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.


[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

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