"Barton is a very hard-working researcher, but what I guess I worry about is the collapsing of historical distance, and the effort to make really anybody fit directly into the category of the early 21st century evangelicals," said Mark A. Noll, a prominent historian at Wheaton College, a prestigious evangelical school."
I have the utmost respect for Noll. He is a solid scholar and thoughtful Christian to boot, but I think he is being far too kind here. Barton's "research" is all flawed because he starts with a conclusion and only looks for evidence to bolster that conclusion. As Noll notes, there are certainly Ivy League historians who do the same thing from the other side, but that is no excuse for Barton. History is written with good questions in mind, not with conclusions. Barton assumes that our founders and good Americans along the line have all believed like him, and so he picks and chooses the quotes to justify that. He also ignores anything that works against him--something all historians have to battle with. But he doesn't even try. After all, like Bush, he believes that God is on his side. The rest of the historical profession doesn't have that luxury. Please stop calling Barton a historian. He is a propagandist.
"People care passionately about the founders because they want the founders to be like them," Mr. Brookhiser said. "So you get this from Christians, and you get it from secularists who say the founders are like them and want them to be 'closet deists.' " His own view: "They probably couldn't conceive that the country could ever change so much. But, look, if they wanted a Christian state they could have done it. They were writing the rules. They could have put God in the rules."
Great point and one that is often missed when people look at the past. People like to identify with these figures in history--either completely positive or completely negative. We appropriate these figures, remove them from history, and use them for our own purposes. And, as he notes, people on the left do it too. I don't deny that. But Barton and his crowd do it exclusively. That is history to him.
Building on that point, we have to recognize that people in the past are complicated and often contradictory. They say one thing, do another. It happens. They want one thing, and act for another. Both sides in this debate forget that. Can't we acknowledge that Christianity made a huge contribution to our nation's founding, but that contribution was both positive and negative? Christianity pushed for moral values in our nation, but also defended and fought for slavery and Indian eradication? Both are true.
"Sure, God shows up on the bad stuff," Mr. Barton said in an interview. "We don't hear much about the five revivals in American history, but we always hear about the Salem witch trials." Still, he said, he only sought to dust off the fact of the founders' Christianity, not to argue for or against it. "If we are arguing off the premise that we have to be secular today because we have always been secular," he said, "then we are arguing off the wrong premise."
Barton is the king of bad logic. As a culture, we have always been and continue to be quite religious. But it is also clear that many people feared combining that religion with our public policy. And the Salem remark makes me really think that Barton hasn't read much history. Many historians, certainly Boyer and Nissenbaum do not blame Christianity for Salem. They approach it as a community problem that has more to do with economic opportunity. Here is where Barton's lack of training shows up. He doesn't really know the past except for what he wants to know.
Unfortunately, a lot of people listen to him. That may be ultimately the fault of the professional historian crowd who don't know how to communicate to the public. But it also shows how the conservative church has distanced itself from intellectual debate--or at least decided it doesn't have to listen to intellectual debate it disagrees with. I think that might be the definition of anti-intellectualism.
To avoid ending this post on a bad note, let me suggest some good readings. Mark Noll, as noted above, is a very good historian. His Scandal of the Evangelical Mind is a must read, though it will likely be confronting for some. He has co-written another book on American religious history--Search for Christian America, and others. Nathan Hatch's Democratization of American Christianity is a great book, and I have already plugged Paul Boyer's Salem Possessed, but it is a great read. He also wrote a great book on the historical background of the Tim LaHaye view of end times. When Time Shall Be No More. Please don't just listen to David Barton. Read some of these books. And there are more. Leave any suggestions in the comments.