David Barton was American evangelicals’ favorite historian. He taught us about the Founding Fathers’ almost uniform commitment to Christian principles, and secular historians’ attempts to bury our Christian heritage under reams of revisionist distortions. He gave us firepower in support of our mission to return America to its godly founding principles.
He gave us what we wanted. But now David Barton has been credibly charged with serious distortions of his own.
The story has been told in both the secular and the Christian press: Barton’s most recent book, The Jefferson Lies, was riddled with misinformation. Its publisher, Thomas Nelson, pulled it from distribution. Barton is standing firm in his position, but reliable historians—strongly conservative Christian scholars among them—continue to hold him in error, and not just because of this work but because of others as well.
I am no historian, so I am in no position to form an independent judgment of his veracity. Few of us are. But that doesn’t excuse our eager acceptance of his inaccuracies. With a bit of care, any of us could have known of the serious questions that have surrounded Barton’s work for a long time. These recent revelations are nothing new, except in the degree to which conservative Christian scholars are involved in calling him to account.
Nevertheless we became for him a devoted cadre of disciples. We knew our country’s founding principles were vitally important. However, so is historical accuracy. It looks as if Barton compromised one to make a case for the other.
If the signs have been there for some time, why then did we love Barton so? And is it possible that we share the blame?
Barton fended off criticism by blaming it on the liberal academy’s antipathy to Christianity. That had more than a little believability to it. I am quite sure that liberal academics often hold to an ideological agenda that motivates them to discredit Christianity’s part in our nation’s history. Thus, it was easy (and it still is) to be suspicious of their criticisms in this case.
But the ideology defense is no help when it’s conservative Christians making a case against Barton—especially when it’s a case as verifiable as this is proving to be. It’s not political opinion that’s stacking up against him now. It’s well documented facts.
So I continue to wonder why we have accepted his word so readily. Christianity’s antagonists often accuse us of a pathological need for certainty. We cannot tolerate the ambiguity of the unknown (so they say), so we cling to an invented God who assures us we have the world figured out.
On one level the charge is good for a hearty laugh. It’s absurd. If this were the place for it we could demonstrate in many, many ways that God is not a human invention.
Not only that, but it’s at least equally likely that non-Christians cling to invented realities: There is no God for me to have to worry about, or, If there’s a God he’s going to consider me all right the way I am, or, It doesn’t matter if there’s a God.
Followers of Jesus Christ have no need to invent realities. What we can know of God through Scripture and through life in Christ is really true, and it’s sufficient to carry us through all the other unknowns of life.
Still. we are human. There is a common human need to know, and to know that we know. Sometimes we overdo it, to the extent that we “know” things that aren’t so.
Thus for example we have non-specialists in paleontology, geology, biology, cosmology, and Ancient Near East literature (relevant to the Genesis account) who are absolutely sure they know how and when the heavens and the earth were created. Humility, one would think, would lead us to temper our enthusiasm for our convictions, for it takes specialized knowledge to form a fully informed and studied conclusion on such matters. Still we insist we are right, as if we were the ones who had researched it all ourselves.
This is a human tendency, and of course I am not only speaking of Christians but also of skeptics who insist just as positively that we arrived here by way of evolution. On every side of the origins issue, there is altogether too much certainty going around among those of us who have no right to claim it.
“Skeptic” is one of their favorite words, by the way: They claim never to believe anything on anything less than solid evidence. They would never overrun the facts on the way to certainty. Except that (speaking of facts) they don’t practice their skepticism at all consistently. “Skeptic” magazine, for example, reported favorably on a thoroughly discredited “research” study purporting to show that the most secular countries in the world were the best ones to live in—even after the journal that published the study followed it up with a retraction. So much for making sure of their facts.
We Christians ought to be the ones most comfortable with facts. We follow the One who is the Truth. Our commitment to truth extends to every domain of life.
Sometimes the truest thing we can say is “I don’t know.”
Someone very close to the David Barton situation asked me a couple of months ago what I thought of Barton. I said I had heard him speak and I had seen some of his DVDs, that he had an impressive message, but that I knew some of his work had been called into question so I wasn’t able to offer an informed opinion oh him.
Now, I don’t mind admitting (self-serving though it may be) that I’m glad I gave a cautious answer and saved myself the embarrassment of telling him Barton was the historian the world most needed today. You might call it a lesson learned from several years of blogging: It’s very dangerous to speak confidently online of that which you do not actually know. Someone will be there to catch you in it. NPR and the New York Times have brought Barton’s questionable work to light. Christian witness is damaged when these things happen.
There is more to it than our witness, of course. The Bible affirms those who check their facts, as the Bereans did when Paul preached to them (Acts 17:10-12). The Scriptures urge us almost everywhere to speak truly, because God is true.
To accept any human teacher without checking on his message with due diligence is to abandon our responsibility to the truth. David Barton’s errors are not only his. They also belong to those of us who bought his message carelessly, unquestioningly, too eagerly, and too comfortably.
Tom Gilson is a writer, ministry strategist, and speaker, and author/host of the Thinking Christian blog. He’s closely involved in developing curriculum for global discipleship use through Campus Crusade for Christ, and in co-founding a new Life Leader Institute at King’s Domain near Cincinnati.
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