Monday, October 1, 2012

Barton alternatives

I’ve been following the furor surrounding David Barton’s Thomas Jefferson book for several months now, mostly in a negative light. Today I’d like to take a slightly different approach, looking at how we can apply what Barton’s debacle teaches.

First, what is it that makes Barton so appealing? He focuses on Christianity’s influence on the American founding which has in fact been downplayed in many history texts. And as Christians, we like to hear that. As Breakpoint put it, “He gave us what we wanted.”

But the danger there is what I sometimes refer to as the Elijah complex. In 1 Kings 19, Elijah complains that he is the only faithful prophet left. However, there were over 100 faithful prophets left, and seven thousand others who were still faithful. Elijah had put too much stock on his own importance, and as such, had been led astray.

Likewise, too often Barton is seen as the only faithful historian out there. In a recent online discussion I was involved in, Barton was described by one of his defenders as “the most reliable voice of historical truth” and “one of the few voices for true history out there.” (Barton cultivates this reputation by poisoning the well with regards to any criticisms.)

But, like Elijah’s complaint, the presumption is wrong. There are other historians who pursue the same themes as Barton, and do so in a more accurate manner while still documenting the influence of Christianity on the founding. Barton is neither the sole voice nor the most accurate voice, and those with an interest in Christianity’s influence in the founding would be well served to look to other better sources.

Two that I have found helpful are John Fea and James Hutson.

Fea’s book, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, is an excellent introduction to the debate surrounding the founding. Unlike Barton, Fea does not set out to prove any agenda (indeed, he expressly declines to answer the question his book poses). Instead, he considers the evidence and leaves it up to the reader. As a professor of history at Messiah College, Fea has the credentials that Barton lacks (he is quite critical of Barton in several places).

What was especially helpful about Fea’s book was the broader context it presented. Unlike some others, he addressed several different eras in history. As he notes, the first issue regarding the founding is defining it: is it colonization, the Revolution and Declaration, the Constitutional era, or something later? Fea examines the influence of Christianity in each of these eras.

Finally, Fea also explores the individual faith of the prominent founders: orthodox (John Witherspoon, Samuel Adams, and John Jay) unorthodox (Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin) and unknown (George Washington).

It is also highly readable. I picked up a copy from the library with the intent to page through it. I ended up reading the entire thing. It is by no means an exhaustive look at any of these eras or individuals, nor is it intended to be. Rather, it serves as an introduction to and attempt to define the debate itself. (
Update: John Fea responded to this post.)

The second source is James Hutson’s Religion and the Founding of the American Republic. I was introduced to this book by Dr. Snyder, my history professor at PHC, who has also explored faith in the founding and is both sympathetic to Barton’s thesis and skeptical of his methods. (Snyder, I might add, has his own book on the subject, but I have not had the chance to explore it at this point. He has also blogged about some of the fake or misinterpreted quotes from the founders that frequently appear in evangelical circles.)

James Hutson is a professor of history at both Yale and William and Mary, and is also Chief of the Library's Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress. His book, which is more of a coffee table style book than a textbook, not only explores religious influence in the founding but also includes images of the original documents and artwork from the time. Hutson examines both the culture of religion and individual statements and actions of specific founders and influential pastors. He also, which is quite helpful from a contextual perspective, does not limit his topic to mainline Christianity. Instead, his purpose is broader, and he explores topics like camp meetings, Shakers and Quakers, as well as Mormonism.

Both of these book are excellent additions to a library for anyone interested in Barton’s subject matter but disillusioned with Barton. And they are not the only voices either: there are plenty of other authors that have documented this material. I only selected these two because I am familiar with them. Other recommendations are welcome in the comments.

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