Some Thoughts on Ben Shapiro’s David Barton Interview

It’s the season of patriotism in the United States. That means it is time for David Barton to emerge and try to convince us all that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.  Here is his recent interview with conservative pundit Ben Shapiro:

Some commentary:

2:15ff:  Barton describes the idea behind “Wallbuilders.” The core assumption is that America, like the temple walls in the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, needs to be rebuilt.  Barton believes that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, but the Judeo-Christian walls of America are crumbling.  It is time for renewal, restoration, and rebuilding.

Barton is not the only one who has used this “wallbuilders” metaphor.  In a 2016 inauguration sermon, court evangelical Robert Jeffress described Trump as a modern-day Nehemiah–a president tasked with rebuilding America in the wake of the Obama administration. Those who think Trump is a new King Cyrus also make an indirect appeal to the Nehemiah and the wall.  Cyrus was the Persian King who set the Israelites free from their captivity so that they could return to the promised land and rebuild.

3:00ff: Barton explains why he collects documents.  As he often does, he assumes that the original documents somehow contain magical power.  He believes that because he reads the original documents he has some special interpretive insight.  Barton seems to have no clue that many of the documents he owns are widely available at libraries, archives, and online.  In other words, you don’t need to own these books and documents in order to accurately interpret what they say.  It still surprises me that Barton has managed to deceive conservative evangelicals into believing that he has the historical authority to interpret the founding era because he owns copies of these works.

6:40ff:  Barton makes it sound as if he travels around the country speaking at colleges and law schools.  This is technically true, but most of these schools are Christian Right colleges, universities, and Bible colleges.  A few years ago, Barton published a list of the the only schools in the country that he deemed to be true to the teachings of the Bible.

8:15ff:  Barton breaks out a copy of the so-called Aitken Bible.  Here is what I wrote about that Bible in my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction: “In 1777 Congress explored the possibility of publishing an American edition of the Bible, but the idea was shelved due to the cost of publishing, the availability of the appropriate paper, and the pressing demands of war.  In Philadelphia, printer Robert Aitken went forward with the publication of his own American Bible.  Congress had turned down Aitken’s initial request for funds to support his Bible project, but it did give his new Bible an official endorsement.”  So Barton is technically correct here.

But something else is worth noting. Barton is a master at knocking down straw men.  After showing the Bible to Shapiro and noting that Congress recommended the Aitken Bible for schools, Barton says sarcastically, “wait a minute, I was told the founding fathers didn’t want religion in their schools at all, and you go, well then what do you do with this?” I say that Barton is attacking a straw man because I don’t know of any legitimate scholar of religion and the American founding who would argue that there were many founders who thought the Bible was a useful textbook in schools.

Barton’s understanding of the past is rooted in his originalism.  In other words, Barton believes that if the founders, men who lived in a very different time than our own, wanted religion in schools, then we should have religion in schools today.  Barton make a lot of factual errors about the past, but the deeper problem with his work is a failure to think historically.  This is why I often remind my readers and students that the past is a “foreign country” where they “do things differently.” Continuity between the past and the present is important, and should not be ignored, but in dealing with people like Barton the “pastness of the past” (to quote Gordon Wood) and the historical thinking concept of “change over time” is more important.

8:25ff:  Barton makes the claim that the ideas in the Declaration of Independence, including the belief that we “all men are created equal” and the notion that we “are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” came from Massachusetts pastor John Wise. (He is not alone here). Barton seems unaware of the fact that these ideals have long standing roots in British political philosophy dating back to at least the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Many of them, in fact, date back to the Magna Carta (1215).  This is the first time I have ever heard Barton invoke Wise in this way.

11:05ff:  Barton believes that the disestablishment clause of the First Amendment only applies to specific Protestant denominations.  He has been making this case for a long time.  On the other hand, Barton is correct when he talks about the religious and moral clauses in the Northwest Ordinance.

12:25ff:  Here Barton implies that he learned about the founders’s view on religion and morality after he “got a copy” of George Washington’s farewell address.  Again, this address has been widely published and is easily accessible.  One does not have to “get their hands” on the document in order to know what Washington said.  And yes, Barton is correct about Washington’s call for “religion and morality.”  Again, no scholar is going to argue with him here.  (See my straw man comment above).

15:00ff:  Barton’s take on Jefferson’s Danbury letter, and the way it was used by the Supreme Court in 1947, is pretty accurate.

19:00ff:  I am curious to know the identity of this “scholar at Notre Dame” who Barton is referencing here.  If this unnamed scholar is claiming, as Barton suggests he does, that all the Founding Fathers were deists, then the scholar is just adding fuel to Barton’s fire.  I have argued that the founders were quite diverse in their religious views, but few of them could be called deists.

20:00ff:  Barton continues to repeat the preposterous myth that 29 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence graduated from schools “that in their day were considered Bible schools or seminaries.”  To his credit, Barton has nuanced this claim a bit with the phrase “in their day.”  But he still makes it sound as if the founding fathers all attended Moody Bible Institute or Liberty University Divinity School.

20:50ff: These proclamations of prayer and fasting were indeed pretty common in early America. Barton is right about this.

24:15ff: Believe it or not, Barton thinks that we don’t pay enough attention to Jews, African Americans, and women in American history.  He says that our study of the American Revolution is “too white” and “too Protestant.”  Wait–when did David Barton get woke?

Actually, Barton makes it sound like he is the first person to call attention to Jews, African Americans and women in the Revolution.  He is completely unaware of the fact that scholars have been studying these topics for a long, long time.  Also notice that Barton interprets these identity groups in terms of their heroic behavior, but he fails to say anything about America’s long history of anti-Semitism, racism, slavery, and discrimination against women.  Barton seems incapable of seeing the moral complexity in American history.  This is what happens when you cherry-pick from the past for the purposes of using it to promote a political agenda in the present.

29:35ff:  Barton claims that Ben Franklin was a deist, but he eventually rejected deism because he came under the influence of George Whitefield’s preaching.  Not really. (See my chapter on Franklin’s religion in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? and in this collection). Franklin and Whitefield were friends, and they shared similar beliefs about public morality, but there is no evidence to suggest that Whitefield pulled Franklin out of deism and turned him into a “faith guy for the rest of his life.”  (I have argued that Franklin dabbled with deism early in his career, but never really embraced the movement in its purist form.  Nor did he ever become a Christian).

30:00ff: Barton makes the case that George Washington was a Christian.  Maybe.  But Barton here is still fighting with Paul Boller’s 1963 book George Washington and Religion.  I don’t know of any Washington scholars today who say Washington was a deist.  Yes, there many some secular pundits out there who make this claim, but Boller’s argument has been largely debunked.  (Although I would not go as far as Christian Right writer Peter Lillback who tried to turn him into something close to an evangelical Christian.  Again, I have a chapter on Washington in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?).

31:07ff:  Shapiro asked Barton about Thomas Jefferson.  Barton answers with most of the same talking points he first introduced in his book The Jefferson Lies. This book has been largely discredited by historians, including many evangelical historians.  (The book had so many historical problems that the conservative evangelical publisher Thomas Nelson pulled it from publication.  I covered this extensively here. I also call your attention to Michael Coulter’s and Warren Throckmorton’s Getting Jefferson Right.

42:00ff: Barton uses the Barbary Wars to suggest that Islam is incompatible with American values.  This is why the Trump evangelicals love David Barton.

49:00ff:  Barton claims that the founders believed that only Judeo-Christian values would sustain a healthy republic.  In other words, Barton argues that the founders did not think morality with roots in other sources could sustain a republic.  Some founders believed this, but others did not.

51:00ff:  Barton says he has 120,000 documents from the founding era.  Please get these documents into an archive!

52:00: Barton claims that the separation of powers come from Jeremiah 17:9.  He rejects the idea that the American view of separation of powers comes from Enlightenment writers.  For a more nuanced view on the Bible’s influence on the founders see Daniel Driesbach’s Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers.

55:25ff:  Barton cites Donald Lutz’s study of the founding.  This is a good study, but the findings can also be twisted for culture war purposes.  I write about Lutz’s work in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

57:45ff: Shapiro asks Barton how he deals with the fact that the Bible was used to justify slavery.  Barton invokes “original intent” here.  He claims that the Bible teaches liberty, not slavery. Note how Barton transitions from a historical argument to a theological argument as he answers Shapiro’s question. He defends the teaching of the Bible, claiming that if one considers its ideas in context one could not conclude that it endorses slavery.  I have some sympathy with this argument, but it also fails to treat the Bible as a product of the ancient world where slavery was generally accepted.

But what I find most interesting here is how Barton admits that the Bible was used for all kinds of things that we would consider immoral today.  If this is true, then why is he unable to point out the sins of the founders and the nation they created?  If we live in a sinful, broken world, wouldn’t we expect our nation to be a deeply flawed?  Why try to glorify the founders?  Why not embrace the complexity?  Because it all comes down to political power.  To tell an honest story about the founders would not fit very well with David Barton’s political agenda.

Click here to see all my blog posts about Barton.  I have been writing about this guy for a long time.

3 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Ben Shapiro’s David Barton Interview

  1. Actually, Congress didn’t recommend the Bible for schools. Aitken told Congress in his request for funds that his Bible would be a “neat Edition of the Holy Scriptures for the use of schools” but Congress never used that language. Barton has always framed Aitken’s words to Congress and tried to make them seem as if they come from Congress.

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  2. I can think of two aspects of the question.
    The historical question of the intent of the people doing the founding. But that was going on over a long period of time up and down the east coast by people from different Christian backgrounds. Even if it’s just examined over the course of time from the Declaration of Independence to the ratification of the Constitution many people are involved and it was a diverse bunch.

    Then there is the question of what exactly God’s purposes were. Can we believe we have the insight to know he had a plan for this nation that is of the most critical and significant importance? Most of what people I know say positively on that is based on evidence that consists of people saying what they believed God was doing. It’s not like we have divine revelation of the counsels of God from 1607-1789, volumes 1-17.

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