You might be tired of hearing about David Barton. I know I am. But how about just one more point? This morning, History News Network ran an essay of mine asking a new question about Barton. In the essay, I ask what might happen if Barton was defending the notion of a young earth, rather than the notion that Thomas Jefferson was a devout Christian.
Thanks to the History News Network for running that piece. Since I submitted to their editor, the Barton story has developed in ways that make me even more intrigued in the comparison between (some) conservative Christians’ views of history and creationists’ views of biology and geology.
In a piece that ran in the August 13 online edition of Glenn Beck’s Blaze newsletter, Barton defended his work. According to the Blaze article,
“Barton seemed anything but shaken by the controversy when he spoke via telephone with TheBlaze. He freely answered questions about the controversy and explained that he’s prepared to respond to some of the critiques, while dismissing what he believes is an ‘elevated level of hostility that’s not really rational in many ways.’
“While he stands by his central arguments about Jefferson, Barton isn’t pretending to be immune from error. The historian said that the book has already gone through three or four printings and that there have been word and text changes based on spelling or grammar errors along the way. Also, he addressed a willingness to amend historical items, should they be pointed out and proven wrong by other academics.”
What’s intriguing to me in this defense is the way it echoes the challenges posed by 1920s creationists. Note the phrase “other academics.” Barton here defends his position as one academic historian among others.
It has been a very long while since scientific creationists insisted that they were part of of the mainstream scientific establishment. As Ron Numbers described in his classic The Creationists, after the Scopes trial in 1925 leading creationist scientists still fought for creationism’s acceptance in mainstream science. But they quickly learned that such debates did not offer a real chance to convince mainstream scientists of creationism’s superiority. Seventh-day Adventist George McCready Price, for instance, left one debate in London shocked and demoralized by the reaction of the crowd. “Do not confine your reading wholly to one side,” Price pleaded in response to one scornful outburst from the audience. “How can you know anything about a certain subject if you read only one side of the case? There is plenty of evidence on the other side, and this evidence is gradually coming out.” After this debate, Price left the stage feeling humiliated, and he never engaged in another public debate. (Numbers, ed. Creation-Evolution Debates, pg. 186).
This does not mean, of course, that creationists gave up. No, it demonstrates that creationists moved in the 1920s, in fits and starts, away from fighting for acceptance by mainstream scientists. Instead, they built their own powerful institutions: schools, publishers, and research organizations. By 2012 no politician needs to retreat from creationist belief. Similarly, no creationist feels a need to prove his or her claims to an audience of mainstream scientists.
David Barton, on the other hand, is giving us what might be a new Scopes moment. Forced to endure the public humiliation of having his book withdrawn, Barton has taken a defiant posture. He has insisted, like Price in 1925, that readers do more than “read only one side of the case.” He continues to claim his credentials as one academic historian among others. I wonder if soon historians like Barton will embrace their outsider status. If so, as I argue in the History News Network piece, we might be seeing another sort of 1925.