Running Heads

From the editors of Cascade Books and Pickwick Publications at Wipf and Stock Publishers

The Politics of History

I read this morning that Thomas Nelson Publishers, recently acquired by HarperCollins, has decided to pull from distribution David Barton’s new bestselling book, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed about Thomas Jefferson. The publisher has evidently “lost confidence” in the book.

David Barton is the notorious founder of WallBuilders, an organization dedicated to “Presenting America’s forgotten history and heroes, with an emphasis on our moral, religious, and constitutional heritage.” I say “notorious,” because Barton’s work with WallBuilders has made him, on the one hand, a cause celebre among conservative culture warriors who want to “take back America” from the godless secularists who seek to plunge American into the darkest night of secular anarchy and nihilism, and, on the other, a lightening rod for the liberal culture warriors, godless or not, who see in Barton just the sort of theocratic dragon they love to slay.

Since the culture wars are, in my estimation, more about “saving America” from perceived mortal enemies than about genuine Christian discipleship, I’m not terribly interested in them. In fact, I find the investment that many self-avowed liberal and conservative Christians make in taking sides in the culture wars to be distracting from the great work of the faith that has been given to us to do. The “fight for the soul of America” is just not what following Jesus is about. I imagine Christians elsewhere in the world have to wonder why on earth American Christians have become so confused about nouns and adjectives—Are we fundamentally Christians who happen to be Americans, or Americans who happen to be Christians?

Of course, there’s a complex history to the contemporary confusion at the heart of American Christianity about the relationship between being a Christian and being an American. To greatly simplify, it has much to do with the history of modernity’s transformation of Western Christendom—the United States of America is in many ways the quintessential political expression of the philosophical and political transformations of Western Christendom wrought by the Enlightenment.

But this is to say that I actually agree with David Barton about one thing: history is political. There is, in my view, no politically neutral historiography. The sorts of people we are now—the sorts of political animals we are—will always shape the way we do the work of history. The idea that the telling of history can and should be done from an apolitical position of neutrality is actually deeply embedded within the very particular politics and presumptions of Enlightenment modernity, and the political determinations of this perspective are all the more decisive for their disavowal by the historians shaped by them.

So if one believes, as I do, that there is a peculiar, peaceable politics to Christianity, then one ought to believe that it matters for how one does the serious work of history. The problem with David Barton’s work, then, is not that it is “politically motivated.” There can be no other kind of history, for we are political animals—always already embedded within politically shaped histories—and the desire for accuracy, fairness,  and “objectivity” in the telling of history is not politically neutral. There are, after all, political orders that could care less about such things. The problem with David Barton’s work is not that it is politically motivated but that it is politically odious; it is not only a betrayal of the patience that has been made possible by the One who ruled/rules through suffering servanthood, not anxious grasping; it is also a betrayal of the primacy of the kingdom of God over the kingdoms of this world. So driven is Barton to achieve certain sorts of contemporary political results—returning America to some mythical earlier Christian purity—that he’s committed to manufacturing the history that will, in his estimation, contribute to that result.

The good news in this story is that some conservative Christians who might otherwise sympathize with Barton’s faith commitments and even his political leanings are unwilling to sign off on the total merger of God and America. They’re committed to a more careful and patient telling of history, one not designed from the ground up to shift the power of American government in their preferred directions. I have no doubt Thomas Nelson’s decision to pull the book has to do with conservative Christian criticism of the book—with the work of those who crossed the lines of the culture war because of a greater loyalty to truth than tribe. I’m no conservative Christian, so I’m all the more grateful for the line-crossing.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the David Barton update. For posterity, bought a used copy of “The Myth of Separation.” Glancing over its graphics, found that Barton conflates correlation with causation on many socio-economic data elements related to far more complex public policy issues than he implies.

    “Blinded By Might, Why The Religious Right Can’t Save America” by Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson, is somewhat dated, from 1999 & 2000, but it’s from thoughtful insiders and a substantive classic.

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