David Barton as "Christian Illusionist"

John Wilsey teaches history and theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Houston.  He is the author of One Nation Under God? An Evangelical Critique of Christian America, a book that I have reviewed here at the blog and continue to recommend.

On Saturday night, John had a front row seat for a David Barton presentation at the First Baptist Church of Brazoria, TX.  When I heard that John was attending the session, I asked him to report on the event for our readers here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Enjoy!

Last night, David Barton appeared at the First Baptist Church of Brazoria, TX (south of Houston) to make his presentation on America’s Christian heritage.

My interest in Barton comes from my having critiqued his, and other works on the Christian America thesis, so I was definitely anxious to hear him. I knew the church would be packed out, so I made sure I got there early. Of course, no self-respecting Baptist ever sits on the front row no matter how crammed the place is, so the best seats in the house smoothly beckoned me.

Right at 7 p.m. the MC representing the local Baptist association hosting the event stood up to the pulpit and led us in the recitation of the pledge to the US flag. (Don’t get me started on pledging the flag in church). Then he gave the introduction of Barton, “America’s Historian” according to “a major media news outlet” and “one of Time’s 25 Most Influential Evangelicals.” Barton ascended the dais, and immediately he was off.

Say what you want about Barton, he is a walking encyclopedia. He can rattle off names, places, dates, and block quotes with the best of them. He also had in his repertoire a host of obscure anecdotes that delighted his audience. He was certainly an engaging speaker. I could not help but hang on to every word. He was both witty and deadly earnest. He had the 300 or so people present in the palm of his hand throughout the two hour lecture. As a teacher and a preacher, I must say he has a gift that I lack.

But being there was less like listening to a historian present on some topic on the early republic and more like being at a magic show. Barton is really more like a Christian illusionist than a historical thinker and teacher. When you go to a magic show, you see the illusionist manipulate the props in order to dazzle you with effects that at face value, look impossible but are undeniable. Barton is like that. His props were a collection of raw historical data that he artfully and eloquently presented to the audience. Then, just like an illusionist does, he manipulated that data, compelling the audience to intuitively come to the conclusion that America was and is specially chosen by God to be a Christian nation.

Barton’s use of the raw data was ironically, but predictably, shoddy. He got a lot right. But there were several annoying, bugaboo errors throughout his presentation. Not one of them was fatal to his credibility, but taken together, they undermined him considerably. Black preacher Rev. Richard Allen did not, in fact, serve as the lone pastor of a 2000 member white church in Philadelphia. Woodrow Wilson was not the first writer of history to present American society as divided along racial lines based on fear, hate, and social Darwinism. The first Bible printed in America was not produced by the US Congress. The United States had not consistently stood up for the religiously oppressed of the world until fifty or so years ago. Frederick Douglass was not a promoter of American exceptionalism. The Constitution does not find its source in Scripture. The Second Great Awakening was not an eighty year period of pure Christian awakening resulting in a general state of godliness. America has never, before or after Abington v Schempp (1963), been a paragon of biblical righteousness. But these kinds of errors are common in Barton’s writings, and are to be expected.

The really disturbing aspect of the presentation is that Barton is a manipulator of Christian folks who sincerely love their country. He goes in front of Bible believing people who, for the most part, do not spend all their time thinking about the American founding but who do want to believe that America’s heritage is exclusively Protestant. He goes with data mined from the historical record that will suit his particular cultural agenda. He presents that data with no explanation of context. He gives no credit to any other sources that are not explicitly evangelical.

And he implies that anyone who might arrive at a different conclusion than his falls into one of two categories—either she is one of those who believe that “all the founders were deists” or she is of the group that thinks that “the founders were enemies of Christ.”

Barton has a smugness about him that is strange and off-putting in a church setting. In Barton’s world, there are three types of people: first, there are those who think they know the founders better than they knew themselves. These are the scholars, the PhDs who reject Barton’s thesis. He is sarcastically disdainful of them. Second are those plain people who, by Barton’s lights, have not a clue about the source of our founding ideas. And he pities these. But for Barton, the common factor that joins these groups together is that, “they just don’t know their history” or “their Bibles.”

Then, there’s Barton. He knows everything. And he just comes to the simple conclusion, from the founders’ own words, that America is a chosen nation of God in Christ. But Barton is the one who doesn’t know his history, or his Bible. If he were a student presenter in one of my classes, I would dock him severely based on his historical and theological errors alone. He said that “revival cannot happen in a climate hostile to God” but he must not know that the salient periods of Christian growth have always come through persecution. He irrationally denies that his conclusion leads him where he cannot go—to the establishment of Christianity in America. He doesn’t seem to appreciate the difference between special grace and common grace—special grace being limited to things pertaining to salvation, and common grace being bestowed on the “just and the unjust alike.” This leads him to dangerously conflate America with salvation by grace through faith in Christ.

Sure, he has a host of facts from the Bible and from the past at his fingertips. He can sure dazzle an audience with his effortless use of them. But he forces those facts, errors and all, into what becomes a bulging, bulky, gawdy package labeled, “Christian America.” 

And the audience loved it.

One thought on “David Barton as "Christian Illusionist"

  1. “He got a lot right.”

    This is the part that's always missing and why I have felt that those who scorch his earth have hasd an agenda beyond mere historical factoid-checking.

    [Until the recent “Jefferson Lies,” which admittedly is a bridge way too far.]

    But there were several annoying, bugaboo errors throughout his presentation. Not one of them was fatal to his credibility, but taken together, they undermined him considerably.

    Well, that's a yes and no. Dr. Wilsey concedes here that these factoids are not earth-shaking, and indeed Barton's dogged critics have ignored what he gets right, and pumped up the factoids he gets wrong into scorched earth.

    These are the scholars, the PhDs who reject Barton’s thesis.

    Barton's thesis is pretty much Daniel Dreisbach's—an estimable scholar with a law degree from UVa and a DPhil from Oxford, and who's a prof @ American university.

    And this is the problem—Barton's [admitted] problem with factoids does not equate to his thesis of a deeply Christian America being wrong. Dreisbach doesn't make those factoid mistakes. Anyone who wants to confront the thesis honestly needs to go through Dreisbach. Barton is easy pickins.


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