The written word is an incredible tool. Experts in its use can form it into sentences that sing. The rest of us do the best we can, and if we're lucky, we may occasionally form a sentence that's at least semi-eloquent.
But more important than elegance in writing is truth. A lie is a lie, whether written poorly or well. And when it's a lie told to further a personal Christian faith, it makes you wonder a little about the foundations of that faith.
What I'm leading to here is the recent announcement by reputable publishing company Thomas Nelson that it is recalling a best-selling book it published in April, "The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You've Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson."
The book, by David Barton, key figure in Texas GOP politics, preacher, adviser to presidential candidates, and prolific writer and speaker, purports to prove that Thomas Jefferson was never the secular politician history has painted him to be.
That he, in fact, was not a proponent of separation of church and state, and that the slave-owning intellectual, with his sliced-up Bible from which he removed the parts he considered useless, was in reality just the kind of Founding Father that a conservative evangelical like Barton would love for him to have been.
David Barton is the founder of WallBuilders, an organization that says it is "dedicated to presenting America's forgotten history and heroes, with an emphasis on the moral, religious and constitutional foundation on which America was built -- a foundation which, in recent years, has been seriously attacked and undermined." He has a degree in religious education from Oral Roberts University but considers himself a historian. As such, he has written a number of books over the years that supposedly try to recast the history of the founding of America to show that the founding fathers intended it to be a thoroughly Christian, evangelical nation.
A number of well-known people have lauded Barton as an expert historian who is correcting the false impression all those generations of actual trained historians have foisted upon us. Newt Gingrich has described his work as "wonderful" and "most useful." Mike Huckabee said he wished "all Americans would be forced, forced -- at gunpoint, no less -- to listen to every David Barton message. And I think our country would be better for it." Glenn Beck said he was the most important man in America right now, and wrote the foreword for this latest book.
But then some folks you might have thought would be supporters, conservative evangelical scholars from conservative evangelical institutions, took a closer look at this book that was now on the New York Times best-seller list. They found it to be full of questionable "facts" and clearly representing dubious scholarship. One of those scholars was Warren Throckmorton, evangelical professor of psychology at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.
"Books like that make Christian scholarship look bad," he said. "If that's what people are passing off as Christian scholarship, there are claims in there that are easily proved false." He was joined by a number of other reputable conservative evangelical scholars, and their concerns reached Thomas Nelson publishers.
Barton had published his previous books himself, presumably free of critical editing. But why this established publisher had not done the normal due diligence of any publishing company is anybody's guess. Such a book would normally have been copy edited, line edited, and every other kind of editing, including reviewing it for fact by historians. Thomas Nelson now did the appropriate checking after the fact. And decided the book was not truthful and must be withdrawn.
Obviously this has not done the publishing company's reputation a lot of good. Whether it has any negative effect on David Barton and his version of truth remains to be seen. He's scheduled to be on the GOP's platform committee at the upcoming convention, and so far there's no indication that will be changed. He's already had significant input to the Texas State Board of Education's drive to protect their students from newfangled ideas like critical thinking and such, and that will surely not be undone any time soon.
I haven't read the book. It may be skillfully and beautifully written. But it will take more than a skillful and eloquent writer to make free-thinking, Bible-correcting Thomas Jefferson into a shining example of the modern Christian right.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."