The Story: After being criticized as factually inaccurate by historians and boycotted by evangelical ministers for glossing over racism, publisher Thomas Nelson decided to cease publication and distribution of David Barton’s controversial book, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed about Thomas Jefferson.
The Background: Barton, president of Wallbuilders, an organization “dedicated to presenting America’s forgotten history and heroes,” recently published a book claiming that America’s third president was a “conventional Christian” and a a civil rights visionary.
As World magazine reported, several Christian historians who have examined Barton’s books and videos agree, as Jay W. Richards says, that the works are full of “embarrassing factual errors, suspiciously selective quotes, and highly misleading claims.” Additionally, a group of Cincinnati pastors and church leaders initiated a boycott against Thomas Nelson because, they claim, the book glosses over Jefferson’s racism and justifies his ownership of slaves.
“David Barton falsely claims that Thomas Jefferson was unable to free his slaves,” Damon Lynch, pastor of New Jerusalem Baptist Church, said in a press release. “In fact, Jefferson was allowed to free his slaves under Virginia law, but failed to do it. The Jefferson Lies glosses over Jefferson’s real record on slaveholding, and minimizes Jefferson’s racist views.”
According to World, Thomas Nelson evaluated the criticisms, and after doing their own review, determined that the historical details “were not adequately supported.”
“Because of these deficiencies,” Casey Francis Harrell, Thomas Nelson’s director of corporate communications told World, “we decided that it was in the best interest of our readers to stop the publication and distribution.”
Why It Matters: In 1950, British biologist Sir Peter Medawar said that French philosopher Teilhard de Chardin “can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself.” A similar criticism could be made about Barton. While his books and videos have deceived thousands of Christians about the historical record, Barton appears to be sincerely convinced of the superiority of his own interpretations.
Yet despite his claims to being an “historical expert,” Barton tends to make sloppy, factual errors and extrapolations that are wholly unsupportable. For instance, he claims the U.S. Constitution is laced with biblical quotations. As he told James Robison on Trinity Broadcast Network:
You look at Article 3, Section 1, the treason clause, direct quote out of the Bible. You look at Article 2, the quote on the president has to be a native born? That is Deuteronomy 17:15, verbatim. I mean, it drives the secularists nuts because the Bible’s all over it! Now we as Christians don’t tend to recognize that. We think it’s a secular document; we’ve bought into their lies. It’s not. [emphasis in original]
Needless to say, nowhere in the Constitution is the Bible quoted verbatim. Consider Deuteronomy 17:15 (because the verse is only a clause, I’ll include the previous verse):
When you come to the land which the Lord your God is giving you, and possess it and dwell in it, and say, ‘I will set a king over me like all the nations that are around me,’ you shall surely set a king over you whom the Lord your God chooses; one from among your brethren you shall set as king over you; you may not set a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. [Deuteronomy 17:14-15]
Now lets look at part of Article 2 of the Constitution, the section Barton thinks is a direct biblical quote:
No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President;
While there is a vague similarity, without additional evidence it is hard to imagine how anyone could make a connection between the two passages. Does Barton have a quotation from a “founding father” making that connection? No, because none exists. Indeed, the fact that no professional historian—-secular or Christian—-ever noticed this “verbatim” quotation before would lead most people to assume that such an interpretation should be viewed with skepticism. But not Barton. He appears to subscribe to a type of gnostic contrarianism, thinking that secret knowledge that goes against the conventional wisdom is not only correct but self-confirming.
Unfortunately, many evangelicals who would dismiss the use of such revisionist methods by someone like historian Howard Zinn or novelist Dan Brown unquestionably accept them when used by a fellow Christian like Barton. Many are unaware, of course, that Barton has long been considered an unreliable source. But too many are aware of the legitimate criticisms and dismiss them because they want to subscribe to Barton’s vision that America was founded as a “Christian nation.” Indeed, as Tom Gilson laments, “Inevitably some Christians will be angry with those who have shined a light on David Barton’s errors.”
However, Gilson recommends a better approach: “Far better they recognize that the best way to rally around him is to encourage [Barton] to stick close to the truth. Far better we all stick close to the truth.”