David Barton: Amateur Historian, Professional Propagandist
David Barton, a former school teacher and self-styled historian, has emerged over the last decade as the chief propagandist for the religious right. Named one of the 25 “most influential evangelicals in America” by Time magazine in 2005, Barton is the president of WallBuilders, a Christian-advocacy organization based in Aledo, Texas, that opposes separation of church and state. He also served as vice chairman of the Texas Republican Party from 1997 to 2006. Barton’s dual role as a religious and political activist has made him a traveling salesman, peddling the Republican Party to evangelical voters. Indeed, Barton has helped grow Republican voter rolls with legions of new social conservatives. This influx of voters has helped shift the GOP’s base in Texas and nationally farther to the right.
Marrying Church and State
Then-party chairwoman Susan Weddington’s appointment of Barton as the Texas GOP’s vice chair in 1997 raised more than a few eyebrows among Republicans. Many were anxious about the rising clout of religious fundamentalists in the party. Questioned about Barton’s ability to separate his activism from his party advocacy, Weddington defended her lieutenant: “He’s got solid Republican credentials and he can motivate, mobilize and train our grassroots to be involved in party precinct politics.”[i]
But Barton has done more than train precinct captains. His main accomplishment has been to provide a bridge between the secular and political world of the Republican Party and the religious world of conservative evangelicals. Cultivating the illusion that he is a trained historian, Barton provides the secular justification for why evangelicals should make their religious beliefs the basis for government policy. After all, he argues, that is what the nation’s Founders wanted.
Indeed, Barton has become something of a chief recruiter for the Republican Party, particularly among conservative evangelicals. His chosen audiences have been especially receptive to one of Barton’s key theses: activist judges have twisted the Constitution and the Founders’ intent by supporting constitutional protections for the separation of church and state. Moreover, he argues, efforts to maintain that separation – such as barring government-sponsored prayer in schools – is a primary cause of high crime rates, declining public schools and a host of other social and moral ills. That message is also central to the mission of WallBuilders,[ii] which Barton founded in 1989. WallBuilders seeks to educate Americans about “the Godly foundation of our country,” to help government officials “develop public policies which reflect Biblical values,” and encourage “Christians to be involved in the civic arena.”[iii]
Predictably, Barton’s ideas have made him a hero among social conservatives. He has his own WallBuilders Live! radio program and has been a frequent guest on conservative radio with hosts such as Focus on the Family founder James Dobson. In recent years Barton has also teamed up with far-right commentator Glenn Beck to promote a decidedly conservative, religious and revisionist version of American history and the Constitution. In addition, his self-published materials can be found in churches and religious schools across the country.
Barton is also a prolific writer whose influence has extended deep into the halls of government and among religious-right groups. Just months before he became speaker of the U.S. House in 1995, Newt Gingrich called Barton’s book Myth of Separation (in which Barton argues that the constitutional separation of church and state in America is a “myth”) “most useful” and “wonderful.”[iv] Former Arkansas governor and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has called Barton “maybe the greatest living historian on the spiritual nature of America’s early days.”[v]
Especially since 2004, Barton has been a prominent speaker at events designed to recruit conservative pastors into the political realm. In the hotly contested presidential campaign year of 2004, the Republican National Committee hired Barton to speak at pastors’ meetings around the country. The RNC reportedly paid Barton $12,000 for ostensibly nonpartisan “political consulting.”[vi] Barton has also been a prominent speaker at “pastors’ policy briefings” for the Texas Restoration Project and similar “Renewal Projects” in key election battleground states.
Dancing on the Edge
Barton’s appeal to the political faithful is partly due to his deserved reputation as a polished speaker but also to his self-promoted status as a “historian.”[vii] Conservative activists and Republican Party officials often reinforce the belief that Barton boasts a hefty academic vita. “He is an historian noted for his detailed research into the religious heritage of our nation,” then-U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., wrote his Senate colleagues in 2005. Frist had invited Barton to give senators and their families a tour of the nation’s Capitol.[viii] The praise Barton has received from politicians like Frist, Gingrich, Huckabee, and and U.S. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann has led Mother Jones magazine to describe Barton as “the GOP’s favorite fringe historian.”[[ix]]
“Fringe” fits. For example:
- Barton argues that the progressive income tax, inheritance taxes and the capital gains tax are unbiblical.[x]
- A creationist, he calls the debate over evolutionary science a “death struggle between civilizations.”[xi]
- In 2009 he insisted (unsuccessfully) that the Texas State Board of Education remove Cesar Chavez from new social studies curriculum standards for public schools, arguing: “(Chavez’s) open affiliation with Saul Alinsky’s movements certainly makes dubious that he is a praiseworthy to be heralded to students as someone ‘who modeled active participation in the democratic process.’” [xii]
(See “Barton on the Issues” for more examples.)
When reviewing Barton’s background and work, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he is a pseudo-intellectual fraud whose twisted interpretations of history are little more than propaganda that often dances on the edge between fact and heavily politicized fiction. In the first place, information about Barton’s academic career is a bit fuzzy. His biography on the WallBuilders Web site lists no academic degrees,[xiii] although an earlier version apparently noted that Barton’s bachelor’s degree from Oral Roberts University was in religious education and that he taught math and science after college.[xiv] Nowhere does he note any formal academic training in historical research. Even so, the WallBuilders Web site claims that “his exhaustive research has rendered him an expert in historical and constitutional issues.” Groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Baptist Joint Committee, and Texas Baptist Committed have all published sharp critiques of Barton’s historical accounts.[xv] Despite Barton’s glaring lack of academic credentials, in 2009 social conservatives on the State Board of Education appointed him to an”expert” panel helping revise history and social studies curriculum standards for Texas public schools. His controversial recommendations included the criticism of Cesar Chavez noted above.
But putting his political biases ahead of facts and sound scholarship is only one of the problems with Barton’s versions of history. Related is his tendency to invent causal links where actual research shows none. Consider Barton’s first book, America: To Pray Or Not To Pray? (1988), which he said God mandated him to write. God, he says, asked him to research a connection between the removal of state-mandated prayer in public schools by the Supreme Court in 1962 and 1963 and the drop in SAT scores.[xvi] Claiming to find such a cause-effect relationship, Barton proceeded to blame decades of social problems on an overactive judiciary. “We could correlate that when the court made certain decisions on values, we would see subsequent corresponding changes in societal indicators,” Barton wrote in a novel argument for an article in a Christian Coalition newsletter. “Like when you took the Ten Commandments out, violent crime went up.”[xvii]
Some of Barton’s worst problems, however, involve his supposedly “exhaustive research on the Founding Era” of the nation.[xiii] Barton claims that his research proves the nation’s Founders intended the United States to be a distinctly Christian nation, something flatly disputed by reputable historians and constitutional scholars. To help bolster his point, Barton published The Myth of Separation in 1989, complete with quotations Barton attributed to a number of the nation’s Founders. Here’s one, attributed to James Madison, often called by historians the “Father of the Constitution”: “We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all of our political institutions upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.”[xix]
It turns out, however, that Madison said no such thing. Indeed, outside researchers later found that quotes Barton had in the past attributed to Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Patrick Henry, and even a Supreme Court decision were either wholly false or highly suspect. The WallBuilders website now includes an article called “Unconfirmed Quotations” in which Barton tries to explain away the issue.[xx]
Around the same time that researchers were pointing to problems with Barton’s work, U.S. District Judge Neal B. Biggers, Jr., ruled that Barton’s materials were unsuitable for use in a public school classroom. Biggers wrote that the use of Barton’s video, “America’s Godly Heritage,” and other religious films was an attempt by teachers “to indoctrinate the students in their religious beliefs by claiming to teach” a class on Middle Eastern history. “This practice cannot be condoned in the context of a public school system,” he wrote. “It is best left to the family and the church.”[xxi] (Even so, the conservative group National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools continued to recommend that teachers use a variety of materials created by Barton as part of a Bible study course in public schools.[xxii] Barton in recent years has also produced his own history textbook and curriculum materials.)
Even Barton’s grasp of more recent history is suspect. At a time when the Republican Party is seeking to attract more African-American voters, Barton frequently writes or speaks about the role of the Republican and Democratic parties during the civil rights struggle. He regularly paints the Democratic Party as the party of slavery and segregation and notes the Republican Party’s early opposition to slavery and support of voting and civil rights for African Americans. Some historians might argue that Barton’s storyline has kernels of truth – as far as it goes.
But Barton’s version of history is simplistic and misleading. In a 2003 WallBuilder report entitled “A History of Black Voting Rights,” Barton notes that Strom Thurmond, a staunchly segregationist U.S. senator from South Carolina, switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party after a “change of heart on civil rights” in 1964.[xxiii] That’s nonsense. Thurmond was among the legions of southern white conservatives who left the Democratic Party after national Democrats finally overcame southern opposition to major civil rights legislation. In fact, Thurmond was a leading opponent of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and switched to the Republican Party only a few months after a Democratic president signed the bill, which had been passed with a large bipartisan majority by a Democratically led Congress. Moreover, Barton neglects discussion of successful efforts by the Republican presidential campaigns of Barry Goldwater (1964) and Richard Nixon (1968) to court southern whites anxious about integration and the civil rights movement.
In addition, Barton’s attempts to woo African-American voters are ironic in light of his past associations with white supremacist groups. Barton was a featured speaker at a 1991 summer retreat in Colorado sponsored by Scriptures for America[xxiv] – a far-right organization that the Anti-Defamation League has linked to the”Christian Identity” movement.[xxv] According to the ADL, the “Christian Identity” movement argues that Jews are spiritually degraded and pose a threat to civilization, that blacks and other people of color are inferior to whites, that gay people should be executed and that northern European whites and their American descendants are the “chosen people” of scriptural prophecy.
Barton and his organization claimed (in a July 2, 1993, letter) that WallBuilders’ staffers “had absolutely no idea” that the head of Scriptures for America was “part of the Nazi movement.” Barton’s appearance at that retreat and another 1991 event in Oregon sponsored by a separate group reportedly linked to the “Christian Identity” movement were the subject of two articles in the Casper Star-Tribune in June 1997.[xxvi] (In 2011 Barton filed a lawsuit against two Democratic former candidiates for the Texas State Board of Education, claiming a 2010 Internet video produced for their campaigns defamed him by noting that he had spoken at those events. Barton insists that his appearances at the events do not mean he is a white supremacist or that he sympathizes with them.)
Teaching the Republican Party to Speak
Despite revelations of the flaws in Barton’s work, his views on American history – complete with misquotes – continue to be circulated by supporters. Those supporters have continued to note his work in op-ed pieces, and his speaking schedule is robust. Since 1988, when he took time off from his high school teaching job to write the book America: To Pray or Not To Pray, Barton has been suggesting that Christians (especially conservative Christians) are somehow victims in an overwhelmingly Christian country.[xxvii] His rhetorical abilities have allowed him to use one compelling (but false) claim – that the Founders intended the United States to be a Christian nation above all – to refocus conservative Christian soldiers from revolution to restoration. Consider how the one-time school teacher is in many ways teaching both the religious right and the Republican Party how to speak. Consider the 2010 Texas GOP platform,[xxviii] parts of which read as if they were lifted from a Barton speech:
- “We pledge our influence toward a return to the original intent of the First Amendment and toward dispelling the myth of separation of church and state.”
- “We support school subjects with emphasis on Judeo-Christian principles (including the Ten Commandments) upon which America was founded and which form the basis of America’s legal, political and economic systems.”
- “As America is a nation under God founded on Judeo-Christian principles, we affirm the constitutional right of all individuals to worship in the religion of their choice.”
Barton is a featured speaker and organizer at political events targeting conservative pastors. Indeed, Barton’s RNC-sponsored tour in 2004 and his involvement with the Texas Restoration Project and “Renewal Projects” in presidential battleground states in recent years reveal a determined effort to mobilize for partisan political purposes evangelical Christian conservatives through their pastors and congregations.
[ii]WallBuilder’s attempts to topple the wall between church and state make the group’s name a bit ironic. In fact,WallBuilders takes its name from a biblical passage in Nehemiah 2, which reads,”Ye see the distress that we are in, how Jerusalemlieth waste, and the gates there of are burned with fire: come, and let us build up the wall of Jerusalem,that we be no more a reproach.”[ii] From “Sects, Lies and Videotape: Who is David Barton, and Why is he Saying Such Awful Things About Separation of Church and State?” Church & State, April, 1993
[xv] “Critique of David Barton’s’America’s Godly Heritage'” by J. Brent Walker, General Counsel Baptist Joint Committee, January 20, 1995; “David Barton’s Bad History: When a Myth is as Good as a Lie,” Church & State,April, 1993; Critique of David Barton’s”America’s Godly Heritage,” by The Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, 200 Maryland Avenue, NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; Brian,Bill. “Separation of Church and State: An Important Baptist Distinctive,” Texas Baptist Committed, June 1997
[xxiv] Boston, Rob. “Sects, Lies and Videotape,” Church & State, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, April 1993. http://www.au.org/media/church-and-state/archives/1993/sects-lies-and-videotape.pdf
[xxvii] LifeLine sales letter, singed by David Barton and printed on WallBuilder letterhead promoting the national long-distance company, LifeLine, that donated 10 percent of each phone bill Christian right groups designated by customers, undated. TFN files on David Barton.