Tuesday, September 10, 2013

David Barton: Homespun History

History was my favorite subject as a kid.

I devoured the Little House on the Prairie series, was enchanted by Ben and Me, and giggled through Jean Fritz's junior biographies of King George III, Samuel Adams, and Patrick Henry. I would slip away into "the study" to read and re-read the fourth grade A Beka textbook on the American colonists, the lives of the presidents in our 1968 World Book, or tales of Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus.

Later, our bookshelves bulged with biographies of Lincoln, Anabaptist stories of the Reformation, and thick volumes from Bob Jones University Press skimming across the centuries from ancient Greece to World War II. Once, Dad brought me home a copy of Kennedy's Profiles in Courage. And I could recite most of the dialogue from "A More Perfect Union", Brigham Young University's dramatic film about the Constitutional Convention.

When Bill Gothard first distributed David Barton "America's Godly Heritage" to homeschooling families in his Advanced Training Institute, I was entranced. We listened to that first cassette together and marveled at Barton's rapid-fire diction. After that, I would follow along with the tapes with my notebook and pencil and try desperately to copy out the quotations from the Founders as Barton galloped from one to the next at rodeo speed. Protected as I was from secular influences and celebrity worship, Barton was the equivalent of a rock star in my world. I collected Barton's numerous books and a stack of cassettes. I copied out and memorized my favorite lines. When he addressed the national ATI conferences in Tennessee, I was giddy with excitement. I wished the audience would quit applauding so he could fit in more of his speech!

Besides Barton's books on American history, I even purchased his obscure 31-page booklet How to Have Success With God, published in 1984:
"To God, obedience is better than anything."
"The more you do of what you hear from God, the more you will hear from God what to do!"
"Be a Christian who enjoys obeying God and you will enjoy being a Christian!"
Today, "David Barton is a former Vice Chairman of the Republican Party of Texas and a political consultant for the Republican National Committee. He is also a bestselling author and political activist who has worked diligently to arouse true patriotism and restore America to her Biblical foundation."
But back then, Barton and his organization Wallbuilders had not yet gained notoriety outside Texas. In time he would get chummy with Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, U.S. Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri, and the chairman of Gothard's Board of Directors, Congressman Sam Johnson of Texas. Brownback would say of Barton, "His research provides the philosophical underpinning for a lot of the Republican effort in the country today -- bringing God back into the public square." And that was a mission I supported wholeheartedly.

When my worldview began to unravel, however, I revisited the Wallbuilders' website, curious for answers that would settle some of my doubts. For the first time I realized that David Barton has no credentials as an historian or an archivist. He holds a B.A. in religious education from Oral Roberts University and has been both a [math and science] teacher and a principal at a private Christian school in his hometown of Aledo, Texas.

As a homeschooled student myself with limited exposure to the ways of academia, I could sympathize with Barton's ignorance of correct protocol for citing sources. But I was flummoxed to learn that he lacks primary sources for some of his quotations. Including some of my favorite quotations--lines I used to recite glibly at candidates who brought up the spurious "separation of church and state". Now this was unsettling. 

I hadn't heard David Barton for well over a decade when he appeared as a guest on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart". Well, here was a blast from my past! I settled in to listen to the Texan's familiar too-rapid drawl and was surprised. Before, I had only heard Barton lecture to sponge-like crowds. His material seemed much less concrete in an interview before a skeptical audience. (And this incredible exchange with Glenn Beck puts Barton much closer to "unintentional comedian" than "educator.")

Disillusioned with Barton, and with those who unquestioningly accept his version of the past, I discarded the remaining Wallbuilders publications on my bookshelf and set out to round out my re-education on American history and the variegated experiences and ideals of the brilliant yet flawed men who penned our founding documents. Thus did they launch these United States on her voyage into their future, hoping that we would prove equal to the task of sailing her, of maintaining her trim and keeping her prow pointed forward.

Even if we were to concede that America was intended to be a "Christian" nation (in spite of plain evidence to the contrary), even if we acknowledge that weather patterns were divine intervention on behalf of the Continental Army and that the Holy Spirit inspired the writing of the Constitution, even if we were to accept Barton's version of the past, how would that enlighten our present conversation? It does not therefore follow that George Washington would now use his influence in favor of creationism in science textbooks. It would be presumptive to assume that John Adams would cast his vote today for pointless transvaginal ultrasounds or that James Madison would oppose national healthcare. We could not even conclude that Thomas Jefferson would want his children reciting a pledge to a flag, much less to a nation "under God".

Mike Huckabee thinks our country would be improved we the people were all forced "at gunpoint, no less" to listen to David Barton's spin on our history. But I cannot help wondering how our Founding Fathers would respond today if they could hear Barton's appeal to an unrecognizable tradition. These men jettisoned the heavy time-worn design in favor of a revolutionary new ship of state they believed capable of carrying "we the people" through the vicissitudes of history. They were open-minded scientists, philosophers, and inventors, eagerly seeking and adopting new information and technological advances. Certainly, our nations' founders looked to the past for guidance as they plotted a new course. But to David Barton, history and tradition are anchors with which to slow progress and avoid forward-thinking.

When my daughter was very young, she used to protest when we explained disagreeable facts. "I don't want that to be true!", she would cry. Perhaps Barton is ignorant of the way he misleads and misinterprets evidence in order to achieve his political agenda.

Or perhaps he just doesn't want history to be true.

1 comment:

  1. Quite an interesting narrative... I listened to Barton, too, growing up. When I was a teenager, I went to Worldview Academy, where Jeff Baldwin gave us a list of good books to read on different topics. I ordered Russell Kirk's book The Roots of American Order, and found stuff about natural law, rights, traditional family values, limited spheres of jurisdictions, etc., all through history that eventually came to influence the founders of the American republic. It was interesting to go back and read Baldwin's review of the book on his website, though... he said he was disappointed that Kirk chose Richard Hooker, a 16th-century Anglican theologian, as one of his heroes. Hooker had written a massive book called The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, which was never completed, in which he included a conservative theory of government, and generally recommended a "middle way" between radicalism and authoritarianism, typical of the Anglican church of his day, which had to be moderate because it depended on the will of the king anyway. Baldwin wished Kirk had picked someone a bit more radical to inspire young readers of this generation. I guess history is full of all types, including both radicals and conservatives. (See http://www.thegreatbooks.com/books/details.php?ISBN=1882926994)