This post is part of a continuing series on David Barton’s recent book, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson. For earlier posts in the series, click here.
The next academic methodology that David Barton believes is threatening our understanding of Thomas Jefferson is “poststructuralism.” This “ism” comes from 20th century French intellectual thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. Poststructuralists are similar to postmodernists in the sense that they do not believe that the human experience or truth can be explained through universal laws of science or morality, but must be understood instead in terms of the “self” or what an individual person believes is true, right, or wrong. In this sense, Christians should be cautious when incorporating poststructural ideas into their views of the world. In their purest form, these ideas can become a threat to traditional Christianity.
Barton’s biggest gripe with poststructuralism (or at least how he defines poststructuralism) is that it encourages people to see themselves not as members of a nation or a larger community, but as members of a particular interest group. In other words, it celebrates individual diversity rather than national unity. Here Barton is making a slightly veiled attack on multiculturalism and the decline of a national identity to which all true Americans–regardless of personal history, race, ethnicity, etc…must assimilate.
But Barton fails to see himself and his followers as one of the so-called interests groups that is undermining national harmony and community. He has no desire for working with those with whom he differs to create the kind of national unity he wants to preserve or cultivate. Instead he continues to immerse himself in the culture war rhetoric that has made him famous.
By decrying a sense of national unity, and blaming our loss of such unity on those scary poststructuralists, Barton will win points among his readership. Here he has tapped into one of the major battlegrounds of the culture wars.
He takes his argument even further by arguing that the logical result of poststructualism and deconstructionism is a failure to recognize that America is an exceptional nation.
Barton and I would probably agree on the idea that the United States is an exceptional nation. As more and more nations come to model the United States, it becomes less and less exceptional, but this does not take away from the fact that the U.S. has led the way in many areas of political and economic life. I am making a historical argument here.
But as a Christian, and one who shares the same faith as Barton, I think the idea of American exceptionalism should be embraced with much caution. As I argued in my previous post on deconstructionism and elsewhere, we must be willing to critique the policies of the United States when they do not conform to Christian teaching in the same way that we praise the country when its policies do reflect Christian theological and moral views. And yes, this includes Thomas Jefferson as well.
To put it differently, I feel more comfortable thinking about American exceptionalism in historical terms than in moral or patriotic terms.
For another treatment of Jefferson and the role of religion in the founding see Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction. I heard that it’s pretty good 🙂