Why David Barton Should Matter to You

Why the recent flap about David Barton, a self-proclaimed historian, should illustrate to you that secularists have to be on the offensive against the encroachment of theists. For those unfamiliar with Mr. Barton, he has written many works concerning the Founding Fathers and the original intentions with regards to our nation and the meaning of the Constitution. These include titles like Separation of Church & State: What the Founders Meant and The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You've Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson, among many others. I admit outright to never having read any of these works (I doubt I could make it through them, frankly) but I am going to argue that that is not necessary for any free-thinking individual to be worried about the influence of this man, and the many others like him, within our society. What we have here is an attempt to redefine who we were in order to influence who we will become. By promoting religiously-biased views of history, Barton is trying to shape the public sphere in such a way as to advance Protestant Christian ideals against those of other groups. This is a worrisome proposition and I feel a personal duty to draw attention to the dangers lurking here.

The issue itself is not Barton's body of work in-and-of-itself, but the purpose for which it has been written and the goals towards which it is oriented - putting the Protestant, Christian God back into U.S. politics. By presenting a front of respectability, Barton's works can be used as a weapon for the religious, particularly the religious right, to say to the rest of the country, “See! We were right all along! God is central to the heritage of the United States and should be re-injected into the core of American society”. If the wall between Church and State can be weakened thoroughly enough in the eyes of the public, it may become impossible to stem public opinion and halt the erosion of the protections purposefully put in place to guard people from persecution. The books are out there and the effort is being made to undermine defenses that will have a direct impact on the life I, and any others of non-Protestant Christian heritage, lead as non-Christian Americans.

The very public example of this level of influence comes from the fairly recent revisions made to history books in Texas. The curriculum was rewritten so as to advance what many saw as a decidedly conservative viewpoint. Barton was a source that could be pointed to to justify the changes. Considering that size of the Texas population, the potential large-scale impact on the public sphere should not be underestimated. The danger increases when you add in the fact that publishers of these textbooks will have them for sale outside of the state, further increasing the possible influence of these biased works. When you have members of Congress (e.g., Michele Bachmann) who proudly support someone like Barton, the potential risk-factor is yet again increased. Here we have a man who is controversial within historical circles (to put it nicely) but who is being advocated as a valid source of historical knowledge because the history he advocates validates social and political agendas of conservative religious groups.

I do not mean to dismiss the influence of other populous states, such as California, where I am sure many conservatives feel the pendulum has swung too far the other way. The difference is in the mindset. In general, the liberal viewpoint is more accommodating, with an emphasis on acceptance between disparate groups. There is also not the same level of involvement between the left and a particular religious viewpoint as with the right. The fact is that the term “Religious Right” exists and is easily identifiable, while a “Religious Left” is decidedly more vague in nature and scope. This makes the danger to the public sphere much less real as there is not the same level of coordination towards a common goal. One should be wary when religion and politics become close bedfellows. The Founding Fathers knew of these pitfalls and attempted to safeguard us against theocratic tendencies, and wisely so.

Historical facts should not be interpreted so as to advance a particular viewpoint, and anyone who willingly lets his ideology guide the search for truth is destined not to find it. We should have faith in ourselves, our fellow man and future generations to interpret the facts when presented them in an unbiased context. There certainly were intentions that the Founding Fathers had in mind for this nation when they wrote the Constitution, but it is not for us to determine what those intentions were based on what we want them to be. If you produce a work that is almost universally slammed by true historians in the same field, you should do some soul-searching; you should not claim that everyone is merely adhering to a contrary agenda. By espousing any view that does not adhere to these guidelines, you are purposefully manipulating history for the sake of changing modern life, and it is at this point I feel the need to stand up and call you out on your bullshit. When you do this to promote an agenda rather than the truth, and when this agenda is counter to the beliefs and desires of many of your fellow citizens, those threatened by your influence need to sound the klaxons and put up a united front.

Editorial Note: If your newest book about a Founding Father is pulled by your publisher; if your works criticized by fellow conservative Christians for being riddled with "embarrassing factual errors, suspiciously selective quotes, and highly misleading claims"; and you are caught making shit up because you felt it got your point across, you have no right to call yourself a historian and besmirch the good name of an honorable and important profession.


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Featured image from Tennessean.com