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.

2 Comments

Filed under History and Memory

2 responses to “This isn’t the way to defend David Barton

  1. Good, solid commentary. I doubt if Rick Green is listening, though. Another case of someone being intentionally deaf to corrections.

  2. Tony Smith

    While I do not share any of your religious beliefs, I share your concern for accuracy and reason. Your argument is logical and does not once dip into the emotional or irrational. That indeed is the way to make a proper argument.

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