Barton Gingerich, Christian nation, Christianity, Civil religion, culture war, David Barton, Enlightenment, Founder's Bible, Founding Fathers, history, Institute on Religion and Democracy, IRD Blog, revisionist, theology, Thomas Jefferson, truth, Wallbuilders
Just when we thought it would end, David Barton and his organization Wallbuilders have published yet another controversial tome: The Founder’s Bible (in the NASB, just like the Founders read it!). No doubt this new study Bible will attract the same audience and exude the same spirit as the prior Patriot’s Bible.
Supporter and detractor alike have to appreciate the perseverance; one would think that the infamous Jefferson Lies debacle might have caused other men to keep a low profile for a while. After all, conservative and liberal historians alike vilified the sketchy claims of the book. The outcry rose to such a level that publisher Thomas Nelson ceased printing. Thankfully for Wallbuilders, Glenn Beck—that most circumspect of political analysts—decided to publish Barton’s suspect revisionist history.
Like Beck, Barton never fails to elicit passionate polarization. Fellow Wallbuilders expressed shock and disgust (via electronic media and stationery) with IRD president Mark Tooley’s moderate criticism and fact-checking. The outcry against these hedged statements was telling.
Up until now, I have kept my comments and opinions to myself. After all, we can say embarrassing things in the heat of the moment. Summer intern Christian Stempert and I quietly monitored the David Barton reports and responses. We’d both been exposed to his histories as we grew up. We were both homeschooled, and it was in the homeschooling circles that Barton first found popularity. But now with a study Bible on its way to shelves, perhaps I should speak.
Not only was I homeschooled, but I also received a history degree from Patrick Henry College, which retains rather pristine Christian and conservative credentials. I only have a bachelors; I am not “elitist academic” (though I have had to do the heavy-lifting of research). I came in to the university enthralled by the older Barton. I hoped to join him in providing historical ammunition for politicians, journalists, and preachers on the front lines. What I found in the actual texts killed this elation.
I am afraid I must put this shortly. It is well nigh impossible to cram four years of reading and discussion into a paragraph. I had been deluded by historical exaggerations about a “Christian nation” and a “Biblically-based” Founding. The truth was much messier: in colonial America, the Enlightenment skepticism met with Dissenter Protestantism (plus magisterial Anglicanism and even some Catholicism thrown in). Various liberalisms embodied in the moderate Whig and radical Jacobin strutted about the world revolutionary stage. From a larger, longer perspective: what is a “Christian nation” anyway and how does it apply to America? Wasn’t the Holy Roman Empire a Christian nation which was blessed by the undivided church and in constant communion with the Pope? What about Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire or Canterbury and England, in which the monarch heads the church? The “Christian principle of religious freedom” can be more accurately described as the “Baptist principle of religious freedom.” It was a more recent development that found wide acceptance in a pluralistic confederation of states. Thinkers like Richard John Neuhaus thought America could be Christian, but only in a certain sense. This is left open for debate.
Many intellectual historians argue that America—as a nation built around a document and abstracts rather than birth and concrete lands—is the first quintessentially liberal-Enlightenment state; others (I among them) claim that this is not really the case. Again, the consensus is harder to discover. The pious lived alongside the colder heathen; the liberal with the traditionalist. The revivalistic First and Second Great Awakenings occurred before and after the actual Founding. The concerns and assumptions differed from today, but like the 21st century there was a vast panoply of opinion. There were indeed many Deists amongst late 1700s American leaders. To the uninitiated reader, Deism sounds Christian. Nevertheless, if one reads earlier works and Christian teaching, he will notice that Enlightenment Deism clashes with the faith—the former uses “Christian-ish” language to argue for different positions. If one is searching for a Golden Age of Christian America, this is disheartening. If one sees that truth had to struggle there as it does today and that it endured, then it is encouraging.
The honest-but-sympathetic refer to David Barton’s claims as “exaggerations.” This is too euphemistic; they are lies. Since I built my historical framework on such a foundation, it came crashing down under the light of truth. Here my mind was fragile; the anger of disenchantment, disappointment, and embarrassment pointed to throwing everything away. I was set for a radical pendulum-swing. The Founders were all secularists! I had to either get with the rationalistic mechanistic program in some way or reject the American experiment. Providentially, I was surrounded by caring professors and fellow concerned students who helped guide me to a deeper and more appreciative understanding of our country. I did not follow that dark road. That way leads to a vision of a Founding era that dreamed of a godless society; and the sooner we remove the obstacles, the better. I, however, saw the American story as more variegated. There were earnest Christians then in various positions of influence just as there are today.
Not all young pupils are that lucky. Even in a more cordoned-off environment, the crestfallen are left exposed for the wolves. Students abandon orthodoxy, conservatism, or tradition generally for the cruel arms of liberalism and heresy. After all, their only image of the tradition they needed to conserve was a poor one. They become careless secularists that pitilessly deride any other interpretation of the American narrative.
So, Wallbuilders fans, why do you support this harmful process by deluding the conservatives of the next generation? Everyone’s desires and rationalizations differ, but here is my guess. The American people are rightly worried, and Wallbuilders provides an outlet for them to combat harmful forces in the culture. Atheist and secularist complaints have stripped the public architecture of cross and nativity, public schools of prayer and Christian conviction, and primetime TV of Little House on the Prairie’s homespun domestic piety. Amoral sex education and comedies about the “New Normal” of single parenthood and homosexuality have filled their place. State and federal laws push harder and harder against public manifestations of religion. Any complaint about the ghettoizing of Christianity meets with the retort of “separation of church and state” accompanied by “sensitivity and tolerance.” Parents are worried for their children. They react to these arguments by grasping to whatever tools make sense and offer a devastating counter-narrative.
Wallbuilders provides this desired story. Look again at who first supported this fanciful revisionism: homeschoolers. They have strong and very legitimate concerns about who is in charge of the spiritual and intellectual formation of their offspring. The Wallbuilders narrative is sometimes the only one at hand due to its popularity. There are great curriculum resources out there that don’t commit these errors and give homeschoolers the usual leg-up in the quality of their education. However, popular critics have picked up the revisionist history and have held it up as a helpful instrument for societal reform. Progessives have rewritten the Founding era; we must respond with our own story. Note that in this debate on both sides, history is seen as a tool.
And as for the powerhouse spokespeople for such reactions, David Barton provides the material to meet the agenda. Thus, the “exaggerations” are propped up even more since they meet the requirements of a belly-aching pattern of decline and ruin. Unfortunately, the agenda comes at the expense of individual souls. Students—especially the scholastically adept—are hurt very badly by the misinterpretations, misportrayals, mistruths. I barely survived coming across the knowledge, and there are many who do not. David Barton isn’t helping by circulating lies. Those of Christian-cultural influence must realize that we their children are not just bullets in the culture war. I’m not really much for the metaphor in the first place, but if we’re really serious about protecting marriage, life, and the Western heritage, we ought never to stretch the truth to get our way. Proceedings have already gone underway; it’s time to court martial David Barton.