The first weekend of May was supposed to belong to Osama bin Laden, and he was noticed, by those who monitor the fates of religions in media.
Amazingly, he had to share space and time with a figure self-described as a historian and other-described as “little-known.”
To star on The Daily Show on Wednesday night, May 4, and to make page one of The New York Times the next morning, May 5, are signs that Barton is now a “little-less-little-known” figure.
Whatever his qualifications and achievements, Barton has a huge following, publishes many books and many more articles, speaks publicly more than once a day, and has multi-followings in the multi-million ranks, and the religious right.
First, qualifications: I wish he were a distinguished professor at an Ivy League school. As things are, to mention that he has no training as an academic historian, is recognized and honored by no other workaday historians, and follows few canons of scholarship renders the critic suspect.
He and his followers dismiss those critics with “You’re jealous!” or ” Notice that he cries all the way to the bank” or “You’re protecting your professional cabal” or “Notice that he always quotes documents to support his views” or “You are prejudiced secularists and liberals!”
It is otherwise: Many of the main criticisms come from historians dubbed “evangelical,” who protest his ways and works.
Notice that self-identified “evangelicals” are not at the edges but in the center of the professional historian elite – among them, across the spectrum of non-secularists, Mark Noll, Joel Carpenter, Edith Blumhofer, George Marsden, Grant Wacker, Harry Stout and dozens more who deservedly all but dominate their caste as it covers religious history.
Find one who respects what Barton does to their field of work or through his methods. Ask them.
Some other critics use the word “fraud,” and more – with good reason – come up with terms like “distorter” or “ideologue.”
Barton’s cause: to show from 18th-century documents that the Founding Fathers determinedly and explicitly established a Christian state, which leaves all non-Christians as second-class citizens.
He and his “Wall Builders” institute cherry-pick lines from the documents and banner them or engrave them in public expressions. Barton & Co. get to pick the history texts for Texas etc., and thus push out of contention authors and publishers who, for all their flaws, are vocationally committed to fairness and, yes, truth-telling.
Can he really believe his distortions? I don’t call him a liar because, beyond his showmanship, he does believe some of this, having said it so often that it acquires an aura of factuality and the appeal of self-evident truth.
What would be the civil result if he’d succeed in gaining political success to establish or privilege Christianity in public life? To take faith out of the realm of “coercion” into “persuasion?”
James Madison said that doing so, given the record of such legal support through centuries in many places, would turn out “knaves, hypocrites and fools.” Let’s converse, not blast – and maybe produce a wise citizenry.
Madison would likely be glad, we’d all profit, and the non-established, unprivileged, other-religious or nonreligious would have the freedom for which those cherished Founders fought.
Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His column first appeared in Sightings.