Rodda, Chris. Liars for Jesus: The Religious Right’s Alternate Version of American History. Kindle edition.
When you need this book, you need it badly. When you don’t, it’s possible to find Rodda’s detailed investigation into the politics and religion of the early American republic bogged down in minutiae. But what Rodda has actually done here is a talented investigation of history, especially for someone not trained as an historian, and this work is an outstanding contribution to the fight against religious extremism in this country.
I became aware of this book when, in response to more of David Barton’s ingenious lies, Rodda made it available for free download. The book is matched by an excellent website that features not only Rodda’s rebuttals but also detailed, extensive citation material. Barton often claims that he uses images of his original sources – well, Rodda does him one better by putting up images of her sources in their entirety instead of trimmed to fit misquotes.
Rodda uses primary sources (the original documents) in the way that professional historians do: she approaches each document in its entirety, and does extra work to put it into context. It’s not just about who wrote this; when did he (and they were mostly all men) write it? Why? Was he answering a letter? Was he being sarcastic? Were there behind-the-scenes political maneuvers taking place that affected what was said or how it was meant? (Answer: yes, almost always.) Barton fails each of these criteria and abuses primary sources in almost exactly the same way conservative Christians abuse the Bible in their misreadings of it.
Seeing that pattern of misuse and abuse of texts and sources was the single most interesting thing to me about this book. The way that pseudo-historians like Barton are willing to lie – not just make mistakes, not just misconstrue, not just misread, but lie, and then mangle the sources to seem to back up what they have to know is a lie – is demonstrated over and over and over again. You don’t have to absorb the details of the political wrangling around establishing the University of Virginia to understand this.
Barton and co. learned this kind of eisegesis and prevarication by doing it to the Bible. This goes beyond taking quotes out of context. It goes beyond accidentally taking seriously a passage that is meant sarcastically. It is a systematic reconstruction of the text to support a desired outcome, and it’s how extremely conservative Christians have learned to treat all “sacred texts,” starting with the Bible. Reading this book should also make you suspicious of the kind of simple Biblical allusions used willy-nilly by the far right.
It also reveals some fascinating insights into conservatives’ ideas about authority. As near as I can figure out, the conservative attitude is that if something happened while so-and-so was in charge, especially if so-and-so consented to it or was notified of it, then so-and-so must have actively wanted it to happen, must have desired it, intended it, designed it, and been in full accord with the results. (Except when that’s a bad thing that happened to a good person, of course, which counter-examples only they can spot.) If half of Barton’s bunk gets blown away by misquotes and simple lies, another quarter of it gets trashed by this misconstruction of intent, power, and authority. The remainder is more complex lies, and Rodda tackles those as well.
The one weakness in this book is that Rodda has gotten so familiar with her material that sometimes she forgets to pull back and provide a quick overview or summary for those of us who haven’t been living with the Rockfish Report and the correspondence about Central College for the last few years. Some sharp recapitulations, especially at the ends of chapters, would do wonders for providing easy-to-quote refutations. The other thing readers should be aware of is that this is the first volume in a projected trilogy. It takes much more time and effort to counter lies than it does to propagate them, and Rodda has done a spectacular job of it here, but she realized in the process of writing that she had taken on a larger task than she originally thought.
When I realized how important this book was for me to have, and how grateful I was that someone had tackled this necessary but disgusting task, I bought the book, although I had already downloaded it for free. I plan to buy the next two volumes and will be glad to have them as reference material. If you don’t find it important for you to have the details, you should still have the Liars for Jesus website bookmarked just in case: think of it as being Snopes to Barton’s urban legends. If you do decide that this is an important cause, and you find all the information you need for free, then please consider donating $5 or $10 (the cost of the Kindle edition) to a charity of your choice that supports these causes such as the ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, or the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, where Ms. Rodda is Senior Research Director.