11 August 2012

The World of Historical Revisionism Turned Uside Down

The Facebook and other sites on the interwebs, including one as prominent as MSN's homepage, had a history book in the news yesterday. This is quite unusual. What is even more unusual is the fact that the "history" book was written by a Christian author.

The book was David Barton's recent tome The Jefferson Lies. There is no link because the book has been pulled from shelves by Thomas Nelson Publishers. Barton is famous for his support among such famous Republican leaders as Newt Gingrich, Michelle Bachmann, and Mike Huckabee. These three have each made a run at the White House in the past two terms. Barton attempts to illuminate the Christian roots of American government for the masses. Liberals have derided him. Gingrich says he learns something new every time he hears Barton speak. Huckabee said that all Americans should be forced to listen to Barton.

Barton has frequently accused liberal historians of trying to hide the religious nature of the founding fathers. I've argued on this site multiple times that some of the founding fathers were devout Christians. Most historians would agree with that assessment. Barton goes a bit too far. In The Jefferson Lies, he attempted to paint the third President, Thomas Jefferson, as an orthodox Christian. There was no surprise that he got nailed on this by secular historians. The surprise was the number of Christian historians, some of whom are conservative evangelicals, who joined in the parade of critics. Christian authors such as Thomas Kidd at World Mag and Napp Nazworth at the Christian Post noted the affair, as did left-leaning publications such as Mother Jones. The news was everywhere.

Nelson pulled the book because of questions about its accuracy in dealing with the facts. Just about any person with a casual interest in American history knows that Jefferson was anything but orthodox in his beliefs. The whole letter from the Danbury Baptists to Jefferson arose because many people in Jefferson's day believed he was an atheist, and the Baptist Association wanted clarification that they would not be persecuted. These fears would not have been prevalent if he had been an outspoken God-fearing man. Barton's webiste at Wallbuilders tried to deal with the accusations. A scathing critique by Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter is dismissed because it disagreed with Barton's philosophy on American exceptionalism and these professors quoted "a number of liberal professors to prove that American Exceptionalism is a bad thing, not something good. So from the start, these two make clear that they object to the philosophy I set forth..." He also accused them of jealousy because academic books don't sell as well as popular history.

Some popular history sells quite well. Barton has sold many books. He mentions David McCullough in his attempt at refuting his critics as a popular historian. I've read many of McCullough's works. Most are not ground-breaking in interpretation. They are, however, quite good as a form of narrative history. I've thoroughly enjoyed books like The Johnstown Flood, John Adams, and 1776. Some historians may criticize McCullough for synthesizing the hard work of academic historians, but I've never heard him criticized for misusing evidence in the way that Barton is accused of distorting it. Historical interpretations vary. This is widely accepted. They can be debated. Arguments that go against clear facts, such as the idea that Jefferson was pretty much orthodox is not acceptable, nor should it be.

I will clearly state that I am an evangelical. Most outside the fold would consider my religious beliefs pretty conservative. However, as an aspiring historian, I find it troubling that people would fabricate a story and try to pass it off something other than historical fiction in the name of Jesus. Christ claimed to by the way, the truth, and the life. If he is truth, his followers should seek out the truth, wherever that truth may lead, even if it leads to answers we don't like. While historical knowledge is a sort of provisional truth, there is a truth out there. To fabricate "knowledge" for political gain is not Christ-like. To think that all of these years that I've heard about liberals and their attempt at revisionist history, one within the fold is one of the worst offenders.

Please note: I do realize the need for revisionist history. Sometimes, new evidence is available that leads to new knowledge and new interpretations. Other times, interpretations are not exactly adequate and need to be expanded or totally revised. American history and American church history are not one and the same. This fact does not hurt my faith, nor should it hurt that of any other American Christian. Making up an interpretation that doesn't hold up to the evidence does not reflect good on Christ or Christians, however.

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