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Historian Barry Hankins, in 2002, noted the following about popular Christian historian David Barton:

In Barton’s presentations, any statement uttered by a Founding Father that is positive toward religion is used to show that they were all Christians and that they all intended the United States to be Christian.

He makes little distinction between a statement supporting the basic moral program of Christianity, something even the unorthodox Jefferson could say, and one that would actually affirm the historic tents of the Christian faith that made it unique, such as the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ.

Hankins goes on to note that the historical claim of “American as a Christian nation” is rarely defined. Does this mean that America was:

  • demographically Christian, a notion that is hardly controversial;
  • legally Christian, a notion that is hard to support given that no founding document declares the nation such; or
  • actually redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ, a notion that evangelical theologians would find repugnant? . . .

Hankins concludes:

[Barton’s] methodology tends to incorporate source mining, the technique of scouring the record and culling out only that evidence that fits one’s argument.

In fairness to Barton, he has gotten better in recent years in not circulating as many bogus quotes, labeling some of them as “unconfirmed.” However, the source mining and the problematic historiography, where the evidence is forced to fit the predetermined thesis, continue. In 2012 Thomas Kidd covered the Barton controversy for World Magazine, as publisher Thomas Nelson pulled Barton’s book for historical inaccuracies.

When you read or hear someone like Barton (someone who does not have academic training in history but makes claims about what real historians cover up), here is a tip:

Always seek to identify the question being asked.

In other words, don’t just listen for the answer, but work hard to discern the actual question under discussion, whether assumed or explicitly identified.

So, if the question is, “Did the Founding Father employ religious language when describing the founding of the Republic?” then you can easily determine if the evidence answers that question (assuming the quotes are legitimate--several of Barton’s are not!).

But this is a very different question than one like: “Were the Founding Fathers orthodox Christians who lived in accordance with God’s Word, both theologically and ethically?” In that case, our criteria have to expand beyond the kind of language they used.

David Holmes, in The Faiths of Our Founding Fathers--summarized here by Joe Carter--suggests that we can look not only at things like their religious language, but also their beliefs, their activities (did they attend church regularly?), and their participation in church ordinances and sacrifices (did they baptize their children or partake of the Lord’s Supper?).

When such a study is made, the results might look something like this:

Screen Shot 2017-05-12 at 1.31.46 PM

My point in posting this is not to say that Holmes’s conclusions are definitive or cannot be challenged, but simply to show what a more sophisticated and careful analysis can look like. To reiterate: our answers will only be as good as our questions, so it’s important that we come to this study with an open mind, seeking to ask the best questions so that we can arrive at answers that correspond with reality.

Here is some further recommended reading for those who are interested:

For religious biographies of the Founding Fathers, you could start with:

For introductory guides on how to do responsible history--that is, how not to do history like David Barton--you could start with

Finally, here is a sit-down conversation with historians Mark Noll and George Marsden--co-authors with Nathan Hatch of The Search for Christian America (1983; revised in 1989). After the video, I’ve added rough time-stamps for their dialogue.

  • 1:20 What is the origin of the idea of "Christian America"?
  • 3:15 How did America come to be seen as having Israel's role in this understanding of American history?
  • 5:15  Are the founding documents religious?
  • 7:25  What can we say about the faith of the founding fathers?
  • 10:35 Why does a book like The Search for Christian America vastly undersell the Christian America books?
  • 13:15  What do Columbus's encounters with the Natives tell us?
  • 15:05  Where does the desire to make them more than they were come from?
  • 16:55 How do they treat the unsavory parts of American history?
  • 19:15  What kind of America would the defenders of a "Christian America" like to see now?
  • 20:55 Are there dangers in promoting America as a Christian nation?
  • 22:35 What would be a more unifying vision?
  • 23:50 Can you give examples of where this has worked?

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13 thoughts on “Christian History: How David Barton Is Doing It Wrong”

  1. Andrew says:

    Great stuff. Thanks Justin!

  2. Mark Kreslins says:

    I am SO glad TGC is discussing this problem in the Christian community. Thank you!

  3. The chart in your OP is wrong. First, it conflates Unitarians with Deists, which is misleading, because the former regard themselves as Christians, while the latter do not. Second, it has George Washington pegged all wrong. For a more accurate chart, see the following article which I wrote back in 2013:

  4. Doug W says:

    We can be like Peter In our telling of history, in that we deny an obvious connection with Christ, a connection seen clearly by others. It is obvious to anyone familiar with our colonial history that we as colonies were explicitly Christian. Not that every individual was committed to Christ – nieither was everyone in Israel –but there was a conscious acknowledgment of his Lordship by individuals and government as a whole. In Jefferson’s day your children could be taken from you by the State for teaching otherwise. This Christian consensus was only weakened after Independence, and then later through civil war and mass immigration.

  5. Nathan K Campbell says:

    Good article – but why 1) wasn’t this on the Facebook feed 2) there was no mention of Barton’s fake doctoral degree:

    “One more thing Taylor could have mentioned is Barton’s fraudulent doctorate degree. Back in late 2016, Barton blasted progressives for saying he didn’t have an earned degree. Then, when it was discovered that Barton’s earned degree came from a diploma mill, Barton went quiet. Not only does Barton do history wrong, he does academia wrong as well.”

  6. John Chester says:

    I deeply appreciate this. As a pastor of a church with several homeschool families, I am gravely concerned about the influence Barton & others like him have had on homeschool history curricula. I highly recommend that anyone about to begin homeschooling read Greg Frazer’s before selecting a curriculum that teaches American history.

  7. Scott Bashoor says:

    Two odd mistakes i caught in this helpful article. In the 4th paragraph, I think it’s supposed to read, “America as a Christian nation.” Lower in the article is mentioned the criterion of “their participation in church ordinances and sacrifices.” I suppose “sacraments” is meant instead of “sacrifices.”

  8. If you are going to write a hit piece on someone it is best not to quote someone who uses broad brush statements and in doing so misrepresents the very person he is criticizing. Barton in fact does not try to “show that they were all Christians”. What he does do is show that this country was founded on biblical principles. If you do not understand the difference then you will get all your criticism wrong every time.

    1. Tom Van Dyke says:

      I agree: Mr. Barton makes numerous errors and misrepresentations, but I wish his critics would use the same rigor they require of him, and quote him directly when they’re rebutting him. His main thesis as stated at his website is quite modest and defensible:

      Contrary to what critics imply, a Christian nation is not one in which all citizens are Christians, or the laws require everyone to adhere to Christian theology, or all leaders are Christians, or any other such superficial measurement.

      As Supreme Court Justice David Brewer (1837-1910) explained:

      [I]n what sense can [America] be called a Christian nation? Not in the sense that Christianity is the established religion or that the people are in any manner compelled to support it. On the contrary, the Constitution specifically provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Neither is it Christian in the sense that all its citizens are either in fact or name Christians. On the contrary, all religions have free scope within our borders. Numbers of our people profess other religions, and many reject all. Nor is it Christian in the sense that a profession of Christianity is a condition of holding office or otherwise engaging in public service, or essential to recognition either politically or socially. In fact, the government as a legal organization is independent of all religions. Nevertheless, we constantly speak of this republic as a Christian nation – in fact, as the leading Christian nation of the world. 1

      So, if being a Christian nation is not based on any of the above criterion, then what makes America a Christian nation? According to Justice Brewer, America was “of all the nations in the world . . . most justly called a Christian nation” because Christianity “has so largely shaped and molded it.” 2

  9. Emily F. says:

    Thank you! I have a history degree from a Christian college and we did things quite differently from Barton. Unfortunately, he is still popular in homeschool circles…

  10. Parson Rayphe says:

    David Barton is like the rest of us imperfect. However, this article / interview is so wrong that time and space do not allow addressing it all. People say that Barton says that America was, is and should be a “Christian nation” yet I have never heard him say that. He emphasizes the Christian influence in the founding of America and no objective person can rightfully deny that.

    1. Barton says that the Constitution quotes the Bible and was inspired by the Bible. One of his proofs is Article II which he says the framers of the Constitution derived from Deuteronomy. This is counterfactual and encourages Christians to argue nonsense.

      I applaud Taylor’s article and hope TGC will devote another post or two to Barton’s faulty history.

  11. Interesting how this ‘conversation’ devolves into a feeding frenzy of “I am more right than he and you…” Thank you N.C.

    Barton may have ‘conflated’ but the ‘academics’ et al seem to be having a lot of fun barbecuing him. And if I find this amusing, I can only imagine how the watching community feels.

    FACT: Many of the mainline and largest protestant denominations are losing more members that they are gaining.

    FACT: Most protestant denominations (Churches) are accepting or embracing non-biblical views and anti-biblical views as acceptable.

    FACT: About 40 percent of so-called Christians in America do not practice their faith nor do they believe in the traditional teachings of Christianity.

    And, Christian Academics argue over the cummin and dill.

    Well, roast ‘em and eat ‘em up folks, while the fires of Rome burn hot.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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