And you shall find the light & the truth

By Razib Khan | August 12, 2012 10:57 am

John C. Calhoun – religious liberal

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.

MORE ABOUT: David Barton

Comments (11)

  1. syon

    ” and would probably have been shocked that the nation that they founded now has a Protestant minority.”

    Are Protestants currently in the minority in the USA?Wikipedia (Religion in the United States) still has Protestants in the majority:

    “The largest religion in the US is Christianity, practiced by the majority of the population (76% in 2008[6]). From those queried, roughly 51.3% of Americans are Protestants, 23.9% are Catholics, 1.7% are Mormons (the name commonly used to refer to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), and 1.7% of various other Christian denominations.[5][17] Christianity was introduced during the period of European colonization.”

  2. #1, survey was taken in 2007. i’ll be you $50 that it’s now below 50%. the ‘great erosion’ has continued, though not as strongly as in the 1990s.

  3. syon

    Razib:”#1, survey was taken in 2007. i’ll be you $50 that it’s now below 50%. the ‘great erosion’ has continued, though not as strongly as in the 1990s.”

    Good chance that you are correct. After all, the Protestant majority was low enough (51.3%) that even a small drop-off in the intervening years would be enough to move them from a small majority to a plurality. So, cautious man that I am, I won’t take that bet.

  4. syon

    RE: The reduction of American Protestants to minority status,

    This is an excellent illustration of epochocentric bias in action; an event that would have obsessed the American mind in 1812 receives scarcely any attention in the media. In contrast, the coming reduction of Whites to minority status in the USA is a topic of great contemporary interest, with both the multicultural left and the White nationalist right viewing the event as a kind of racial Armageddon*.

    *Of course, I am not asserting that multiculturalists and White nationalists have equal standing in elite circles; White nationalists are marginal figures at best, while multiculturalists are the standard-bearers of Western Society’s current dogma. Still, it is interesting how they mirror each other in attaching great importance to racial/ethnic demographics.

  5. Julian Penrod

    This might be removed and cause me not to be allowed to place comments here again. It’s already happened a number of times that daring to question the ineffable rightness of the blog hoilder has resulted in that. But there are a number of points to be made.
    Among them, Razib Khan’s reference to Thomas Jefferson as “a conventional white supremacist of his time”.
    It’s a politically toadying act these days to label someone a “white supremacist”, but just to toss it around sounds like craven doggerel. Jefferson owned slaves, but that doens’t make hinm a “white supremacist”. Romans owned slvaes, not all black, the Jews owned slaves, sub Saharan African tribes had slaves from other sub Saharan African tribes! Slavery was a politico-economic move, to provide cheap labor, and likely remove a potential source of soldiers from “the other side”. On the other hand, “white supremacy” is a reactionary system, more show than actual action. Jefferson did not have slaves “to show them that we’re superior”! It’s anti white displays, like terming a white necessarily a “supremacist” simply to cash in on anti white hatred, of which there is much, that makes many decide to turn supremacist.

  6. #5, i didn’t say anything about slavery in relation to jefferson. why do you bring it up so directly? the ‘white man’s republic’ was NOT reactionary, but a democratic innovation of jeffersonian democracy. don’t post anymore stupid comments imputing to me unsophisticated views which are held by suboids. i won’t ban you because i appreciate the correction on the other thread. but i won’t post anymore editorializing by you which is a take off on things i didn’t say.

  7. kirk

    I grew up around Christian Fundamentalist (not evangelicals) who scoffed at higher education and science while collecting Bartonian literature that had the whiff of higher education and science. By convention, these folks worship the Barton canon because they see it as dispatches from the enemy camp by a faith community spy. It turns out that everything they feared has come to pass. Modernists *are* coming to take their faithful ritual, empty it of content, and leave us with cultural artifacts of a spiritual Disneyland. There will always be cathedrals and minarets because the music is so good, they are the fine places to choose a mate, and we can raise children who have internalized cultural myth.

  8. From the Political Punnery factory:

    “Author David Barton’s most recent book, ‘The Jefferson Lies’, which sets out to correct the many lies and distortions spread about Thomas Jefferson by historians, teachers, and other people who aren’t lying, has been canceled and recalled by its publisher, due to the many lies and distortions spread by the book. Asked if his consistently inaccurate accounts of history and the fact that he’s not actually an historian will affect the Texas History textbook rewrites he consulted on, he responded, “No, those won’t be affected. If they were interested in an accurate history curriculum for their students, my resume would never have come up.””

  9. Julian Penrod

    There don’t seem to be any references anywhere to Jefferson using the phrase “white man’s republic”. It may be character assassination to credit that to him. Just thinking that whites are superior mentally to blacks is not “white supremacy”. A poluitical trick today is to apply accusations of hate and intoilerance to something rather than prove it wrong, toi get around the fact that you can’t prove it wrong. Criticize Israel for their treatment of the Palestinains and you’re called an anti-Semite. Point of that inner city public sachools have more “asministrators” than students and the post is a “no show” political giveaway to influential locals to cury favor and you’re called a “racist”. In fact, “white supremacy” is a reactionary movement born of anger and resentm,ent that, in fact, blacks aren’t castigated for hateful speech against whites, but a white just criticizing blacks gets the corporate controlled “news” media jumping on them.

  10. Just thinking that whites are superior mentally to blacks is not “white supremacy”.

    i agree. in fact, i have a long record of use terms like ‘white supremacy’ as descriptive terms without normative baggage. you don’t of course have to know that i am generally tolerant, and a promulgator, of a wide range of ‘politically incorrect’ views.

    re: white supremacy, the idea of an explicit (as oppose to implicit) white republic, with universal white male suffrage, comes out of the jeffersonian populist tradition. set against it are more ‘conservative’ aristocratic republic values, which may consider race, but also argue for the importance of education, wealth, etc. some conservative federalists as a thought experiment even suggested that one musn’t necessarily privilege a poor and uneducated white over a wealth and educated black. admittedly, there were few in this category in the early 19th century, but there were some. it was jeffersonian democrats who simultaneously pushed for the expansion of the franchise to all white men, irrespective of property, and, in many states explicitly revoked voting rights from non-white males. there are many things that the early democrats were, but ‘reactionary’ is not one. on the contrary, the ancien regime may have been color consciousness, but it was also skeptical of the new ‘aristocracy of the skin.’

    anyway, you’re banned for unhinged hectoring. anyone who wants to impute to me views which i don’t hold or intents i don’t intend can go ahead. i’ll just ban you (also, your comment may never show up, so perhaps you should just email me).

  11. Thomas Jefferson now blogs!
    Read his own words at
    Several times each week, he posts briefly on a variety of topics, including religion.
    Last week’s posts were:
    – What principles would guide your design?
    – Do newcomers have the same privileges as old-timers?
    – Should females be educated?
    This week’s are:
    – Does your head (reason) of heart (emotion) prevail?
    – Should the government subsidize anything? If so, what?


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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