Jon Stewart Dissects David Barton Who Responds by Lying

Last updated on May 3rd, 2012 at 02:30 pm

Jon Stewart hosted “historical reclamationist” David Barton last night. That’s what Barton – a man who seems to have made lying about history his life’s endeavor – calls himself:  he is “reclaiming history” (of course) rather than telling it. This is in a way a very accurate claim because “reclaiming” is not the same as understanding and interpreting – or rather, it is a very special, ideological sort of interpreting, putting the proper conservative spin on events.

An initial disappointment is Stewart welcoming Barton as a “historian” though he does get around to what Barton actually does, saying “that you are rewriting more than reclaiming” and Barton can only dodge the issue by pretending that by pointing to people and events not usually talked about he is “reclaiming” some sort of lost history (something the GOP absolutely loathes if it’s a woman or a gay or lesbian historical figure being reclaimed). And Barton here is inevitably Barton, free with his historical references and more concerned with ideology than fact.

The interview as aired on TV was only some 8 minutes long – the full interview is 40 minutes. The full transcript of all five parts are available at Lincoln Madison.

Stewart: And so here you are. So, let me ask you — just for our audience that is not familiar with what you do — how would you describe what it is you do?

Barton: I’d say historical reclamation. We, in our company, have about 100,000 documents from before 1812, so documents out of black history, out of religious history, out of constitutional history; you name it. We’ve got 100,000 originals, so that’s what we take a lot of history back to is those original things that happened.

Stewart: And — but it always seems that the history that you take comes back to the idea that we are a more Christian nation than we are living. Is that the —

Barton: No, I would say that’s not accurate.

Stewart: Okay.

Barton: Now, there’s people who point that out, but again, let me give you a good example. I was appointed in Texas as one of the experts to do the history and government standards there —

Stewart: So, you are a curriculum authority?

Barton: For about 20 years, California, Texas, all these states, I do their history and social studies standards, and so I’m asked by the state, by the governor or by the state board of education to do that.

Stewart: But you are — and this may be a misconception — but you are not a historian like in terms of academic historian. You don’t have a doctorate in that.

Barton: No, don’t have a doctorate in that, no. I’ve got all the documents, and that’s what’s been a lot of fun, because I went through history and school and a lot of what I got taught and what I see in the actual documents aren’t the same thing, and that’s what got me started. I came to some really old documents, and they contradicted what my schoolbooks said, and so what we do now is we say, “All right, publishers: here’s what the actual documents are. Print the documents, go back to the originals.” And on the issue of religion, being one of the guys appointed in Texas, all my reviews are online [here and here(PDFs)], so there’s 43,000 words online of my reviews of the last set of standards — only two subjects do I ever mention Christianity, two issues. One was the teachers recommended taking the study of Christmas out as a holiday. So —

Clearly, Barton is not interested in talking about his qualifications. He is neither a “curriculum” authority nor a “historical authority” in that he is not actually a historian, just a guy who got a whole bunch of documents together and said that those documents said what conservative politicians needed them to say, and that is an important distinction. Historians aren’t interested in needing documents to say anything – they say what they say and a historian interprets them and puts them into the proper context. Barton does the opposite – taking them out of their original context. He just doesn’t want to admit it and it is a pity Stewart did not push him harder.


Stewart: Let’s get to — because I do, you know — you are an important figure. You go in, you argue in front of the Supreme Court, you go in and you work with our Congress, you work with Congresspeople, you go in and you write curriculum, and I can’t help but think that — and in your writings you talk about “reclaiming our forgotten history” —

Barton: Right.

Stewart: — when it seems to me, someone who probably has a very different perspective on this nation’s history, that you are rewriting more than reclaiming —

Barton: Let me give a shot. Let me give a shot at that. One of the things I’m really proud about that we got done in Texas is we took the number of minorities who are covered in the standards from 9% to 25%. The way I did it: I said, “Hey, we’re not covering any of the Jewish Founding Fathers. We’re also not covering the black Founding Fathers — those elected to office, those who were military heroes. We’re also not covering the women of the Revolution. We’re also not covering Hispanics in the Revolution.” That’s forgotten history. I’ll bet you most Jewish people can’t name the Jewish Founding Fathers, most black people can’t name the black Founding Fathers —

Stewart: No, I can: Sandy Koufax.

Barton: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

Stewart: Yeah, you’re right: Sandy Koufax; that’s all I got.

Barton: Exactly.

Stewart: So, would you say — so, I am incorrect in saying that you would — because I’ve seen tapes of you speaking, where you make policy recommendations based on the Bible. Things like “I would like to see the capital gains tax and the estate tax gone because the Bible says so.”

Barton: That’s right, but those are also speeches given to groups of ministers, and I’m speaking to ministers. That’s not a textbook setting; that’s a whole different setting. What I’ll — see, for example —

Stewart: So, you’re saying there is a “wall of separation” —

Barton: Well, there is, but see, you gotta understand where that came from, too. No problem with that.

Stewart: No, a “wall of separation” within you of church and state.

Barton: Uh, no, no. Any more than the Founders wanted. Now, what they wanted was separation of the institutions, never separation of the influence. I mean, they never at any point said, “Hey, God” [gestures, sweeping God to the side] —

Stewart: Well, now we’re sort of where the rubber meets the road, here, because that is kind of what I’m getting to, as much as you might protest that your main thrust is not to get us back to this idea that the Founders didn’t want religion separated from the State, the documents that you pull — going off the Constitution, it doesn’t mention the Creator, it doesn’t mention Jesus, it doesn’t mention praying in any way, so, wouldn’t they be explicit in the mention of religion, if they had wanted it so? Because they were not coy people, for the most part.

Barton: No, they were not coy, and they were very blunt, and because they were, when you read the Federalist Papers, it said religion belongs to the states. Now, you read the state constitutions, they’re extremely graphic on religion, but there are seven references in the Constitution to religion, whether it be Article VII — and by the way, the Declaration is incorporated into the Constitution in Article VII, so that’s four references to God, just in Article VII.

Clearly Barton does not have the Constitutiuon memorized or perhaps he has an abridged version such as that read for House Republicans. It isn’t Article VII Barton should be referencing but Article VI and no, the Declaration of Independence is NOT incprororated into either Article.

Stewart: References to God are very different than explicit — like, I mean, they were so explicit in their usage: if you wanted to hold this office, you had to be this age; black people counted for three-fifths — I mean, they used fractions!

Barton: Federal office, that’s — but that’s holding federal office, that’s not —

Stewart: But they didn’t even say — I mean, there is the oath of office for the President is transcribed word-for-word in the Constitution —

Barton: That’s right.

Stewart: — but they don’t say you have to do it on a Bible and they don’t mention —

Barton: That’s right.

Stewart: — they don’t mention God.

Barton: But the state laws in all 13 states required every oath to be done on a Bible and mention God.

Stewart: But only three of them actually were still there. That litmus test was only there — when the Bill of Rights came into effect, only three states still had those laws, and the Founders had been trying to phase that out.

Barton: Let’s take the religion side for a minute, because when you take the First Amendment, it says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Now, one of the cases we did at the U.S. Supreme Court —

Stewart: Right.

Barton: — was Rabbi Leslie Gutterman [Lee v. Weisman505 U.S. 577 (1992)], who was asked in Providence, Rhode Island, to give a prayer at a graduation, and he wasn’t allowed to. Now, tell me how “Congress shall make no law” means that a rabbi can’t say the word God at a prayer. That’s a pretty strange parsing of the Constitution, and that’s what I argue, is “Congress shall make no law” is a restriction on Congress. It’s not a restriction on the rights of people to say the word God in public.

Here Barton is being disingenuous. Giving a prayer at graduation is not giving a prayer in public – it’s given a prayer before a captive audience of students who could be of a wide variety of religious orientations, including atheist. Barton is suggesting that Christians and Jews should have special privilege here, that if you are of the proper type of belief you should be allowed to talk about it. It is unlikely if it was an imam rather than a rabbi being referenced Barton would be in support of Allah’s mention. A prayer given at a public school is an endorsement of the speaker’s religion, which is clearly a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

[end of broadcast portion of interview]

Stewart: But that, again, gets to, sort of back to the original point, which is the case of Guttesman [sic] in Rhode Island and the prayer: Why didn’t the Founders okay a litmus test to hold office — of religion — if they wanted us to be a Christian-infused (or Bible-infused) nation?

Barton: Well, now, you’ve got something else. How do you define Christian nation?

Stewart: I would assume that you would do it as following the laws of —

Barton: No, never been the definition.

Stewart: Oh; what is the definition?

Barton: There’s 300 court cases that declare America to be a Christian nation. Not once have we ever said you have to be a Christian or you can’t be this religion. Every — and great definition by U.S. Supreme Court is —

Stewart: So, we are defined as a Christian nation, is what you’re saying?

Barton: Three hundred times by the courts. Now, there’s a reason they said that, because we’ve had twenty-something religions in America since the American Revolution — you know, I mean, real simple stuff.

Stewart: So, we’re a Christian nation? By definition?

Barton: Take the right definition. Not the way it’s used in the last 20 years.

Stewart: Ah.

Barton: The court definition is a nation whose institutions and cultures have been shaped by the influence of Christianity. It’s hard to say that hasn’t happened in America.

Stewart: Now, when you say that’s in court cases, in what context?

Barton: U.S. Supreme Court — well, there’s several. There was a whole series of cases that debated things about religion, there’ve always been people who didn’t want religion in public, and the courts have said, “Nah, you can’t do that.” Until 1947, every time they used Thomas Jefferson’s “separation of Church and State” phrase —

Stewart: Mmm-hmm.

Barton: — it was to keep religion in public, because they said “separation of Church and State” means the government can’tstop religious exercise. In 1947 [Everson v. Board of Education330 U.S. 1], Justice Hugo Black wrote a decision for the Court that said, “No, no, no. Jefferson got it all wrong. Separation —”

Stewart: So, we are all mistaken, that prayer should be in school?

Barton: I don’t know we’re mistaken, but we have reversed policy since 1947. So, what we had for 150 years and what we had for 50 years are two different things.

Stewart: Well, why did we have for 150 years that on our coins and things was E Pluribus Unum and not In God We Trust? Why did we change that in the 50’s with Eisenhower?

Barton: Because it was on a lot of the states. Now wait a minute, it wasn’t in the 50’s, we changed it before that. [In 1863] ’63, Lincoln put it on the coins; we didn’t have paper currency.

Stewart: On the coins, yeah, but not in the Pledge [of Allegiance].

Barton: The currency they added in [1864] ’64 and I think Eisenhower did six things in the [1950’s] 50’s that way.

Barton is dodging the issue. The issue, as Stewart clearly stated, is that the official motto of the United States was, for 150 years, “Out of Many, One” and it was not until the conservative Christian resurgence of the 1950s and the threat of communism that the motto (and the Pledge of Allegiance) was changed to reference God. That is the point and the only point.

Stewart: But isn’t the argument not that there’s no history of religion in America, but that by explicitly putting religion in the Pledge it goes against the minority rights to protect against the establishment of religion?

Barton: No, no, because there’s no coercion involved. Ever since the Pledge has been done —

Stewart: Wouldn’t coercion, though, not necessarily be legal, but sometimes, perhaps, peer — like, if you’re — if everybody prays and you don’t want to pray, 30 people praying, one person not — can that be considered coercion?

Barton: Hey, I’m a Republican, I’m in New York City, I’ve got coercion all around me. I have to live with that sometimes. There’s coercion; you have to put on your big-boy pants and do some things. As long as you’re not being forced to do it —

Stewart: But you are being forced to be in school.

Barton: Look at all the pressure that goes through school, whether it’s drugs or anything else, and we don’t rule thatunconstitutional.

Stewart: Well, no, because there’s not the teacher saying, “You have to smoke pot.”

Barton is using apples and oranges as a comparison – it’s a childish argument really, saying that because nobody rules pushing pot in school is unconstitutional that you should be able to push the Bible. You want to ask him “Seriously? Is this all you’ve got?” and really, that’s what Stewart should have said. He let Barton off lightly.

Stewart: Are you really — and this is, I think, where I get to something that’s more difficult to take — you believe there’s a hostility —

Barton: Oh, Jon.

Stewart: — to Christianity.

Barton: You would not believe the number of arrest cases in the last year of Christians — a 67-year-old man in Georgia who gave out a gospel tract to somebody on a park bench, two days in jail.

Stewart: I think there is real persecution of Christians.

Barton: There is some.

Stewart: I think it happens in China, but I don’t think it happens in this country!

Barton: No, but how do you keep it from becoming like anywhere else? You stop it right when it happens.

Stewart: Because we’ve had 240 years of evidence that it won’t. One of the reasons that we separated it from the public square is to avoid these types of situations.

Barton: But here’s a case we’re working on right now: a pastor in Kansas just got arrested —

Stewart: You may be right, about this case, but I am talking about the larger picture of, there’s an idea that the Founders wanted this to be a specifically divinity, American exceptionalism —

Barton: That’s not the argument.

Stewart: What is the argument, then?

Barton: The argument is they did not require a secular society. Now, let me throw out another piece —

Stewart: We’re not a secular society! There’s churches all over this country!

Barton: But are there people trying to make us a secular society in court? Yes. These are the cases I deal with all the time in court.

Stewart: In schools, they don’t want prayer and the Ten Commandments, but the idea that Christianity, as a religion in this country, is threatened, really is ludicrous! As a Jew, I can tell you, Christians have it made. You get — let me just tell you this — you get presents for Christ’s birth; when he dies, you get a basket of candy — you can’t lose!

Stewart: All I’m saying is, Let’s be realistic about what this country really is. We are a Christian-dominated society —

Barton: Sure.

Stewart: — but through the Founders’ wisdom, we have kept that from becoming a state religion —

Barton: Exactly!

Stewart: — so that their vision of “all people are created equal” —

Barton: Exactly.

Stewart: — could flourish in a —

Barton: That’s a Biblical vision, by the way: that all men are created equal. You don’t get that from a secular world.

Actually, you do not get that from the Bible. The Bible does not argue in favor of equality. The Bible strongly differentiates between Gentiles and Jews, Pagans and Christians, witches, homosexuals, heretics, etc. It does not argue that these people are all equal. You can’t have a “Chosen People” AND equality. You can’t. The idea of individual human rights is born out of the secular European Enlightenment, not the Bible.

Stewart: Do you think people would be more comfortable with you if they felt like you were consistently looking to extend historical context and — because there are a lot of critics out there who say you cherry-pick your religious facts, take them out of context — your historical facts — to use them to bolster your argument.

Barton: They’ve never proven that. They’ve claimed that. Show me some documentation where it’s taken out of context. They’ve never provided that. They complain about it.

Stewart: Didn’t they say the John Adams quote, where you talk about, he says, “We were inspired by Divinity.”

Barton: No, I don’t recall him saying that. Have you got the quote?

Stewart: Yeah, let me see if I can find it. [consults notes] Okay, here it is. Here is what you wrote in your book about what Adams said, endorsing the Church being involved in the State: “The Holy Ghost carries on the whole Christian system in this earth. Not a baptism, not a marriage, not a sacrament can be administered, but by the Holy Ghost, who is transmitted from age to age by laying the hands of the bishop upon the heads of candidates for the ministry. […] There is no authority, civil or religious; there can be no legitimate government, but what is administered by the Holy Ghost. There can be no salvation without it; all without it is rebellion and perdition, or in more orthodox words, damnation.” That’s the quote that you used in your book.

Barton: Now, I have the original John Adams letter with me off the set. I brought the original. See, I posted that online; how can I misquote it when I put the whole thing up there. That’s the only John Adams letter in the world that he wrote on that day to that person, and that’s what’s in it. I posted that where everybody can see it, and that’s what we do with our documents.

Stewart: But you have then the sentence after the one, which is: “Although this is all artifice and cunning —”

Barton: Oh, the entire letter is posted. The entire letter is posted.

Stewart: But you can see that the next sentence shows that he’s being sarcastic in that passage.

Barton: Not in — no, not at all. You read the entire letter, Jon — now, see, they’ve given you their critique of it.

Stewart: But how could he say the Holy Ghost — I mean, this man was a Unitarian; why would he claim the Holy Ghost sincerely?

Barton: You know what a Unitarian was then?

Stewart: Yeah, someone who didn’t believe in the Trinity.

Barton: No, no. Not until 1839, long after his death. It did not become —

Stewart: So John Adams believed in the Holy Ghost?

Barton: He believed in the Trinity, and that’s where Unitarian —

Stewart: Did he believe we were a Christian nation? Because he signed the Treaty of Tripoli, and said we weren’t,explicitly.

Barton: No, time out. Treaty of Tripoli, Article 11 is what you’re talking about, it’s 82 words long; everybody always puts a period after 17 words. There’s not a period there. It says “The government of the United States is in no sense founded on the Christian religion,” right? That’s what it says, where everybody puts a period. Now, remember: it’s a negotiation he’s made with a Moslem nation. He says, “The government of the United States is in no sense founded on the Christian religion as having an inherent hostility towards Muslims. Hey, we’re not the Europeans you guys fought in the Crusades. We don’t hate you guys because you’re Muslims.” He didn’t say we’re not a Christian nation; we’re not a European Christian nation that hates you and fights you because of your religion. And by the way, the State Department says there is no Article 11 in the Treaty of Tripoli. The original, it’s not there. Everybody loves to quote the Treaty of Tripoli.

Stewart: So it’s Photoshopped?

Barton: Yeah, exactly. Exactly, exactly.

Stewart: Photocalligraphied.

Barton gets himself into trouble here by being – well, David Barton. John Adams was a Unitarian. By definition he could not have believed in the Trinity. And David Barton did NOT quote the entire letter – only a portion of it.

And the Treaty of Tripoli, (here is the WallBuilders spin on the treaty) which conservatives hate as much as they claim liberals love, was unanimously approved by the Senate without objection and with the language intact. It does not matter what might or might not be in the Arabic text because the Senate did not vote on the Arabic text. The text the Senate voted on stated that the United States is not a Christian nation.  Barton is wrong – no trinity for Adams and no Christian nation for the United States.

Stewart: But you use this quote to say that he is believing in the Holy —

Barton: No, on John Adams, I put the whole letter up there. Now, see, they’ve taken those parts out; I put the letter up there.

Stewart: So, you are the one using things in context?

Barton: Well, I’m tryin’ to. That’s why I put the whole letter up there.

Actually, Barton ignores what Adams says in his letter. Adams is dismissive of the idea of a Trinity and his tone is sarcastic.
Stewart: So, you never claimed Congress printed an official Bible for U.S. schools in 1782?

Barton: Sure they did. And it’s in the Bible itself. I have the actual Bible from 1782. It’s got a Congressional endorsement in the front of the Bible; it is printed by Act of Congress. 1782, it’s one of the rarest books in the world, they printed 10,000 [in] 1782, there’s 28 left in the world, I’ve got one of ’em.

Stewart: Here’s the story I heard; you tell me, then, if I’m completely wrong again, which apparently I have been this entire time. Congress didn’t print the Bible; a private printer named [Robert] Aitken printed it.

Barton: He could not print it without Congressional permission.

Stewart: Well, no, apparently he printed it, and then he had a bunch, so then he petitioned Congress to certify —

Barton: No.

Stewart: — that it was accurate in 1781. Because you’re telling me the facts I’m saying to you are completely wrong.

Barton: Those are wrong, because when you —

Stewart: “For the use of the schools” were not Congress’s words, they were the words of Aitken, who was trying to sell his Bibles to Congress.

Barton: No.

Stewart: And you say it’s in the records of Congress, but anybody who speaks to Congress or petitions them has their words in the Congressional Record. So Congress agreed to certify it as accurate, but denied his request that it be published under the authority of Congress, and they never said anything about use in schools.

Barton: It has, in the front of the Bible, a Congressional endorsement: “This Bible recommended to inhabitants of the United States by the Congress Assembled.” It has a Congressional endorsement. They certify that they went through the Bible —

Stewart: They certified that it was an accurate copy, but denied that it be published under the authority of Congress.

Barton: No, the whole thing went through committees in Congress. There were committees appointed. [Congressional chaplain George] Duffield and [John] Witherspoon were on the committees, James Duane; there were committees that oversaw the whole thing all the way through. Now, Aitken is the one who printed it; no question that Aitken is the printer, and no question that he asked Congress to do it —

Stewart: Did he print it prior to asking, or — ?

Barton: No.

Stewart: So, he asked them and then he printed it?

Barton: He asked them, got their permission, then, with their oversight, going through the Bible —

Stewart: Their permission, and then they said they would verify that it’s an accurate Bible?

Barton: That it’s an accurate Bible, and they recommended it. And they advocated its use. As a matter of fact, they wanted Washington to give one to every soldier, but we’d won the Revolution by then, so by the time it came out, we’re done with the Revolution. Washington has a letter of how I want to give this to every soldier, but the Revolution’s over and they’ve all gone home.

Again, Barton is wrong. Stewart is right. All Congress was doing was certifying that the Bible was accurate. You can read the original resolution and see for yourself:

Resolved, That the United States in Congress assembled highly approve the pious and laudable undertaking of Mr. Aitkin [sic], as subservient to the interest of religion as well as an instance of the progress of arts in this country, and being satisfied from the above report, of his care and accuracy in the execution of the work, they recommend this edition of the bible to the inhabitants of the United States, and hereby authorise him to publish this recommendation in the manner he shall think proper.

As Lincoln Madison explains in his discussion of the interview, putting things in their proper and accurate perspective:

They did not authorize him to publish the Bible; they authorized him to publish their recommendation of it. As theLibrary of Congress says on their website, “This resolution was a result of Aitken’s successful accomplishment of his project” — not a precondition, as Barton would have us believe. Also, giving the Bible to the soldiers was a suggestion made to General Washington, who said, in effect, “Gosh, that would’ve been nice, but it’s too late now.” It’s also worth noting that Aitken lost a lot of money on the project because — even with no competition at all — he couldn’t sell his print run of 10,000 copies.

It is incredible to think that David Barton might actually fail to understand what was going on. It is probably safer to assume that he does know but refuses to admit to the correct interpretation. Because David Barton is not interested in history; David Barton’s interest is in spinning history to fix a certain political and religious worldview. He is willing to take things out of context, leave inconvenient facts out entirely, or simply twist the meaning of what was said to suit those purposes and this interview with Jon Stewart is proof of that.

Additional evidence of Barton’s dishonesty last night from Right Wing Watch: David Barton, Jon Stewart, and the Myth of Raymond Raines

Transcript from Lincoln Madison

Hrafnkell Haraldsson

Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen's Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.

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