A Dark Day for Glenn Beck's Historian

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Aug. 9 2012 3:48 PM

A Dark Day for Glenn Beck's Historian

"Why does the left continue to misquote Jefferson, accuse him of being anti-God, and attribute evil deeds to him?" asks Glenn Beck in the introduction David Barton's best-seller The Jefferson Lies.

Seriously, why? Beck, who last year traded his Fox News show for a much-lower-buzz web network, has been on a mission to reclaim the founders. He's created a tryptich, in the Shepard Fairey style, of Washington, Franklin, and Sam Adams as the Christian martyers Faith, Hope, and Charity. Jefferson proved difficult to turn into a Christian martyr, because he had a long and well-known record of doubtful statements. Enter David Barton, who approached Jefferson the way Owen Wilson's Royal Tenenbaums character approached George Custer. We all know Jefferson was a religious skeptic, but maybe he wasn't?

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Recently, conservative scholars had finally started to call out Barton's sloppy research. Eight days after some Ohio pastors threatened to boycott Barton's publisher Thomas Nelson Books, the publisher announced that it was scrapping The Jefferson Lies.

It's almost sad, because the book is hilarious. Barton argues that "DNA evidence has not proved that Jefferson fathered any children outside his marriage to Martha," that Virginia law preventing him from emancipating his slaves before he died (just a total lie), and that would have absolutely hated secularism. Beck includes an online "university" in his current media empire, and so some amount of conservatives were being taught total nonsense. You can see why there was so much interest in some self-policing.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.