My friend Darryl Hart is bewildered. He does not understand why Christian historians are so obsessed with David Barton. (He does not mention me in his post, but he does link to one of my pieces). At his blog “Old Life” he writes:
Thomas Nelson likely made its decision to pull The Jefferson Lies for economic as much as scholarly reasons. Even so, considering all the bad books that publishers print, I am still befuddled by the large and concerted critique of Barton. I get it. He’s on Glenn Beck. But how many academics listen to or watch Beck? Thomas Nelson is a big and profitable trade press. But how many academics receive the company’s catalog?…
So I guess I really don’t get it. It seems to me the free market makes a lot of bad products available including books. What’s one more?
(Hart also wonders why Christian historians are not going after Howard Zinn’s stuff with the same zeal. This question deserves an answer as well, but that will have to wait for another time).
It appears, based on his post, that Hart and I have a different understanding of the Christian historian’s vocation. He is right when he says that few academics watch Glenn Beck or read Thomas Nelson books, but there are a lot of ordinary evangelicals who do. If the historian’s job is to stay in the ivory tower and not engage the public, then Hart’s point is a good one.
But if part of the historian’s job is to bring the skills of historical thinking and learning to the larger society, and especially the church, then we have a responsibility to critique folks like Barton. As a professor at a Christian college I run into students on a regular basis, many of them active members of the College Republicans, who embrace Barton’s views of American history. Some people in my church and community watch Glenn Beck and believe that Barton’s views are correct. These ideas shape how many evangelical Christians think about the relationship between church and political life.
Darryl seems to imply that if Barton is not influencing the academic community, then he is not worth critiquing.
Frankly, it seems that much of Hart’s work as an American religious historian contradicts his thoughts in this blog post. Hart spills a lot of ink making sure the evangelical public has a clear understanding of the history of conservatism, the relationship between church and state, and the Reformed tradition. He certainly thinks that writing to a non-academic audience is important.
Here a scenario: What if a really bad book about J. Gresham Machen was making serious inroads in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and many in the pews were trying to change church policy based on this flawed interpretation of the denomination’s founder? Would Hart, a gifted historian with the expertise to do something about this false history of Machen, just sit by and let it happen?
I don’t get it.