That’s one of the questions at issue in Barton’s lawsuit. Barton is charging W.S. Smith, a writer for the Fort Worth Atheism Examiner, with defamation for labeling Barton a “liar” in a story published on the Examiner website last year.
But part of establishing a legitimate libel claim is, of course, demonstrating that the claim made about you is not true. Truth, as the saying goes, is an absolute defense against defamation.
In what is — to my mind — the most insightful profile of Barton yet written, Nate Blakeslee of Texas Monthly tells about a first-hand experience with Barton’s dishonesty. You be the judge of whether the label “liar” fits.
“WHAT SEEMS TO HAVE OFFENDED Barton most about his critics is their questioning not his competence but his honesty. (‘I mean, this is what we do,’ Cheryl [Barton’s wife] said, pointing to the stacks of material in the vault. ‘We’re not trying to fool anybody.’) But honesty has been a problem for Barton over the years and still is…
Perhaps the most embarrassing gaffe Barton has been accused of is an egregious mischaracterization of Jefferson’s famous letter to the Danbury Baptists. Barton allegedly said that Jefferson referred to the wall of separation between church and state as ‘one-directional’ — that is, it was meant to restrain government from infringing on the church’s domain but not the other way around. There is no such language in the letter. This mistaken quote does not appear on Barton’s list of retractions, however, and when I asked Barton about it, he denied ever having misquoted Jefferson’s letter in any of his publications. He claimed instead that unspecified critics had merely heard him mention the ‘one-directional wall’ in a speech and that he had in fact been summarizing Jefferson’s general views on the First Amendment, not purporting to paraphrase or quote from the Danbury Letter. In other words, his critics had dishonestly taken his words out of context to make him look bad.
For whatever reason, Barton is not telling the truth. The mistake in question comes from a 1990 version of Barton’s video America’s Godly Heritage. Here are Barton’s exact words from the tape:
‘On January 1, 1802, Jefferson wrote to that group of Danbury Baptists, and in this letter, he assured them — he said the First Amendment has erected a wall of separation between church and state, he said, but that wall is a one-directional wall. It keeps the government from running the church, but it makes sure that Christian principles will always stay in government.’
In a later version of the video, Barton carefully fixed this mistake, so it’s not something he could have forgotten.”