He Gave Us What We Wanted

Worldview and You

Rating: 3.67

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.

Selected Sources:

John Stonestreet, “Getting Jefferson Right,” The Point.

Greg Forster, “David Barton’s Errors,” First Thoughts, “First Things.”

Warren Throckmorton, “My Response and Three Challenges to David Barton,” Crosswalk.com.

Thomas Kidd, “The David Barton controversy” and "‘Lost confidence,’" “WORLD.”

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, “The Most Influential Evangelist You’ve Never Heard Of,” NPR.

Jennifer Schuessler, “Hard Truth for Author: Publisher Pulls ‘The Jefferson Lies’," “New York Times.”

Tom Gilson, “David Barton: Tragedy Unfolding,” Thinking Christian.

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.

Articles on the BreakPoint website are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of BreakPoint. Outside links are for informational purposes and do not necessarily imply endorsement of their content.


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My local Christian radio station carries Wallbuilders. I lost a lot of respect for Barton as a historian when I heard him quoting Ben Franklin as an example of the supposedly Christian Founders, and their appeals to God to guide their way in making the Constitution. It doesn't take much work to find in Franklin's own words that he was a thorough Deist, completely opposed to orthodox, Biblical Christianity (for instance: "Revelation had indeed no weight with me"--"The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin" is good source material if you want to make sure nothing is taken out of context, available at Project Gutenberg), yet Barton selectively quotes Franklin in ways that can make him sound Christian. It was obvious to me that his agenda was more important than the truth.

It infuriates me that Christians are so willing to accept false statements because it seems to "confirm" the Bible. I was once accused of being a non-Christian when I discredited the claim that NASA computers had discovered Joshua's long day. Such ridiculous claims only harm the effort to show nonbelievers that they can believe without checking their brains at the door.
Skeptic mag reference
Hello, the URL you gave for a debunking of Skeptic's article gives me a 404 error (page not found). Also, I can't find where the journal retracted it. Can you please provide a link to the journal retraction and correct the other URL?
History of OUR NATION
Heard today the book is about to be
re-released, rewriting a line or 2 & Giving another footnote or 2?

One wonders how many other books have been subject to this amount of scrutiny & one tends to think: NONE!
David Barton
Many are doing what they accuse David Barton of doing. Has any body contacted him about their specific concerns and given him an opportunity to respond? Who is Warren Throckmorton and is he a historian? These are things that need to be considered before denunciation of his work.
And well said. A pertinent commentary for our times, for sure. Humility is a virtue desperately needed in our culture at the moment. And both sides need to do a better job of recognizing the validity of arguments made by others who we are tempted to dismiss.

Please know that I'm not trying to convert you, but I would highly suggest you use this revelation as an opening to reevaluate some of the other criticisms leveled against Evangelical organizations and folks that you've written-off as ideologically motivated.

It may be that, for a relevant example, what the Family Research Council says in regards to homosexuality is more akin to what the Klan says about black people than about what the National Organization for Marriage says about homosexuality.
Is this distortion of the Bible blasphemy?
It seems that Barton doesn't stop with creating a false history of the Founding Fathers but even distorts the Bible itself.

An example (link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hOqBTUA-fgM) of the outrageously false statements that he makes about the Bible in Exodus 18:21 sanctioned democratic elections. In fact, the Bible verse Barton quotes makes it clear that there were no elections. It was Moses who chose those who would govern Israel.

Barton’s quote:

We’re told in the Scriptures, in Exodus 18:21 God says 1 “choose out from among you leaders of tens, fifties, hundreds and thousands.” Leaders of tens, hundreds, fifties and thousands? That’s elect your local, county, state and federal leaders…God set up elections at the very beginning.

As he made that statement, Barton was making a sweeping arm motion with his finger pointing towards the audience as if to indicate that they would be the ones participating in these fantasy elections.

The actual statement in the Bible is:

“17 Moses’ father-in-law replied, “What you are doing is not good. 18 You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone. 19 Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him. 20 Teach them his decrees and instructions, and show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave. 21 But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 22 Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. 23 If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied.”

24 Moses listened to his father-in-law and did everything he said. 25 He chose capable men from all Israel and made them leaders of the people, officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 26 They served as judges for the people at all times. The difficult cases they brought to Moses, but the simple ones they decided themselves.”

Exodus 18:17-25 ~ New International Version

Adding, subtracting or plain outright lying about the Bible is blasphemy in my opinion.

After all, what would happen if a non-Christian were to actually check out that quote in the Bible or worse, if a 12 year old at church services did the same?
I forgot to mention, in my commentary above, that Adullam Film's "The Hidden Faith of the Founding Fathers" is produced from an orthodox Christian perspective.
For a true account of the Founding Father's NON-Christian beliefs and statements the DVD "The Hidden Faith of the Founding Fathers" is highly recommended.

You can get it from Adullam Films at http://www.adullamfilms.com/ or download it for free at You Tube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dmFPfEYRZF8&feature=related
I would also include Dr. John Fea in your sources. He is chair of the history department at Messiah College and author of "Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?" Yet another conservative Christian joining the chorus against Barton. He blogs at the Way of Improvement Leads Home.
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