A review of the videotape “America’s Godly Heritage,” by David Barton, distributed by Wall-Builders of Aledo, Texas.
In the comic strip “Sibling Revelry,” two children approach a historical marker that reads, “On this spot a small group of white European males took full credit for an event of historical importance. Although women and non-whites played no part in this event, their significance cannot be overlooked.” One child says, “History’s not what it used to be.” The other replies, “Maybe it never was.”
Telling history is not an objective activity. Rather than offering a simple chronicle of events, the historian seeks to interpret the events for his readers. Indeed, his preconceptions influence to a very large degree his choice of what events will be recognized in the historical narrative. Still, history must be distinguished from fiction. To say that the historian interprets events is not to say that he makes them up. The difference between good history and bad history is the quality of interpretation. In general, the interpretation that explains the greatest number of facts while requiring the fewest qualifications is to be preferred.
Occasionally some historian will reinterpret historical events in accordance with an ideological gridwork. Socialism or feminism or racism becomes the lens through which he views history. This interpretive slight-of-hand is called revisionism. Today, many revisionists are trying to downplay the importance of the Christian faith for understanding the founding of the United States. Religious people are right when they object to this, and to all secularist attempts to redefine American history wholly in economic or social categories. But too frequently, Christians respond by offering revisions of their own, revisions that may end up being no closer to the truth than secularist interpretations.
A case in point is David Barton’s so-called “Wall Builders.” Among its other offerings, Wall Builders has produced a videotape entitled “America’s Godly Heritage,” narrated by Barton. This tape has earned the distinction of receiving a direct response from the American Civil Liberties Union, a fact that has catapulted Barton into fame in some circles of the so-called Religious Right. For example, Concerned Women of America has listed him as a leading speaker.
The thesis of Barton’s tape is that America has a godly heritage. The bulk of the tape is taken up with examples of the conduct and thought of the founders which are intended to bolster this thesis. Most of the Christians I’ve interviewed after watching the tape thought that it was well researched and presented an open-and-shut case. So what’s the problem? I think there is really more than one.
This first difficulty lies with the thesis itself. “America has a godly heritage”—what is that supposed to mean? It is a vague statement that cries out for careful distinctions. Does a godly heritage differ in any respect from a religious heritage? Or from a Christian heritage? Does Barton mean that all the founders held orthodox beliefs and lived consistently Christian lives? Or does he merely mean that some of the founders held principles that were compatible with Christianity? Alternatively, does he mean that the founders’ intention was to establish a theocracy in which God’s Law and the law of the land would be identical? These are very different notions of what a godly heritage might involve. Depending upon what one means, America may or may not have a godly heritage. But Barton never clears up this fundamental vagueness.
That does not stop him from trotting out the factoids to prove his case. He opens with George Washington. Appealing to a mid-19th Century history book, he cites an instance during which he thinks Washington’s life was miraculously spared in battle. Then he wonders aloud why we don’t find more of these stories in modern history books.
The reason is simple. Washington (like Lincoln) was subjected to a significant transformation following his death. Much of the material published about him during the 19th Century was pure hagiography. Stories were made up about Washington to substantiate all sorts of moral points. Many of these stories found their way into the uncritical histories of the time.
Whether Mr. Barton’s story about Washington’s miraculous preservation is true or apocryphal, he has broken the first rule of a good historian; that is to cite credible witnesses. A 19th Century history text is both distant from the event and highly interpretive; not a credible witness. So the first shot out of Barton’s gun only serves to weaken his case. This is tragic, because Washington appears to have been a man of genuine (if not wholly orthodox) piety. Much could have been said (and Barton does say some of it) about Washington’s real religious views. But by juxtaposing the factual with the questionable, Barton makes it easy to dismiss the whole matter.
[George Whitefield] us’d indeed to pray for my conversion, but never had the satisfaction of believing that his prayers were heard.
-Benjamin Franklin (Autobiography)
Barton does even worse with other founders. He goes to great lengths and produces extensive quotation to demonstrate the devotion of Benjamin Franklin, completely overlooking the real Franklin in the process. Franklin was a master of the pious utterance. But his manner of life and his more candid writings reveal his dismissive attitude toward biblical Christianity. He thought that Christianity was fine for the poor, common man who needed it. Franklin did not hesitate to appeal to the sensibilities of the religious in their own language. But he did not think that Christianity was true, nor did he allow its moral code to restrict his own activities.
Barton objects repeatedly to those who say that the founders were deists. He is right that not all of them were. But deism did find a strong representation among them. Men like Ethan Allen and Thomas Paine were notorious for their outspoken deism. They lectured and wrote against orthodox Christianity. One listens in vain for Barton to acknowledge this fact. A second canon of good history is that it offers adequate explanations for contrary evidence; in Barton’s case, the contrary evidence is never even admitted.
Part of the problem may be that many people (perhaps Barton is among them) confuse deism with atheism. They are not the same thing. Deists believed strongly in a transcendent Creator. Many of them believed that God had revealed Himself; some of them even admitted that the Bible at its best might be a revelation. But they all held that special revelation was unnecessary and was inferior to human reason. They objected to accounts of miracles and discounted the immanent, providential activity of God.
Perhaps the most famous of the founders to be influenced by deism was Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was extremely private about his religious views. He found the campaigners like Paine to be distasteful. But there is little question that Jefferson was far from orthodox in his theology. His willingness to butcher the Bible into a compilation of acceptable excerpts should alert Christians to the fact that, however great this man may have been in other areas, he certainly was no friend of the God Who gave scripture. And the notion of a godly Jefferson does little to explain the presence of those tan babies at Monticello.
All this suggests that, even if some of the founders provided America with a godly heritage, others supplied at least the rudiments of an ungodly one. Barton’s account leaves no room for the tremendous intellectual and spiritual battles that were fought among the founders themselves. It supplies no rationale for the necessity of, not one, but two Great Awakenings during the decades of the late colonial period and the early republic.
At some points, Barton’s treatment becomes astonishing. He suggests, for instance, that though the founders had read the works of Locke and Montesquieu, the real reason for the three-fold Constitutional division of powers is to be found by reading Isaiah 33:22, “For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king: he will save us.” Barton’s suggestion not only presumes that the founders were inept interpreters of Scripture, but also completely ignores the effects of the struggle between federalist and republican thinking during the drafting of the Constitution. This is the sort of suggestion that just might provoke condescending smiles even in civilized company.
No license is required to write history. There is no certification that guarantees careful research or honest interpretation. Most of us experience a tendency to remember the past in such a way that it flatters us more than our opponents. Conservatives are not exempt from that tendency. Anybody can pick up a pen and fib about the past. The only checks upon historical ineptness and dishonesty are disciplined method, inward integrity and knowledgeable review. In fact, what Barton has produced is not history, not fact, not truth. It is propaganda, pure and simple.
That Barton could disseminate bad history is understandable. That Barton could become so popular is harder to explain. I think that only the inferiority complex of the Religious Right will account for his rise to fame. Why else would they permit themselves to be subjected to such hubris?
We shall give David Barton the benefit of the doubt. We shall presume that he is simply inept as a researcher and writer of history. But for those who know how to tell history from propaganda, the question that Wall-Builders raises is larger than historical integrity. Mr. Barton forces us to ask ourselves again whether a lie can ever be made to serve the truth. This question is not merely academic: not long ago a minister explained his endorsement of “America’s Godly Heritage” by observing that, even if Barton was less than accurate, he would rather have people believing Barton than believing the ACLU. For myself, I would rather have people believing the truth. If you share that preference, you will do what you can to keep Barton’s work out of the hands of your congregation.
Ben Franklin on Justification by Faith
A Man of Words and not of Deeds,
Is like a Garden full of Weeds.
‘Tis a pity that Good Works among some sorts of People are so little Valued, and Good Words admired in their stead; I mean seemingly Pious Discourses instead of Humane Benevolent Actions. These they almost put out of countenance, by calling Morality rotten Morality; Righteousness, ragged Righteousness and even filthy Rags; and when you mention Virtue, they pucker up their Noses as if they smelt a Stink; at the same time that they eagerly snuff up an empty canting Harangue, as if it was a Posie of the Choicest Flowers. So they have inverted the good old Verse, and say now
A Man of Deeds and not of Words
Is like a Garden full of——
I have forgot the Rhime, but remember ‘tis something the very Reverse of a Perfume.
—Letter to Jane Mecom
September 16, 1758
A Reply from WallBuilders
By Billy A. Suggs
I am happy to offer some comments on Bauder’s Ruminations. Bauder brings out some very pertinent points. Let’s dig deeper—point by point. Bauder says that “depending on what one means, America may or may not have a godly heritage.” I know of no credible historian who would deny that America has a “godly heritage.” Religion, the godly kind, played a tremendous role in early American society. One might argue, using differing standards, how Christian we were. But to deny our godly heritage using semantics is ridiculous.
He is also missing it on Washington’s miraculous experience. First of all, David’s point is that the story is even in a textbook. He is not trying to say that 19th Century textbooks should be our primary source. It is a real story, however. In the light of Washington’s letter, I do not think it is questionable at all.
Bauder is right about the 19th Century being full of hagiography. That is essentially what David is: a hagiographer, but there is no deception. He knows the Founders were not saints. He simply brings out the positive aspects of their lives. And he will tell you straight out, he is not looking to sit and offer critical analysis. David is a “popular historian.” His is not trying to produce materials for PBS or for college classrooms. He is trying to get the common man to look back at his roots with an eye toward that which is good.
Bauder states that “part of the problem may be that many people confuse deism with atheism.” This is not the problem. The problem is that when people place all of the Founders in the category of deists, as is generally done, they are normally implying that they were moral relativists and secularists. This is far from the truth. David counters this. Bauder doesn’t like how far he has gone with it, but that’s the way it goes.
It is fascinating to read and watch the various debates on the religious history of America. The conservatives use their heroes; the liberals use theirs. Personally, I use them all. Why? None of the Founders were secularists, not even Thomas Paine, arguably the most liberal of all. I have read absolutely no negative comments from the “founding fathers” concerning the role of religion—pure religion. Furthermore, I read none implying that morality was irrelevant to society. I use them all.
Bauder says that “Barton’s account leaves no room for the tremendous intellectual and spiritual battles that were fought among the founders themselves.” Again, that is not David’s goal; he leaves the ivory tower discussions to guys like us. What Bauder is asking for is a full semester of college-level historical analysis—if not a full dissertation. Yet he’s reviewing an hour long video geared toward people with extremely average academic skills.
“Mr. Barton forces us to ask ourselves again whether a lie can ever be made to serve the truth.” If Bauder is willing to point out any particular “lies” within David’s work, I would be more than happy to address them one by one. He has shown none. Yet he makes the claim that “what Barton has produced is not history, not fact, not truth. It is propaganda, pure and simple.” That’s a little strong. David’s work may be selective to the point that it offends Bauder, but in calling it “propaganda,” he presumes to know the intentions of a man.
Claiming to know the intentions of a man, however, is that standard approach of modern historical critics. Reread Bauder’s comments on Benjamin Franklin. “Franklin was a master of pious utterance.” David chooses to accept a man’s words at face value, even when they fail to live up the standards they proclaim. David accepts the hypocrisy that exists in all of humanity. Bauder’s approach is borderline psycho-babble.
Furthermore, his approach to Jefferson is skewed as well. “The notion of a godly Jefferson does little to explain the presence of those tan babies at Monticello.” Virginius Dabney in The Jefferson Scandals thoroughly refutes the “revisionist” attempt to assassinate the moral character of Thomas Jefferson. Critical historians amaze me with their analysis of the morals of our early leaders. In some cases, they put the modern tabloids to shame. There is a distinction between criticism and cynicism.
David’s work has stimulated debate. That’s the key: discussion. Bauder has his role as well, but we’re all in this together. David’s role is to offer ideas supporting the religious strength of the Founders, emphasizing the positive side of history; Bauder offers ideas on the religious weaknesses of the Founders, with a critical analysis of history. Both approaches are valuable. I pray for the day when the church can see both sides, and still be motivated and encouraged.
Let’s Stop the Gossip!
Dear Brother Bauder:
Within a week of the time your Barton evaluation was received, there was a secular documentary on Channel 11 here in Ames about history. The person was emphasizing the importance of accuracy in recording history. Jefferson was being attacked by his political opponents. He pointed out the subtle and totally unfounded accusations about Thomas Jefferson and the mother of some half-white children. Actually, I would not have been surprised to hear gossip from the secular historian, but coming from you it was disappointing.
I am sure your readers who have read Barton’s work, which is not perfect, saw the shallowness of some of the criticisms employed to characterize Jefferson and Barton. If you have concrete proof to support your allegation about Jefferson, let me know. If not, search your conscience to see if you need to run a Ruminations correction.
David Barton is trying to communicate some inspiring reviews of God’s work in the lives of some of the Founding Fathers. He sure didn’t paint Jefferson as you did. Error is always wrong, but in this day and age we have a great need for some inspiring reviews of God’s work in the lives of the Founding Fathers. Also, could we have the freedom and prosperity experienced in America without some miraculous intervention by God? Could such appear to some to be mythical? Regarding Washington’s safety in battle, is it possible that his mother was sensitive to the danger he was in and God chose to answer her prayers for his safety? I could say more, but if this doesn’t do a work in your heart there is no use going further.
David A. Norris
Hear Ye My Defense: A Rejoinder
By Kevin T. Bauder
Nothing makes a man more unpopular in the controversies of the present day than an insistence upon definition of terms. Anything, it seems, may be forgiven more readily than that. Men discourse very eloquently today upon such subjects as God, religion, Christianity, atonement, redemption, faith; but are greatly incensed when they are asked to tell in simple language what they mean by these terms. They do not like to have their flow of eloquence checked by so vulgar a thing as a definition.
—J. Gresham Machen
Let’s begin with this premise: no one can be called godly who is an enemy of God. I take this to be so basic as neither to require nor to admit defense. It is axiomatic that any rebel against God is ungodly. We should also be able to agree upon two additional premises. (1) Every one who despises the Son of God is an enemy of God. (2) Every one who hates the Word of God is an enemy of God. Jesus Christ is God incarnate, the beloved Son in Whom the Father is well pleased. God is so jealous of His Word that He has exalted it above His name. To reject either is to rebel against God Himself, and consequently to be ungody. While such a rebel might have a “form of godliness,” he is not a godly person.
Godliness and the Founders
Mr. Suggs uses the term godly in a vague way which revolves loosely around three negatives: (1) not being a moral relativist; (2) not being a secularist; (3) not making negative comments regarding “pure religion,” which appears to be distinct from Christian orthodoxy. I reply that a person may be moral and even religious, yet remain an enemy of God. By Mr. Suggs’ definition, the people who demanded the crucifixion of Jesus would be godly persons, but Jesus (who made some very negative comments about the non-secularist, non-relativist “pure religion” of the Pharisees) would not. This is not “using semantics”—it is just plain sense.
Do the Founders to whom Barton points in “American’s Godly Heritage” meet the standard of godliness? Franklin rejected the Son of God, as shown by his scorn for Whitefield’s preaching and his scatological mockery of justification by faith. Jefferson’s butchery of the Bible to fit his own pagan sentiments shows his rejection of the Word of God. These were not godly men by a Christian understanding of godliness. If it is true that America has some godly heritage, then it is also true that she has an ungodly one.
The Moral Connection
One wonders if such men should be listed even as examples of virtue. A closer look at Jefferson is of particular interest here. Both Mr. Suggs and Mr. Norris took offense at my observation that the notion of a godly Jefferson does little to explain the biracial babies at Monticello. Mr. Suggs refers us to Virginius Dabney’s fine volume, The Jefferson Scandals. Dabney wants to vindicate Jefferson from the charge of a liaison with his slave, Sally Hemings (a charge which I did not repeat, as a careful reading of my essay will make clear). But along the way, the following facts come to light.
- Jefferson, a man who claimed to oppose slavery on moral grounds, refused to free Sally Hemings as long as he lived.
- Hemings did bear a number of biracial children over a period of many years while a slave at Monticello. The white males who could have fathered those children are only three: Jefferson and his two nephews, the Carr brothers.
- Hemings told her children that they had been sired by Jefferson, and they in turn repeated the story to others.
- Jefferson carried on or attempted to carry on at least two other love affairs with married women. He was rebuffed in the first instance. In the second, while Dabney cannot prove that sexual intercourse occurred (adultery was not yet a spectator sport), he knows that Jefferson kept up the love affair over a process of months.
Thomas Jefferson was a great man in many ways. He was even a religious man. But he was also a man who could live in constant contact with practices which he knew to be immoral, and do nothing to stop them, even when he held the power to do so.
One sign of a careful mind is precision in the use of terms. This is not “using semantics”—it is simply part of mental acuity. Barton, Suggs & Co. have already failed this test: to the extent that they define godliness at all, they define it badly. But this instance is not unique.
For example, Mr. Suggs admits that Barton is a hagiographer, but insists that “he knows the Founders were not saints.” Now, a hagiography is precisely a “biography of saints or venerated persons.” To say that Barton is a hagiographer who knows that the Founders were not saints is a flat contradiction. Mr. Suggs also objects that the word propaganda is too strong to apply to Barton’s work. Consulting the dictionary, we learn that propaganda is “the spreading of ideas, information, or rumors for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person.” Mr. Suggs himself tells us that “David’s role is to offer ideas supporting the religious strength of the Founders, emphasizing the positive side of history.” This statement is quite similar to Norris’ observation that Barton is “trying to communicate some inspiring reviews of God’s work in the lives of some of the Founding Fathers.” So exactly how does this differ from what the dictionary calls propaganda?
One more thing. Mr. Suggs invites us to point to particular lies in Barton’s work. We never suggested that his work contained any lies—on the contrary, we pointedly extended Barton the benefit of the doubt. What Barton’s work contains are errors, half-truths, fallacies and distortions. Those of us who know the weakness of Barton’s claims, however, would be guilty of lies if we were to repeat them.
Do We Need a Dissertation?
Mr. Suggs seeks to justify the one-sidedness of Barton’s presentation by arguing that it is only “an hour long video geared toward people with extremely average academic skills.” In other words, Barton doesn’t have time to give a balanced presentation, and his target audience is too ignorant to understand it anyway!
The fewer critical skills a person possesses, the more he is forced to trust the historian’s judgment. This trust increases rather than diminishes the responsibility of the historian. When a competent historian knows that his audience is not in a good position to evaluate his claims, he must be especially careful to balance his presentation. Balance does not require great length. The principles for balancing a toothpick are no different than those for balancing a telephone pole. If Barton cannot offer a balanced treatment of his subject during the allotted time, then he needs to narrow his topic.
I appreciate the interest which Mr. Norris and Mr. Suggs have shown. It is always a compliment when someone takes you seriously enough to reply to you. I do not believe, however, that these men have offered convincing reasons for retreating from any part of my original evaluation. If anything, they have provided evidence that substantiates my claims. Nonetheless, I remain open to persuasion. Should any of them feel inclined to submit a surrejoinder, I offer to give them the last word on this subject.
Final Comments from Kevin Bauder
1. This exchange (published in Ruminations) originally occurred in 1994. Barton, Suggs and WallBuilders never took up the offer to let them have the last word. To this date, my critique remains unanswered.
2. The field of DNA matching has made considerable advances since 1994. Dr. Eugene Foster’s research indicates that neither of the Carr brothers (Jefferson’s nephews) can be the father of Sally Hemings’s children. The same research indicates a high degree of probability (ninety-nine percent or greater) that they share Jefferson’s bloodline.