David Bartonism and the myth of pastoral omniscience


WORLD Magazine reports that Thomas Nelson decided to pull David Barton's book on the Founding Fathers.

The Thomas Nelson publishing company has decided to cease publication and distribution of David Barton's controversial book, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You've Always Believed about Thomas Jefferson, saying it has "lost confidence in the book's details." (See "The David Barton controversy," Aug. 8.)

Casey Francis Harrell, Thomas Nelson's director of corporate communications, told me the publishing house "was contacted by a number of people expressing concerns about [The Jefferson Lies]." The company began to evaluate the criticisms, Harrell said, and "in the course of our review learned that there were some historical details included in the book that were not adequately supported. Because of these deficiencies we decided that it was in the best interest of our readers to stop the publication and distribution."

Why am I not surprised that a conservative pastor with just a B.A. degree wrote a book with questionable historical accuracy? Because conservative evangelicals, and many of their pastors, believe this: since pastors are competent, and may have expertise, at preaching and teaching the Bible they have the skill, expertise, and competence to authoritatively speak on any issue.

Thomas Sowell describes this phenomenon when speaking about the arrogance of intellectuals and why they are often so wrong:

How have intellectuals managed to be so wrong, so often? By thinking that because they are knowledgeable -- or even expert -- within some narrow band out of the vast spectrum of human concerns, that makes them wise guides to the masses and to the rulers of the nation. But the ignorance of Ph.D.s is still ignorance and high-IQ groupthink is still groupthink, which is the antithesis of real thinking.

Thomas Sowell wrote a book, Intellectuals and Society, to expand on this idea. With Bartonism I'm beginning to wonder if we need a book titled, "Pastors and Society" or "Religious Leaders and Society." Conservative Protestants, even in the Reformed circles with its teaching on vocation and calling, seem too eager to blindly rely on pastors to teach about issues and in areas about which they have no training, expertise, nor competence. Why does this happen?

Is it conservative Protestant anti-intellectualism that encourages people to read about American history written by pastors as opposed to actual historians? For example, why would readers consider Barton credible to write about American history in the first place? Why would readers assume that a pastor (like Doug Wilson, for example) would be credible to write about the history of the South in books that are self-published books? As a counter example, when Peter Lillback was a pastor writing about George Washington he was writing as someone with a Ph.D. in historical theology.

There are Christian scholars, trained and credentialed, in history, mathematics, economics, sociology, psychology, education, the arts, business, literature, the sciences, medicine, philosophy, political science, agriculture, and so on. Why, then, are pastors expected to teach and reflect on these disciplines instead of those whom God has equipped? I'm not sure what the answer is but conservative Protestantism would be better served by taking advantage of the gifts, talents, and resources of the rest of God's people--that is, the ones He has positioned to be experts in their callings and vocations. Maybe more pastors simply need to be encouraged to "stay in their lane."

In the end, Sowell's reminder still holds for winsome pastors who are smart, teach right doctrine, can properly articulate the gospel, and are beloved within a particular tribe: "ignorance of Ph.D.s is still ignorance and high-IQ groupthink is still groupthink, which is the antithesis of real thinking."

What do you think contributes to the phenomena where pastors are encouraged to speak authoritatively about things which they have no training or expertise and the phenomena where conservative Protestants (even Calvinists) find this acceptable?


I dunno. Was Foxes Book of Martyrs written by a PhD. historian?

Also, I think what a reader reading a pastorally written history is something different from that desired by someone who picks up a historian-written history.

Also, you get into a sticky question when the issue isn't pastors vs historians but pastors vs political figures in general. The bible says a great deal about wisdom and prudence, law, justice, and the organization of society. Do we want to start saying "why do pastors think they have expertise to speak on matters of justice?"

And thats where pastor-historians usually weigh in: was there justice in the past? Who was just and unjust? How did that justice or injustice lead to particular consequences. That presumably is an area of pastoral expertise.

Barton seems to be off on some other tangent, but it is also true that the POLITICAL forces of the modern world are generally hostile to seeing religious influences in the american founding (Northwest Ordinance is one that gets ignore, IMHO, but seems significant. I learned about that one from a PHD polisci prof at UPENN BTW)

"Why would readers assume that someone like Doug Wilson would be credible on explaining the history of the South by writing self-published books? "

Because he got Eugene Genovese to give it a good review?

Is there any overlap between Sowell on American slavery and Wilson?

I found this quote that seems to errily echo Wilson's viewpoint

�Clearly, the ability to score ideological points against American society or Western civilization, or to induce guilt and thereby extract benefits from the white population today, are greatly enhanced by making enslavement appear to be a peculiarly American, or a peculiarly white, crime.�

Sorry about the grammatical stuff earlier today. I clicked "publish" prematurely:(.

Pduggie, I usually don't respond to people who don't have the conviction (some might call it "courage") to post comments using real names but I'm making an exception here. You must not know much about Foxes' education or how the education system functioned in 16th-century England or you wouldn't have given that as an example. Your comparison is worse than apples and oranges. It's more like apples and dump trucks.

Yes, we should ask those questions about pastors, especially if they have no expertise in matters of justice they are addressing. They are no omnicompetent on apply the Bibles to areas of culture. Yes, some of them get it dead wrong. The Bible addresses lots of issues but it does NOT mean that pastors are the only ones who are good at applying the Bible to them. It sounds like you're Roman Catholic an expecting the Vatican to render a pastoral perspective of particular issues (if you're Catholic then I understand your objection).

Buying a book on the basis on one endorsement seems silly to me. Putting value Genovese would be silly in light of reading "Slavery As It Was." Also, it means that people are ignorant of Genovese's agenda shift in 1990s. Pre-1990s Genovese would not have endorsed the self-published book by Wilson.

Sure there's overlap on that particular point between the three. So what? That doesn't make the self-published book not hagiographic.

Sowell's essay The Real History of Slavery (the origin of your quote) is contained in the same volume as the essay Black Rednecks, White Liberals, where Sowell discusses the habits of those "virtuous" Southern whites: laziness, sexual promiscuity, brawling, drunkenness, etc. Just as slavery existed all over the world throughout human history, slavery was just one of many, many systemic vices in southern culture.

I wish that this post was not spot on (D.B. is a friend of hubby), but it is.

Susan Wise Bauer on FB:

"I see Mr. Barton has labelled his detractors as "academic elitists." He'd probably label me one as well, but I can tell you this: I didn't learn how to construct a historical argument in undergrad classes. I was taught how to document properly 1) in grad school and 2) by hard-headed, smart folks at W. W. Norton. Mr. Barton has only a bachelor's degree and has been self-published up until now."

We're back to Narcissus again.

You have to remember that when he gazes upon his reflection, he beholds beauty like no other, and the scope of his vision is not limited to his physical presence alone. No, he sees the greatest intellect ever visited upon mankind. We are fortunate -- nay, blessed -- to enjoy the yammerings of his imagination. When he writes, it's wholly inspired, and when he speaks, it's an oracle. To be sure, when he speaks from the throne, it's ex cathedra.

I think there are two main reasons why people in more conservative circles give Barton credibility he doesn't deserve:
1) Their pastors (and other radio/news personalities they respect) continually deride academic historians and their products as unreliable and agenda-pushing as a rule. If a historian is not vocally Christian, they aren't worth listening to since someone who isn't following God isn't a reliable arbiter of truth. Conservative Christians, on the other hand--and especially pastors, are reliable and trustworthy regardless of their background or credentials. (I think the protestant belief in the priesthood of the believer tend to bleed over, as well. If an individual is capable of reading and interpreting scripture on his own, then surely he is capable of reading non-inspired documents with a clear eye and interpreting them as well. This is not a criticism of the doctrine of individual priesthood, but rather a criticism of its misapplication and an illogical conclusion drawn from it.)
2) Someone like Barton tells them what they want to hear about the rose-colored past we are supposed to preserve/to which we ought to philosophically return.

To Renee:

I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment. Too many Christians dismiss secular academics on the grounds that they are unreliable. Are there excesses in academia? Of course! But that does not justify throwing out all the very good research being done.

To Anthony/Julia:

Maybe I'm speaking defensively as someone who only has a BA (would love to go back for more but my current situation doesn't make that seem plausible anytime soon), but I do think there is room for people who are not "academics" in the strict sense of the term to participate and even write good historical accounts (there have been plenty of great books of history written by non-experts - see the recently departed Robert Hughes' "The Farthest Shore" for an excellent example). The problem is that Christians like Barton have abandoned any sense of scholarship or method. I agree with the SWB quote that such rigor often comes from grad work, but I don't think it necessarily needs to come from that experience.

Also, Anthony, there's a book I've been meaning to recommend in view of your recent posts on the need for non-pastors to speak with authority about culture. It's called "The Four Cultures of the West" by John W. O'Malley. In it he posits four basic "cultures" that have been present throughout Western history. The first is the prophetic (which makes sweeping pronouncements of change), which would categorize most current pastors, I think. The second is the academic, which seeks to understand and dissect societal structures. The third is the civic, which hopes to shape society through education, rhetoric, and politics. And the fourth is the aesthetic, which is self explanatory. An interesting read, and worth your time, I think.

Also, I think a real trend within the academy towards intense specialization has not helped its image in the eyes of Christians. Historians who specialize in the ultra-specific, with no regard for the bigger picture, come across as peddlers of useless information. While there is a value in this detailed research, I do think a number of academics display a real myopia. Of course, it is not the job of a pastor to correct these historians - we need thinking Christians who are engaging in intellectual history to tie all these disparate threads together. Thankfully, it seems as if the tide of historical emphasis might be slowly shifting back in favor of intellectual history; see this excellent article by Eric Miller - http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/webexclusives/2012/april/questintellectual.html

A few things:

1. I think the specialization trend you allude to (a necessary one, but one which inevitably involves tradeoffs) contributes to the overall problem of figures of all ideological stripes failing to recognize when they are in over their heads.

2. Non-experts can write helpful things, for sure, but they (we: I have only a bachelor's degree as well) must rely on the work of experts in doing so. They/we cannot expect to break new ground in fields where we have not been formally trained. I can tinker with my car on the weekends, but I can't write a credible book revolutionizing the way that people fix automobiles.

3. I realize my personal affection for DB probably clouds my view of this, but a large chunk of blame belongs on some editors who let it get this far in the first place.

Sorry. Name is Paul Duggan. I have courage to use my name, but don't want it harvested by random internet folks. So if that's a problem my apologies.

On Foxe, no I didn't know much about his educational background. So if he's a different category then I defer to your judgment on him as an historian.

I picked him because IIRC his writings seemed hagiographic to me to some degree, yet his book is widely respected in protestant circles (also IIRC; if there has been a disparagement of him of late, my bad).

I note this wikipedia quote on him though

"The author's credibility was challenged as soon as the book first appeared. Detractors accused Foxe of dealing falsely with the evidence, of misusing documents, and of telling partial truths. In every case that he could clarify, Foxe corrected errors in the second edition and third and fourth, final version (for him). In the early nineteenth century the charges were taken up again by a number of authors, most importantly Samuel Roffey Maitland.[42] Subsequently Foxe was considered a poor historian, in mainstream reference works. The 1911 Encyclop�dia Britannica accused Foxe of "wilful falsification of evidence"; two years later in the Catholic Encyclopedia, Francis Fortescue Urquhart wrote of the value of the documentary content and eyewitness reports, but claimed that Foxe "sometimes dishonestly mutilates his documents and is quite untrustworthy in his treatment of evidence"

I mentioned Genovese because I thought you might be actually uncertain of the answer to your question:

"Why would readers assume that a pastor (like Doug Wilson, for example) would be credible to write about the history of the South in books that are self-published books?"

I don't think anti-intellectualism is the sole reason here. Maybe not being trained academics themselves they might not know anything about Genovese's shifts, but its far more plausible that Wilson got Genovese's endorsement because he believed that his audience NEEDED some intellectual backing for his claims and would not be satisfied with "hey, a mere pastor has done some off the cuff thinking"

The answer could be, as your (now clearly rhetorical) questions indicate "evangelicals don't care about the intellect" (i.e. they are very stupid) or it could be the answer I proffered, which implies that evangelicals DO care about the intellect, but that there are limits to what a non-academic average evangelical can check out first.

In reality, it's more Wilson's opponents that have blown his pamphlet way out of proportion in terms of its influence. Wilson wasn't 'known' for this, as you yourself have made it clear in trying to get it more widely known. He was known for writing logic text, publishing homeschooling curricula, and writing on topics of family, politics, apologetics, and theology.

Maybe more pastors simply need to be encouraged to "stay in their lane."

There's one issue here: If Wilson self-published a book on the antebellum South that made a reasonable attempt to represent history accurately, then no one could fault him. However, if Wilson self-publishes a book on the antebellum South that declares slavery a biblical institution ordained by God, and that says the slaves led happy lives of simple pleasures, then the issue is much greater than a pastor who failed to stay in his lane.

To extend the metaphor, this is an armed driver masquerading as a pastor, and this nut has a bad case of road rage. Indeed, he no more belongs on the road than he does in the pulpit because, arguing from the lesser to the greater, if he cannot make accurate representations of American history, then he cannot be trusted to make accurate representations of biblical history or anything else biblical for that matter.

It's worse than this, however, because he based most of his crazy history off of a book that he completely misunderstood and completely misrepresented, after he plagiarized acres and acres of text from that book.

So the real issue is that Wilson cannot be trusted at all. Period. He stole the words of two historians and misrepresented those historians' position to support his own personal white-fantasy version of the South, which is about as bad as it gets.

"Stay in his lane" is too kind. This man should be removed from the road and horsewhipped mercilessly, like a disobedient slave, so that he may begin to understand that he's not qualified to teach anything and that human beings are not property.

So sorry, Dr. Bradley, the comment kept timing out and suddenly it posted all of them at once. Please delete accordingly.

Barton does have some good work at Wallbuilders though, see what he does have on Civil War for example. Shows Wilson work for the disgrace it was.

I see a large part of this problem being a general distrust of people who aren't distinctly Christian. And people who aren't pastors or see themselves as educated have a hard time making a distinction between a pastor with a bachelor's degree in bible and a historian or other expert with a Ph. D. They perhaps see both as smarter than they are in theological or biblical things and don't make any further distinctions. They also don't want to disagree with people they like.

Conservative evangelicals also tend to have a 'circle the wagons' mentality and see any criticism as persecution by liberals and secularists. Conservative evangelicals certainly aren't the only group of people that do this, but I think it contributes to this phenomenon.

Leave a comment

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Anthony Bradley published on August 10, 2012 11:53 AM.

No, we are not at war with our culture was the previous entry in this blog.

After 9 years here at Chattablogs, we're moving. . . is the next entry in this blog.


Executive Editor


Senior Contributor