Thursday, May 12, 2011

David Barton and Popular, Politicized History

Chris Beneke and Randall Stephens

This cross-posts comes from a blog entry that Chris Beneke and I wrote for Christian Century. I paste here a section of "The Daily Show's limits."

"Open conversation that leads to nothing."

That's how Jon Stewart summed up his interview with popular right-wing historian David Barton. He was right. After 30 minutes of glib back-and-forth with Barton (ten of which made it onto TV), Stewart was flummoxed, worn down, unfunny. [Click on the image to watch.)

As the air left the room, the conversation exposed the gaping ideological divide between Americans--and the challenges we face in bridging it.

Conservatives who go on the Daily Show usually end up looking the fool. But Stewart met his match in Barton, an ideological warrior revered by Glenn Beck and Mike Huckabee. Stewart's razor wit and trademark blue index cards were no match for Barton's prodigious memory and unwavering insistence that America's Christian founding has been erased by secular elites.

The show's staff probably thought Barton could be caricatured as a half-crazed ideologue, unconcerned with larger inconvenient truths. Perhaps they figured that a few well-chosen facts that don't fit his God-and-country narrative would render him speechless, that he would crumble under the relentless ironic jabs. But if it were just a matter of enumerating quotations and dates, members of Congress wouldn't be calling Barton to provide them with the founders' views on deficits, stem cell research and stimulus programs. Barton offers his listeners something much more alluring.

One thing we learned from Stewart's tête-à-tête with Barton is that anecdote-ridden claims can't be countered with more anecdotes. What Stewart never articulated was the essential function of history--using the preponderance of evidence to provide a credible context for understanding the past and the present. Barton presents himself as the high priest of founding texts and the arbiter of honest truth. He's not, of course. But it's going to take patient, gritty work to convince folks otherwise.

Barton's carefully crafted image as a just-the-facts historian is key to his success. He insists again and again that we should read our primary-source documents just as we should read the Bible: unmediated. Too many professional historians, he scoffs, simply cite each other and repeat liberal platitudes. read on>>>

1 comment:

dan allosso said...

The other post with the comments disappeared, so I'll reiterate: I think it's interesting Stewart miscalculated, and thought he could have a debate about historical truth, when the issue was really about relevance.

More on that and stuff like it at, which you're all invited to participate in, in whatever ways you wish to. --D