Why the Work of David Barton is so Dangerous: The Importance of Credibility

The debate over whether or not the United States was founded as a Christian nation is an old one and it is not likely to go away any time soon. To be sure, most scholars seem to be generally agreed that the American founding was highly influenced by Christianity, indeed, that it is incomprehensible apart from the general Christian world view. But this influence was of a general sort. Most of the leading founding fathers were not orthodox Christians but Unitarians or Deists at best. The Declaration of Independence reflects a version of natural law theory but not of orthodox Christians doctrine regarding the state. The Constitution says virtually nothing about Christianity, and it is noteworthy as the first major constitutional document of the western world that did not recognize an establishment of religion.

Nevertheless among staunch secularists and arch conservative Christians alike the debate rages on. Many of those most interested in the debate aren’t pleased with a nuanced, balanced view of the religious influences on the founding; they are determined to prove that America was decidedly Christian (in the case of the Christian conservatives) or not Christian at all (in the case of the secularists).

As a result, there is still a strong market for books making the strong case one way or another. And a leading author and advocate in the debate is David Barton, the president of the WallBuilders organization. Barton has written much defending the Christian character of the American nation in its founding, most of his work self-published. But recently Barton made a foray into the broader publishing world by publishing his book on the faith of Thomas Jefferson with Thomas Nelson. The result was an outcry from scholars about the unreliability of the book, an outcry that has led to Thomas Nelson pulling the book from publication. As World reports,

Jay W. Richards, senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, and author with James Robison of Indivisible: Restoring Faith, Family, and Freedom Before It’s Too Late, spoke alongside Barton at Christian conferences as recently as last month. Richards says in recent months he has grown increasingly troubled about Barton’s writings, so he asked 10 conservative Christian professors to assess Barton’s work.

Their response was negative. Some examples: Glenn Moots of Northwood University wrote that Barton in The Jefferson Lies is so eager to portray Jefferson as sympathetic to Christianity that he misses or omits obvious signs that Jefferson stood outside “orthodox, creedal, confessional Christianity.” A second professor, Glenn Sunshine of Central Connecticut State University, said that Barton’s characterization of Jefferson’s religious views is “unsupportable.” A third, Gregg Frazer of The Master’s College, evaluated Barton’s video America’s Godly Heritage and found many of its factual claims dubious, such as a statement that “52 of the 55 delegates at the Constitutional Convention were ‘orthodox, evangelical Christians.'” Barton told me he found that number in M.E. Bradford’s A Worthy Company.

As Barton is finding out, most Americans, even most Christian conservatives, prefer their arguments to be based on truth rather than fiction, even if fiction sometimes seems to make an argument more persuasive. To be sure, there will always be a number of people more interested in having their own beliefs and preferences affirmed than having them challenged with the truth. Conspiracy theories will always abound.

But overall the outcry against Barton’s work receiving mainstream respectability is a good thing. I hope it spurs all of us to a greater commitment to winning over our fellow citizens by ensuring that our public engagement and story-telling is characterized by truth, not simply by a passionate commitment to our own agenda. After all, credibility is arguably the most precious virtue we can possess. Losing it will not do our cause any good.

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on August 11, 2012, in American Founding and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Why the Work of David Barton is so Dangerous: The Importance of Credibility.

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