Historian or fraud?

The Daily Show and The New York Times just discovered David Barton and both featured him last night on their respective sites, even though he has been on the conservative scene for at least 20 years or so.

A portion of the extended interviews from The Daily Show's Jon Stewart is posted to the right where he and Barton mostly talk past each other.

"I think there's real persecution of Christians. I think it happens in China, but I don't think it happens in this country," Stewart says. "The idea that Christianity as a religion is threatened in this country is ludicrous. As a Jew I can tell you, you have it made. You get presents for Christ's birth. When he dies, you get a basket of candy. You can't lose!"

You can watch the rest of Stewart's interview, but I want to focus more on The Times, which put Barton on its front page today. Next month, will we see a front-page profile on Pat Robertson or James Dobson? Barton's reach does not parallel Robertson or Dobson, but all three of them have been around for decades so the timing is a little strange. Here's how The Times describes Barton in a political context.

Mr. Barton is a self-taught historian who is described by several conservative presidential aspirants as a valued adviser and a source of historical and biblical justification for their policies. He is so popular that evangelical pastors travel across states to hear his rapid-fire presentations on how the United States was founded as a Christian nation and is on the road to ruin, thanks to secularists and the Supreme Court, or on the lost political power of the clergy.

Through two decades of prolific, if disputed, research and some 400 speeches a year on what he calls the forgotten Christian roots of America, Mr. Barton, 57, a former school principal and an ordained minister, has steadily built a reputation as a guiding spirit of the religious right.

The article's news hook is that Barton is sought out by Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann, feeling potentially reminiscent of the Jeremiah Wright/John Hagee coverage from 2012. Why not quote someone suggesting he is "a guiding spirit of the religious right"? Or perhaps the reporter could look at some evidence for his popularity. For instance, how do his books sell among other Christian books? Barton is not lauded in every circle, of course.

Many historians call his research fraud, but Mr. Barton’s influence appears to be greater than ever. Liberal organizations are raising the alarm over what they say are Mr. Barton’s dangerous distortions, including his claim that the nation’s founders never intended a high wall between church and state.

Accusing someone of fraud is pretty serious. Can we get more specifics? Who says this and what is the case? Why not quote someone who would suggest something like this? Is it just politically liberal organizations who have voiced concern over his research? For instance, I would love to hear what someone like Notre Dame historian Mark Noll thinks of Barton. The piece instead quotes from one other historian.

But many professional historians dismiss Mr. Barton, whose academic degree is in Christian education from Oral Roberts University, as a biased amateur who cherry-picks quotes from history and the Bible.

“The problem with David Barton is that there’s a lot of truth in what he says,” said Derek H. Davis, director of church-state studies at Baylor University, a Baptist institution in Waco, Tex. “But the end product is a lot of distortions, half-truths and twisted history.”

Quoting a Baylor University professor is an interesting choice because you might think a professor from a Baptist school might be more sympathetic to Barton, but the resulting quotes don't offer many specifics.

One of his most contested assertions is that the Supreme Court has misconstrued Thomas Jefferson’s statement that the First Amendment erected a “wall of separation between church and state.” According to Mr. Barton, Jefferson meant that government should not interfere with the public exercise of religion — not that public spaces should be purged of prayer. He also cites biblical passages that, he says, argue against deficit spending, graduated income taxes, the minimum wage and costly measures to fight global warming.

Were these the concerns that the Baylor professor called "distortions, half-truths and twisted history"? It's unclear if the two paragraphs are supposed to connect.

As a side note, I was a little surprised to find no mention of Glenn Beck, since Barton has been a lecturer for Beck's online university. In fact, I wonder if that's what has kept Barton on the radar screen nationally in the last few years. Otherwise, the profile probably could have run in 1988, 1998 or 2008.

The profile is not a hit piece or anything. It gives some biographical info and explains Barton's background pretty well. It's the context--the idea that his controversial ideas could be infiltrating the 2012 election--that confuses me. Instead the profile could have highlighted questions about what makes a historian, how historians view the whole church-state divide and how that has implications for the courts. It's not as sexy as continuing the election 2012 guessing game, but it might be more compelling.

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