The number of Americans who call themselves members of the Tea Party is down to just 8 percent, according to a recent Rasmussen poll. This is just one-third of the number of Americans who claimed membership in April 2010, shortly after the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Twenty-four percent was never a very high number, particularly given the breathless press coverage the movement inspired. This is, after all, a country where the majority rules. But the decline to 8 percent—a far smaller percentage of Americans than even those who claim to believe in UFOs—is entirely predictable in hindsight, considering just how much nonsense one had to believe in order to take seriously the absurdities that Tea Party leaders spouted. The movement’s leaders spewed so many simultaneous falsehoods and contradictions that it was a full-time job merely to try and track them.
Among the most recent trees to fall in the forest of Tea Party fiction is the work of alleged “historian” David Barton. His most recent book, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson, alleges to “correct the distorted image of a once-beloved founding father” and insists that America’s third president was an orthodox Christian who did not believe that church and state should be separated. Barton attempts to argue that America’s founders hoped to create a Biblically inspired theocracy, rather than the increasingly democratic republic that most of us studied in grammar school. According to Barton, the United States was founded not by secular-minded Deists but instead by evangelical Christians eager to erase the line between church and state so that they could lay the foundation for a Christian nation.
Last July, however, the History News Network named The Jefferson Lies the “least credible history book in print” before the conservative Christian publisher Thomas Nelson announced it was ending the book’s publication and withdrawing it from circulation.
It’s a shame the publisher did not bother to familiarize itself with Barton’s resume before publishing the book. Barton once claimed, for instance, that he had uncovered a document authored by former President James Madison revealing that the nation’s political institutions had been founded on the Ten Commandments. Alas, nobody else—including nobody at the University of Virginia, where Madison’s papers are housed—can replicate this feat of discovery.
Barton also seems to have a problem with counting. He argues in his book, for example, that the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was saved by the power of prayer. “While neglecting God, [the delegates’] efforts had been characterised by frustration and selfishness,” but “only after returning God to their deliberations were they effective in their efforts to frame a new government.” Alas, the suggestion to pray was made by none other than Benjamin Franklin. Apparently Barton did not read any further, however, because the convention actually voted against the idea: The prayer recommendation garnered the support of only three or four delegates.
Nevertheless, The Jefferson Lies drew praise from Tea Party champions, including former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA), who called the book “wonderful” and “most useful,” and former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-AR), who gushed, “I almost wish that there would be something like a simultaneous telecast and all Americans would be forced, forced—at gunpoint, no less—to listen to every David Barton message.” Conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck, who wrote the book’s introduction and has called Barton “the most important man in America right now,” has decided to pick up the discredited work and publish it himself. Barton said the new version, published by Beck’s publishing company Mercury, “will not include any substantive changes, but I will rephrase some things to remove any potential confusion.”
More serious academic historians, even among conservative evangelicals, find no comfort in the mythology Barton and his promoters are peddling. “Books like that [make] Christian scholarship look bad,” argued Warren Throckmorton, an evangelical professor of psychology at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. “If that’s what people are passing off as Christian scholarship, there are claims in there that are easily proved false.” In fact, Throckmorton and his colleague, Michael Coulter, were so disturbed by The Jefferson Lies that they decided to author a response in the form of a book titled Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims About Our Third President.
Unfortunately, the Barton saga is all too typical of the Tea Party ethos—one that many in the mainstream media have frequently given a free pass. (Consider the fact that CNN, which considers itself to be an unbiased news source, co-sponsored a Republican debate with the organization—all but inviting a conservative rewrite of history whenever convenient.) Remember that the person the Tea Party movement picked to represent it nationally in opposition to President Barack Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), insisted that the famous “shot heard around the world in Lexington and Concord,” credited with beginning the American Revolution, was fired in New Hampshire, not Massachusetts. She was also under the impression that “the very founders that wrote” the U.S. Constitution “worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States,” even though they agreed to extend it. Furthermore, she credited something she called the “Hoot-Smalley Tariff,” allegedly passed by former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with responsibility for the Great Depression, despite the facts that the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff was actually passed under Republican President Herbert Hoover and that the Great Depression was already in full swing when President Roosevelt assumed office in the spring of 1933.
Of course, the modern conservative movement has long evidenced a stubborn disdain not merely for honest history but also for knowledge itself. In a previous column on this topic, I noted that conservatives sought to kill off the Office of Technology Assessment, whose purpose from 1972 to 1995 was to provide Congress with objective analyses of complex scientific and technical issues, as well as the American Community Survey—a crucial aspect of government data collection that has existed in various manifestations since 1850—because, as we all know, “reality has a well-known liberal bias.”
That “bias” revealed itself yet again this week when we learned from the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, North Carolina, that 2012 was the hottest year ever in the history of the United States. While 97 percent of credentialed climate scientists concur that global warming is both extremely dangerous and caused by human activity, global warming, according to climatologist Bachmann, is “all voodoo, nonsense, hokum, a hoax.” And conservative politicians who are willing not only to embrace the scientists’ conclusions but also to begin to discuss what’s necessary to address them are about as rare as right-wing folk singers.
But hey, don’t worry. I’m sure it will all turn out alright. Just as long as David Barton gets to write the history.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.