Next Tuesday I will be in New York presenting a paper at Columbia University’s Religion in American Seminar. I just finished the paper last night and sent it off for distribution. The title is “God’s Historian: David Barton and American Christian Nationalism.” A lot of it draws from my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, but there is also some new stuff in the paper. Perhaps one day I will publish it, but right now it is an initial attempt at trying to get some thoughts together for a possible memoir/”on the road” book on Christian nationalism in twenty-first century America.
Here is a taste of my conclusion. Those of you have read Why Study History? will find it very familiar:
David Barton is engaged in what historian David Lowenthal has called a “heritage crusade.” When he sings the praises of America’s Christian heritage he is really talking and writing more about the present than the past. The purpose of heritage, writes Lowenthal, is to “domesticate the past” so that it can be enlisted for “present causes”…Since the purpose of heritage is to cultivate a sense of collective or national identity, it is rarely concerned with nuance, paradox, or complexity. As Lowenthal notes, devotion to heritage is a “spiritual calling—it answers needs for ritual devotion.
Heritage crusades, of course, are grounded in the events of the past. This is what makes them so powerful. Barton is correct when he claims that Christianity was important to the founding generation. When he carefully shows how many of the original state constitutions written after independence included references to Christian test oaths for office he is on the mark. And he may even be right about the subtle attempts made by textbook publishers in the 1960s and 1970s to remove Christian themes from American history textbooks. But one is hard pressed to find much in Barton’s work about slavery, the negative effects of industrialization on urban workers, the European exploitation of Native Americans, or a host of other matters that do not fit his rosy picture of the United States as an exceptional nation guided by the hand of God.
Barton gives his followers what they want—a patriotic and Christian version of American history that can be used to do battle against the forces of evil found in the Democratic Party and the halls of academia. It is a past that is easily consumable and immensely useful, especially when it comes time to bludgeon one’s political enemies. As historians Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen have argued, we Americans love the past as long it helps us to improve our lives, enables us to promote our political agendas, provides us with a sense of selfhood, inspires us, or provides us with an escape from modern life. This is a past that serves our pursuits of happiness and propensity to consume. Barton’s approach to the past is thus so appealing, and attracts such a large audience, because it is quintessentially American. It seldom forces us to look back upon our own failures and come to grips with them.
But there is another way of thinking about the past. History teaches us that we are part of something larger than ourselves—a community made up of all kinds of people with all kinds of beliefs. If forces us to see the world through the eyes of others and empathize with their joys and struggles. History can decenter us by demanding that we understand life from another person’s perspective. This is the kind of history that has the power to strengthen our democracy, bring restoration to the brokenness of everyday life, and strengthen the civic bonds that hold our republic together. Unfortunately, it is an approach to the past that David Barton has no interest in promoting.