David Barton on the Ropes

Recently I was doing an interview for Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction on a radio show hosted by a conservative evangelical woman.  The host asked me a question about Thomas Jefferson’s Bible.  She wondered what I thought about David Barton’s belief that Jefferson’s “Bible”–the one with all the supernatural parts of the four Gospels removed–was written by Jefferson to convert the Indians to Christianity.  I had heard Barton say this before, and had just had a discussion about this with another radio talk show host earlier in the day.

When I argued that the Jefferson Bible (which does not include the Resurrection or miracles of Jesus) would have been an ineffective tool of Christian evangelism, the host agreed with me. She then mentioned that she was losing confidence in many of Barton’s assertions and in fact had heard a nationally-syndicated conservative Christian talk show host utter the same lack of confidence in some of Barton’s historical claims.

As I argue in Was America Founded, David Barton and other Christian nationalists like him get a lot of things right about the role of religion in the founding of the early American republic.  But Barton is not interested in telling the full story of the American founding.  He is a political propagandist–someone who engages in what Bernard Bailyn once called “indoctrination by historical example.”  For people like Mike Huckabee to call him the greatest American historian alive is absurd.

The more popular Barton becomes, the more he will be exposed for the misinformation and distorted view of the past that he promotes.  Here are two examples:

First, Grove City College (a politically conservative school) psychology professor Warren Throckmorton has been skewering (in a polite way) some of Barton’s claims at his blog. Check out here and here and here and here. (Thanks to my colleague Gene Chase for calling Throckmorton’s blog to my attention).

Recently, Throckmorton and Barton appeared separately (Barton would not appear on the program at the same time as  Throckmorton) on the Paul Edwards Show, an evangelical Christian radio talk show out of Detroit. (I have appeared on this show twice).  You can listen to the conversation here (beginning at 1:23:23).  Edwards seems very excited to have Barton on his show, but he also does not back down from some of Barton’s claims.  After Barton makes his argument for a Christian nation, Throckmorton comes on the show to counter Barton’s claims that Thomas Jefferson used federal money to fund the Kaskaskia Indians.

The other attack on Barton comes from MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell and Peter Montgomery of People For the American Way.  Here is the interview:


Barton will continue to play an important role in Republican politics as the 2012 election approaches. Stay tuned. 

6 thoughts on “David Barton on the Ropes

  1. Jon,

    If you look at the posts again on Warren Throckmorton , I don't see how you can justify your position.

    Chris Rodda–who is usually good about quoting the framers–posted nada from Jefferson or anyone else to refute my position regarding the Kaskaskia Indians. Only the usual personal attacks (calling me a girl) and straw man arguments liberal secularists are known for.


  2. The sophistical/ideological tactic of course is that if David Barton's wrong about the Kaskaskia Indians, America isn't and never was a “Christian nation.”

    And it's also Barton's own fault, stubbornly holding onto errors that don't even amount to much.

    The Kaskaskia Indians, of whom few have heard and fewer care? Chris Rodda, et al., have him dead to rights on this, and the other half-dozen errors they harp on without fail as “evidence” he's totally delegitimate.

    I've gone through the wallbuilders.com website, and while there's much that's contentious, the lion's share is factual enough to be arguable.

    In fact, his claims for what “Christian nation” might mean are rather modest, although I doubt few of his critics have actually read them.


    And why he trumpets a form letter that Jefferson signed with “In the Year of Our Lord Jesus Christ” is beyond me. In public life, most suspected, and afterward in private life everyone knew, Jefferson was no Christian in any recognizable sense.

    Indeed, in 1833, Rev. Jasper Adams wrote [to much praise] that

    What must have been the strength of the conviction of Christian Truth in the American mind, when the popular names of Franklin and of Jefferson among its adversaries, have not been able much to impair its influence.

    For the record, I'd like someone to compare Barton's batting average with Howards Zinn's, Zinn of course sometimes even used in our schools. This door of scholarly and academic establishment outrage seems to mostly only swing one way.

    Still, on the whole, Barton's emergence as a whipping boy [and his own stubbornness] make him a detriment to his own cause.


  3. John: I'm glad of the news you've posted. I'll be reading your new book this summer. Keep up the good work; I'm glad so many appear to be interested! – TL


  4. While I have no sympathy for Barton, his history, or his politics, the “Philosophy of Jesus,” an earlier assemblage than the “Life and Morals of Jesus,” begins with a statement that it is intended for the Indians and contains nothing “above their comprehension.” The editor of the volume for the Papers of TJ things this is really meant to refer to Federalist clergy as a kind of joke about their traditionalism, but I'm not sure he is entirely right about that. Anyway, see Adams, ed., Jefferson's Extracts from the Gospels (Princeton)


  5. Barton's shelf life has long astounded me. I've heard many denunciations of his work before, but not from conservatives. Thanks for highlighting this.

    But I might also be sad to see him go, since I use him in classes as representative of those championing the “Christian America” theme.


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