Sunday, May 21, 2017

TGC: "Christian History: How David Barton Is Doing It Wrong"

Check it out here. A taste:
To reiterate: our answers will only be as good as our questions, so it’s important that we come to this study with an open mind, seeking to ask the best questions so that we can arrive at answers that correspond with reality.

Here is some further recommended reading for those who are interested:
For religious biographies of the Founding Fathers, you could start with:
For introductory guides on how to do responsible history—that is, how not to do history like David Barton—you could start with
Finally, here is a sit-down conversation with historians Mark Noll and George Marsden—co-authors with Nathan Hatch of The Search for Christian America (1983; revised in 1989). After the video, I’ve added rough time-stamps for their dialogue.



Tom Van Dyke said...

I agree: Mr. Barton makes numerous errors and misrepresentations, but I wish his critics would use the same rigor they require of him, and quote him directly when they're rebutting him. His main thesis as stated at his website is quite modest and defensible:

Contrary to what critics imply, a Christian nation is not one in which all citizens are Christians, or the laws require everyone to adhere to Christian theology, or all leaders are Christians, or any other such superficial measurement.

As Supreme Court Justice David Brewer (1837-1910) explained:

[I]n what sense can [America] be called a Christian nation? Not in the sense that Christianity is the established religion or that the people are in any manner compelled to support it. On the contrary, the Constitution specifically provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Neither is it Christian in the sense that all its citizens are either in fact or name Christians. On the contrary, all religions have free scope within our borders. Numbers of our people profess other religions, and many reject all. Nor is it Christian in the sense that a profession of Christianity is a condition of holding office or otherwise engaging in public service, or essential to recognition either politically or socially. In fact, the government as a legal organization is independent of all religions. Nevertheless, we constantly speak of this republic as a Christian nation – in fact, as the leading Christian nation of the world. 1

So, if being a Christian nation is not based on any of the above criterion, then what makes America a Christian nation? According to Justice Brewer, America was “of all the nations in the world . . . most justly called a Christian nation” because Christianity “has so largely shaped and molded it.” 2

Lex Lata said...

Coincidentally enough, Barton is featured in what appears to be a fairly recent DVD, The Constitutional Christian. His unusual understanding of constitutional legal history (and of words such as "quoted" and "cited") would seem to have changed little over the years:

* * *

"One of the things I love to do,” Barton said, “is I will pull out a bunch of constitutional clauses and stick it up in front of pastors and say, ‘What do you see? Constitution? No, they’re all Bible verses.’ There are so many Bible verses quoted in the Constitution, cited in the Constitution, but today we don’t even recognize that because we don’t think about looking at the Constitution as something that has religious tones to it.”

* * *

Whether that's chicanery or a sort of apophenia born of wishful thinking, I couldn't say for certain. But it ain't scholarship. I suspect one could, if sufficiently motivated, find analogous chance parallels between bits of the Constitution and, say, Beowulf, the Aeneid, or the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I basically share your skepticism, but OTOH, Daniel Dreisbach argues explicitly that we 21-centurians know truly little of the Bible--just the Cliffs Notes, let's say--and therefore don't recognize plain echoes of the Bible in the Founding rhetoric when they're right in plain sight.

I know this to be true as regards "Christian political thought" be it Aquinas and the Scholastics or Calvin's successors, both of which predate the Enlightenment and the Founding.

Dreisbach's thesis, which I agree with, is not that Barton's reaches on this or that Bible verse are accurate, but that the "Founding generation" did take inspiration from the Hebrew Republic--that is, before kings Saul, David, Solomon, etc.---and did use the Bible not as a handbook but as a backstop.

Which means for instance, that worshiping the Golden Calf was democracy at work, eh? Not good.

Lex Lata said...

"Daniel Dreisbach argues explicitly that we 21-centurians know truly little of the Bible--just the Cliffs Notes, let's say--and therefore don't recognize plain echoes of the Bible in the Founding rhetoric when they're right in plain sight."

Sure, that's a far more restrained and supportable argument. Members of the founding generation made frank and obvious reference to the Bible in various contexts (although not so much in connection with the gritty, practical mechanics of the nascent federal government). It's probably inevitable that a number of scriptural allusions would be too obscure or indirect to grab the notice of the many modern readers for whom the Bible is like an automobile owner's manual--a book that everyone owns, but that hardly anyone reads cover-to-cover for comprehension.

I imagine that something similar could be said of the Greek and Roman classics that were fundamental elements of a typical 18th-century education, and that are all but ignored today. (Not counting the Percy Jackson franchise.)

Tom Van Dyke said...

Exactly. In fact I just ran across the article that alleges--for the first time I have seen--a direct or semi-direct between modern free market economics per Adam Smith with Catholic thought [St Albert the Great, Aquinas, the Scholastics of Salamanca] starting in the 1200s!

I suspect that few historians and even fewer economists have even the faintest idea what a salamanca even is.