The David Barton controversy
Christian critics challenge WallBuilders president on America's founders
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David Barton, president of the WallBuilders organization and a frequent guest on Glenn Beck's broadcasts, is one of America's most popular Christian history writers. Liberal critics have long accused Barton of misinterpretations and errors, and readers of the History News Network recently voted a new Barton book, The Jefferson Lies, as the "Least Credible History Book in Print." But now some conservative Christian scholars are publicly questioning Barton's work, too.
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.
Barton has received support from Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, and other political leaders. He questions how many of his new critics have actually read his work, especially The Jefferson Lies. Barton concedes that Jefferson doubted some traditional Christian doctrines, but argues that these doubts did not emerge until the last couple of decades of his life. He says that all of his books, including his latest, are fully documented with footnotes, and that critics who look at the original sources he is using often change their minds.
A full-scale, newly published critique of Barton is coming from Professors Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter of Grove City College, a largely conservative Christian school in Pennsylvania. Their book Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President (Salem Grove Press), argues that Barton "is guilty of taking statements and actions out of context and simplifying historical circumstances." For example, they charge that Barton, in explaining why Jefferson did not free his slaves, "seriously misrepresents or misunderstands (or both) the legal environment related to slavery."
In a response posted on the WallBuilders website, Barton says that Throckmorton and Coulter's book typifies attacks by "academic elitists" who position themselves as the "sole caretakers of historical knowledge." He contends that Throckmorton and Coulter are hostile toward his "personal religious beliefs." Barton also disputes several of their specific arguments. For instance, contrary to Getting Jefferson Right, Barton insists that Jefferson did not merely buy a copy but was an investor in a 1798 edition of the Bible, which reveals Jefferson's philosophical support for the sacred text.
Richards emphasizes that he and the scholars he consulted about Barton are politically conservative evangelicals or Catholics. They largely agree with Barton's belief that Christian principles played a major role in America's founding, but Richards argues that Barton's books and videos are full of "embarrassing factual errors, suspiciously selective quotes, and highly misleading claims."
Who is David Barton?
After receiving a bachelor's degree in religious education from Oral Roberts University in 1976, Barton worked for a time as a pastor and schoolteacher. In the late 1980s he began building a following among evangelicals and Republicans by tirelessly speaking on America's founding at churches and political conferences. WallBuilders has published most of Barton's books, but Thomas Nelson published The Jefferson Lies.
Barton gained new exposure in 2005 when Time named him as one of the 25 most influential American evangelicals. Then came his appearances on Glenn Beck, a May 2011 profile in The New York Times, and multiple interviews on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. —Thomas Kidd
This article was originally posted online Aug. 7, 2012.