David Barton on the American Bible Society

It looks like I am not the only one interested in this subject. This video was just released by David Barton:

This video is a good example of why David Barton is more a politician than a historian and why his “historical” presentations need to be looked at very critically.  Most of what he says about the founding of the American Bible Society is accurate, but he does not paint an entire picture of the founding or the men involved in the founding.

For example:

  • Boudinot did indeed respect the Bible.  He defended its inspiration and authority against attacks from skeptics like Thomas Paine.  He also turned to it to make predictions about the end of the world and to claim that native Americans were the ten lost tribes of Israel
  • John Jay was a devout Anglican Christian.  He also tried to ban Catholics from participating in New York government.

My point here is not to drag these founders through the mud.  Sometimes it is important to talk about the good things that founders did and celebrate their achievements.  But historians must be committed to telling the truth about the founders.  This may require placing their accomplishments in the larger context of their lives and, in some cases, an eighteenth-century world that looks quite different from the one in which we live.

Barton is more interested in a sugar-coated history that makes all of his constituency feel good about themselves and their country.  Why would he talk about the full or complete history of these figures, or even the full story of the ABS (take my word for it, it’s interesting), when his only reasons for engaging the past is to win political points.

14 thoughts on “David Barton on the American Bible Society

  1. Thx, Tim. You are reading me fairly and charitably. Mary Ann Glendon limned the playing field in a book title, “The Tower and the Forum.”

    The fault here has been mine for a few hasty imprecisions: Saying that Barton is a “necessary” tonic to Zinnism implies approval or at least absolution from his scholarly shoddiness and the one-sidedness that's more suitable for lawyers and advocates than genuine scholars. [Like Zinn himself, mind you.]

    I should have done that ritual condemnatory tapdance first.

    That was speaking of the Forum, of popular perceptions, and so your first point of order is the meaning of “ivory tower.” You're speaking of the rarified Platonic air where truth is pursued.

    That Tower exists, though I don't know where. Wherever Hall/Dreisbach are heard and Zinn is shunned. Where is that?

    You see where I'm going with this.

    By “ivory tower,” of course I'm speaking of academia, the edu-industrial complex, where Zinn has a congregation and the former are largely unheard voices in the wilderness.

    Regardless of how we define the Tower, Barton himself is [deservedly] excluded, so to hold him to standards to which academia doesn't even hold itself [per Zinn]

    “You can't be neutral on a moving train.”

    seems unfair. And in the Forum, reputable scholars of the Hall and Dreisbach type seem to have no stomach for it, whereas not only the Tower but the Forum is lousy with Zinns.

    The 'Zinn' project–and by that I also mean academia's current view of itself as not only a scholar of “change” but an agent of it*–is a political project.

    So there's the structural imbalance in our “Platonic” regard of truth in the Tower, and also the game of power and politics out in the real world, the Forum.

    The 'Zinnites' [a term we'll use loosely here] play the power game in the Tower. Per Scruton

    “ideological opinion is not merely distinct from knowledge but the enemy of knowledge”

    and today the Tower employs the race/class/gender hermeneutic, of “critical theory,” which itself is an ideology, now the lens through which pretty much all knowledge must pass.*

    The Marxist theory of ideology, or some feminist, poststructuralist, or Foucauldian descendant of it, will be summoned in proof of the view that the precious achievements of our culture owe their status to the power that speaks through them, and that they are therefore of no intrinsic worth.

    [So little of the Hall/Dreisbach side is known in the Tower that it surely must be political: Right-wing fictions of the darkest, most deranged Barton Christianist/Dominionist kind! Perhaps more on the actual historical content at a later time.]

    Barton is too scattershot for admission to the Tower, which is fair. In the Forum they call him a “historian,” but these are the standards out there

    http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/10/how-em-12-years-a-slave-em-gets-history-right-by-getting-it-wrong/280911/

    http://thefederalist.com/2014/09/16/another-day-another-quote-fabricated-by-neil-degrasse-tyson/

    That's the Forum.

    I share your concern about what's going on in the Tower, shocking to the Platonist, because the “critical theory” ideology commandeers the search for truth by arrogating the tools that may be used.

    Thx for asking, Tim.
    ____________________
    *http://www.philipvickersfithian.com/2015/05/james-grossman-history-for-patriotism.html

    **https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/05/07/history-and-anthropology-departments-sacramento-state-u-square-over-new-gen-ed

    Even the “conservative” is a Zinnite.

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  2. Tom: In the article you posted, Scruton (implicitly) endorses the following view: “ideological opinion is not merely distinct from knowledge but the enemy of knowledge, the disease implanted in the human brain that makes it impossible to distinguish true ideas from false ones.” He goes on to decry the way in which truth and falsehood seem no longer to matter to humanities professors and everything is evaluated in terms of power. I’m sorry but isn’t that what you are doing in your posts above? You’re evaluating everything in terms of power, who has it and who doesn’t, rather than in terms of truth. For political reasons having to do with power and politics you endorse the ideological opinions of Barton which you take to be the tonic, but which Scruton takes to be the disease. In doing this you are working against those who would make history and the humanities into the ivory tower that Scruton reminisces about. Am I reading you wrong here?

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  3. Part two:

    You say, “I have no problem with withholding “historian” from Barton's credits.” If we were good Platonists we’d say something stronger than this. We’d say that (as John has argued) Barton has given us a misleading picture of the past and that Barton is appealing to our emotions rather than to our reason by painting a flattering picture of ourselves that we would like to believe but is highly selective. There is nothing more foreign to Plato than this. When Scruton is talking about throwing to the winds the traditional Platonic virtues he is talking about Barton. We need fewer Barton’s today and more real historians, i.e. academic historians who study history from an ivory tower. That’s how I interpret John’s post that you objected to.

    You have said that Barton’s work is “a necessary tonic to the ideological poison visited on” our young. That’s where you disagree not only with me, but with Scruton as well. Manipulation of the past by appealing to our emotions to score political points should not play any role in educating our young. By defending Barton as a necessary tonic, you disagree. You are politicizing the study of history and I’m 100% opposed to that.

    Here’s how I anticipate that you will respond: “I (Tom) am not the one politicizing history, people like Zinn are, and I’m opposed to them. The sins of the right are trivial compared to the sins of the left. I’m merely trying to undo the politicizing of history that the left has done.”

    Here is my reply: The best response to bad history is good history, not bad history from the opposite political perspective. We should model for our children the traditional values, such as respect for truth and for the past, that we hope they will embody. And, most importantly, if we are going to trash our traditional values and politicize history, we should at least be honest that that’s what we are doing. We should not claim to be on Plato’s side when what we are saying contradicts Plato. Fake conservatives tend to claim to be in favor of some traditional Western thinker or institution (e.g. Plato, the Bible, the constitution) but they are more interested in scoring political points and making money than in defending what they say they believe in. In saying this, I’m not trying to score points for the left. For one thing, the left does not typically value the things that I have emphasized in my two posts. The left politicizes history too. It “deconstructs” traditional conservative notions like truth and leaves us in a post-modern haze where there is no longer any distinction between good and evil. (It is a sad irony that the actual deconstructionists in Yale English department have been cast in this light since nothing could be further from the truth.) The question we face is what we are to do about the current mess we are in. Is Barton is part of the problem or part of the solution? From my perspective Barton has thrown to the wind the very values that are essential to us, which conservatives once said that they stood for. I’ve got a problem with that. There is something particularly poisonous about someone who presents themselves as a conservative, but then undermines the values that are essential to real conservativism. I think you’ve completely missed the reason why historians like John might be opposed to Barton. It’s not because Barton is conservative. It’s because Barton gives up on traditional values like seeking the truth for its own sake and instead uses history as a political tool for flattery and manipulation. If there are too many leftists in academia then this will lead to left wing blindspots where the left doesn’t call out biased left wing histories. This is what you are saying is happening. I agree with you. But the solution here is not more thinking like Barton. It is to have more real conservatives in academia. They need more role models and Barton is not a good role model for a budding young historian.

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  4. Part one of two:

    Tom, you are correct that I mean to say “John” not “Jim”. My mistake. It was early in the morning when I posted and apparently my brain wasn’t entirely awake.

    You clearly believe that “America's Christian history is given short shrift”. I can certainly agree that sometimes this is the case. Whether this is in general the case is hard to assess because in many contexts America’s Christian history is over emphasized. That was John’s point when he criticized Barton. Still, I’m willing to grant your point for the sake of argument. In fact, I would make an even more general point: A strong left wing bias seriously compromises academia as a whole. I am personally committed to fighting against such political bias. You and I disagree in how we respond to this mess (which is bigger than just the politicization of history). Our conclusions couldn’t be more different and that doesn’t make me a critic of the right, it makes me a critic of the phony right. I fear that most contemporary conservatives don’t even know what it means to be a real conservative. As I see it, the American public is very politicized and views far too much through a narrowly political lens. This is true both on the left and on the right. That’s the ordinary world. The “ivory tower” as you call it, is generally less political than the general public in my humble opinion, though leftist bias probably is strongest in academia. What we need, to put the point metaphorically, is more ivory and a higher tower so that we have the distance from narrow minded political thinking that seems to have infected ordinary life. Academics who are most politicistized are typically those who are most “engaged” and who bend over backward to make sure that their work is “relevant” and “practical.” Leftist academics would never be comfortable with describing their work as part of the ivory tower. Real conservatives should embrace such a description. (Indeed, I would even say that all real thinkers should embrace such a description and this would include both left and right.) Academics who gravitate more towards mathematics, abstraction, and ivory tower thinking tend to be less narrowly political in their thinking. My point is that the “ivory towerness” of academia (it’s detachment from the ordinary and the everyday) is part of the solution, not part of the problem. What we need is more detachement, more abstraction, and more Platonism in academia. We should value truth for its own sake, beauty for its own sake, and justice for its own sake. Classical Christian education, which values truth for its own sake, is the necessary tonic we need from today’s obsession with “being relevant” and “being engaged”. It is easy to criticize classical Christian educators as being “elite and out of touch” and what I’ve just said is very unfashionable on the left and on the pseudo-right. In saying this, I am agreeing with everything Scruton says. I’m agreeing with him that contemporary academia is “throwing to the winds” the traditional Platonic virtues that it should be defending.

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  5. By “Jim” I'm assuming you mean John Fea. John and I have few if any disagreements on the historical facts. If we differ, it's in assessing their importance.

    As for David Barton, when we read

    Barton is more interested in a sugar-coated history that makes all of his constituency feel good about themselves and their country.

    we are not talking history and its dispassionate study anymore, we're talking about contemporary socio-politics, talking about David Barton himself.

    The problem then, is that Barton makes for a convenient whipping boy of the Religious Right, and his [historian] critics almost uniformly oppose his socio-politics.

    So let's just call that spade a spade. The form is usually Barton gets mumblemumble right but gets X, Y, Z and sometimes Q COMPLETELY WRONG! The knives are out.

    Further, the study of history–at least in the ivory tower–is heavily politicized [and overtly so with the Zinn crowd], therefore to place Barton in the larger culture war is of absolute necessity.

    As for my own approach to history, I like to think I play it straight, but I do agree with the thesis that America's Christian history is given short shrift. The Constitution is indeed “Godless,” but the rest of the story is that religion was left to the states–including religious tests in the majority of the original 13.

    The Almighty appears in all 50 state constitutions. But is this common knowledge? I think not. That sort of elemental thing.

    Matthew Stewart's lionization of Spinoza gets massive media coverage, but Dreisbach and Hall's

    The Sacred Rights of Conscience
    is nearly invisible. That sort of thing. It's this disparity that fostered the rise of David Barton.

    This is not particularly aimed at John Fea, who to his great credit is one of the top Google hits for “Founders” and “deists.”

    http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Founding-Fathers-Were-Not-Deists-John-Fea-02-02-2011.html

    However, it cannot be denied that Googling “David Barton” results in little praise aside from ally Glenn Beck's “The Blaze” but a panoply of attack, much of it vicious.

    So my point is that invoking David Barton is pretty much already making a political statement of its own. When we're on the same side as a historian, we mention his errors in passing; when we're not, the errors become the featured course.

    Further, because the study of history is so politicized [Professors Zinn, Kramnick & Moore were academicians in good standing], let's just call that spade a spade too. A David Barton is inevitable, and of course the emptier the barrel, the more noise it tends to make.

    The Amazon “religious history” list is interesting, though. Kidd, Dreisbach/Hall, James Byrd's Sacred Scripture, Sacred War, even Catholic apologist Thomas Madden's history of the Crusades make the Top 20. Clearly a hunger out there for this sort of thing: Credible scholars all, and of far more interest than the infamous [but ultimately ineffectual] quote-miner Mr. Barton.

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  6. But then when you bring in Scruton, you completely lose me. You say, “My [and Scruton's] argument remains, that the current age's skepticism loses all perspective, and measures the bad equally with the good, leaving nothing.” Jim has been arguing that we should set aside narrow political interests and pursue the truth for its own sake. You disagree when you say that the alternative to Barton isn’t better American history but no American history. You are saying that we cannot have a selfless pursuit of the truth about our past; our only options are Barton or nothing. This is a view that Nietzsche might agree with. But in arguing for this Nietzschean view you are arguing against Scruton, not for him. You are the one who leaves nothing, not Jim. For example, how is it that you are on Scruton’s side when he bemoans the fact that, “our inherited culture as an autonomous sphere of moral knowledge, and one that it requires learning, scholarship, and immersion to enhance and retain, is cast to the winds”? Jim gives detailed arguments about the founding fathers. You ignore them and say that everyone in academia is biased and that today an objective pursuit of history is impossible. When Scruton is talking about “our inherited culture as an autonomous sphere of moral knowledge” he is talking about (among other things) the view that history is an end in itself of intrinsic worth and is not just a political tool. How are you on Scruton’s side when he says, “The old curriculum, which Newman saw as an end in itself, has been demoted to a means?” Though Scruton is talking about academia in these quotes, what he describes is perfectly illustrated by your blog posts here. The thinking that you have done in your postings here is the kind of thinking that Scruton is criticizing. Some of us still care about Beauty for its own sake and Truth for its own sake and are naïve enough to have faith that it is possible even despite the cynics. You have told us that you don’t believe that history is possible other than Barton. O.K. but then aren’t you siding with the cynics and against Scruton? Though you say that you are critical of what happens in academia today it seems that your postings are examples of the sort of Nietzschean post-modern view according to which the only response to political bias is more political bias. This is exactly the sort of thing that Scruton (and I) oppose. Scruton and I still believe in the old fashioned idea that the truth matters in and of itself and should be pursued for its own sake. I think Jim does too, but I don’t want to speak for him. This view is under attack by those who try to politicize everything like Nietzsche and Barton. In this debate between the traditionalists/Platonists/Scruton and Nietzsche/the cynics your postings have been in support of Nietzsche and the cynics, not Scruton.

    As someone who cares about the truth I’m concerned that political conservatives aren’t getting adequate defense in academia today. Scruton is absolutely correct about this. I, myself, have made similar remarks on many occasions. Unfortunately, political conservatives are often caricatured as uneducated and unthinking. I’d like to see this change. But for it to change, conservatives need to embody the traditional values that Scruton articulates. This is more easily said than done.

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  7. My post was too long so I have had to split it into two separate posts. This is the first of two.

    Tom, you suggest that you are defending David Barton and that this is thankless and hazardous, but you don’t actually defend Barton at all. You haven’t responded to any of the criticisms that Jim gave of his video. Jim is a historian and you can challenge him on matters of history. But this isn’t what you have done.

    You say, “the alternative to Barton isn't better American religious history, it's pretty much none atall–the field left to Kramnick & Moore and their “Godless Constitution,” which itself is an unfootnoted polemic, no less partisan and contentious than Barton's work”. But if it is true that the alternative to Barton isn’t better American religious history, but no religious history at all, then this means that Jim hasn’t been doing American religious history or at a minimum that he has no vision to offer us of what religious history might be if it differs from Barton’s since there is no such possibility open to us today. (That is entailed by your quote above.) This claim would certainly require some serious support, which you don’t give. Let us grant for the sake of argument that the people you cite such as Zinn are biased and political. To say that these are our only options is a false dichotomy. You need to explain why we cannot pursue history as an end in itself quite apart from any political ends we might have.

    You have said that, “David Barton cannot be viewed in a vacuum”. I disagree, but for the sake of argument let us suppose that you are right. Why is the only alternative to bad right wing history, bad left wing history? It seems to me that there is another alternative, the kind of history that Jim does, i.e. real history rather than pseudo-history.

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  8. John, I don't deny Barton is a socio-theo-political activist, in fact he's quite bald about it. However David Barton cannot be viewed in a vacuum. He is a response to this

    http://howardzinn.org/related-projects/zinn-education-project/

    The Zinn Education Project promotes and supports the use of Howard Zinn’s best-selling book A People’s History of the United States and other materials for teaching a people’s history in middle and high school classrooms across the country.

    BF mine. See also the rather baldly ominous-sounding

    http://www.rethinkingschools.org/index.shtml

    http://www.teachingforchange.org/

    Or Matthew Stewart's preposterous whitewash of America's religious history, given kid gloves by American academia and media [incl government-supported NPR].

    [Mark David Hall has published a rebuttal piece for the Spring 2015 issue (pp. 285-291) Christian Scholars Review entitled “A Failed Attempt at Partisan Scholarship.”

    http://americancreation.blogspot.com/2015/04/hall-on-stewarts-natures-god.html

    It's certainly a pity that Barton gets all the pub and legit scholars such as Hall, Daniel Dreisbach and Phil Hamburger are given the cold shoulder. [Present company excepted of course, mon cheri.]

    But the deck being stacked as it is, the alternative to Barton isn't better American religious history, it's pretty much none atall–the field left to Kramnick & Moore and their “Godless Constitution,” which itself is an unfootnoted polemic, no less partisan and contentious than Barton's work [albeit admittedly less flawed].

    The David Barton phenomenon arose from the secular left's debasement of the social sciences as limned by Roger Scruton above, including this, its elision of America's religious roots.

    [As for Thomism's regard for reason, your description is perhaps closer to Calvin's. 😉 Natural law is dependent upon the existence of “right” reason, as it does not depend on revelation. But that's another story.]

    As I said from the first, defending Barton on any level whatsoever is thankless and hazardous. My [and Scruton's] argument remains, that the current age's skepticism loses all perspective, and measures the bad equally with the good, leaving nothing.

    What is the bad about the American Bible Society? Well, first let us learn it even existed, then what might have been worthy about it in the first place, well before we get to its warts. Even the infidel Jefferson gave them 50 bucks, a helluva lot of coin back then.

    I have no problem with withholding “historian” from Barton's credits, but he is but part of a much larger conundrum labeled “history” these days.

    As always, thx for the courteous reply.

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  9. Tom: You are thinking too politically here. A historian is interested in the complete, full, and complex story of the past. As a good Thomist you must believe that human beings are flawed. If this is the case, why ignore this theological reality?

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  10. The greater danger in this deconstructed age has become nihilism, that the bad is equal to or outweighs the good.

    In this way the whole idea of our inherited culture as an autonomous sphere of moral knowledge, and one that it requires learning, scholarship, and immersion to enhance and retain, is cast to the winds. The university, instead of transmitting culture, exists to deconstruct it, to remove its “aura,” and to leave the student, after four years of intellectual dissipation, with the view that anything goes and nothing matters.”

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  11. If you leave out the facts whether they are good or bad you are not teaching history. A feel good history accomplishes nothing and can be dangerous because people fail to question the past.

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  12. Barton is more interested in a sugar-coated history that makes all of his constituency feel good about themselves and their country. Why would he talk about the full or complete history of these figures, or even the full story of the ABS (take my word for it, it's interesting), when his only reasons for engaging the past is to win political points.

    Taking David Barton's part in anything is a thankless, indeed hazardous job. But making people feel good about their country, and to emphasize its good rather than its failings, is not merely [and cynically] “political,” it's a necessary tonic to the ideological poison visited on many or most of our young 'skulls full of mush.'

    As the less easily dismissed philosopher Roger Scruton recently put it,

    “Of course, the culture of the West remains the primary object of study in humanities departments. However, the purpose is not to instill that culture but to repudiate it—to examine it for all the ways in which it sins against the egalitarian worldview. The Marxist theory of ideology, or some feminist, poststructuralist, or Foucauldian descendent of it, will be summoned in proof of the view that the precious achievements of our culture owe their status to the power that speaks through them, and that they are therefore of no intrinsic worth. To put it another way: The old curriculum, which Newman saw as an end in itself, has been demoted to a means. That old curriculum existed, we are told, in order to maintain the hierarchies and distinctions, the forms of exclusion and domination that maintained a ruling elite. Studies in the humanities are now designed to prove this—to show the way in which, through its images, stories, and beliefs, through its works of art, its music, and its language, the culture of the West has no deeper meaning than the power that it served to perpetuate.

    In this way the whole idea of our inherited culture as an autonomous sphere of moral knowledge, and one that it requires learning, scholarship, and immersion to enhance and retain, is cast to the winds. The university, instead of transmitting culture, exists to deconstruct it, to remove its “aura,” and to leave the student, after four years of intellectual dissipation, with the view that anything goes and nothing matters.”

    http://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/04/the-end-of-the-university

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