See our accompanying roundtable on the career of David Barton.
In April of 2017, conservative pundit Glenn Beck announced his intention to offer a summer “history training camp” through his online service Beck University. He marketed the program toward conservative high school graduates preparing for entrance into a national university system that is presumably rife with liberal professors. The classes, taught by Beck’s partner, author David Barton, are designed to provide students with supposed evidence for Barton’s career assertions that the United States’ founding generation were fundamentalist Christians who rejected the theory of evolution and deliberately crafted the Constitution to serve as an instrument for the protection and proselytization of their religion. This program is part of Beck and Barton’s larger efforts to provide an educational system for conservative youth that can serve as an alternative to the educational mainstream, a project that also includes a proposed museum and curriculum meant to bolster their claims. It is supported, in turn, by Barton’s individual efforts as the head of the WallBuilders organization, a limited liability corporation that promotes Barton’s scholarship in schools and churches across the country.
Upon hearing news of Beck’s announcement, we at The Activist History Review were faced one overriding question: is Beck and Barton’s project activist history? As Alex Burns points out in our roundtable discussion this week on Barton’s career, Barton has made a living promulgating his view of American history, which technically qualifies him as a professional historian. In fact, numerous conservative public officials and figures have praised Barton’s work, and his books have appeared multiple times on the New York Times bestseller list, thereby making him a more commercially successful historian than the large majority of those that have earned graduate degrees in the field. Beck’s “history training camp” allows Barton the opportunity to directly engage with current political issues and conversations, a goal that parallels our own at TAHR. Thus, by all accounts, Beck and Barton’s activities represent their own form of activist history.
What, then, differentiates their activist history from our own? The answer, like history itself, is not simple, but perhaps that very statement can point us in the direction of a resolution to our question. Beck and Barton’s view of American history offers a simple and straightforward view of American history: namely, that its patterns are a direct replication of their own political beliefs. This view of history is rooted in an assumption that the past is a product of ourselves, rather than the reverse—that it is what we make of it rather than what makes us. David Barton has made a career of forcing historical documents to bend to the will of his particular belief system, a practice the editors and authors here at The Activist History Review have worked assiduously to avoid. Rather, our own beliefs have been, at least in part, shaped by our experiences studying a past that does not always pair with the narratives society teaches us. History has forced us to alter our political beliefs; our political beliefs have not forced us to alter history.
Make no mistake, that is exactly what Beck and Barton are doing. Barton has been frequently criticized both in and outside academia for fabricating historical quotes and chronologies to fit his view of the world around us. That Christianity has played a powerful role in shaping the history of the United States is undeniable. The vast majority of our country’s founders publically identified as Christians and attended church, as did the vast majority of American citizens at the time of our nation’s independence from Britain. That statistic has remained largely true over the course of US history up until the present day. To pretend that the founding generation or its successors were not influenced by any other belief systems or cultural forces, however, is not only disingenuous, it’s downright dishonest.
Barton’s work is filled with inaccuracies, misquotes, and falsehoods explicitly intended to keep those other beliefs and forces from rising to the surface where they might be better understood and appreciated by his audiences. The result is a vision of the past that favors psychological comfort over historical truths. History is an uncomfortable subject, one that forces us to come to terms with the often unappealing reality of our own origins. Rather than turning away from it, we have an obligation to face it head on and seek redress for the worst of its excesses. It is that sense of obligation that fuels the work done here at The Activist History Review.
Barton’s work doesn’t just provide its audiences with a more comfortable vision of their own past, it also allows them to continue benefiting from the social, political, and economic inequities that past created. By focusing entirely on and idealizing the contributions of white men to the construction of the United States, Barton sustains the power structures and historical forces that have marginalized and occluded the contributions of individuals outside that group. In refusing to challenge those structures in his historical studies, he has made a deliberate choice to support their continued existence today. In the process, he has ensured that his audiences will continue to ignore the current privileges they enjoy through systems of repression, oppression, and persecution that have existed since before their country was founded. Barton’s work thus serves as a mechanism for those systems’ survival, and Barton himself operates as an agent of those systems’ promulgation.
We here at The Activist History Review are dedicated to obverse goals. We began TAHR in the hopes of contributing in some small way to the dismantlement of the systems that Barton and his work upholds. We continue with the knowledge that we are not the only activist historians out there. Our hope, as we move forward, is that our work might inspire others to support our own version of activist history at Barton’s expense—one grounded in fearlessly examining history and its implications for the present. Barton and his WallBuilders can do their worst to rewrite history; we will do our best to dismantle his efforts and the forces they uphold, brick by brick.