Faux history for the GOP

Republicans love David Barton and his new book, "The Jefferson Lies" -- even though it gets history wrong

Topics: American History, Religious Right,

Faux history for the GOP

Earlier this month, the evangelical writer David Barton’s new book, “The Jefferson Lies,” hit the New York Times bestseller list for hardcover nonfiction. Barton isn’t popular, however, only with the ordinary American reader. On May 8, John Boehner authorized the use of Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol for a religious service to commemorate the first inauguration of George Washington. Among the speakers was Barton, who is revered by social conservatives because he argues that the nation was founded primarily by evangelical Christians on explicitly Christian teachings.

Barton — “one of the most important men alive,” according to Glenn Beck — is frequently criticized as a pseudo-historian by progressives and academic historians for his claims about the Founders. He is now facing scrutiny, however, from evangelicals. After Barton’s speech in the Capitol, John Fea, chairman of the history department at evangelical Messiah College, accused Barton of “peddling falsehoods” about Washington, and asked, “Is it time to gather Christian historians together to sign some kind of formal statement condemning Barton’s brand of propaganda and hagiography?”

There is no question that Barton’s history lessons are important to the conservative wing of the GOP. Barton, who was named one of Time magazine’s top 25 most influential evangelicals in 2005, was also tapped by Tea Party Caucus chairwoman Michele Bachmann to teach classes on the Constitution to congressional members in 2010.

During the GOP presidential primary season, Barton was a central figure in the religious right’s effort to crown a religious conservative as the GOP front-runner. In 2011, at the Rediscovering God Conference in Iowa,  Mike Huckabee gushed:

I almost wish that there would be a simultaneous telecast and all Americans would be forced, forced at gunpoint no less, to listen to every David Barton message and I think our country would be better for it. I wish it’d happen.

In 2010, before Newt Gingrich decided to run for president, he appeared on David Barton’s Wallbuilder’s radio show, telling Barton:

And I can assure you that if we do decide to run next year, we’re promptly going to call you and say “we need your help, and we need your advice, and we need your counsel…If we decide to run, David, we’re going to need you.”

Most recently, speaking in Statuary Hall, Barton related a legend about George Washington’s prayer in the snow at Valley Forge. In the story, a British loyalist overheard Washington praying, went home to his wife and proclaimed that the revolutionaries will win the war because of Washington’s fervent prayers. According to historian Fea, Washington probably did pray for success, but the story of Isaac Potts stumbling upon Washington praying in the snow is a legend. In his book “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction,” Fea demonstrates that the facts don’t add up. For instance, Potts was probably not near Valley Forge at the time and he was not married at that time, meaning he could not have had a conversation with his wife about Washington’s prayer. Fea says this kind of revisionism is common, saying that “Barton continually tells stories of the past that are not true.”

Over the past year, I read some of Barton’s claims about history, checked them out, and found most of them to be problematic. Some of these claims have been restated in “The Jefferson Lies.” For example, Barton claims that Jefferson did not free his many slaves because of restrictions in Virginia law. Barton says Jefferson could not free them because by 1826, when Jefferson died, the law forbade such emancipations. This claim is quite misleading. In 1782, Virginia passed a law on manumission, which allowed the emancipation of slaves at any time, not just at death. In fact, many slaves were freed by other slave owners after this law passed. However, after this law passed, Jefferson sold some slaves for cash, instead of freeing them. Although legal provisions relating to emancipation were tightened a bit in 1785 and further in 1806, there was a 24-year window wherein Jefferson could have freed his slaves while he was alive.

In 1806, Virginia law was changed to require emancipated slaves to leave the state or face being resold into slavery. In fact, Jefferson favored deportation. He wrote in his autobiography, “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free. Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them. It is still in our power to direct the process of emancipation and deportation peaceably …” In “The Jefferson Lies,” Barton refers to the 1806 law but minimizes Jefferson’s views on deportation, and does not indicate that emancipation could have occurred before a master’s death.

One chapter in “The Jefferson Lies” deals with the so-called Jefferson Bible. The Jefferson Bible refers to Jefferson’s extraction of passages from the New Testament Gospels that he believed were really the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth, leaving aside what he believed was added by others. Jefferson said the work was like extracting diamonds from a dunghill. Jefferson made two such efforts, one in 1804 and the other sometime after 1820. In “The Jefferson Lies,” Barton tells readers that Jefferson included miracles of healing from Matthew chapters 9 and 11. However, a review of the table of texts used by Jefferson to construct his works reveals that he did not include the passages Barton claims.

While there are many false claims in “The Jefferson Lies,” another obvious historical molehill Barton makes into a mountain is Jefferson’s signature on shipping passports that are dated with the words, “in the year of our Lord Christ.” Common diplomatic language at the time, those actual words were required by treaties with European nations and included on preprinted forms. Barton says Jefferson chose to include that religious language into his presidential business. Not so. Jefferson, like Adams before him and several presidents after him had no choice because, as Jefferson once told Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin, “Sea-letters are the creatures of treaties.”

My co-author Michael Coulter and I have addressed these and other claims in our book, “Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims About Our Third President.” For an article that later became a part of that book, I wrote Barton and called Wallbuilders without response. In April, 2011, Barton declined to appear with me on a Christian radio program. According to Fea, this is not surprising. “When he is called out on these falsehoods by a respectable historian, even evangelical historians who for the most part share his faith, he refuses to admit to his errors.”

After years of being attacked by progressives, will Barton reexamine his claims due to friendly fire? With “The Jefferson Lies” hitting the New York Times list of bestsellers, it seems clear that being fast and loose with the facts sells well. All the more reason for people in the evangelical community to subject claims about the Founders to a renewed scrutiny.

Warren Throckmorton, PhD is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Grove City College (Pa.). He blogs regularly about religious and mental health issues at www.wthrockmorton.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>