Christian History: How David Barton Is Doing It Wrong

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Historian Barry Hankins, in 2002, noted the following about popular Christian historian David Barton:

In Barton’s presentations, any statement uttered by a Founding Father that is positive toward religion is used to show that they were all Christians and that they all intended the United States to be Christian.

He makes little distinction between a statement supporting the basic moral program of Christianity, something even the unorthodox Jefferson could say, and one that would actually affirm the historic tents of the Christian faith that made it unique, such as the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ.

Hankins goes on to note that the historical claim of “American as a Christian nation” is rarely defined. Does this mean that America was:

  • demographically Christian, a notion that is hardly controversial;
  • legally Christian, a notion that is hard to support given that no founding document declares the nation such; or
  • actually redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ, a notion that evangelical theologians would find repugnant? . . .

Hankins concludes:

[Barton’s] methodology tends to incorporate source mining, the technique of scouring the record and culling out only that evidence that fits one’s argument.

In fairness to Barton, he has gotten better in recent years in not circulating as many bogus quotes, labeling some of them as “unconfirmed.” However, the source mining and the problematic historiography, where the evidence is forced to fit the predetermined thesis, continue. In 2012 Thomas Kidd covered the Barton controversy for World Magazine, as publisher Thomas Nelson pulled Barton’s book for historical inaccuracies.

When you read or hear someone like Barton (someone who does not have academic training in history but makes claims about what real historians cover up), here is a tip:

Always seek to identify the question being asked.

In other words, don’t just listen for the answer, but work hard to discern the actual question under discussion, whether assumed or explicitly identified.

So, if the question is, “Did the Founding Father employ religious language when describing the founding of the Republic?” then you can easily determine if the evidence answers that question (assuming the quotes are legitimate—several of Barton’s are not!).

But this is a very different question than one like: “Were the Founding Fathers orthodox Christians who lived in accordance with God’s Word, both theologically and ethically?” In that case, our criteria have to expand beyond the kind of language they used.

David Holmes, in The Faiths of Our Founding Fatherssummarized here by Joe Cartersuggests that we can look not only at things like their religious language, but also their beliefs, their activities (did they attend church regularly?), and their participation in church ordinances and sacrifices (did they baptize their children or partake of the Lord’s Supper?).

When such a study is made, the results might look something like this:

Screen Shot 2017-05-12 at 1.31.46 PM

My point in posting this is not to say that Holmes’s conclusions are definitive or cannot be challenged, but simply to show what a more sophisticated and careful analysis can look like. To reiterate: our answers will only be as good as our questions, so it’s important that we come to this study with an open mind, seeking to ask the best questions so that we can arrive at answers that correspond with reality.

Here is some further recommended reading for those who are interested:

For religious biographies of the Founding Fathers, you could start with:

For introductory guides on how to do responsible history—that is, how not to do history like David Barton—you could start with

Finally, here is a sit-down conversation with historians Mark Noll and George Marsden—co-authors with Nathan Hatch of The Search for Christian America (1983; revised in 1989). After the video, I’ve added rough time-stamps for their dialogue.

  • 1:20 What is the origin of the idea of “Christian America”?
  • 3:15 How did America come to be seen as having Israel’s role in this understanding of American history?
  • 5:15  Are the founding documents religious?
  • 7:25  What can we say about the faith of the founding fathers?
  • 10:35 Why does a book like The Search for Christian America vastly undersell the Christian America books?
  • 13:15  What do Columbus’s encounters with the Natives tell us?
  • 15:05  Where does the desire to make them more than they were come from?
  • 16:55 How do they treat the unsavory parts of American history?
  • 19:15  What kind of America would the defenders of a “Christian America” like to see now?
  • 20:55 Are there dangers in promoting America as a Christian nation?
  • 22:35 What would be a more unifying vision?
  • 23:50 Can you give examples of where this has worked?
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