While the Jewish press was intimately involved in the events that led up to Jonah Lehrer’s latest book being pulled by its publisher, the people of the book have largely ignored other news on the retraction beat that broke last week – namely, that David Barton, a self-trained historian whose portrayal of America’s founding fathers as men motivated by Christian values has made him very popular among evangelicals, had his most recent book pulled by its publisher.
But while Lehrer-gate unfolded quickly – it was only a matter of weeks between the discovery of “self-plagiarism” and the uncovering of fabricated Bob Dylan quotes – the pulling of Barton’s book over concerns that it misrepresents basic historical facts about its subject, Thomas Jefferson, was decades in the making.
“The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson,” was published earlier this year by Christian publisher Thomas Nelson. Since then, many eminent historians have rejected some of Barton’s basic claims about Jefferson, including the claim that he was a “conventional Christian.”
In a recent NPR report, Barton also was quoted as saying that the slave-owning founding father was actually a “civil rights visionary.”
Company executives explained that they had lost confidence in the accuracy of Barton’s book. “There were historical details — matters of fact, not matters of opinion, that were not supported at all,” Thomas Nelson Senior Vice President and Publisher Brian Hampton told bloggers for NPR.
Barton is a favorite among evangelical Christians; he’s also been on the Jewish world’s radar for a long time, at least since 1994, when the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported that he had addressed two events in 1991 held by “Christian Identity” groups.
According to the ADL, Christian Identity is “a racist and anti-Semitic religious sect whose adherents believe that white people of European descent are the descendants of the ‘Lost Tribes,’ of ancient Israel.”
There’s no link between Barton and Christian Identity, according to Marilyn Mayo, the co-director of the ADL Center on Extremism, who said that Barton later told a reporter he did not know what kinds of groups he was addressing.
The basic subject of Barton’s talks in 1991—“He was advertised as a special speaker who would talk about America’s godly heritage,” Mayo said – seemed innocuous, although the flyer might have hinted at the more bigoted agenda of the audience. “Was it the plan of our forefathers that America be the melting pot home of various religions and philosophies?” Mayo said, quoting from the material promoting the Barton speech.
But, Mayo said, Barton is no anti-Semite; if anything, he’s a philo-Semite, in the way that American evangelical Christians are. Last year, Barton was a featured speaker at one of Glenn Beck’s rallies in Israel. Barton quoted from John Adams, praising Jews, saying, “I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation,”
But that’s not to say that there’s no reason for Jews to be concerned about Barton’s vision of America’s future – in which the country would be a Christian nation. And there’s good reason for everyone to take particular note of his claims about the American past.
“He clearly believes that separation of church and state wasn’t really the idea of the founding fathers,” Mayo said, and while that may not make Barton an anti-Semite, “it means that he believes that this country was founded on Christian precepts. That’s just not something that we agree with.”