What’s behind David Barton’s war on Christian colleges?

Warren Throckmorton Professor, Grove City College
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Glenn Beck’s favorite history commentator, David Barton, has declared war on Christian colleges. A friend of Senator Ted Cruz, Barton had the political clout to bring together 120 state legislators from around the nation earlier this month to listen to speeches by Cruz and other religious right leaders. While his star has faded a bit since Christian publisher Thomas Nelson pulled his book, The Jefferson Lies, from publication, Barton continues to advise tea party politicians and draw large crowds in megachurches. His substantial following nearly lured him into the Texas Senate race, in a bid to unseat Sen. John Cornyn in the upcoming primary.

Barton’s ongoing influence is troubling for several reasons, but my focus here is his current assault on Christian higher education. Through innuendo and faulty presentation of data, Barton paints Christian professors as left-leaning, ivory tower elitists who are responsible for the religious ruination of Christian students. A layperson listening to Barton would certainly think twice about sending a child to a Christian college.

Last month, Barton told Oklahoma Wesleyan University president Everett Piper that “about a dozen universities” across the country are “right on the Bible, right on the Constitution, right on American history” (OWU is one of the Barton 12). The shorter message is that about a dozen schools that agree with Barton on matters of importance to him. Apparently, the remaining colleges (almost 900 of them) are not right enough on these important matters.

Barton’s contentions are enough to drive Christian parents to despair. Echoing similar claims to other evangelical audiences, Barton recently told Westside Church in Omaha, Nebraska that “50 percent of Christian kids deny their faith at Christian campuses.” What is behind this exodus? According to Barton, Christian college professors have become paganized by their graduate school professors who hate God. These Christian professors then indoctrinate their students by simply parroting what they heard from their pagan professors. Barton even has a proof text:

Jesus told us what’s going on here. If you go back to what Jesus said in Luke 6, chapter 6 verse 40, Jesus said, every student when he is fully trained will be like his teacher. What happens is that so many of the professors we have in Christian university were trained by the pagans at other universities, they just happen to be a new pagan trained at a Christian university. I mean it’s extremely hostile now, even at Christian universities.

In David Barton’s world, Christian universities have become so hostile to Christianity that half of the students renounce their faith. However, the evidence does not support his contention. According to research involving nearly 16,000 students by Christian Consulting for Colleges and Ministries, only seven percent of students who attend Christian colleges will leave their faith.

On the other hand, research conducted by the Barna Group reveals that church attendance declines among a disturbing majority of Christian students while enrolled in secular universities. However, even these students are not completely renouncing their faith because they attend college. The Barna Group’s David Kinnaman concluded, “The conclusion from the research is that most young people with a Christian background are dropping out of conventional church involvement, not losing their faith.” Kinnaman specifically says it is a myth that “college experiences are the key factor that cause people to drop out.” It is important to note that as students graduate and start families, many of the leavers return to church. I also asked the Barna Group and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities about Barton’s claim that half of students at Christian colleges leave Christianity. Representatives from both organizations denied knowing about any such research.

Since evidence actually contradicts Barton’s accusations, why would he make them? Perhaps connecting the dots a bit, Barton also recently accused his Christian academic critics of being recruited by unnamed “secular guys” to critique his book The Jefferson Lies. Well that explains that. The reason Christian professors are coming out against his approach to history is because they have gone to the dark side, being recruited by shadowy “secular guys.”

In fact, in the past couple of years, dozens of unrecruited Christian professors have raised public objections to many of Barton’s claims, historical and otherwise. For instance, Barton told Crossroads Church in Oklahoma City that there has been a “694 percent increase in violent crime since we took the Bible out of schools” in 1963. However, Barton failed to tell his audience that the post-1960s rise in crime peaked in the early 1990s. The crime rate has dropped dramatically since then. The murder rate now, for example, is about what it was before that Supreme Court case.

More recently, Barton agreed on air with Kenneth Copeland’s exhortation that soldiers suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder should just “get rid of it [PTSD]” by using the Bible and rebuking Satan. The Gospel Coalition’s Joe Carter, most decidedly not animated by “secular guys,” said such advice was “callow and doltish” and even “demonic.”

After years of smoldering over the celebrity status Christian culture war organizations have given Barton, Christian professors are now speaking out. I submit that this vocal resistance is what is driving Barton’s efforts to cast doubt on the Christian mission and vocation of Christian college professors. More precisely, it appears that Barton’s fulminations about pagan Christian profs are really counterattacks designed to take the focus away from his problems and attempt to make his accusers the issue. In any case, Barton’s claims are destructive, divisive and without merit. Unless he can produce evidence for his claims, he should end his war on Christian colleges.