In 2005, David Barton was riding high. The Texas native had been serving as the state’s GOP co-chair for eight years, and he had just been asked by the Republican National Committee to liaise with social conservatives during the run-up to the 2006 elections. Meanwhile, the self-styled historian, who had founded his WallBuilders publishing organization in 1988, was pushing an ever-increasing amount of texts, amicus briefs, and books that sought to stamp an undeniably Christian slant on American history.
It all led to Barton being named one of the nation’s top evangelicals by Time — a fact, and a rise, made all the more remarkable by Barton’s lack of a historical background.
Now, however, Barton’s star seems to have dimmed. Thomas Nelson Publishers announced this month that it has ceased publication of The Jefferson Lies, Barton’s latest work.
Casey Francis Harrell, the director of corporate communications at the publishing firm, said that, due to a spate of recent complaints, Thomas Nelson had “lost confidence in the book’s details.” The Jefferson Lies, a New York Times bestseller, has been pulled from Thomas Nelson’s website, and the company has asked online retailers to cease offering the work to the public. The cessation came only two days after NPR’s “All Things Considered” ran a stinging commentary of Barton’s work.
Barton told Thomas Kidd of World Magazine that the publisher’s decision was a “strange scenario,” and that he’d only been notified of the move by email.
The book, which purports to illuminate Jefferson’s Christian leanings and the biblical influence on the Constitution’s creation, has been the subject of critique from much of academia since its release earlier this year, such that the History News Network deemed the book the “least credible book in print.” However, unlike many of Barton’s previous offerings, the averse reaction to The Jefferson Lies has crossed the political and religious spectrum.
The pushback culminated in the May publishing of Getting Jefferson Right, a rebuttal by a pair of professors from Grove City College, a Christian college located in western Pennsylvania.
“I was surprised when I’d heard Thomas Nelson pulled the book because publishers so rarely do that,” Dr. Michael Coulter, one of Getting Jefferson Right‘s co-authors, told TPM. “I think it was the right thing to do — there are too many problems to just pull and make some quick revisions. This one just has too many factual errors, too many interpretive problems in the book to do that.”
WallBuilders released a statement saying that Barton’s book “has already been picked up by a much larger national publisher and distributor,” but did not specify which publisher it had found.
Meanwhile, Rick Green, a spokesperson for the group, wrote a blog post comparing “elitist professors” to Hitler and Saul Alinsky.”[B]loggers and reporters who have so quickly jumped on the attack wagon … are exactly the ‘least intelligent’ Hitler was able to fool, Alinksy taught radicals to fool, and now even Christian ‘leaders’ are joining,” he wrote. Barton also re-Tweeted a piece in his defense by Scott Lively, an author best-known for writing The Pink Swastika, which blamed much of the Holocaust on gays.
The errors detailed in Coulter’s book, written alongside Dr. Warren Throckmorton, range from selective quotations on Jefferson’s views on civil rights to fallacies about Jefferson’s purportedly orthodox beliefs and consequent willingness to inject Christianity into the country’s earliest documents.
“Warren mentioned to me that he’d wanted to check out [The Jefferson Lies] when it was released to see which of Barton’s prior claims had made it in,” Coulter said. He noted that some of his students had studied Barton’s work while previously home-schooled. “Much of the portrait of Jefferson that Barton presented was built upon factual problems.”
And yet, as Kidd, an associate history professor at Baylor University, wrote in World, Throckmorton and Coulter were not the sole Christian and evangelical professors to find fault with Barton’s writings.
Among the most notable critics of Barton is Dr. Jay Richards, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and someone who’s spoken alongside Barton as recently as July. Richards noted that he’s grown uncomfortable with Barton’s work, citing “embarrassing factual errors, suspiciously selective quotes, and highly misleading claims.”
“There’s still division in the evangelical community about David Barton,” Kidd told TPM. “But what’s new is for someone like Richards to criticize him. That’s a new development, and I think it’s an important one.”
Kidd, of course, is right — division remains within the evangelical ranks. Prof. Matthew Staver, Vice President and Dean of Law at Liberty University — perhaps the lone professor who utilizes Barton’s work in the classroom — noted his marked displeasure with Thomas Nelson’s decision.
“This is a knee-jerk reaction, and, frankly, Thomas Nelson reacted prematurely, and I think it’ll hurt them in the future,” Staver told TPM. “Thomas Nelson did contact me for input on [Getting Jefferson Right], which was written by a psychology professor, Throckmorton, who’s not even a good psychologist. … I think Thomas Nelson has done a significant amount of damage to David, and they’ve done a disservice to him. I’ll never use Thomas Nelson as a publisher.”
Some of Barton’s most prominent backers, including Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, have remained mum on the matter, and it’s unclear whether Thomas Nelson’s decision will merely gird Barton’s supporters, rather than hurt his reputation. As it is, however, it seems unlikely that this will stem Barton’s historical revisionism.
“I could have made more money doing other writing projects,” Coulter said. “We just decided — as Christians, as scholars — that we needed to put together in one place the factual problems with Barton’s books. He’s gotta be more careful about the things he publishes. You’ve just gotta be more careful.”