Saturday, May 09, 2015

David Barton's Moralistic Bible in America

In my previous post, I wrote about David Barton's speech to the Texas Home School Coalition's annual conference held in Arlington. In that post, I argued that Mr. Barton's historical errors, though significant, were less serious than his doctrinal ones, and I suggested that his theological misunderstandings actually contributed to the historical. On Friday morning, May 8, he presented a workshop entitled "The Bible and America" that seemed to confirm those initial observations.

Given the subject, it is not surprising that Mr. Barton provided quotations from a large number of American Presidents and other noteworthy persons. He did not include this statement from Dwight D. Eisenhower shortly after his election as President in 1952:  "In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don't care what it is."

President Eisenhower's statement may be fairly unique for its undisguised lack of candor, but no one should imagine that he was the first or the last American politician to extol the importance of religion for opportunistic purposes. In addition, any Christian looking at statements by historical figures on the importance of the Bible need to consider the philosophies of those figures providing those statements. American civil religion has tended to view the Bible as a guide to moral conduct. Because almost everyone, both Christian and not, considers good moral conduct to be something of value, nearly everyone not openly antagonistic to the notion of religious practice will be glad to see the Bible applied in that way. Of course, that does not mean that those historical persons -- or modern ones, for that matter -- understand the inspiration or the importance of the Bible in the same way that Christians do.

Of course, I say.

Thus, it is significant that Mr. Barton frequently quotes people to make them sound like they share the concerns of modern evangelicals while failing to provide enough background to give the hearer a sufficient understanding of where that person is coming from. In this and all of his other presentations at the conference, Mr. Barton gave prominent attention to Dr. Benjamin Rush, who he described as among the most important, though lesser known, founding fathers. Mr. Barton suggests that Dr. Rush is not better known because his legacy included strong religious beliefs. Indeed, Benjamin Rush was an important figure in the history of the American Revolution, politics, medicine, psychiatry, and education. He was also a religious person who believed that religion was important in education and government for purposes of moral improvement. However, Mr. Barton does not convey that Rush did deviate in some points from historic orthodoxy. Benjamin Rush was a universalist in his faith who even wrote to John Adams that his religion was a mixture of orthodoxy and heterodoxy. While he did believe, like other universalists of his time, that some bad people might have to endure some amount of suffering in the afterlife as recompense for their moral failures, he believed ultimately in universal salvation. Understanding that gives a different conception of what Dr. Rush had in mind with regard to religious instruction. If Mr. Barton knew it, he did not let his audience in on it.

Yet, it is also unclear if Mr. Barton is concerned about this, as he seems quite comfortable with the notion that the Bible is more of a moral and political guide than a book about God's redemptive activity. Thus, he suggests that in five Bible verses one can make the case for free market capitalism, in spite of the fact that such a system is never really advocated in the Bible, certainly not for Old Testament Israel, which is the only nation for which we have significant material regarding its civil structure. To be clear, I believe that free market capitalism is a system that can be espoused by Christians; I just would not say that the Bible advocates it in the way Mr. Barton describes. Similarly, he claims that the Bible clearly sets forth seven potential forms of human government and that the founders chose republican government because it is the most favored in the Bible. Again, ancient Israel was not a republic, and while Christians can see the value in republican government and find it consistent with biblical understandings of human nature, to say it is advocated in Scripture is going much too far.

Nonetheless, Mr. Barton did not discern the impact of Benjamin Rush's universalism, and he similarly couldn't come to grips with Benjamin Franklin's deism. In spite of the fact that Mr. Franklin famously wrote of his rejection of the Gospel while listening admiringly to Whitfield, Mr. Barton, while admitting Mr. Franklin to be less religious than most of his peers (you don't say!), nonetheless contended that his famous speech before the constitutional convention calling the delegates to prayer proved the founder's orthodoxy.

Nonetheless, Mr. Barton gave the appearance of positively advocating the use of the Bible apart from its redemptive context. The speaker incorrectly stated that the Second Great Awakening lasted 77 years (most historians of the period would say that it peaked and began to die out in under 50 years), but he was accurate in his claim that many of the sermons of the period addressed practical, not spiritual issues. He explained this as a good thing. Thus, if modern preachers would mimic those of the Second Great Awakening, he said, their sermons would prominently address things such as the National Defense Authorization Bill. He saw this as the great need of modern pulpits. He further claimed that Bible verses clearly delineated the proper Christian response to political tactics regarding the fiscal cliff, progressive versus capitated taxation, and support of Israel. All of these involved significant misuse of biblical texts, but they are the sort of things he insisted that ministers should be discussing on a weekly basis.

Referring to himself as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Justice, Mr. Barton showed data suggesting that the dismissal of Bible programs from government schools caused a dramatic increase in crime (he didn't discuss any social, societal, and demographic changes occurring in this time period. Notably, Mr. Barton's graph ended in the mid 1990's and, thus, failed to show the drop in crime rates since that time. Such a shift both undermines his claim that ending Bible reading in school accounts for the increase in crime and supports the suggestion that demographics largely, though not entirely, account for both the growth and decline of crime rates.

The session closed with a citation from John Quincy Adams, who said that he had made a habit of annually reading the Bible in order to "advance my wisdom and virtue." Just as I was regretting that this seemed to describe Bible reading as nothing more than a program for self-improvement, Mr. Barton praised John Quincy Adams for saying he read the Bible "practically" and not "devotionally."

Is such non-redemptive reading of Scripture what home schooling parents have in mind for their children? One hopes not.

I will write tomorrow on Mr. Barton's next workshop on The Bible and Education.

UPDATE: Based on further reading, I have softened statements in the original post regarding Benjamin Rush's beliefs. While it is accurate to say that Rush was a universalist, it is also important to note that his beliefs generally -- for example, on matters such as the Trinity and the deity of Jesus Christ -- were more in line with historic orthodoxy than most in Jefferson's circle of friends. I have modified my earlier statements to reflect this.

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