The Barton Lies: The Religious Right’s Favorite ‘Historian’ Gets Hit with a Dose of the Truth

I’ve written in these pages before about David Barton, a Texas man who poses as a historian and is a hero to the religious right because of his work “proving” that separation of church and state is a myth and that the United States was founded as a “Christian nation.”

Barton’s “history” is revisionist claptrap. This isn’t surprising, as he lacks the appropriate academic credentials. (Barton holds a B.A. in Christian Education from Oral Roberts University.) Yet his books are incredibly popular among fundamentalists and, despite being totally unqualified, Barton actually helped rewrite social studies standards in Texas. In short, he is to history what the creationists are to biology.

Recently Barton struck again. He penned a book titled The Jefferson Lies, which attempts to prove that Thomas Jefferson was an orthodox Christian and not really a strong advocate of church-state separation. This monstrosity briefly appeared on The New York Times’ bestsellers list, and Barton even managed to get a coveted appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on May 1.

I’ve been debunking Barton since 1993 but to be honest, it has been frustrating—in part because I know my limitations. I love to read history but have felt a bit hamstrung because I’m not an academic. Neither is another prominent Barton critic, Chris Rodda, who authored the book Liars for Jesus. Rodda does great work, but it’s just too easy for some to dismiss her research (and mine) because it doesn’t come from the academy.

While it’s true that various historians and legal scholars have penned articles over the years taking Barton to task, I’ve longed for a book-length treatment dissecting his work. One has finally arrived, and Barton is not going to like what it has to say.

Two Grove City College professors holding doctorates have just released Getting Jefferson Right: Fact-Checking Claims About Our Third President. Here’s even better news: the authors—Warren Throckmorton, a psychology professor, and Michael Coulter, a humanities and political science professor—are both conservative Christians.

This isn’t surprising; Grove City is hardly a bastion of liberalism. The Pennsylvania college is a private Christian institution where, according to its website, the “ethical absolutes of the Ten Commandments and Christ’s moral teachings guide the effort to develop intellect and character in the classroom, chapel, and co-curricular activities.”

I finished the book in two days. It’s a hammer. Throckmorton and Coulter look at numerous pieces of disinformation spread by Barton and give the real story, usually backing up their claims with words from Jefferson’s own writings.

Let me give you just three examples of Barton’s “scholarship” vs. the truth as explained by Throckmorton and Coulter:

1) Barton claims that Jefferson helped found the Virginia Bible Society. It’s not true. Jefferson made a one-time contribution to the Society because a business associate asked him to. In reality, Jefferson wasn’t too keen on Bible societies, criticizing them in letters to friends for meddling in the religions of other countries.

2) Barton says Jefferson added the phrase “In the Year of Our Lord Christ” to official government documents. This is bogus. The documents referred to were called “sea letters,” a type of passport that enabled ships to move between nations. By the terms of a treaty with Holland that was ratified in 1782, Jefferson was obligated to use language on pre-printed forms provided by that nation. Officials in Holland added the “Lord Christ” language.

3) Barton says that while Jefferson was a state legislator in Virginia, he proposed a bill that would have punished anyone who worked on Sunday. Did Jefferson do this? No, he did not. Jefferson was part of a committee charged with the task of revising Virginia’s law after the American Revolution. Rather than start from scratch, the committee took 126 existing laws and revised some of them. The committee’s work actually liberalized the Sabbath law. They added a huge loophole allowing work done “in the ordinary household offices of daily necessity, or other work of necessity or charity.” The law that Barton sees as favoring Christianity actually liberalized a provision that had been much more stringent.

This is just a sampling of the errors corrected in Getting Jefferson Right. The book also debunks Barton’s bizarre claims that Jefferson—a man who rejected the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the divinity of Jesus and the resurrection—was an orthodox Christian.

As scholars Throckmorton and Coulter are too polite to call Barton a liar. But after reading their book, I could only conclude that Barton isn’t just misinterpreting history; he’s deliberately distorting it by cherry picking incidents, taking quotes out of context, and neglecting to tell the whole story—all to buttress his long-discredited “Christian nation” views.

Humanists might be interested in why two conservative Christians chose to write such a book. Their answer is refreshing: “The duty of Christians as scholars is first to get the facts correct. …  Engaging in scholarship as a Christian is not about who is on our team; it should have as an aim the uncovering the facts about a subject, whether it is a historical figure or a theory of social science, and following the data where they lead.”

You can learn more at Throckmorton and Coulter’s website: There you can download the book, which is a bargain at $4.99. For the price of a cup of fancy coffee at Starbucks you can get a book that utterly demolishes so many of the lies told by the religious right about our third president.

If Barton has any shame, he would disappear in the wake of Throckmorton and Coulter’s book. He won’t do that, of course, and millions of right-wing fundamentalists will continue to believe his version of “history” over the real thing. Still, thanks to Getting Jefferson Right, the truth will be out there for anyone who takes the time to look for it.