Friday, May 08, 2015

David Barton's Religion: Moralism, Deism, and Pelagianism, oh My!

The Texas Home School Coalition held its annual Arlington meeting this week. In addition to a large exhibit hall which allows for vendors to shop their wares to motivated home school shoppers, the meeting includes a full docket of presentations and workshops during the three day affair. The stars of this year's event were the Duggar's of reality television fame. The second most nationally known act was provided by Wallbuilder's founder and president David Barton, who presented an opening night address and three workshops.

For those not in the know, Mr. Barton has been a popular, if controversial, figure in conservative Christian circles, and his claimed expertise and published materials on American historical and constitutional issues have made him popular on the home school circuit. That said, his published writings have sometimes taken positions with which no knowledgeable person can agree. Thus, his work on Thomas Jefferson, in which he claimed that the founding father was an orthodox Christian (Jefferson was actually a deist), ended up being withdrawn by its publisher, Thomas Nelson, after conservative Christian scholars joined others in debunking Mr. Barton's claims (two Christian college professors even published a volume refuting Mr. Barton's work). Rather than admit error, Mr. Barton has self-published the work.

Having known about this and other controversies, but not having read the works involved, this blogger decided it might be worthwhile to do a bit of gumshoe reporting by attending Mr. Barton's sessions. Given what I knew, I expected that I would disagree with his historical constructions, and he certainly made assertions that were factually incorrect and misconstrued. Nonetheless, it was surprising to me that his religious claims were far more objectionable than his historical ones.

This will be the first of four posts looking at Mr. Barton's four presentations at the conference. While some attention will be given to his historical, legal, and political claims, more attention will be given to his religious statements, which, in fact, are far more concerning with regard to his personal views and his influence within the home school movement.

Mr. Barton's Thursday evening address on "What Makes America Different" centered around "five immutable principles" found in the opening section of the Declaration of Independence. Things became interesting as he discussed his fourth principle, that there is a fixed moral law. The natural law doctrine summarized in the Declaration's reference to "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" has a long and reputable place in American jurisprudence. However, Mr. Barton's explanation of it can only be described as unorthodox and even bizarre.

The idea of natural law is normally rooted in the idea of a universal, or near universal, human conscience that agrees upon basic matters of justice and human rights. One looking to the Bible for a Christian justification of this notion might look to Romans 2, which does affirm divine revelation of a moral sense shared by those without knowledge of scriptural revelation.

However, Mr. Barton went instead to Romans 1, which he proceeded to expound in unusual ways. Romans 1:20 says that God's "invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made." Normally, that passage is taken to mean that the orderliness, beauty, and expanse of visible creation reveal information about the power, unity, and wisdom of the Creator. It is also generally added that mankind has suppressed this knowledge due to the Fall.

Mr. Barton said that this passage proved that creation revealed "the intricacies of the godhead," with the result that we can know "everything" that there is to know about God from nature. No mention was made of the Fall (it will be noted below that he acknowledged the presence of sin in the created order, but he deals with that also in an odd way). This confidence in the ability of mankind to learn everything that is needed about God blurs the distinction between general and special revelation while ignoring the impact of original sin on the human race. This has the feel of Pelagianism, which is the notion, regarded by both Catholics and Protestants as heresy, that unaided man has the full ability and freedom to respond adequately to God's commands (requiring no aid from the Spirit of God in order to obey), and what follows will serve to reinforce that concern.

Having said briefly that creation reveals God's intricacies, he turned quickly to morality. Again, this is a bit odd, as typically the Christian exposition of Romans 1 focuses on Creation's revelation of divine attributes, while Romans 2 is used to develop the idea of a moral sense in human conscience. Mr. Barton, strangely, finds his proof of a moral sense and evidence in creation of inalienable human rights in the animal kingdom. The way horses treat their young proves for us the right to self-defense. Notions of liberty, including opposition to slavery and opposition to abortion, are revealed by the nature of animals, and he went on for quite some time about other examples of rights revealed from the animal kingdom. Of course, this sort of analysis required considerable cherry picking, as it is obvious that many species do not demonstrate the characteristics he described. While some species, both male and female, care for their progeny, others will eat their young.

At the end of that discussion, he did acknowledge that violations of his principles occur in nature, but he then argued that is where the Ten Commandments come in. Thus, instead of seeing the Decalogue as a codification of the moral law revealed in nature, he treated it as an appendix to it. One should also note that the purpose of all of this -- natural law and the Ten Commandments -- was to produce a knowing and righteous moral response. Nothing was presented as differentiating pedagogical and civil uses of the law. Nothing was presented suggesting the biblical ideas of law condemning us in order to point us as needy sinners to Christ, who is revealed to us in the Gospel as a Savior of lawbreakers.

These are serious errors and omissions. They may also explain why Mr. Barton finds it so easy to claim that men such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin are orthodox Christians who just weren't as religious as most of the other founders. If Mr. Barton himself has managed to mingle dominant strands of moralism, deism, and Pelagianism into his understanding of Christianity, he certainly shares more in common with Messrs. Jefferson and Franklin than with the historic faith.

On Friday morning, Mr. Barton led a session on "The Bible and America." I will write about it tomorrow.

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