I have seen more references to David Barton than is usual lately. Mostly I come across his name when Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars debunks one of Barton’s offerings. But now I’m reading about him in other places. For example, Tipsy notes a squabble between Barton and Ann Althouse.
There is an almost hermetically sealed, alternate intellectual universe where the half-truths and fabrications of guys like Barton are taken, almost literally, as Gospel. They strive to portray Founding and pre-Founding America as a place where there was not a notion that a wall should exist between (Christian) Church & State; and where other religions may have been tolerated but not equal in the eyes of the government. (See “Dominionism“) Chris Rodda has undertaken to debunk a good number of these in her “Liars for Jesus” (pdf). But, as historian Paul Harvey notes, such debunking is necessary but not sufficient because Barton is simply playing a different game than historians.
Barton’s intent is not to produce “scholarship,” but to influence public policy. He simply is playing a different game than worrying about scholarly credibility, his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. His game is to inundate public policy makers (including local and state education boards as well as Congress) with ideas packaged as products that will move policy.
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Barton’s success at withstanding the phalanx of professional critics comes because he taps into a long history of “Christian Nation” providentialism.
In short, perhaps the best way to understand Barton is as a historical product of Christian providentialist thinking, one with significant historical roots and usually with a publicly convincing spokesman. He is the latest in a long line of ideologically persuasive spokesmen for preserving American’s Protestant character.
Barton is the intellectual descendant of “Parson” Weems, Lost Cause historians, and William Jennings Bryan. (Harvey notes that Bryan’s Christian Nation bordered on socialism, in sharp contrast to the coldly libertarian one envisioned by Barton.) Harvey goes on to argue that the “debate” about the Founders view on religion is mostly fictitious — at least as argued against Christian Nationalists. The “godless” view of the Constitution recognizes that the Founders were, by and large, religious people. They just did not believe that religion should have any special privileges at the federal level. Harvey concludes:
The Christian Nation “debate” is not really an intellectual contest between legitimate contending viewpoints. Instead, it is a manufactured “controversy” akin to the global warming “debate.” On one side are purveyors of a rich and complex view of the past, including most historians who have written and debated fiercely about the founding era. The “other side” is a group of ideological entrepreneurs who have created an alternate intellectual universe based on a historical fundamentalism. In their drive to create a usable past, they show little respect for the past as a foreign country.
Guys like Barton are looking at the past, not for its own sake & not to understand it, but as a tool to achieve a predetermined purpose. And what’s the point? To influence politicians and policy. And it’s working. Mike Huckabee likes Barton so much that he joked that he wanted every American to be forced to listen to him at gunpoint.
And I just wish that every single young person in America would be able to be under his tutelage and understand something about who we really are as a nation. I almost wish that there would be a simultaneous telecast and all Americans would be forced, forced, at gunpoint no less, to listen to every David Barton message and I think our country would be better for it.
G.O.P. Presidential frontrunner, Michele Bachmann, wants Barton to teach “Constitution classes” to new members of Congress.
Bachmann and Barton have a long relationship going back to Bachmann’s time as state senator. Barton was invited to Minnesota to help Bachmann with legislation on school history standards, she’s appeared his radio show numerous times, and she and Barton have conducted tours in Washington, D.C., to demonstrate to tea partiers how religious the Founding Fathers were.
And, the other likely G.O.P. Presidential nominee not named Mitt, Rick Perry, used Barton as a textbook expert. Using Barton’s mythical story of the Founding is argument by appealing to (fabricated) authority. They want a present where their view of Christianity dominates government policy; so, they want to create the illusion that there was a happier time in our past where our country embraced their policy views so that they can further argue that we should “return” to that embrace and, thereby, return to that happier time. This is necessary since, often times, the general public is a little skittish about embracing those views on their own merits. (See, e.g., a wife should graciously submit to her husband.) This is the sort of thing that gives rise to Stephen Colbert’s quip that reality has a known liberal bias.