Thomas Jefferson, author of The Declaration of Independence and subject of David Barton’s “The Jefferson Lies’
I have frequently observed an unfortunate truth in the academy that the coupling of the phrase “evangelical Christian” with the word “scholar” frequently draws at least a smirk or at the most a diatribe delivered to whomever is nearby by the professor evaluating the concept. (In my case, it was the captive audience of way too many graduate seminars.) That’s too bad for a number of reasons including rudeness, ignorance, and stereotyping that would never pass muster if the speaker coupled an ethnic identity with the name of a scholar. I always tried to keep things in perspective, reminding myself that such behavior is a bit like the idea that “Southern” equals “idiot,” then laughing it off because this incredibly bright person with a Ph.D. obviously never heard of William Faulkner, T.S. Eliot, James Madison, or Thomas Jefferson. Bigotry often blinds educated individuals to the undeniable fact that evangelical Christians from Jonathan Edwards to Billy Graham have made some of the most vibrant contributions to this nation’s cultural and intellectual life in American history. Or that names like Martin Marty, Mark Noll, Edwin Gaustad, and Thomas Kidd span the ideological spectrum as well as represent either established or rising Christian scholars in the field of American history.
But, then there is David Barton, whose work lives up to the low expectations of every intellectual with an ax to grind against people of faith who explain (quite rightly, I might add) the positive contributions of Christianity to the political, economic, and social development of the United States. (By the way, if you scoff at the idea that Christianity contributed positively to American history, please indulge me and read this by Leith Anderson.) Barton is the founder of WallBuilders, an organization that dubs itself protector of “America’s forgotten history and heroes, with an emphasis on the moral, religious, and constitutional foundation on which America was built – a foundation which, in recent years, has been seriously attacked and undermined.” In general, there are some aspects of that mission statement I can support. In practice, Barton and his organization peddle shoddy scholarship and partisan propaganda in ways that are often just plain embarrassing, particularly when I or other like-minded historians try to explain that he does not represent the mainstream in Christian intellectualism. Barton’s relationship to scholarship from a Christian point-of-view is like the Westboro Baptist Church’s relationship to displaying the love of God — or the relationship between chicken cordon bleu and chicken manure. His unremitting message is Christian nationalism, which is more than the old saw that the United States is a Christian nation. He actively advocates that only Christians should hold public office, that Scripture should be the law of the land, and that non-Christians should not possess the same civil rights as Christians. What’s more, Barton isn’t even particularly shy about these attitudes.
Barton’s publisher Thomas Nelson announced Friday that they will drop his book The Jefferson Lies, a book so breathtakingly awful in its portrayal of Thomas Jefferson that I could not believe a reputable publisher like Nelson would gamble on that train-wreck of a tome. I won’t go into the details since two articles, one in the conservative New American and the other in The Atlantic Monthly, do an excellent job of explaining the debacle. However, two things should be noted. First, it is rare — very rare — for a publisher to withdraw a book. In this case, the stated reason is for factual errors. Secondly, Barton is not being smeared by a left-wing cabal. Christian scholars who are undoubtedly right-of-center and fed up with his egregiously bad portrayal of Jefferson delivered the smack down. Follow the links in the articles for deeper information. Keep in mind book distributors and Amazon.com have plenty of copies in their inventory for sale. Nelson will simply no longer publish the book, no matter how well it sells.
I have frequently highlighted in blog posts good scholarship that refutes the pernicious, ideologically driven revisionism that became the master narrative about Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. It has become a perverse form of “American exceptionalism”: He is so bad, he is so very, very bad, and that’s all you need to know about the blankity-blank slaveholder and slave rapist. Furthermore, the bigotry of the secular Left, home of tolerance and diversity as long as you agree exactly with everything its adherents spout, is glaringly obvious if one is an honest observer. But Barton’s work is not the answer. Lies from the Left don’t justify lies from the Right. It’s about time The Jefferson Lies and its author face tough questions and real consequences. I am not arguing for his book to be banned. It’s America, folks, and even the authors of drivel have a right to present their case. But it is particularly satisfying that good scholarship is driving bad scholarship to the wall.