There has been a lot of noise lately over David Barton, and especially his recent book The Jefferson Lies. Barton’s work generally has to do with demonstrating a distinct and overt Christian heritage in America, especially among the founding fathers. His work has been questioned by Evangelical professors at Christian colleges, including Grove City and Messiah, who argue that Barton has made many errors in historical interpretation, and overlooks non-conforming evidence. He is also accused of over-simplifying history, which leads to simplistic and inaccurate conclusions. Publisher Thomas Nelson recalled the book last week, saying that “there were some historical details included in the book that were not adequately supported,” according to a report by World Magazine.
While I haven’t read either Barton’s book or the rebuttal by Grove City College professors Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter titled Getting Jefferson Right, I have read Messiah College professor John Fea’s book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, which presents a very complex picture of the founding fathers that defies both the view of an overtly Christian heritage and an image of a highly secular founding. Fea hasn’t been exactly silent about Barton either, as a quick survey of his blog shows. He has also written a helpful article on Patheos that explains what is at stake in the debate. While worth a read in its entirety, here’s a taste:
Good history demands understanding the past on its own terms, rather than recreating historical figures to suit contemporary needs. I think Barton is correct when he claims that the Left has sometimes misused Jefferson. For example, it is customary on the Left to refer to Jefferson as a “Deist.” As I argued in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation, he was not a Deist. But neither was he an orthodox Christian. Rather than interpreting Jefferson from the perspective of a historian, Barton has chosen to interpret Jefferson from the perspective of a culture warrior.
As helpful as Fea’s article is however, I can’t help but be attracted to an article that uses Stephen Colbert to make a serious point. Richard Kauffman argues, in a blog post at the Christian Century, that the real problem “has to do with what Stephen Colbert calls ‘truthiness,’ where ‘truth’ is whatever we want it to be.” He goes on to make a point about the digital age and the blurring of truth and fiction, though he disappointingly doesn’t really show how that is connected either to Barton or how it is a particular problem of the digital age.
Much of the raison d’etre for this debate is not simply an argument over America’s past, but over its present and future. This battle isn’t anything new, really. (For example, Abraham Lincoln and his opponent, Senator Douglas, argued back and forth about the founder’s beliefs and intent regarding slavery.) It’s about who we are, and of course has significant implications for who we present ourselves as.
Anyways, on a slightly less serious note, all I can think about is,
Which if you don’t know, is an ironic statement of an American identity that usually ignores or oversteps any other (usually international) identities in favor of a particular version of American superiority, used to highlight, laugh at, and be generally ironic about the “truthiness” of that American identity.