David Barton and Collective Memory

Over at Religion in American History, Charlie McCrary, a graduate student in religion at Florida State, makes a thoughtful attempt to explain the David Barton phenomenon.  He argues that Barton may be best understood through Maurice Halbwach’s work on “collective memory.”  Here is a taste:

Some popular recentbooks have argued that, on a psychological level, the “conservative” mind and “liberal” mind are different.  Halbwachs would probably agree with this, though he would emphasize that these mindsets are reinforced, if not created, by one’s family, religious community, class, and locality.  For these reasons, though I am grateful for the work to refute Barton, I think that much of it will miss its mark.  It is never about history with Barton, at least not in the way historians understand “history.”  Thus, to engage with him in historical debates does not really work.  For Barton, it’s about the present.  Barton peddles not in history but in collective memory.  What Halbwachs says about family stories can apply also to Barton’s mythologies: These stories are not (just) narrations of fact; they “are at the same time models, examples, and elements of teaching.  They express the general attitude of the group; they not only reproduce its history but also define its nature and its qualities and weaknesses” (59).

Halbwachs’s analysis of family mythology can, I think, be reasonably and fruitfully extended to American subcultures today.  Halbwachs singled out family stories for their extreme locality.  However, American culture, though less split along regional lines, is still very highly fragmented.  Substitute “subculture” for “family” in the following passage from On Collective Memory: “Each family ends up with its own logic and traditions, which resemble those of the general society in that they derive from it and continue to regulate the family’s relations with general society.  But this logic and these traditions are nevertheless distinct because they are little by little pervaded by the family’s particular experiences and because their role is increasingly to insure the family’s cohesion and to guarantee its continuity” (83). 

Barton draws on the logic and traditions of the “general society” by talking about the Constitution, emphasizing the Founding Fathers, etc.  Barton wrote about Jefferson because Americans, writ large, think Jefferson is important.  However, Barton’s (and, of course, his audience’s) traditions and even his very logic is influenced by the logic and tradition not only of “general society” but also of a conservative evangelical subculture.  For instance, there seems to be a clear connection between Barton’s shunning of secondary sources and relentlessly textual approach that rings true to conservative evangelicals.  It’s not too much of a stretch to say that Barton’s approach must feel familiar—and true—to those whose biblical hermeneutics are ahistorical, textual, and presentist.   

While McCrary thinks that historical refutations of Barton’s work will “miss their mark,” I am not so sure. It all depends on what he means by “historical refutations.”  As I have argued before, Barton is problematic for two reasons.  First, he gets his facts wrong and/or manipulates his facts in order to mislead his readers.  The conservative evangelicals who follow Barton may be part of a community of memory that celebrates certain myths about the founding, but most of them are also diligent seekers of truth.  We are already starting to see organizations such as Thomas Nelson, Break Point, the Discovery Institute (and their 10 historical consultants), World View Weekend, World Magazine, and others come out against Barton on this front.  (And from what I have heard, there are others waiting in the wings).


Second, Barton and his followers do not understand how to think like historians.  And perhaps he and his followers never will.  But this entire affair presents a wonderful opportunity to educate Christians about the virtues of thinking historically, or what Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke have described as the “five Cs of historical thinking.” I recently heard that this book may be a good place to start :-).