Enabling the Frauds

A colleague emailed me this morning to alert me to the cover story in the current American Bar Association Journal, which bemoans the sorry state of civics education in the U.S.  My email box also included my Monday issue of Sightings, Martin Marty’s e-newsletter from the University of Chicago Divinity School. Marty is perhaps the pre-eminent scholar of religion in this country; his message this morning highlighted one of the great frauds of our generation, David Barton.

Marty discussed Barton’s lack of both credentials and credibility, and noted sadly that efforts by legitimate historians would undoubtedly be met with assertions of “liberal bias,” despite the fact that a number of quite conservative Evangelical scholars have pointed out numerous flaws and outright fabrications in Barton’s “scholarship.”

“Notice that self-identified “evangelicals” are not at the edges but in the center of the professional historian elite—among them, across the spectrum of non-secularists,  Mark Noll, Joel Carpenter, Edith Blumhofer, George Marsden, Grant Wacker, Harry Stout, and dozens more who deservedly all but dominate their caste as it covers religious history. Find one who respects what Barton does to their field of work or through his methods. Ask them. Some other critics use the word “fraud” and more, with good reason, come up with terms like “distorter” or “ideologue.” Barton’s cause: to show from eighteenth-century documents that Founding Fathers determinedly and explicitly established a Christian state, which leaves all non-Christians as second-class citizens. He and his “Wall Builders” institute cherry-pick lines from the documents and banner them or engrave them in public expressions. Barton & Co. get to pick the history texts for Texas etc., and thus push out of contention authors and publishers who, for all their flaws, are vocationally committed to fairness and, yes, truth-telling.”

These two items are not unrelated. Civic ignorance enables frauds like Barton. It encourages those who are so inclined to choose their own version of history, their own reading of the Constitution, and to trot out their own “experts” to explain away inconvenient facts.

This ignorance is not limited to civics, of course. There’s a long tradition of “know-nothingness” in America. During the last Presidential election, a majority of Republican primary candidates reportedly didn’t believe in evolution. The current batch–from crazy Michelle Bachmann to grizzly-bear “laughing all the way to the bank” Sarah Palin, to “man on dog” Rick Santorum, et al–cite Barton as their “historian.”

When such astonishingly ignorant people are elevated to positions of prominence, it does not bode well for the American future.