders and has worked very hard to document the gross exaggerations and misrepresentations involved in this argument as well as to provide evidence to the contrary. However, in trying to correct the lurch to the left by the secularists, he lurches too far to the right, exaggerating the degree of religious orthodoxy of some of the Founders, the influence of the Bible on the Constitution, and similar matters, while denying in many ways the influence of the Enlightenment. While this reaction is understandable, it is not an appropriate way to deal with the problem. You do not respond to one exaggeration by offering another. This is methodologically inappropriate, rhetorically dangerous, and quite simply intellectually dishonest, whether intentionally or not.
For a balanced approach to the question of religion and the Founders, I strongly recommend Michael Novak’s On Two Wings, which rightly notes the influence of both the Enlightenment and historic Christianity in shaping the American experiment.
Turning to The Jefferson Lies, as a professional historian I found his terminology and explanations in the introduction rather puzzling. He has, to say the least, rather idiosyncratic definitions of Deconstructionism and Poststructuralism that make me doubt whether he actually understands those movements. I would dispute his use of the word “Modernism,” though as the problem he describes is real, as is the tendency to find fault with historic “heroes.” On the other hand, however, it is equally wrong to whitewash historic figures, and the solution is not found in denying the ethical questions raised by their lives but by placing them in their historical context and recognizing the bad with the good. Most historians I know try to do that. The terms “Minimalism” (in this context) and “Academic Collectivism” are unique to Barton. Neither is something I see in academic scholarship, though Barton himself seems guilty of his definition of “Minimalism” in much of his work in this book. In particular, every academic historian I know makes use of primary sources and doesn’t just cite other [modern] historians, contrary to Barton’s claims. In short, Barton is largely setting a straw man argument that has only a marginal resemblance to the way professional historians actually work.
After this rather rocky start, I think Barton did a very good job with his discussion of Sally Hemmings in the first substantive chapter. His conclusions here are convincing, though I would need to run down all his footnotes to be absolutely sure that he is correct. I normally would not have to say that, but his subsequent chapters make me very cautious about even his conclusions here. To put it bluntly, his arguments about Jefferson’s religious views are not at all convincing and are terribly supported. Many of his “facts” on, for example, what he included in his edited Bible are simply false; others, such as the idea of missions work among the Indians, are unsupported and contradicted by other statements of Jefferson; still others are exaggerated to the point of fantasy, such as interpreting his subscription to the hot-press Bible as support for congressional subsidies to put that Bible into every home in America. His conclusions are simply unsupportable.
Jefferson was a Unitarian rationalist who rejected biblical authority in any meaningful sense of the word, and with it, many of the doctrines of historic Christianity. While Barton is correct when he says that many Unitarians held the Scripture in high regard and fashioned their ideas from it (particularly surrounding ethics), it is not accurate to describe them as “evangelicals.” Having a worldview influenced on some points by Scripture does not mean that their worldview was fully shaped by Scripture. Jefferson specifically rejected many aspects of the biblical worldview, including Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection. It is difficult to reconcile that with any form of historic Christianity, much less with evangelicalism. [n.b. Barton doesn't actually claim Jefferson et al. was an evangelical per se, but his association of Jefferson with revivalist movements certainly implies it, and I suspect most of his readers won't realize the difference.]
While I am sympathetic with Mr. Barton’s aims, I am quite disturbed by a number of examples of clearly dishonest reading of texts in this book. As Throckmorton et al. demonstrate in Getting Jefferson Right, Mr. Barton misuses a number of his quotations, cutting them short in some cases and taking them completely out of context in others, to twist their meaning into almost the opposite of what Jefferson intended. Perhaps this was because Mr. Barton wanted so much to prove his point that he had tunnel vision in his reading of Jefferson, but whatever the reason, his use of these quotations qualifies as academic misconduct by almost any standard.
Overall, Getting Jefferson Right is a far more accurate portrayal of Jefferson and a far more honest reading of the evidence than The Jefferson Lies. As someone who has used Mr. Barton’s material before and who respects the work of Wallbuilders, I am very sorry to have to report this conclusion, but the cause of truth is never served by misleading statements and exaggeration. In this case, at least, this is precisely what Mr. Barton has done.