At Religion Dispatches Paul Harvey reviews a new book that seeks to debunk the pseudo-scholarship of non-historian David Barton. The authors, he says, do a fine job of explaining the various ways in which Barton misleads his readers about Thomas Jefferson:
As the poster child for tendentiousness, Barton makes easy pickings for dispassionate truth-seekers like Throckmorton and Coulter. One by one, they consider, historicize, and debunk Barton’s claims: that Jefferson used federal funds to promote missions to the Indians, that he sought a theological professorship at the University of Virginia, that in only a very few of his letters did he attack basic Christian theological beliefs, that he believed not in a “wall of separation” of church and state but in a Republic that would actively promote Christianity, that his sexual morality was unimpeachable, that he didn’t really edit out the miraculous stories of the New Testament, that he founded the Virginia Bible Society, and on and on.
They find without fail that the claims fall into one of the following categories: 1) complete falsehoods (there are plenty of those); 2) misleading falsehoods (such as the story about wanting Christian imagery on the national seal—true, but on the other side of the seal, had Jefferson gotten his wish, would have been a pagan story); 3) true, but entirely irrelevant and ultimately misleading statements (such as signing documents with “the Year of our Lord,” which he did because pre-packaged treaty forms had that language, and had about as much meaning as signing “Dear” in our salutations in letters to complete strangers); 4) statements with a “kernel” of truth but blown so far out of proportion as to end up being false (such as Jefferson wanting federal funding for Indian missions, when in fact the titles of the bills simply took on the name of already existing religious societies); 5) baffling assertions that are so far out of the realm of reality as to be neither “true” nor “false,” but simply bizarre (such as Barton’s defense of Jefferson’s views on race, which were disturbingly ugly even by the standards of his era).
Alas, he argues, all the authors' work may be irrelevant given the larger context in which Barton is writing:
Thus, in a book ostensibly about Jefferson, Barton has in reality sketched out his case connecting liberalism of any sort with a rejection of Truth. His specific claims about Jefferson can be, and will be, debunked to death, probably nowhere more effectively than in Getting Jefferson Right, but the pseudo-philosophical worldview behind them, complete with Big Words such as “Poststructuralism or (gasp) “Academic Collectivism,” is the intellectual red meat that his sizable audiences show up to hear. And for that reason, when all the trees in his forest fall, his detractors yell “timber!,” and scholars analyze the reason for their crash to the ground, no one in his audience will be there to notice. They already know the Truth, and the Truth has set them free.