David Barton and Orthodox Historiography

I was out of town, but this past month David Barton was featured in the New York Times and on the John Stewart show. Barton is a Christian Conservative author who preaches a Christian view of the past, corresponding to the Jewish history as it should have been, Artscroll approach. He is a revisionist of the first order. What is interesting for me is that lesser authors are arguing with him about how he distorts the truth and is not academic. But the better reviews know right for the start that he is no doing anything corresponding to academic research, so they ask: what is his religious appeal? How does he come up with his opinions? They treat him as object, nor subject.

This had me thinking about the Modern Orthodox types who criticize Artscroll history, as if it was all about comparative methodology. They tend not to treat the Yeshivish versions of the past as object for study or beneath critique.

The debate around Barton opens up questions of how the Evangelical or Orthodox determine who gets to give a homily or write narratives about the past. What is an expert, degrees, and qualifications to write a religious narrative that is not academic? Why are bad credentials seen as good? The Evangelicals have many similar cases of a teacher in an Evangelical school paskening American history, preachers and roshei yeshiva who fracture history, or an implicit providential exceptionalism, which confuses the theological mesorah with the secular activity of the historian.

Actual scholars don’t care or don’t debate the views of Evangelicals on the Founding Fathers, nor do Jewish academics care to even refute Roshei Yeshivah about their views of Maimonides, Rabbi SR Hirsch or the Holocaust. They don’t refute them they are not historical- there is no philology, no historical context, no application of social sciences. They consider the relgious stories as products, manufactured accounts for a specific audience.

This first review is from a trained Evangelical historian Paul Harvey who works on the role of religion in American history, but he feels David Barton does not deserve to be called a historian. And that it does not pay to refute him because his audience wont care.

I don’t question the necessity of pointing out Barton’s history of outright falsehoods, explaining the fallacies of his presentism (as in using a 1765 sermon or a 1792 congressional vote to show that the original intent of the founders was to oppose bailout and stimulus plans), and introducing to non-experts the abundant evidence calling his historical worldview of the Christian Founders into question. Yet while these kinds of refutations are necessary, they are not sufficient. That’s because Barton’s project is not fundamentally an historical one.

Barton v. the Historical Profession

That’s why historians’ takedown of his ahistorical approach ultimately won’t matter that much. Nor will historians’ explanations of his presentism, and his obvious and unapologetic ideological agenda (albeit considerably muted for his appearance on The Daily Show). While all the historians’ refutations are good and necessary, ultimately they won’t matter for the audience which exists in his alternate intellectual universe, one described in much greater detail in my colleague Randall Stephens’ forthcoming book The Anointed: Evangelical Experts in a Secular Age.

And it’s also why insinuations about his pedigree (a degree in education from Oral Roberts University) will only heighten his followers’ sense of the cultural elitism of his critics.

Ideas Packaged as Products

Some of that is because of the skill of Barton and his organization WallBuilders at ideological entrepreneurialism. Barton’s intent is not to produce “scholarship,” but to influence public policy. He simply is playing a different game than worrying about scholarly credibility, his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. His game is to inundate public policy makers (including local and state education boards as well as Congress) with ideas packaged as products that will move policy.
Historical scholarship moves slowly and carefully, usually shunning the public arena; Barton’s proof-texting, by contrast, supplies ready-made (if sometimes made-up) quotations ready for use in the latest public policy debate, whether they involve school prayer, abortion, the wonders of supply-side economics, the Defense of Marriage Act, or the capital gains tax.

Besides this sort of organizational skill and personal charisma, however, Barton’s success at withstanding the phalanx of professional critics comes because he taps into a long history of “Christian Nation” providentialism.

A Manufactured “Debate”

The issue, then, is not Christian conservatives advocating their views in the public square. The problem, rather, is their claim (at least in places such as The Daily Show or the New York Times) that their Providentialist beliefs and readings of documents from the past represent a kind of legitimate scholarship that should have its place in the public “debate.”

Aside from its remarkable influence on the writing of American textbooks, perhaps the biggest success of the Christian nationalist intellectual ideological universe is to insert points of controversy where there aren’t any in actuality.
But the presentation of the American certificates of birth—the “short form” of the Declaration of Independence, and the “long form” of the Constitution—will not quiet the Christian Nation “debate.”

I use the term “debate” in quotes because it is fraudulent. Even advocates of the viewpoint of the “godless Constitution” (such as historians Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore) fully understand the religious base of American history. They suggest simply (as Jon Stewart was trying to get at) that the framers rather deliberately excluded religion, not because they sought an exclusion of religion from the public square, but simply to avoid any special privileges for it at the federal level. Eventually, those views were incorporated into state laws through the 14th Amendment, through the pluralization of American life in the twentieth century, and through the epochal court cases of the 1940s through the 1970s.

The Christian Nation “debate” is not really an intellectual contest between legitimate contending viewpoints. Instead, it is a manufactured “controversy”
On one side are purveyors of a rich and complex view of the past, including most historians who have written and debated fiercely about the founding era. The “other side” is a group of ideological entrepreneurs who have created an alternate intellectual universe based on a historical fundamentalism. In their drive to create a usable past, they show little respect for the past as a foreign country.

This next historian points out how Evangelicals don’t know there are other positions out there and they frame everything as “secular academics” vs Evangelicals. They don’t realize that there could be an Orthodox historian.

But I think what prevents me from doing so is the fact that there are many people out there–mostly evangelical Christians–who embrace Barton’s ideas because they are unaware that any other Christian position on this Christian nation debate exists. I have seen this first hand as I have traveled to churches and taught Sunday School classes. There are a lot of people who can’t imagine that a fellow evangelical could disagree with Barton. When evangelicals learn that such a position exists some of them are open to change.

Here is a major Clearinghouse page of the reviews and reactions to Barton.

My final quote is from the Atlantic
, written by a former Maimo Student of mine, Yoni Applebaum. He points out Evangelicals read history the same way the read Bible, directly from the text and without a sense of historical distance. One reads an Eighteenth century documents without philology or context and as having a message for today. How do Orthodox accounts of the past allow carry over their techniques from the beis medrash? Applebaum says that it is not about credentials, method, or peer review.His critics are barking up the wrong tree. It works because it is part of the same process of Evangelical reading of scripture by opening the text and laying on one’s heart. What is the Yeshivish process of history as a phenomena of modern popular relgion?

Barton’s errors, exaggerations, and elisions have been exhaustively cataloged; no credible historian defends his work or his conclusions. And yet millions continue to find his message compelling. Why do they trust him?

Barton himself provides an answer on his organization’s website:

The heart of our educational work, and that which makes WallBuilders so unique, is our library of rare books. We have collected thousands of first-edition works of our Founding Fathers — including their own handwritten documents — and it is primarily in these original sources that we conduct our research.

This emphasis on primary sources is the cornerstone of Barton’s pitch. He explained to Jon Stewart that he is in the business of “historical reclamation,” adding that he has “about a hundred thousand documents from before 1812.” He took the Times reporter on a tour of his library, showing off his volumes and their yellowed pages. And he uses these documents to brush aside complaints that he lacks any formal academic training in history. “I don’t have a doctorate in that, no,” he told Stewart. “I’ve got a lot of documents … and what I got taught and what I’ve seen in the actual documents aren’t the same thing.”

Perhaps most crucially, Barton insists that the meanings of these texts should require no additional context.

Barton’s focus on returning to the original text, and his pointed disdain for the scholars whom he accuses of distorting its plain meaning, seems to resonate with his largely evangelical audience. There is a reason for this. It echoes the general doctrine of sola scriptura, the bedrock of the Reformation, that the text of the Bible alone contains the knowledge necessary for salvation. It draws on the tradition of prooftexting, using verses lifted from a larger text to buttress specific points. And in particular, it mirrors the notion of the perspicuity of Scripture — that its essential teachings are sufficiently clear that “not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.”

In other words, Barton frames historical texts in the manner that his audience is accustomed to encountering the other texts that it routinely studies. He discards the accreted mass of scholarly interpretations, just as Reformation preachers jettisoned the layers of scholastic traditions. He selects key passages for use as texts, and constructs his historical sermons around them. And, perhaps most crucially, he insists that the meanings of these texts should require no additional context; that they are readily evident to all who have eyes to see, and a mind to understand and discern. He proclaims a professoriate of all believers.

When his critics insist that he subject his work to peer review, or disparage his credentials and his logic, they only reinforce the strength of his appeal to his target audience.

5 responses to “David Barton and Orthodox Historiography

  1. Moshe Shoshan

    These questions are important not just for understanding Artscroll but for understanding the entire tradition of Jewish historical storytelling going back at least to Chazal.

    For me, one of the central questions in evaluating a figure like Barton is, does he believe his own story, is he a huckster in the grand american tradition or something in between?

  2. First, the compartmentalization and specialization of knowledge creates the vacuum that allows these views (along with anti-evolution and anti climate science fare) to take a foothold in the culture. Academics expect everyone to be acculturated to respect expertise because no one has the ability to evaluate every sphere of specialized knowledge.

    But without a theology positing that the autonomy of religious knowledge cuts both ways (both immune from empiricism and apart from it) the religious worldview still promotes the idea of having an all encompassing god-conscious view of the world in which there isn’t really room to throw up one’s hands and say OK, I’ll take their word for it, especially when their view is godless (which can easily get construed as anti-instead of non-religious).

  3. Applebaum’s idea is very interesting. Similarly it may be pointed out that unlike Evangelicals, Artscroll does not do a sola scriptura reading of the sources. It’s paraphrase, paraphrase, paraphrase and only the vaguest of citations and no bibliographies. Yet the whole feel of it is mesorah. “This is how R. Gedalyah Schorr gave over to us that it was like,” or “This is how R. Aharon Kotler understands the parsha.” and that’s supposed to trump precise readings of the sources.

    Although the text isn’t from Artscroll, when Lakewood Cheder retracted their promotional book My Uncle the Netziv they said, regarding what they felt was the true Netziv that it was not as in the book, but “as related to us by his revered talmidim, the ones who knew him best.” It’s not clear, to be sure, which of the Netziv’s revered talmidim related this to them in the 1980s. But

  4. Moshe Shoshan’s first remark is spot on, and I’d go even further (while disagreeing with his second point). You cite:

    On one side are purveyors of a rich and complex view of the past, including most historians who have written and debated fiercely about the founding era. The “other side” is a group of ideological entrepreneurs who have created an alternate intellectual universe based on a historical fundamentalism. In their drive to create a usable past, they show little respect for the past as a foreign country.

    The thing is, the rich and complex view of the past has a tendency of getting in the way of national narratives, and in fact often, through its attempt at being unbiased (which may really mean having a different bias – oy, postmodernism ;-)), actually precludes many kinds of value judgements. A simplified, perhaps even oversimplified account of history may fail to account for certain contradictions and other tensions, but it does so intentionally.

    Take for example Navi. Navi is not history. It contains history, but it isn’t history, it’s prophecy. In this debate, when I say it’s prophecy, I really want to emphasize that Navi is ideological. The book of Judges is not a full account of the history of the period, and is not nearly chronological. It is, instead, an ideological account meant to encourage people to see history through the ideological eyeglasses of the prophet. Its purpose is to argue that rather than make Joshua’s conquest a success by settling the land and finishing off the conquest, Israel has fallen to the greatest depths of Canaanite immorality, deeply intertwined with its idolatry. Nowadays, there are historians who challenge the common understanding of Canaan. My response? Sure, you can, and Tanakh chose not to, because it made an ideological value judgement, in line with the Divine revelation in the Torah; it takes a stand. Objective, academic historians would want to provide us with a fuller picture, whenever possible, and insofar as it relates to the purely historical, that’s fine, but it cannot and should not be seen as a source of values or ideology. (however, there are people who hold an ideology of turning amoral scientific research, whether in the exact sciences or in the humanities, into a set of values – that, too is an ideology, a set of meta-value judgements).

    Back to Barton, that kind of writing recognizes that in order to produce a useful narrative, history needs to be simplified and interpreted. We may not agree with his ideology, and a legitimate question to confront Barton with is what space does he leave, in a de facto multicultural nation, for competing narratives. Can there be room for mutual debate and recognition?

    Of course, given what I just wrote, the corollary is that those who use academic historians to produce a narrative, are also simplifying history, in a way that suits them.

  5. So, helicoptering up, are there any articles comparing/contrasting the doctrine of Original Intent (as implemented by Justice Scalia) with the doctrine of Halacha as a self-contained abstract system (as implemented by the RYBS acolytes)?

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