Thursday, December 31, 2009

David Barton's Interview In Dakota Voice

Davie Barton gives an interview in the Dakota Voice on America's "Christian Heritage."

Here's a taste:

We hear the common claim that most of America’s founders were not really Christians but were in fact deists. How many of the founders were actually deists?

You have to define the term. The dictionary definition of the term ”deist” in America’s first dictionary is radically different from what it is today. Really, none of them fit the term “deist” today. When you look it up today you’ll find that “agnostic” and “atheist” are synonyms for deist. At best, today’s definition of “deist” would be one who believed in the great clock-maker, and that he winded up that clock and took off, don’t pray because he’s not going to answer. Maybe Thomas Paine would fit that. Franklin would not; Franklin’s autobiography actually has hymns of praise to God for answering his prayers. Jefferson was very regular in prayer, but a deist is not going to pray because no one is going to hear them. In that sense you could probably put Thomas Paine, Charles Lee, Henry Dearborn, and maybe Ethan Allen.

So take 250 founding fathers, the 56 signers of the Declaration, the 55 that did the Constitution, take Washington’s 17 major generals, his 84 generals, take 13 states and their governors, and out of maybe 400 guys you could find maybe four or five.

Here's the problem: Perhaps Barton correctly identifies this very narrow strain of Deism that excludes even Jefferson and Franklin (note, some scholars argue for a broader understanding of "Deism"). The problem is he leaves the impression that 395/400 Founding Fathers were "Christians" in a way that he and his could embrace.

Nope. Sorry. 395/400 may have been "Christians" in a minimalistic way that Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses (conservatives) or Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey (liberal) could pass (identifying as "Christian," believing in Providence, something special about Jesus).

But huge numbers were not "Christians" in a way that Barton and his followers would find satisfactory. And indeed, Barton still refuses to define acceptable minimal standards for "Christian" in a 1) personal sense and 2) late 18th Century American historical sense. They are the ones guilty of refusing to distinguish between historical and personal understandings of "Christianity."

More from Barton:

I was involved in writing an academic book with three other professors. They said there is no question that America’s founders weren’t religious, because Thomas Jefferson started the first secular university, wouldn’t allow chaplains and such. But I said that’s interesting because I have here the original ads for the University of Virginia that ran in the newspaper. The ads were signed by the chaplain and there were about nine or ten specific things Thomas Jefferson did to make sure every student had a religious activity. These professors were shocked and said, “That’s not what we were taught.”

Barton co-writes an article on the UVA that's available on the Wallbuilders' website. I'm not even going to link to it (if you care enough you'll be able to find it) because I plan on dissecting it in a later post. It's typical distortionist Bartonism. Barton may be right that the secular left claim that the UVA was founded to be totally secular, isn't totally accurate. But, as usual, Barton replaces one misunderstanding with another.

Phillip Munoz in his latest book on the FFs & religion (look for a detailed review of that over the Winter Break as well) brilliantly captures the nuances of the UVA Founding. Bottom line: Jefferson indeed intended the University to be a secular-Enlightenment operation. But had to compromise with more conventional institutional sources. Again, more on that later.

More Barton:

What’s happened is that today’s professors are so much into peer review that they quote each other but nobody goes back and looks at the original documents. So it was really embarrassing to these three professors that I pulled out a single document, just a newspaper ad from 1838 or thereabouts and they were just floored. So I find that a lot are just ignorant, they don’t know any better.

Sorry, it's total bullshit (pardon my French) that trained historians just look at what one another say but don't go back and verify things in the primary sources. Perhaps Barton is venting because he is not a historian by profession, but a BA in Education and is not taken seriously by real historians.

On the other side you have professors like [Isaac] Kramnick and [R. Laurence] Moore out of Cornell who did the book called “The Godless Constitution.” Their position is that all the guys were atheists, agnostics and deists.

This is a flat out lie. The thesis of the book was that Art. VI, Cl. 3 symbolized a groundbreaking secular political theology. They recognized the FFs were a mixed bag, religiously, and many of them were indeed Christians, orthodoxly so.

In the back of the book I love what they say because in the back section where the footnotes are supposed to be, they have a single line that says,”We have dispensed with the usual scholarly apparatus of footnotes.” So you have two PhD’s who say, we’re not going to document anything we say. That’s pure, hard-core revisionism.

And quite frankly, it's a shame that Kramnick and Moore, two respected scholars whose water Barton isn't fit to carry, didn't conventionally footnote the book. They do however cite their sources inside the text of the book and there is not ONE example Barton and his allies can find of Kramnick and Moore just making things up or, as Barton has done, citing second hand sources from other academics that are "unconfirmed" in the primary sources.

As is normal for when historians argue over controversial subjects, what is most contentious about Kramnick and Moore's book is their INTERPRETATION (i.e., the "no religious test clause" represented a groundbreaking political expression of secular politics) of the record, NOT the veracity of the facts they cite.


King of Ireland said...

The Constitution was unique in that it did get away from establishment of religion and religious tests. But to use the "Godless Constitution" argument to say America was founded to be a strictly secularists society like many at Dispatches argue is just as bad an exaggeration. Same Big Tent efforts in 1887 as in 1776. Maybe some small changes in ideas but not much as from as what I have read.

Read what I said about you and Barton below under my post. I actually commend you. But I think more time should be spent on the debate I proposed down there that I think Tom and you have been having. In that arena not all of this matters.

bpabbott said...


I don't think it fair to equate the many at Dispatches with Barton. Its like comparing Barton's minions to Ed.

I mean no offese to Barton's follower's or Ed's minions intended ;-)