I’ve been expressing my pessimism about the state of contemporary intellectual discourse, but it’s time to spotlight something which should make us optimistic. For years David Barton has been promulgating the falsehood that the Founding Fathers were nearly all evangelical Protestant Christians, and therefore this nation was founded as a Christian nation as understood by modern evangelical Protestants. Barton’s influence through the network of conservative evangelical churches is powerful. I’ve encountered people who repeat Barton-lite “facts” who no longer have any connection to conservative evangelical culture simply because that’s all they’ve ever been made aware of.
But it seems that Barton has finally gone a step too far. Conservative Christian historians have started to counter his fabulism, to the point where his publisher is now withdrawing his ironically titled book The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson. Such revisionism is just too bald for even the most sympathetic to Barton’s worldview. Jefferson was famously the Founder who produced a bowdlerized Bible, and presumed that the future of Christianity would be in a heretical Unitarian direction in his personal correspondence.
In many way’s David Barton’s “history” reminds me of the science fiction of Jules Verne. The works tell us more about the times and mores of Barton’s age and milieu than they do about the past. Barton’s work is aimed at refuting the assertions of “secular liberals,” in defense of conservative politics and Christianity. But these alignments are relatively new, and were totally unknown during the era of the American Founding. Thomas Jefferson was a conventional white supremacist of his time, but he was also a religious liberal and skeptic, as well as a political radical who supported the French Revolution. John C. Calhoun left the mainstream Presbyterianism of his youth for liberal Unitarianism after his sojourn at Yale, but he also matured into the Antebellum South’s most prominent political intellectual, defending the Southern way of life against the rising Northern political-industrial complex. In the North individuals with views aligned with modern evangelical Protestantism were often found in politically radical movements, such as abolitionism (e.g., the Tappan brothers). Mind you, these Christian abolitionists were allied with freethinkers such as William Lloyd Garrison. This is evidenced in the group which raided Harper’s Ferry. John Brown might have been a Calvinist of yore, but his contingent of radicals included freethinkers who were bound him by political and social beliefs, not God.
The flip side of this is that the modern understanding of church-state separation did evolve and develop organically over time, it is not something that was present in its current form at the Founding. Though Founders such as Jefferson and James Madison may have been out of sympathy with the Protestant orthodoxy, they were still cultural Protestants, and would probably have been shocked that the nation that they founded now has a Protestant minority. Or, that the Supreme Court has no Protestants. Nevertheless, the fact that the United States federal government had no established church was a very radical act of separationism in its time, and totally without precedent in Europe. Andrew Jackson, who was arguably the first orthodox Christian president of the United States, refused to set aside a day of prayer because of his belief in Jeffersonian church-state separationism. But the experiment seems to have worked. What we’ve seen over the past 200 years is nation after Western nation cleaving the connection between institutional religion and institutional governance. That is the ultimate lesson which David Barton wants to smother.