David Barton: Propaganda Masquerading as History

GOP Operative’s Campaign to Reach African-Americans

A report by People for the American Way Foundation

Table of Contents

Introduction

In 1987, God reportedly told David Barton, a one-time science teacher at a fundamentalist Christian school that grew out of a church started by his own parents, that he was “to search the library and find the date that prayer had been prohibited in public schools [and] obtain a record of national SAT scores … spanning several decades.” Predictably, the result of Barton’s unscientific study was to find a “correlation” between theallegedbanning of prayer and a decrease in SAT scores, as well as increases in everything from alcohol consumption to crimes rates across the nation. [1]

Since the publication of his book, “America: To Pray Or Not To Pray?,” Barton has been on a mission to uncover “America's forgotten history and heroes, with an emphasis on the moral, religious, and constitutional foundation on which America was built.” [2] Styling himself a historian and “expert” on the “original intent of our Founding Fathers in the areas of faith and family,”[3] Barton’s skewed “scholarship” on the Christian history of the United States has been widely embraced by right-wing leaders from James Dobson and Jerry Falwell to Senators Bill Frist and Sam Brownback – Sen. Frist once praised Barton for his “detailed research into the religious heritage of our nation”[4] while Sen. Brownback stated that Barton’s “research provides the philosophical underpinning for a lot of the Republican effort in the country today -- bringing God back into the public square.”[5]

David BartonBarton has also participated in events hosted by the Texas Restoration Project, a right-wing movement affiliated with the “Patriot Pastors” network[6] and, in 2005, was named by Time Magazine as one of the “25 most influential evangelicals in America.”[7] Despite the fact that his educational background is limited to a “Bachelor of Arts degree from Oral Roberts University and an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Pensacola Christian College” [8] in 2004, Barton was tapped by the Republican National Committee to bring his brand of pseudo-history to evangelical pastors around the country[9] as part of the Republican effort to mobilize the Right in support of President Bush. For his part, Barton has long been waging his own deceptive efforts to generate African American support for the GOP.

Whereas people like James Dobson and Pat Robertson are well-known right-wing figures, Barton operates mostly under the national media’s radar, speaking to small groups of activists all over the country and churning out an array of resources that provide the pseudo-historical foundation for much of the right-wing agenda on everything from reigning in “judicial activism” and impeaching judges to defending the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and decrying homosexuals in the military.

The Right’s Favorite Pseudo-Historian

Through his organization, Wallbuilders, Barton peddles a wide array of videos, books and other resources designed to “introduce the current generation of Americans to an uncensored view of America’s religious and political history.”[10]

Despite Barton’s lack of academic credentials and his shoddy scholarship, he has managed to create an important niche by traveling around the country and all over the world telling audiences that the Founding Fathers were evangelical Christians just like them, and intended to create a nation of, by, and for Christians.

Not surprisingly, Barton’s history has been eagerly embraced by the Right. The Eagle Forum has cited Barton’s work on impeachment[11] and, in 2004, nearly 100 members of Concerned Women for America gathered at the US Capitol where they met “their legislators and [gave] them each a copy of David Barton’s video, Foundations of American Government.”[12] Focus on the Family calls Barton a “nationally renowned American history scholar”[13] and peddles his work on its website. Barton also appeared, via video, at the Family Research Council’s “Justice Sunday III” event, where he reinforced the theme Christians are under attack by the court system and had his pseudo-history praised by Rev. Jerry Falwell, who stated “We need to come back to what the founding fathers and David Barton were just telling us about. We are a nation under God.” [14]

While Barton’s work is praised by the Right, it is refuted by actual historians such as Richard Pierard of Indiana State University who notes that Barton’s assertion that the Founding Fathers were evangelicals is “ridiculous” considering that the term “evangelical” didn’t even come into use until the end of the 19th century and that Barton’s attempt to “take a later definition and impose it” on the Founding Fathers is a “historical anachronism.” [15]

In 2005, Derek Davis, the director of the JM Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University, said of Barton: "He's not a trained historian. He can be very convincing to an uninitiated audience. He's intelligent. He's well-spoken. But a lot of what he presents is a distortion of the truth … [H]e assumes that because [the Founding Fathers] were religious, our government should be, too."[16]

Academic historians, according to the New York Times, give Barton’s work at best a “B minus,” noting that while the historical facts he cites are more or less accurate, his biased interpretation of them is not. [17] The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty said that Barton’s work is “laced with exaggerations, half-truths and misstatements of fact” [18] and the Texas Freedom Network calls him “a pseudo-intellectual fraud whose twisted interpretations of history are little more than propaganda.” [19]

Such dim views of Barton’s work are based on repeated instances in which Barton cites quotes attributed to Founding Fathers that appear to support the right-wing view that the current model of separation of church and state was not at all what the Framers intended, only to have those quotes turn out to be unverifiable, if not utterly false.

Barton claims to have sold millions of copies of his books, tapes, and video and it has been reported that his video “America’s Godly Heritage” sold 100,000 copies at $20 a piece in the first three years.[20] In this video, Barton claimed that the phrase "wall of separation between church and state" originated in a speech made by Thomas Jefferson made in 1801. Barton also claimed that Jefferson went on to say that "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." [21]

Such a claim would be powerful, provided it was true. The only problem was that Barton was wrong on all accounts:the phrase regarding church and state came out of an 1802 letter Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association and the letter says absolutely nothing about keeping “Christian principles” in the government.

The quote was quietly dropped in a subsequent edition of the video and Barton now insists that he never made such a claim. When the Texas Monthly’s Blakesleequestioned Barton about it, Barton stated that he had been misquoted, but Blakeslee tracked down a copy of the video that contained the quote in question and noted that “Barton [had] carefully fixed this mistake [in the later version of the video], so it’s not something he could have forgotten.”[22]


But this is not the only time Barton has been forced to backtrack from his claims.[23] In 1995, Wallbuilders issued a statement identifying more than a dozen “Unconfirmed Quotations” that Barton had attributed to the Founding Fathers that could not be verified or were false. [24]

Even though Barton was forced to publicly retract several statements, the false information had already been entered into the public domain where it continues to propagate unchallenged. As Blakeslee notes, “In a perverse way, however, the ‘unconfirmed quotes’ incident served to demonstrate just how pervasive Barton’s ideas had quietly become. Barton published his retraction ten years ago, yet the fraudulent Madison quote still pops up like a bad penny all over the Internet.”[25]

Barton specializes in uncovering the “lost history” of America, a history that Barton claims shows that the Founding Fathers intended to create a government “firmly rooted in biblical principles.” But to do so, he relies on the writings of obscure figures such as Francis Hopkins and Benjamin Rush while ignoring or disputing the conventionally accepted history regarding the views of men such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and James Madison. As Blakeslee correctly notes, it is “the big picture that Barton’s books deliberately ignore: that the views on religion and government of figures like Benjamin Rush fell into obscurity not because of some conspiracy but because they failed to carry the day.”[26]

In 1995, Republican Senator Arlen Specter wrote in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy that many of Barton’s arguments “range from the technical to the absurd” and that they “proceed from flawed and highly selective readings of both text and history.” Specter went on to state that Barton’s “pseudoscholarship would hardly be worth discussing, let alone disproving, were it not for the fact that it is taken so very seriously by so many people.”[27]

David Barton

Yet many on the Right take Barton’s work “so very seriously,” including the Republican National Committee. While historians, and Barton’s own history, have made clear that his work is unreliable at best, right-wing leaders and the RNC are less interested in its accuracy than in its political usefulness.

In fact, the RNC seems primarily interested in spreading Barton’s pseudo-history as widely as it could, which is not surprising since Barton’s main goal seems to be to convince his audience that America was designed to be a Christian nation and that all good Christians must vote Republican.

RNC Bankrolls Barton’s Outreach to African Americans and Hispanics

In late 2003, the Republican National Committee boasted that it had “hosted six meetings since September with pastors from both the African-American and Hispanic communities in Atlanta, Ga.; Washington, D.C.; and Tupelo and Jackson, Miss” where Barton “spoke about the ‘Role of Christians and Pastors in Civil Society.” He was described as the “founder and president of WallBuilders, a national, pro-family organization.’” [28] His presentation was presumably based on a Wallbuilders DVD entitled “The Role of Pastors & Christians in Civil Government,” a program that encourages “Christians to reengage in civil stewardship from a Biblical viewpoint.” [29] All told, Barton reportedly spoke at some 100 RNC-sponsored events, while addressing approximately 300 more on his own[30] with the RNC paying Barton nearly $16,000 and paying Wallbuilders Presentations nearly $25,000.[31]

The fact that Barton’s “scholarship” was exploited as part of the RNC’s efforts to reach out to African American pastors and voters running up to the presidential election is especially notable considering the historically manipulated contents of his 2006 DVD “Setting the Record Straight: American History in Black & White.

Though the program is billed as an attempt to recognize “the forgotten heroes and untold stories from our rich African American political history,”[32] it is, in reality, a 90-minute effort to portray the Democratic Party as responsible for every problem that has ever plagued the African American community in America and imply that the Republican Party is the antidote. Barton’s website proudly claims that he “is currently breaking ground in the African-American community with his presentations” based on this DVD.

Throughout the program, Barton presents a staggeringly slanted, openly partisan, and tellingly incomplete view of American history. Barton focuses on the Democratic Party’s historical support for slavery and Jim Crow, but completely ignores the transformation of American politics brought about by the civil rights movement. Barton, of course, never mentions that the rise of the modern Republican Party was built on a “southern strategy” of embracing and exploiting the resentments of racist southern Democrats who joined the Republican Party after Democratic President Lyndon Baines Johnson pushed and signed landmark civil rights and voting rights legislation.

One-Sided History

The program is dedicated to laying out the ways in which the Democratic Party of old was responsible for everything from slavery and segregation to lynchings and the birth of the Ku Klux Klan, all the while insinuating that the Party continues to hold such views to this day. [Watch the Barton video re lynchings and Ku Klux Klan.]

For example, Barton claims that Democrats hailed the Dred Scott decision because it affirmed “their belief that it was proper to have slavery and hold African Americans in bondage.” He then takes it a step further, making a direct comparison between this decision and modern Democrats’ support of reproductive choice for women, claiming “Democrats have largely taken that same position in unborn human life, that an unborn human is really just disposable property to do with as one wishes. African Americans were the victims of this disposable property ideology a century and a half ago, and still are today … For over a century and a half, Democrats have wrongly argued that some human life is merely disposable personal property and black Americans have suffered most under this philosophy.” [Watch the video comparing Dred Scott and abortion.]

David Barton's Book

Barton’s discussion of the Dred Scott decision is indicative of his intentional misuse and misinterpretation of history, in that he repeatedly attempts to equate the very differently configured Democratic Party’s early opposition to civil rights and equality to contemporary Democratic practices and views which are radically different in these areas. [Watch the Barton video re Scott.decision.]

In the Scott case, the Supreme Court ruled that Scott and other African Americans “are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States.” [33]

Of course, though Barton not surprisingly fails to explain it, the judicial philosophy that the Supreme Court adhered to in the Scott case is strikingly similar to the judicial philosophy the GOP and those on the Right demand of judges today, i.e., fealty to the Constitution’s “original intent.”

The author of Dred Scott decision explained it thusly:

[The Constitution] must be construed now as it was understood at the time of its adoption. It is not only the same in words, but the same in meaning, and delegates the same powers to the Government, and reserves and secures the same rights and privileges to the citizen; and as long as it continues to exist in its present form, it speaks not only in the same words, but with the same meaning and intent with which it spoke when it came from the hands of its framers, and was voted on and adopted by the people of the United States. Any other rule of construction would abrogate the judicial character of this court, and make it the mere reflex of the popular opinion or passion of the day.[34]

This is exactly the judicial philosophy that the Right constantly argues judges should have and it is the view currently embraced by the likes of Justices Scalia and Thomas – both Republican appointees.

Later, just as he did with the Dred Scott decision, Barton sets up his discussion of the Brown vs. Board of Education to be staggeringly misleading, allowing him to equate southern opposition to integration to current Democratic opposition to school vouchers, claiming that “Democratic leaders long stood in the doorway of schoolhouses and told black children ‘we don’t want you in here to get the good education that our children are getting.’ Today, as many black children have become mired in urban schools that are often failing or deteriorating, Democrats are once again standing in the doorway … for a century and a half, Democrats have often taken wrong positions on educational opportunity for black Americans.” [Watch the Barton video equating opposition to vouchers with segregation.]

Barton carefully covers nearly one hundred years of American history, missing no opportunity to highlight historical mistreatment of African Americans and laying all of the blame squarely on the Democratic Party, but conveniently stops his historical account with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Barton contrasts the Republican Party’s efforts to take steps “toward ending slavery and achieving full civil rights for black Americans,” with efforts by pro-slavery opponents to pass “atrocious Democratic” laws that stymied or reversed these efforts. [Watch the Barton video re Democratic support for pro-slavery laws.]

Elsewhere, Barton highlights an 1865 sermon delivered by an African American minister following passage of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery and notes that Democrats in the House of Representatives did not join in inviting the Rev. Henry Highland Garnet to address the chamber. Again, Barton attempts to establish a connection between this 140 year-old incident and the Democratic Party of today, claiming that it is no different from “Democratic opposition to traditional public religious expressions and activities that they still demonstrate even in the most recent years.” [Watch the Barton video claiming Democrats are still hostile to religion.]

When it comes to the issue of paying reparations for slavery, Barton suggests that “given the political history of African Americans, it might be much more appropriate that those demands for reparations were made to the Democrat Party rather than to the federal government.”

These attacks on Democrats’ historical actions continue until Barton reaches the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when his history suddenly stops. [Watch the video.]

The End of Republican History

Barton primarily credits “strong support of Republicans” for passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, but then all but ignores the political transformation that has taken place over the last forty years. Having been so eager to recount every historical Democratic disgrace, Barton falls silent when it comes to mentioning the split that emerged within the Democratic Party in the 1960s between the growing number who embraced the civil rights movement and those who continued to oppose it. Barton does not mention that President Johnson risked his career and his party’s future to do the right thing, nor does he mention that racist and segregationist southern Democrats left the party and were welcomed by the national Republican Party as part of its “Southern Strategy” to building power. Nor, of course, does he mention a particularly shameful modern-era example of that strategy – presidential candidate Ronald Reagan launching his 1980 bid for the presidency with a visit to Philadelphia, Mississippi to declare his support for states’ rights – with no mention of the town’s notoriety as the place where civil rights workers were murdered and townspeople jeered federal investigators.[35]

Even an amateur historian like Barton shouldn’t be able to ignore that sordid history. In fact it’s so well documented that even RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman once openly acknowledged in the context of his efforts to recruit African Americans into the Party. Mehlman gave an apology of sorts, saying "By the '70s and into the '80s and '90s, the Democratic Party solidified its gains in the African American community, and we Republicans did not effectively reach out. Some Republicans gave up on winning the African American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong." [36]

This admission has not prevented Mehlman from using Barton-like sound bites to selectively re-tell only the positive “history” of the Republican Party and African Americans in an attempt to unconvincingly portray the GOP as the historical “home” of African Americans.

Even President Bush acknowledged that whatever prestige the Republican Party once had with African Americans has been squandered, telling the NAACP on July 20, 2006 that he understands why “many African Americans distrust my political party” and that he considers it “a tragedy that the party of Abraham Lincoln let go of its historic ties with the African American community. For too long my party wrote off the African American vote, and many African Americans wrote off the Republican Party” – admissions which were met with rousing applause from the audience. [37]

Peddling Dishonesty for Political Gain

Barton’s historical narrative conveniently stopped in the mid-1960’s, freeing him from addressing the uncomfortable truth that his beloved Republican Party successfully courted away from the Democratic Party, particularly in the South, the very people he had dedicated an entire DVD to vilifying.

David Barton
“...voters will answer to God for their vote...."



— David Barton

Watch the video

Unable to continue to saddle the Democratic Party with his spurious history, and unwilling to acknowledge the massive political transformation undergone by both major parties in the last four decades, Barton concludes by telling his audience that African Americans cannot be bound blindly to one party or the other, but must cast their votes based on the “standard of biblical righteousness … the principles of Christianity … and an awareness that voters will answer to God for their vote.”There can be no doubt about just which party Barton intends his viewers to support. [Watch video.]

The Republican Party is also doing all it can to win support from African Americans, anything, that is short of embracing public policies that would address the economic and social needs of African Americans.For example, in 2004, the House Republican Conference launched the Joseph H. Rainey Congressional Scholars Program, named for the first African American elected to Congress. The program was “designed to foster a greater appreciation of the important role African Americans played in shaping the U.S. House of Representatives”[38] and provides college students with internships in House offices with members such as Katherine Harris and Chris Chocola. In addition, the inaugural class also “received a lecture on the history of black politics from David Barton.” The program must have been effective, as one of the scholars gushed “I basically was ignorant about Republicans. The history that comes from African-Americans was fascinating to me.” [39]

Wallbuilders annually hosts “Pastors’ Briefings” which brings ministers to Washington D.C. “for exclusive briefing sessions with some of the top Christian Senators and Representatives … serving in Congress. The Members brief pastors on a variety of issues related to Biblical values and share their hearts regarding their personal faith and its application in public office. Additionally, the Members impart practical information for pastors to carry home and implement in their communities and congregations.” As an added bonus, Barton personally leads a “Spiritual Heritage Tour of the U. S. Capitol” which is “hosted by a Member of Congress.”[40] While some of the briefings are open to “pastors and ministers from a variety of denominations,” others are reserved for “African American Pastors only.”[41]

Beyond his one-sided rhetoric, Barton is personally active in the Republican Party, having served as vice-chairman of the Texas Republican Party from 1998 until 2006 [42] and his daughter currently works for the Texas Republican Party where she is in charge of minority outreach.[43] Furthermore, Barton has ties to several high-ranking Republican members, such as former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, with whom he once collaborated on a proposed “religious freedom amendment.” Barton is also a self-described expert on impeachment and traveled to Washington DC to speak with members of Congress on the topic in 1998 during the impeachment proceedings directed at then-President Clinton.[44] Barton has even been instrumental in shaping the nature of the displays to be housed in the visitors center being built for the US Capital, reportedly drafting a 20-page memo that was distributed by Rep. DeLay opposing the “secular” nature of the proposed exhibits.[45]

With the RNC proclaiming that “bringing African Americans back to the Party of Lincoln” is its “central priority,” [46] it’s not hard to see why party leaders would hire Barton to spread his bogus and biased “history” far and wide. GOP strategists have pinned their hopes on the use of political “wedges” to peel a percentage of relatively conservative churchgoing African Americans away from their traditional political allies in the Democratic Party. Barton’s deceptive demonization of Democrats fits nicely with Republican leaders’ demonization of gay men and lesbians, immigrants, and advocates for public education and church-state separation. “Divide and conquer” is a time-tested political strategy, of course, but it doesn’t have much to do with the American ideals of liberty and justice that Dr. Martin Luther King mobilized to change the course of American history.

Endnotes

  1. Nate Blakeslee, "King of the Christocrats," Texas Monthly, September 2006 and Rob Boston, "Sects, Lies and Videotape," Church & State, Volume 46, No. 4, April 1993, pp 8-12.
  2. Wallbuilders.com, "About Us," [link]
  3. Wallbuilders.com, "David Barton Biography," [link]
  4. Mark Preston, "Judicial Critic to Lead Frist Tour," Roll Call, April 7, 2005
  5. Chris Vaughn, "A man with a message; Self-taught historian's work on church-state issues rouses GOP," Fort Worth Star-Telegram, May 22, 2005
  6. Texas Freedom Network Education Foundation, "The Anatomy of Power: Texas and the Religious Right in 2006," p.16
  7. "The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America," Time Magazine, February 7, 2005
  8. Wallbuilders.com, "David Barton Biography," [link]
  9. Deborah Caldwell, "David Barton & the 'Myth' of Church-State Separation," Beliefnet.com, [link]
  10. Wallbuilders.com, "About Us," [link]
  11. "It's Time to Hold Federal Judges Accountable," The Phyllis Schlafly Report, Eagle Forum, March 1997
  12. Haven Howard, "Videos Given to State Legislators," Concerned Women for America, 4/27/04
  13. David Barton, "The Decalogue: Foundation of American Law," Editor's Note, Citizen Magazine, November 2003
  14. Family Research Council, "Justice Sunday III Simulcast Transcript"
  15. Rob Boston, "Sects, Lies and Videotape," Church & State, Volume 46, No. 4, April 1993, pp 8-12.
  16. Chris Vaughn, "A man with a message; Self-taught historian's work on church-state issues rouses GOP," Fort Worth Star-Telegram, May 22, 2005
  17. David Kirkpatrick, "The Faith Factor; Putting God Back Into American History," The New York Times, February 27, 2005
  18. J. Brent Walker, "A Critique of David Barton's Views on Church and State," Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, April 2005
  19. Texas Freedom Network Education Foundation, "The Anatomy of Power: Texas and the Religious Right in 2006," p.19
  20. Nate Blakeslee, "King of the Christocrats," Texas Monthly, September 2006 and Ted Gest, "Dueling Tapes," UN News and World Report, November 22, 1993
  21. Rob Boston, "Sects, Lies and Videotape," Church & State, Volume 46, No. 4, April 1993, pp 8-12
  22. Nate Blakeslee, "King of the Christocrats," Texas Monthly, September 2006
  23. Rob Boston, "Sects, Lies and Videotape," Church & State, Volume 46, No. 4, April 1993, pp 8-12
  24. David Barton, "Unconfirmed Quotations," Wallbuilders.com, [link]
  25. Nate Blakeslee, "King of the Christocrats," Texas Monthly, September 2006
  26. Nate Blakeslee, "King of the Christocrats," Texas Monthly, September 2006
  27. Arlen Specter, "Defending the Wall: Maintaining Chruch/State Separation in America," The Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy," Spring 1995, Vol. 18, Issue 2
  28. Republican National Committee, "GOP, Pastors Discuss Issues, Civic Duty," Rising Tide, Winter 2003
  29. Wallbuilders.com, [link]
  30. "Christian Soldiers," National Journal, December 4, 2004
  31. The Center for Responsive Politics, Republican Party Expenditures (2004 Election Cycle), OpenSecrets.org
  32. David Barton, "God: Missing in Action from American History," Wallbuilders.com, [link]
  33. Dred Scott v. Sanford, 60 U.S. 393 (1856)
  34. Ibid.
  35. "The Reagan Legacy," The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, February 6, 2001, [link]
  36. Mike Allen, "RNC Chief to Say It Was 'Wrong' to Exploit Racial Conflict for Votes," The Washington Post, July 14, 2005
  37. Transcript, "President Bush Addresses NAACP Annual Convention," White House, July 20, 2006
  38. “The Joseph H. Rainey Congressional Scholars Program,” House Republican Conference, February 2005
  39. Lauren Legard, “Scholarly Research: Rainey Program Participants Study First Black Members of Congress,” Roll Call, March 8, 2004
  40. Wallbuilders.com, “Congressional Pastor’s Briefing,” [link]
  41. Wallbuilders.com, “Congressional Pastor’s Briefing,” 2006 Dates, [link]
  42. Republican Party of Texas, “History of the Republican Party of Texas,” [link] and “Benkiser to Lead Texas GOP Again,” The Austin American-Statesman, June 4, 2006
  43. Nate Blakeslee, “King of the Christocrats,” Texas Monthly, September 2006
  44. Chris Vaughn, “A man with a message; Self-taught historian's work on church-state issues rouses GOP,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, May 22, 2005
  45. Gail Russell Chaddock, “Bible's profile at the Capitol touches a chord,” The Christian Science Monitor, May 4, 2006
  46. GOP.com, “African American Team,” Republican National Committee, [link]
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