Last week the Christian publishing house Thomas Nelson opted to cease publication and distribution of The Jefferson Lies, by Christian historian David Barton. A Thomas Nelson statement cites a loss of confidence in the accuracy of materials employed by Barton in his attempt to prove that Jefferson was an evangelical Christian whose faith has been systematically written out of American history. But Barton is no stranger to factual inaccuracy, and he’s one of a cadre of evangelical leaders who have challenged secular knowledge and undermined academic consensus on issues from psychology to evolution to climate change to history.
These leaders and their millions-strong community were chronicled by Randall J. Stephens and Karl W. Giberson in The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age, a book we published last year. The following excerpt from The Anointed presents Stephens and Giberson’s account of Barton’s rise from evangelical luminary to nationally recognized and highly controversial figure.
By the 1990s Barton was the premier Christian historian. He was also leading the assault on the separation of church and state. Though [Peter J.] Marshall and [Francis] Schaeffer sold more books, Barton more than matched them as a tireless lecturer, conservative advocate, and media personality. With a B.A. in religious education from Oral Roberts University, an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Pensacola Christian College, and a winsome Southern charm, Barton rose to prominence out of relative obscurity. In the 1980s he taught and coached at a fundamentalist K–12 school in Aledo, Texas. He later became its principal. WallBuilders, his grassroots organization, now shapes public and private school curricula and educates Americans about the nation’s righteous heritage. WallBuilders is a reference to Israel’s rebuilding of its walls in the Old Testament book of Nehemiah. Just as the wayward Israelites reconstructed the walls of Jerusalem and returned to the faith of their fathers, Barton said, modern believers could rebuild on the foundations of America’s Christian past.
Barton’s message falls on welcome ears, and his close ties to the nation’s conservative political establishment make him well-placed to deliver it. For many years he was cochair of the Texas Republican party, and in 2004 the GOP enlisted him to speak to church groups in Ohio about the upcoming election. Averaging 250 public lectures each year, he has spoken about America’s Christian roots to thousands of children, pastors, politicians, and housewives. Many of his lectures are flawlessly delivered verbatim from memory, and his encyclopedic recall dazzles his audiences. With a perpetually young, boyish face looking out from under a trademark cowboy hat, and sporting an American-flag shirt, the articulate Barton inspires churchgoers around the country.
Despite his amateur status and marginal credentials, Barton has served as an expert witness for Supreme Court cases, spoken to U.S. lawmakers on the divine presence in history, and helped develop public school curricula for several states. In 2005, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist invited Barton to lead a spiritual heritage tour. One hundred senators and their families were promised “a Fresh Perspective on Our Nation’s Capitol” by “a historian noted for his detailed research.” The project made no sense to Senate Minority Leader Dick Durbin. “I would have to ask Sen. Frist why he feels this man has any professional expertise explaining what the U.S. Capitol is all about,” said the skeptical Durbin. Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State considered Barton a poor choice for Frist’s tour. Barton “is to American history what the fundamentalist creationist is to science,” claimed Boston.
Others shared that disdain. Barton and his organization wielded too much influence and misinformed Americans, they thought. WallBuilders sold over 100,000 videotapes on America’s Christian heritage by 1994. At $19 apiece, they helped build the organization. A disturbed American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) responded with a video of its own. A Virginia ACLU director lamented that Barton sent “a misleading message, ringing throughout the religious right, that seek[s] to create a state religion.”
In the eyes of his supporters, of course, Barton’s enthusiasm for spreading the good news about the religiosity of the Revolutionary generation was warranted. Public school and college textbooks did, even in the eyes of secular historians, downplay religion or treat it episodically. Rarely was it related to the larger national narrative. Yet in his rush to make his case, Barton consistently stumbled. He employed secondary and tertiary sources to mine key quotes, to take one example. Critics from Americans United for Separation of Church and State dogged Barton for using a dozen unverified quotations. WallBuilders eventually published a list of “Unconfirmed Quotations” on its website and Barton had to revise his publications accordingly. Still, he argued that WallBuilders’ standards for scholarship were actually higher than those of the academy. A James Madison scholar from the University of Richmond could not have disagreed more, upbraiding Barton for using unconfirmed quotes and for misrepresenting evidence. “Barton’s claims have no relationship to truth,” he wrote, “but can be floated easily to support political agendas concerning school prayer.”
Like many conservative Christians, Barton thinks that the twentieth- century Supreme Court has chipped away at the nation’s religious foundations. He finds parallels between errant Old Testament Israelites and wayward modern liberals. He lambasts the 1947 Everson v. Board of Education decision, which first applied the doctrine of separation of church and state to the states. Similarly, the Engel v. Vitale (1962) decision banning official school prayer proved to Barton that “the Court had affronted the traditional interpretation of the First Amendment.” The equally maddening case of School District of Abington v. Schempp (1963) forbade the required reading of scripture in public schools. Graphs in Barton’s book Original Intent illustrated the results of these disastrous cases: a rise in violence, crime, and sexual immorality and a decline in family stability and SAT scores.
Barton says that church and state should never have been separated. “‘Separation of church and state’ currently means almost exactly the opposite of what it originally meant,” he challenges, contending that few Americans know much about history or America’s legal apparatus. “American history today has become a dreary academic subject,” he laments on the WallBuilders website. In his estimation “history is presented in such an edited, revised, and politically- correct manner that God’s hand is rarely visible.” Academics are especially to blame. Barton claims that the peer-review process and the heavy interpretive component of professional history make it unreadable and unreliable. He thinks young scholars making their way to seminary face a similarly depressing situation. “Do you actually study the Bible or do you study only higher criticism?” he asks. He dismisses complaints about his credentials by referring to the unvarnished truth of the primary sources he employs. Conservative talk show host Glenn Beck, one of Barton’s chief promoters, makes the same point: “historians have been going back and trying to piece things together and bring in their own ideas instead of going back to the original sources, and that’s really the problem.” The claim is reminiscent of the longstanding fundamentalist directives to read the Bible unmediated by scholars or priests.
So what do we learn from the unmediated documents of American history? On WallBuilders’ website and in its books Barton details the astonishing acts of God in American history and the Christian faithfulness of individuals as diverse as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin. Barton’s online pieces offer up the wisdom of the Founders on any given subject: “Was George Washington a Christian?”; “The Founding Fathers on Jesus, Christianity and the Bible”; “The Founding Fathers and Slavery”; and, fittingly for current culture wars, “The Founding Fathers on Creation and Evolution.” Seemingly contradictory evidence like the Treaty of Tripoli, 1796–1797, which stated that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,” is laboriously dismantled by Barton. As of 2008 two of Barton’s books—America’s Godly Heritage and Original Intent—had sold 58,000 and 150,000 copies respectively. Barton has also sold hundreds of thousands of other books, tapes, and videos.
In 2010 Barton reached his largest audience by becoming a regular guest on Glenn Beck’s Fox News program as well as Beck’s radio show. According to a 2009 Harris poll, Beck was America’s second-favorite television personality, after Oprah Winfrey. Beck’s patronage, like Winfrey’s, could make a career or sell millions of copies of a book. Barton received a dramatic lift for his message after appearing on the Glenn Beck Program. Barton’s day as America’s historian had come, said Beck: “my gut tells me you are one of the most important men in America for this message today.” Though Beck had barely started college himself, he launched his online Beck University in 2010 to explore ideas of Faith, Hope, and Charity. He appointed Barton, “an expert in historical and constitutional issues,” as one of the school’s “professors.” Barton also joined Beck for the August 28 Restoring Honor gathering, held at the Lincoln Memorial in the capital. Scheduled on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s famous march on Washington, the event sought to awaken Americans to the need for a dramatic change in government leadership and to honor the country’s heroes and heritage. The night before the Restoring Honor rally, Beck held a kickoff event at the Kennedy Center. Speakers at the event—more religious revival than political crusade—included Barton, J. Randy Forbes, action star Chuck Norris, and the conservative Texas pastor and Christian Zionist John Hagee.
In Barton’s view, America is a Christian nation—not Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or secular. Not surprisingly, Barton questioned the 2007 unofficial swearing-in ceremony of the first Muslim congressman, Keith Ellison of Minnesota. The use of the Koran in that ritual, said Barton, was out of place and went against American tradition. He also opposed a Hindu prayer that opened a July 2007 session of the Senate.
Barton moves easily from history to science. As a representative evangelical and an expert witness on the evangelical view of global warming, he addressed members of Congress in 2007. “From the beginning, God warned about elevating nature and the environment over man and his Creator,” he remarked. Besides, he went on, there was no clear scientific consensus that global warming was a reality.
He has had a more significant impact as a chief advisor for the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools (NCBCPS). In 2010 the organization boasted that 555 school districts in 38 states used their materials and that over 360,000 students had taken their courses.65 Critics of the curriculum note that it encourages creationist pseudo-science and runs counter to prevailing currents in biblical studies, history, and archeology. Indeed, archeologist J. O. Kinnaman, one of the “respected scholars” on which the curriculum relies, claims to have personally seen Jesus’ school records in India and argues that Jesus and Paul ventured to Great Britain. He has made even more bizarre claims about the lost continent of Atlantis and the pyramid of Giza. A Southern Methodist University religious studies scholar concludes, not surprisingly, that the NCBCPS materials are “filled with factual errors, tabloid scholarship, and plagiarism, as well as religious claims and presuppositions that cause them to run afoul of pertinent court rulings.”
Barton’s work with the NCBCPS puts him in strange, notorious company. But it has also allowed him to present his version of American history to over 100,000 public school students. The council declares, “The Bible was the foundation and blueprint for our Constitution, our Declaration of Independence, our educational system, and our entire history until the last twenty to thirty years.” The NCBCPS recommends WallBuilders videos and other materials for exploring America’s holy past. Barton’s Christian Americanism runs throughout the curriculum.
Such efforts were dwarfed by other opportunities to shape the nation’s public school curriculum. Both Marshall and Barton lent their expertise to the Texas State Board of Education, which made national and international headlines in 2009 and 2010 for its conservative revamping of the history curriculum. Approved in May 2010, the new curriculum made numerous changes. Thomas Jefferson was removed from a list of Enlightenment thinkers. Students would now learn more about conservative individuals and groups. Pupils would “describe the causes and key organizations and individuals of the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schlafly, the Contract with America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority, and the National Rifle Association.” There was public uproar as Marshall and Barton proposed to eliminate key figures of the civil rights era like César Chávez and Thurgood Marshall. They also wanted textbooks to highlight tensions between the Christian West and the Islamic East. In that simplistic view the Barbary Wars in the early nineteenth century marked the “original war against Islamic Terrorism.” Critics howled. Marshall and Barton were not historians, wrote John Fea, a professor of history at Messiah College, a leading evangelical school. History, wrote Fea, should not have to conform to the political or religious whims of the present. “The board has made these standards political and had little academic discussion about what students need to learn,” said a dissenter on the board, ashamed of what the curriculum over90 haul would do to education in her state. The American Historical Association also registered its displeasure, urging the Texas board to rethink major omissions and revisions in the interest of “historical accuracy.”