Texas Tall Tale

Religious Right Cowboy David Barton’s Fixin’ To Rewrite The Social Studies Textbooks In The Lone Star State (And Maybe Your State Too)

When the Texas State Board of Education issued a list of proposed “experts” to sit on a social studies curriculum panel, one name immediately leaped out to defenders of church-state separation: David Barton.

The panel is supposed to consist of academics and others with specialized knowledge to assist the board in drafting new social studies standards for public schools across the state. The selection of Barton, a Religious Right propagandist who for years has pushed a fundamentalist “Christian nation” view of American history, is a sure sign that trouble lurks ahead.

At the offices of the Texas Freedom Network (TFN), a group that monitors the Religious Right, staff members were alarmed.

“We believe there’s nothing wrong with teaching about the significance of religion in history and society today,” said TFN President Kathy Miller. “The problem comes when Barton and others try to use public schools to promote their own personal religious beliefs over those of all others.”

TFN, Americans United and other advocates of church-state separation are quite familiar with Barton and his antics. He’s been attacking that constitutional principle for years, as well as arguing that a proper “biblical worldview” means that fundamentalist Christianity must reign supreme over all areas of life –; including government. Most recently, Barton has been hobnobbing with Newt Gingrich, as the former House speaker strives to re-make himself as a Religious Right champion.

From his base in Aledo, a town of about 2,000 just west of Fort Worth, Barton runs an outfit called WallBuilders that issues a steady stream of books, videos, DVDs, pamphlets and other materials designed to “prove” that the United States was founded to be a Christian nation. Barton argues that American law should be based on the Bible (or, more accurately, his fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible) and says church-state separation was never intended by our Founders.

The name of Barton’s outfit is somewhat ironic, since WallBuilders exists to tear down the wall of separation between church and state. But Barton was thinking of another wall when he chose that moniker. It comes from Nehemiah 2:17, an Old Testament passage in which the Prophet Nehemiah calls for rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem.

Perhaps somewhat egotistically, Barton apparently likens himself to a biblical prophet who has been ordained by God to rebuild the religious foundations of the nation.

Barton aims to do that by rediscovering an allegedly lost or suppressed Christian history of America. It’s an odd task for him, because although he poses as a historian, Barton isn’t one.

His official bio on the WallBuilders Web site says nothing about Barton’s educational background, probably for good reason: It’s not relevant to what he’s doing. Barton earned a bachelor’s degree in “Christian Education” from Oral Roberts University in 1976 and later taught math and science at a fundamentalist Christian school founded by his father, pastor of Aledo Christian Center.

Despite his thin academic credentials, Barton has managed to become a celebrity in the world of the Religious Right based on his research allegedly “proving” America’s Christian character. He has appeared on programs alongside TV preacher Pat Robertson and fundamentalist radio honcho James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family. Barton gives hundreds of lectures every year, rallying fundamentalist shock troops to oppose secular government and church-state separation.

All the while, Barton, a tall man who frequently sports boots, a rodeo shirt and a cowboy hat, presides over an interlocking network of for-profit and non-profit groups that have produced a tidy sum for himself and made him a star in the world of the Religious Right. In 2005, Time magazine named him one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America.

TFN’s Miller said Barton’s rise comes in part because he tells fundamentalists what they want to hear –; the nation was founded by them and for them.

“In some ways, it’s a product of the anti-intellectualism that’s become so prominent not just with the Religious Right, but in the conservative movement generally,” Miller said. “Barton’s pseudo-intellectual nonsense serves to validate the personal beliefs and emotions of people who have been exposed for decades to far-right rhetoric denouncing those with high levels of education as somehow ‘promoting a liberal agenda.’”

In 1998, a conservative member of the California Academic Standards Commission appointed Barton to an advisory position, asking the Texan to critique proposed social studies/history standards. From that perch, Barton attacked the portion of the standards that discussed the development of religious freedom, trying to remove every reference to separation of church and state.

He almost pulled it off. Commission members, unfamiliar with Barton’s agenda, seemed open to adopting his suggestions. They changed course only after intervention by Americans United’s Sacramento Chapter, AU’s national office and others.

The battle in Texas may be tougher. The State Board of Education is stacked with a vocal cohort of far-right, fundamentalist activists. Fresh from a bruising battle over what to teach about evolution in science class, the board now has social studies and history right in its crosshairs.

The outcome of the battle may reverberate around the country.

“Texas is the second largest purchaser of school textbooks in the country,” Miller told Church & State. “So to avoid spending money on multiple editions, publishers often write their textbooks to meet Texas curriculum standards and then sell those textbooks in other states.”

Barton is also busy trying to slip his perspective into public schools in other ways. He is active in the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, a North Carolina group that works to persuade public schools to adopt a fundamentalist-oriented Bible curriculum under the guise of teaching “about” religion. Barton serves on the organization’s advisory board, alongside several other Religious Right figures.

But Barton hasn’t stopped with phony history. He’s increasingly branching out, working to draft churches into right-wing political machines and brazenly asserting that government must be infused with “biblical” principles. Along the way, Barton has made common cause with some extreme elements of the Religious Right.

Barton’s ongoing crusade to recruit clergy into partisan politics is often under the radar. In 2004, the Republican National Committee sent him to evangelical churches around the country in what was described as a “get-out-the-vote” effort.

Critics said the events were aimed at getting out the vote for Republicans only. The confabs were closed to the media, but one attendee in Oregon told the Portland Oregonian, “The whole structure of the event is meant to support the Republican Party and meant to cast negative views on the Democrats.”

During the Portland event, Barton attacked the Democrats over issues such as reproductive choice and same-sex marriage.

As vice chairman of the Texas GOP from 1998-2006, Barton spearheaded an effort to add a plank to the party’s platform attacking church-state separation as a “myth.”

In 2007, Barton stepped even more boldly into partisan politics. WallBuilders Presentations, the non-profit arm of his empire, produced voter guides that clearly favored Republican candidate Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas. (In January of 2008, Americans United asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate the matter.)

Barton’s non-profit has an interesting board: It has six members, and three of them are Barton, his wife and his mother. This close family control may explain why the million-dollar-a-year operation is not listed with the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, an evangelical oversight group that insists on accountability for non-profits.

A fourth member of Wallbuilders’ board is Stephen McDowell, co-founder of the Providence Foundation. (Barton, in turn, serves on the Providence Foundation’s board.)

The Providence Foundation, based in Charlottesville, Va., poses as a benign group dedicated to promoting a “biblical worldview.” In fact, the organization seems to be aligned with Christian Reconstructionism, an ultra-fundamentalist theology that seeks to scrap democracy and impose a harsh Old Testament regime on modern-day America.

In 2003, McDowell penned an article giving the “biblical” perspective on slavery. The essay was based heavily on the writings of R.J. Rushdoony, the late Christian Reconstructionist theologian who espoused some forms of slavery as well as executing people for adultery, homosexuality, witchcraft, worshipping false gods and a variety of other offenses.

McDowell’s article, posted on WallBuilders’ site, says the American form of slavery was wrong, but notes, “In light of the Scriptures we cannot say that slavery, in a broad and general sense, is sin.”

Barton’s dalliance with Christian Reconstructionism seems to be leading him to adopt increasingly hard-line views. In 2002, he spoke at a “Worldview Weekend” conference in Pearland, Texas, telling attendees that the Bible can answer any social or political question and indicating that government policies should be based on it.

Barton said the Bible addresses taxation (including the estate tax), zoning, the minimum wage and the 40-hour work week. He urged attendees to adopt a “biblical worldview [even when] you’re getting ready for your carpool or doing yard work.”

Over the years, Barton’s views have evolved, morphing from a “Christian nation” outlook to a more alarming strategy that seeks to link fundamentalist church pastors and members with far-right politicians in a crusade to impose “biblical” morality on America through political action. In his 2002 Texas speech, for example, Barton said since judges interpret the law, it is imperative that they be “God fearing” –; code language for fundamentalist.

Barton’s goals are far reaching –; but they spring from modest beginnings. He first landed on Americans United’s radar screen in 1993, when AU members began calling the organization to ask about a Barton video that was making the rounds on public-access channels. The tape, “America’s Godly Heritage,” summarized Barton’s arguments as outlined in his self-published 1989 book The Myth of Separation.

AU obtained a copy of the tape and dissected it in the April 1993 Church & State. (See “Sects, Lies and Videotape: David Barton’s Distorted History” and “David Barton’s Bad History: When A Myth Is As Good As A Mile.”)

Barton’s book and video were so outrageous and filled with errors and astounding leaps of logic that AU believed he would be easy to dismiss.

For example, Barton claimed that Thomas Jefferson, in his famous letter to the Danbury (Conn.) Baptists that endorses the concept of a church-state wall, went on to assert that he supported only a “one directional” church-state wall and favored “Christian principles” in government.

Barton also asserted that the Supreme Court never ruled on church-state separation until 1947 and insisted that the role of religion in public schools had never been challenged in the courts prior to 1962.

None of this is true – and Barton was later forced to correct the record in several instances. But, remarkably, Barton’s litany of bad history and sloppy errors never slowed down his juggernaut one bit. In fact, his fame just continued to grow.

Barton’s popularity escalated despite some serious missteps. In 1991, Barton spoke to two groups tied to white supremacists. He later claimed he was not aware of the organizations’ radical ties. The revelation seemed to do him no significant damage.

Throughout the 1990s, Barton was a fixture at Religious Right gatherings. He hobnobbed with the Christian Coalition, then the most powerful Religious Right group in the nation, and surfaced at other Religious Right meetings as well. He was even embraced by prominent politicians, such as Gingrich, former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

The Barton-Gingrich alliance has grown closer recently, as Gingrich apparently sees Religious Right legions as his vehicle back into national politics. Last month, both men appeared (alongside Mike Huckabee) at a pastors conference in Norfolk sponsored by the Virginia Renewal Project. Virginia is one of two states with a gubernatorial election this year, and it’s likely the event was designed to mobilize conservative clergy in advance of the polling.

Barton is feted by Gingrich and other political leaders even though his research is slipshod – and sometimes just plain outrageous. Barton’s first book, America: To Pray Or Not To Pray, is a good example.

In the self-published tome, Barton claims to have “proven” that the Supreme Court’s 1962 decision outlawing state-sponsored prayer in public schools has had a deleterious effect on the country. The book consists mainly of a series of charts, showing that since the ruling, social problems such as divorce, venereal disease and out-of-wedlock births have increased.

Barton has apparently never taken a basic course in statistics, or he would know that correlation is not causation. In other words, the fact that two things occur in sequence does not automatically mean that one caused the other.

Barton followed that book with The Myth of Separation, which he subsequently updated and re-titled Original Intent. In its original incarnation, The Myth of Separation was riddled with errors and quotes that turned out to be unsubstantiated.

Perhaps realizing he had a credibility problem, Barton in 1996 issued a list of 12 quotations from the Founders and others that he labeled “questionable.” Nine of the quotations had appeared in The Myth of Separation, but Barton now advised his followers to stop using them.

One of the bogus quotations, a statement by James Madison lauding the Ten Commandments as the basis for the U.S. government, has proved impossible to kill. Even though Barton disowned it 13 years ago, the orphaned quote still wanders through cyberspace, often gracing fundamentalist Web sites and appearing in letters to the editor.

Even after ditching the phony quotes, Barton continued to misconstrue the facts. On May 2, 1996, he appeared on a radio broadcast with Focus on the Family’s Dobson and opined that Thomas Jefferson favored using “Christian principles with government” – a sentiment that appears nowhere in the private or public statements of Jefferson.

But perhaps Barton’s most common sin is that he engages in rampant errors of omission. In fact, he revels in it, cherry-picking history and wrenching quotes and stories out of context to buttress his set-in-stone beliefs.

Barton’s slapdash research and willingness to play fast and loose with the facts has sparked criticism in academic circles.

In a 2005 New York Times column, Mark Lilla, a well-respected scholar who has taught at the University of Chicago and Columbia University, scored the “schlock history written by religious propagandists like David Barton, the author of the bizarre pastiche The Myth of Separation, who use selective quotations out of context to suggest that the framers were inspired believers who thought they were founding a Christian nation.”

Many of Barton’s critics come from the Christian tradition. Richard T. Hughes, professor of religion at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., takes issue with Barton and other “Christian nation” advocates in his recently published book Christian America and the Kingdom of God.

“Regardless of the claims Christians have made for over two hundred years that the Founders sought to create a Christian nation, the Constitution stands as the supreme rebuttal to that contention,” Hughes writes. “Indeed, the Constitution stands as written. It makes no mention of God, it prohibits the creation of a religious establishment, and it outlaws any religious test for public office.

“No matter how orthodox and devout certain Founders may have been in their personal religious beliefs,” Hughes continues, “they refused to translate those beliefs into even the mildest constitutional requirement that the nation embrace the Christian faith.”

In an interview with Church & State, Hughes said Barton has misread the views of the Founders.

“When these ‘Christian America’ guys say the Founders were Christian, they’re absolutely right –; many of them were Christians,” Hughes said. “When they point to the respect for Christianity that the Founders had, they’re right…. But virtually none of the Founders wanted to impose Christianity by the state. I read some of this stuff these people put out, and I just scratch my head. They must be kidding.”

In his book, Hughes argues that “Christian nation” advocates also misinterpret the Bible. The New Testament, he said, does refer to a “Kingdom of God.” But that kingdom, Hughes argues, is not temporal. Rather, it is an expression of faith among a community of believers that lifts up the poor and the oppressed.

“What they’re basically doing is what Europeans in the Middle Ages did – the Holy Roman Empire, the Christian empire, Christian England, Christian Germany,” Hughes remarked. “People have made that argument for centuries, but to make that argument, you really have to ignore an absolutely central theme in the biblical text that talks about what is the Kingdom of God. It’s just the absolute opposite of the Christian nation.”

Other critics have pointed out that Barton is frequently intolerant of other religions. He publicly criticized U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a Muslim, for taking his oath of office on a Koran, accusing him of “flaunting [sic] American traditions and cultural values.”

When a Hindu priest was invited to give the opening invocation before Congress in June of 2007, Barton carped that “the prayer will be completely outside the American paradigm, flying in the face of the American motto ‘One Nation Under God.’”

What lies ahead for Barton?

Amazingly, it looks like Barton is branching out into other fields – areas where, like history, he has no legitimate credentials. On June 7, 2007, Barton testified before the U.S. Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, criticizing global warming and posing as an expert on how evangelicals view that issue.

But bad history remains Barton’s bread and butter. His efforts to influence Texas’ social studies standards will be a big test of his political clout –; and many on the state school board remain in his thrall.

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said the answer to Barton’s half-baked history and theocratic worldview is better education and activism. Lynn, an ordained Christian minister, criticized the “Christian nation” view of history and blasted Religious Right efforts to merge religion and government in his 2006 book Piety & Politics: The Right-Wing Assault on Religious Freedom.

“The First Amendment is clear on this matter: The government of the United States is secular, and all faiths are welcome,” Lynn said. “Barton seems to think we should be ashamed of that fact. He’s wrong. We should be proud of it.”