by Earl Crown
Earl Crown is a doctoral student and graduate assistant in American Studies at Penn State Harrisburg, where he also teaches American history and works at the Center for Holocaust and Jewish Studies. His scholarly interests include 20th century American social and intellectual history. He is currently researching progressive student activism on university campuses in the Jim Crow South. He blogs with Shaun Stiemsma on issues of American society and culture at room201athirdplace.com. He lives in Hanover, Pennsylvania with his wife Sarah and two children.
Several years ago, my family and I were guests for Fourth of July services at a New Hampshire church. As I am sure was the case at many other services elsewhere that Sunday, the fusion of American democratic, patriotic, and religious values was alive and well. The front of the sanctuary was a sea of red, white, and blue bunting and banners. As the service began, congregants proudly bellowed “God Bless America” as the Bible was paraded forward behind the Christian and United States flags. Following behind them was the guest speaker Garrett Lear, who refers to himself as “The Patriot Pastor.” Dressed in a colonial era costume and carrying what I assume was a functioning flintlock musket, the pastor walked to the front to lead worshipers in pledging allegiance to the American and Christian flags, as well as the Bible. My son, ten at the time, whispered to me, “Dad, they sure pledge a lot of things at this church.”
Lear’s message is typical of what might be called Christian nationalism. These people generally embrace a narrative of American moral and cultural decline, from which we can only be saved by a return to our original Christian founding. Lear’s website proudly proclaims his “expertise and extensive knowledge of the founding of America,” as well as “the original intent of the Founding Fathers.” So, what does Lear see as America’s founding? Apparently, it was the writing of the Mayflower Compact in 1620. In what Lear has named “The New Mayflower Compact,” he calls for “our countrymen and our leaders everywhere . . . to renew the original intent of this [the original Compact], our founding, in all spheres.” Lear would have us believe, therefore, that in order to find America’s original purpose and values, we need to look to the seventeenth century, and particularly to the settlers of what became Plymouth Colony.
Yet Lear, despite his apparent expertise, runs into problems with this preposterously simplistic approach to America’s founding. A quick look at the original Mayflower Compact demonstrates this. On various websites run by Lear, he claims “We will have no other king but Jesus.” This certainly was not the view of the Plymouth settlers. In the second sentence of the original document, the signers identify themselves as “Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God.” If we were to return to the “original intent” of those at Plymouth, while at the same time presuming—as does Lear—that the words of the Compact can be taken at face value, we would need to restore our allegiance to the British crown.
Lear is far from alone in this. Texas author David Barton publishes prolifically on the subject, and according to an article in Texas Monthly, is booked for 250 speaking engagements per year. Yet his extraordinary popularity comes despite having been both criticized and discredited by the academic history community. A 2012 readers’ poll by the History News Network named his Jefferson Lies book “the least credible history book in print.” Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter of Grove City College published a book directly challenging and discrediting many of Barton’s claims, leading his publisher to pull it from distribution. And yet his popularity continues.
So, how is it that people whose facts are so patently false can have so much popularity, and what can be done to reverse this? In a recent column for the Washington Post, former George W. Bush White House staffer Michael Gerson, in his ongoing assault on the Trump presidency, called our current chief executive “the most ambitious fabulist in presidential history” who is “determin[ed] to inhabit his self-blown truth bubble.” In this column, Gerson asks a very timely question. “How,” he asks, “is any political conversation or policy discussion possible when citizens inhabit separate universes of truth and meaning?” This is a perfect synopsis of what I experienced as I listened to Lear’s sermon. To the people surrounding me that Independence Day, it was not ultimately facts that mattered. Lear and Barton give their audiences a historical melodrama that is both accessible and satisfying. Facts are often neither. Enveloped as I was that Sunday in a cloud of rage at this charlatan’s myriad of factual blunders, I felt profoundly alienated from my fellow congregants, most of whom seemed to enthusiastically welcome his message. I suspect that Gerson is right, and that there are indeed “separate universes of truth” in this case, one where truth is defined by evidence, the other convenience.
And yet it is not enough for historians to sit on an epistemological judgment seat as we watch the integrity of what we hold to be sound scholarship disintegrate before our eyes. We must do more than wallow in frustration that someone with no credible authority to inform Americans about the past, like Lear, does precisely that with an exponentially louder voice than the scholarly community. Yes, he and others like him are empirically wrong. Yes, the consequences of their fraudulent message are destructive. But it accomplishes little simply to reiterate that.
This is not to say that nothing is being done by academic historians. Princeton’s Kevin Kruse and Yale’s Joanne Freeman, for example, have effectively used Twitter to help bridge the gap between sound history and popular understanding of the past. Yale has made entire courses by Freeman and recent Pulitzer-winner David Blight available for free on YouTube. Their efforts, unfortunately, are not enough at this point to lessen the hegemonic control over the past by Lear and his ilk. If the mind is truly something to be celebrated, then its potential can and must be harnessed to reach the masses with better history. Surely every teacher of history has been asked at some point in their career why their chosen field matters. If we believe that it does, we must do a better job reaching a larger audience.