The Ninth Commandment, or the Eighth, depending on which numbering system is used, states, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” (Exodus 20:16, NRSV) Though in a narrow reading this refers to testimony in a court of law, it is generally understood to forbid telling a deliberate untruth in most circumstances.
Humanity has wrestled with the necessity for truth-telling and the propensity to lie for as long as written records exist. The philosopher Diogenes of Sinope, who flourished in the fourth century BCE, is said to have walked the streets of Corinth with a lighted lamp, searching for an honest man. In our own time theologian and professor Joseph Fletcher stirred widespread debate with the publication in 1966 of his book “Situation Ethics,” in which he argued that adhering to absolute rules such as “never lie” could produce cruel and unethical results.
It is common in our adversarial political system for each side to accuse leaders of the other of lying. Some of those accusations are accurate; some are not. And some political lies have far more impact on our nation’s well-being than do others. In recent decades the publication of a cluster of books, articles, and videos which distort and falsify the historical record regarding the founding of the United States has significantly influenced public policy and understanding. Many citizens who are concerned with preservation of our constitutional rights find this trend deeply troubling.
Probably the best known purveyor of this pseudo-history is a man named David Barton. A prolific author and frequent guest on conservative talk shows, Barton’s project is to depict our national founders as deeply religious, orthodox Christians whose intent was to establish a country governed on strict Christian principles. To support his efforts he has collected thousands of eighteenth and early nineteenth century documents from which he quotes liberally, though usually deceptively. For example, in lectures he cites part of an 1809 letter from John Adams to Benjamin Rush, making it appear that Adams believed that government to be legitimate must be “administered by this Holy Ghost.” What Barton fails to quote are the sentences immediately following, which make it clear that Adams is mocking the idea that Barton claims he supported.
In April 2012 Thomas Nelson, a respected publisher specializing in Christian literature, and now a subsidiary of HarperCollins, released Barton’s “The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed about Thomas Jefferson.” Four months later, amid widespread criticism from historians and following an internal evaluation that revealed numerous significant errors, the publisher cancelled sale of the book. It had been voted “the least credible history book in print” by readers of the History News Network. Barton has since been self-marketing the work in what he claims to be a corrected and expanded edition, but which appears to be the same text as the first, merely with a lengthy additional introduction.
Why does this matter? For one reason, it matters because Barton has served as a curriculum and text book advisor for the state of Texas, which because of its practice of ordering textbooks on a statewide basis has the capacity to influence the content of textbooks available nationwide. His writing also appears widely in homeschool curricula and texts. A generation of students that have been taught a deliberately distorted history of America will not be equipped to make well-informed decisions when they become adults engaged in the political process.
For another reason, given our current national climate of increasing polarization and antagonism toward “the other,” any attempt to change the understanding of our founding vision from that of an expansive Enlightenment project to one of narrow sectarianism only serves to further divide our citizenry. Bearing false witness to our historic documents – that is, deliberately lying about what they say and mean – undermines the common good.
Fortunately, solid material is available to refute Barton and his cohort of pseudo-historians. Researcher Chris Rodda has just published the second volume in her series “Liars for Jesus.” (Full disclosure: I proofread a substantial portion of the manuscript and am mentioned in the dedication.) In each chapter of both Volume One and this latest book, Rodda examines in detail a claim by these “Christian nationalists,” analyzes the sources, and demonstrates how deceptive editing of quotes, omission of historic context, and deliberate misstatements of fact lead to the fabrication of a false history. Her meticulous research combined with a breezy, informal writing style makes this latest offering a delight to read. I highly recommend it to anyone who is concerned with historical accuracy and with correcting the misleading statements of those who bear false witness. It can be ordered from Amazon here: Liars for Jesus, Vol. 2