The Lesson from David Barton

Christian publishing house  Thomas Nelson has pulled David Barton’s book The Jefferson Lies from distribution. According to NPR:

“When the concerns came in, from multiple people, and that had weight too, we were trying to sort things out,” said Thomas Nelson Senior Vice President and Publisher Brian Hampton. “Were these matters of opinion? Were they differences of interpretation? But as we got into it, our conclusion was that the criticisms were correct. There were historical details — matters of fact, not matters of opinion, that were not supported at all.”

I’ve used Barton in the past as an example of why we academics  should get out more, should take seriously our roles as public intellectuals, providing a counterweight to self-styled “scholars” like Barton:

There is still a need for teachers, for leaders, for exemplars. And, if their space is not filled by people who are not themselves well trained and prepared, their roles will be taken on by demagogues and opportunists. David Barton, who founded WallBuilders, for example, bills himself as one whose “exhaustive research has rendered him an expert in historical and constitutional issues.” He claims his books are on “subjects being drawn largely from his massive library of tens of thousands of original writings from the Founding Era.” However, he shows no training at all in research or in effective utilization of a library… itself not a barrier to effective scholarship or writing, but something that should lead one to take a closer look at his methodology and purpose. (214)

Evidently, someone finally did, though it sure took long enough. The prime critics were scholars who are themselves Christian evangelicals like Barton, giving them additional weight in examining one of their own and, perhaps, the courage the rest of us lack. In general:

For reasons both good and bad, this sort of look at a researcher’s background has become suspicious over the last few years, with many feeling leery of exclusionary, elitist results. Though Barton is untrained, one cannot conclude that he is unskilled or that his conclusions are incorrect. (214)

Still, it shouldn’t have taken evangelicals to effectively ‘out’ Barton’s specious research and conclusions. Never should he have managed to gain the public platform that has been his for a number of years now. The prime secular voice speaking against Barton has been that of Chris Rodda, herself an academic outsider. That speaks ill of the academy.

While we cheer the fall of Barton, all of us who make claims to scholarship also need to think quite seriously about the resounding silence that has come from the universities concerning him.

2 thoughts on “The Lesson from David Barton

  1. Yes. I, too, wish facts mattered. They will only matter when we make them matter… they certainly don’t matter when we are intimidated, (even a little bit) by accusations of sniping, into allowing flagrant abuse of the facts.

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