Tag Archives: religion

This historian gig is messing with my culture war

David Barton recently responded to Gregg Frazer’s critique of his Jefferson book in WORLD Magazine:

Throckmorton’s original assault on my book managed to avoid its major points and instead criticize minor and even obscure facts, and this new attack by Frazer seems to suggest that this “debate” may become a never-ending discussion over less and less. With so many important cultural battles that desperately need our focused attention, it seems a misuse of time and energy to continue arguing over relatively inconsequential points with those who profess to hold the same common Christian values, so I will now resume my efforts attempting to beat back the secularist progressive movement that wrongly invokes Jefferson in their efforts to expunge any presence of faith from the public square.

I found this response interesting for two reasons. First, I think Barton is understating both the number and the seriousness of the issues his critics have raised. There comes a point where so many errors and misinterpretations accumulate that it’s not a matter of a few tiny nicks, but something more like the old Chinese punishment of death by a thousand cuts.

Second, what to make of Barton’s statement that defending his work against fellow believers is a misuse of time and energy?  Does this mean he’ll only be responding to “secularist” critiques from now on?  It almost comes across as a tacit admission that his historical writing is merely ammo for the culture war, and that he’s not really interested in teaching history for its own sake.

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Filed under American Revolution, Historiography

Bummer

Today is the anniversary of an event that is familiar to students of American religious history, one which has come to be called the “Great Disappointment.”

No, not that one.  I mean the Great Disappointment of 1844, in which, contrary to the expectations of thousands of Millerites, the world did not come to an end.  You’d think people who build their reputations on a painstaking study of Scripture would eventually get around to reading Matthew 24:36, but it’s one of the most widely ignored verses in the Bible, right up there with Matt. 5:44, Matt. 5:281 Cor. 6:7, and the last part of Leviticus 19:19.

On a different note, if you’d like information about a battlefield preservation opportunity, click here.

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Toil and trouble

In 1663 Connecticut authorities hanged Mary Barnes for witchcraft, and now her great-great-great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter wants her ancestor’s name cleared, along with those of ten other executed witches.  It must be a lot harder to live down a family scandal in Connecticut.  “Uh-oh, Mildred, here comes that woman whose seventh grandmother was hanged for being a witch.  I hope she doesn’t try to sit next to us.”

From The Witch of Salem, by Freeland A. Carter via Wikimedia Commons

This effort has attracted the attention of the Connecticut Wiccan & Pagan Network (suggested motto: “Loki is Our Homeboy”), which wants a proclamation from the governor.  They’re sending postcards—I’m not making this up—with the message, “I am a Pagan/Witch and I vote. Clear the names of Connecticut’s eleven accused and executed witches.”

I’m assuming the descendants of the condemned witches want their ancestors declared innocent.  If that’s the case, it doesn’t really seem helpful to have the witch/pagan lobby involved.  If the point is that grandma was executed for something she didn’t do, wouldn’t you want to keep people who affirm the okayness of what she was accused of doing from appropriating her as a symbol?

Oh, and if you’re thinking that Connecticut was still a colony when it was executing witches and the aggrieved parties should therefore take their case to the British Empire, the CWPN already tried applying to Queen Elizabeth II for a pardon.  Gotta admire their persistence.

(Hat tip to John Fea)

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Filed under Colonial America, History and Memory

This isn’t the way to defend David Barton

For what it’s worth, I’m an evangelical Christian whose political inclinations are not liberal. I mention this here because posts of this sort tend to prompt irate commenters to speculate about my convictions.  Now, on to business.

Rick Green, who does speaking engagements for WallBuilders, takes on David Barton’s critics on his site. I stumbled across his defense of Barton while browsing some religious history blogs, and there are a number of points he makes which I find problematic.

He begins by posing a question.

Question: What do elitist professors have in common with Adolf Hitler & Saul Alinsky?

Answer: They masterfully use the powerful art of innuendo to falsely defame those with which they disagree.

Definition of Innuendo: A derogatory hint or reference to a person or thing

For someone who has a problem with derogatory hints or references, Green is surprisingly ready to employ them in taking on Barton’s critics.  He’s just compared them to Hitler.

Furthermore, he doesn’t hesitate to impugn their motives, writing that Barton’s critics (“elitist professors,” as we are reminded a number of times) are motivated by jealousy, since “they write boring books that very few people read and they give boring lectures that are only attended by students forced to do so in order to get a grade,” and “they do not want to lose the power of being the keepers of the keys to history.”

Green also repeats a defense commonly used by Barton and his defenders, namely that Barton cites and quotes from original sources in his work.  That’s true, but it ignores the fact that what is often at issue in discussions of Barton’s work is his interpretation and contextualization of those sources.  That a scholar has used primary sources does not address the issue of how he has done so, which in the case of Barton’s work is often the very point being contested.  It is the proper use of the evidence, and not simply the presence of quotations or references, that distinguishes good scholarship from bad.

If we’re going to have a discussion about the quality of Barton’s work, then, the only way to go about doing so is to grapple with the work itself.  Green claims that Barton’s critics have failed to do this, that they “have not pointed out even one inaccuracy or false statement.”  I find this statement baffling, since many critics—including a number of evangelical Christians—have been taking issue with specific claims made by Barton for some time. (See, for example, here, here, and here.)  Indeed, entire books have been written in response to his work.

Even more puzzling is Green’s claim that “if you’re wondering why Thomas Nelson would pull the book, perhaps you should know that HarperCollins (secular publisher) recently purchased Thomas Nelson (Christian publisher). I wouldn’t have expected Deepak Chopra (New Age Atheist) and David Barton to remain under the same publisher for long.” This line of argument makes little sense. HarperCollins publishes books from a number of religious perspectives, including an explicitly Christian one.  In recent years Harper (sometimes through HarperOne, its religious imprint) has published Luke Timothy Johnson’s defense of traditional New Testament orthodoxy against the Jesus Seminar, works on spiritual formation by Christian philosopher Dallas Willard, and popular theological books by N.T. Wright.

And if it was Thomas Nelson’s acquisition by HarperCollins prompted the pulling of Barton’s book, why didn’t Nelson also pull their other books of an evangelical bent? After all, the bulk of Thomas Nelson’s catalogue consists of explicitly Christian and evangelical books by prominent believers and ministers such as John MacArthur, Max Lucado, Hank Hanegraaff, and Billy Graham.  If Thomas Nelson’s acquisition by a “secular publisher” made Barton’s book a problem, why are Billy Graham’s books still available through Thomas Nelson?

I think we should all be open to hearing a robust defense of Barton’s work based on the evidence at hand and the proper interpretation of it. What Green has offered us, alas, is not that defense.  Barton’s defenders need to stay focused on the historical claims Barton makes and whether or not he is able to substantiate them—and the same applies to his critics.

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Filed under History and Memory

You may be shocked to hear this, but

…David Barton managed to get a lot of things wrong in his new Thomas Jefferson book.

My favorite quote: “But to claim, as Mr. Barton does, that Jefferson was ‘unpretentious, living and acting as the common person for whom he had sacrificed so much’ lays it on a little thick.”  That’s a masterpiece of understatement.  When it came to matters of personal expenditures, Jefferson’s profligacy knew no bounds.

And then there’s the whole religion thing:

Jefferson’s religious beliefs are central to Mr. Barton’s thesis, in the service of which straw men are consumed in bonfires. No Jefferson scholar to my knowledge has ever concluded that Jefferson was an “atheist,” as Mr. Barton suggests. That Jefferson might have been what we would think of as a deist or even a Unitarian, as many historians believe, Mr. Barton also disputes. Jefferson was “pro-Christian and pro-Jesus,” he says, although he concedes that the president did have a few qualms about “specific Christian doctrines.” The doctrines Jefferson rejected—the divinity of Christ, the Resurrection, the Trinity—are what place him in the camp of the deists and Unitarians in the first place. It was Jefferson’s difficulty with these doctrines that persuaded his close friends Benjamin Rush and Joseph Priestley that Jefferson’s skepticism went beyond anything even these latitudinarian believers could endorse.

In other words, the “specific Christian doctrines” Jefferson doubted were the very doctrines that were specifically Christian.

Hat tip: American Creation.

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Kirk Cameron has found the “secret sauce” that made America great

It’s apparently made of seventeenth-century religious dissenters.

“I want to know the secret sauce,” he recently told MSNBC.  “Tell us what it is so we can move forward with it. What I discovered is the seeds that blossomed into this great nation really began with the faith of the Pilgrims.”

This is the subject of his upcoming movie Monumental, which hits theaters March 27.  It’s an appropriate title; judging by the trailer, it does have a lot of monuments in it.

If I’m not mistaken (someone correct me on this if I am), the particular monument highlighted near the end of that clip is the National Monument to the Forefathers, dedicated to the memory of the Pilgrims in 1889.  It’s also prominently featured in the film’s  poster.  You can see it just behind Cameron’s arm, the one in which he’s not clutching the American flag like it’s a piece of carry-on luggage.

Cameron’s opinion that you should look to the Pilgrims if you want to find the “secret sauce” that made the American character is a pretty common one.  Many Americans who dig down in search of the nation’s moral foundations stop once their shovels hit Plymouth Rock, assuming that there’s nothing else to excavate. This has always interested me, because when you think about it, the Pilgrims and the Puritans don’t sum up even the colonial experience, much less the entire history of early America.

I mean, why them?  They were neither the first settlers to set up shop in America nor the most typical ones (assuming there was such a thing as a “typical” group of colonists).  Why should we consider the Pilgrims normative, rather than the Jamestown colonists, the Dutch inhabitants of old New York, the Cavaliers of Virginia, the Germans of Pennsylvania, the Scotch-Irish settlers of the Carolina backcountry, the Irish immigrants of the mid-1800′s, the southern and eastern Europeans of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and so on?

Partly, I think, it’s because the Puritans left an extensive paper trail, and thus colonial historians wrote more about them.  But I suspect it’s also because the Pilgrim past is a more useable one for people who believe Americans have tumbled from some towering religious or moral height.  As I said some time ago, conservatism seems to me to be a philosophy that is fundamentally restorative—the goal is to return to the good old days when all was right with America.  In order to hold this belief, one must first assume that the good old days were indeed good.  To folks who want to build a more cohesive, moral, and purposeful nation, the Pilgrims are a pretty good model.  From this perspective, the Pilgrims were the essential ingredient in the creation of America.  It’s easy to forget that they weren’t the only game in town.  In fact, as Jack Greene argues in his book Pursuits of Happiness, New England was in many respects downright atypical when you look at to early American development as a whole.

For more on the Monument to the Forefathers and the selective nature of how we remember history, I recommend this 2008 post at American Creation.  I should note that personally, all snark and nitpicking aside, I like Kirk Cameron.  He’s maintained his integrity and decency while working in the entertainment business, and that’s worthy of admiration.  As for this film project, I think his heart is in the right place, but I’m guessing that both the American past and the American future are a little more complicated than he’d have us believe.

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Filed under Colonial America, History and Memory

The Baptist experience in the Civil War

If you’re in the Nashville area, you might want to stop by the headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention to see the new exhibit on Baptists and the Civil War.

While you’re on the premises, you might be tempted to talk to someone about getting me excommunicated.  Well, I’ve got news for you.  All our congregations are self-governing, so they can’t DO excommunications from headquarters!  MUHAHAHAHAAA!

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