Ken Starr vs. David Barton?

by Dan Quinn

Ken Starr, Baylor University president and Bill Clinton bête noire, has some interesting things to say in a Washington Post op-ed published Sunday. And David Barton, founder of the religious-right and historical revisionist organization WallBuilders, won’t like much of it.

Starr’s column addresses the question of whether Christians such as himself could vote for a Mormon, such as Mitt Romney, for president. In short, his answer is yes:

“Without endorsing or even praising (much less criticizing) any candidate, I strongly encourage Americans who would ask this question of themselves to consider and weigh thoughtfully our nation’s constitutional traditions. At their best, those are traditions of welcoming religious forbearance. . . . (T)he litmus for our elected leaders must not be the church they attend but the Constitution they defend.”

Starr goes on to discuss previous American presidents and their beliefs about religion:

“(A) number of great presidents have come to the White House without membership in any faith community. Thomas Jefferson was a Deist and was vigorously attacked for his religious views (or lack thereof). Abraham Lincoln, as a matter of conscience, refused to join any church. Yet our nation’s capital rightly dedicates two of its most stately monuments to those two men of unorthodox spiritual worldviews.”

Citizens as voters do well when they pause to reflect on our nation’s history and traditions. If an unbeliever such as Jefferson or non-churchman like Lincoln can serve brilliantly as president, then America should stand — in an intolerant world characterized all too frequently by religious persecution — as a stirring example of welcoming hospitality for highly qualified men and women of good will seeking the nation’s highest office.

Jefferson was a “deist”? An “unbeliever”? Uh-oh. Don’t tell “historian” David Barton. In pursuit of his political argument that the founders intended to establish a Christian nation with its laws and society based on the Christian Bible, Barton places Jefferson in a pantheon of early American leaders who used their public offices to promote Christianity.

Here’s what Barton said about Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and others of the nation’s founders in a discussion with Glenn Beck on Beck’s Fox News program from April 2010:

BARTON: Well, what happens today is we know Jefferson and Franklin, and nobody else on that. We’ve been taught to recognize the least religious and we’ve been taught, oh, all —

BECK: And they weren’t the least religious.

BARTON: And they weren’t. You know, if you take even Jefferson and Franklin, there’s no question that those guys are a whole lot more religious in their public expressions.

(CROSSTALK)

BECK: They didn’t — correct me if I’m wrong — they didn’t necessarily believe in the organized religion that was jammed down your throat —

BARTON: That’s right.

BECK: — where it was I got to baptize you in the name of Jesus and there’s no other truths.

BARTON: That’s right.

BECK: That’s what they didn’t believe.

BARTON: But they were not secular. They were not anti-God. They were not even anti-Christian. As a matter of fact, the way they do it, Jefferson has 19,000 written letters. There are six letters in which he raises some questions about orthodox Christian teachings. Everybody focuses on the six, they don’t touch the 19,000. So, that’s the way they make these guys look bad.

Barton and Beck later discuss how Jefferson as president promoted Christianity. In their exchange, Barton agrees with Beck that Jefferson “didn’t care what church you attended”; he simply wanted folks to “go to church; worship God; follow the 10 Commandments.” “And that’s what made Jefferson unusual as he was not denominational guy,” Barton said. “He was a trans-denominational guy.”

We won’t engage here in a debate over Jefferson’s religious beliefs. We see no need. There are plenty of good resources on this topic produced by respected historians. But David Barton is not a respected historian. He’s a political propagandist who distorts and misuses history to promote an ideological agenda.

We will point out that Jefferson supported religious liberty and strongly believed that such freedom is best protected when government and religion remain separate. But Barton doesn’t like that either.

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