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Right Winger Sells Lies to Repurpose America’s Past for Conservative Agenda

David Barton, WallBuilders’ resident liar and director of misinformation, is a symptom of a larger problem, and what I will call here for want of a better term “Bartonism” – bad as it is – is only the tip of the iceberg. It is really the conservative attitudes behind “reclaiming” American history for a new fundamentalist generation that is the problem. The Republican focus on culture wars has never been more in evidence than through WallBuilders, which promotes itself as a “pro-family organization”, putting a moral and religious emphasis on American history. His 2009 video opus, America’s Godly Heritage, ought to be evidence enough of  his culture war agenda.

We liberals end up being so busy putting out individual fires that the source of the fire is untouched, and this is the intention. It is difficult to keep up with a steadily evolving reality, a reality that is, moreover, not based on the facts on the ground but on assertion of belief.[1] And let’s face it: it’s a lot easier to propagate a lie than it is to disprove it.

Doubt is the enemy of science and doubt is easily sown, as Republican think tanks and pundits have long known, employing it in their war in defense of the tobacco industry and also of environmental polluters in the face of anthropogenic global warming.[2] And Barton is a prolific liar, adept at misdirection and obfuscation: In the time it takes liberal bloggers to refute a single David Barton lie he has told a dozen more. Once inscribed on the virtual walls of his website, they obtain a status something akin to scripture.

Even so, even though he is a symptom, as scholars recognize, the lies must be refuted and going into a critical election it is more important than ever that we expose this charlatan for what he is.

This is especially important to me since I have recently discovered that some people are still unfamiliar with Barton even after the Texas Schoolbook Massacre; they know nothing about him, despite his being named by Time magazine in 2005 as one of the top 25 most influential evangelicals. Let this be an introduction, albeit a necessarily brief one.

Barton is everywhere on the conservative circuit, associating with Glenn Beck, Michele Bachmann, Mike Huckabee and others with what historian Paul Harvey calls his “project of ideological entrepreneurialism.” And he is very glib, very good at portraying himself as a misunderstood do-gooder who isn’t pursuing some sort of ideological objective but merely trying to correct some “misconceptions” about history.

Sadly, his audience is as gullible as he is glib: according to David Barton it was nasty secularists burning Christians at the stake rather than other Christians and this is exactly what today’s self-martyring fundamentalist audience wants to hear.  It was in this “damage control” mode that he appeared on Jon Stewart’s show the other day.  But even a well-told lie is still a lie and the facts will never be in Barton’s favor.

Barton makes a great deal of “forgotten history” and “reclaiming” this history both on his WallBuilders site and in talking to Jon Stewart. This is what he calls reclaiming history though as Harvey argues, “Barton’s project is not fundamentally an historical one.” Here is how it works: If an actual historical fact is unsuitable to make a moralistic point, simply invent a new one that is more amenable to conservative goals, including the fabrication of quotes.

As I wrote here on another occasion, the GOP doesn’t want to study history but to construct a theological narrative that re-purposes history to be more useful to present-day political needs. Barton has even tried to repurpose the First Amendment, which mandates against establishment of a state religion, to say that it actually establishes Christianity as a state religion. He is very fond of quoting evangelical “scholars” (non-experts) to buttress his position but for actual historians (experts) he has only disdain, referring derisively to “academic collectivism” in his new book.[3]

There is certainly truth in his claims that a PhD after a name does not create academic infallibility; but neither does lack of education. Barton’s approach reminds one all too much of the folksy pseudo-wisdom of a Sarah Palin, that somehow the uneducated know more than the experts. Barton himself has a single degree: a BA in religious education from ORU. He is not a historian; he lacks even an undergraduate degree in history.

Barton, whose ideological and religious agenda is plain, has lied about virtually everything you can think to lie about that might be relevant to the culture wars tearing America apart in 2012. For Barton, history is a morality lesson and paradoxically, there is no lie a believer will hesitate to use to push what they believe is a greater truth. These lies include the astounding claim (repeated on the Daily Show in 2011) that human rights come from the Bible when obviously, a book that condemns everyone who is not Christian or Jew as damned is not interested in human rights; and that due process comes from the Bible.

In actuality, the idea of due process developed out Great Britain, not Israel, from the English Magna Carta (Clause 39) of 1215 C.E. not the Bible:

“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.”

The American version comes down to this:

“No person shall… be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

Barton also claimed that the republican form of government derives directly from the Bible, which actually supports the idea of a theocracy. As evidence for the republican form of government in the Bible, Barton offers us this:

Exodus 18:21 You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain; set such men over them as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.

Needless to say, a bureaucratic hierarchy, scrupulously honest or not (a bit of a myth in itself), is not a republican form of government. By this reckoning, every Bronze Age state was a republic, which is patently ridiculous. The ability of a society to organize itself has nothing to do with political ideas of liberty.

As evidence of the separation of powers that is the basis of our form of government, Barton offers us this:

Jeremiah 17:9 The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse — who can understand it?

All I can say to this is, “Huh?”

As evidence for the three branches of government, Barton offers us this:

Isaiah 33:22 For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our ruler, the Lord is our king; he will save us.

Where, in a monarchy, are there three branches of government? And isn’t a king a ruler and a judge? Sounds to me like an executive with all the power held in his own hands. Moreover, even it is believed where is the evidence that the Founding Fathers drew on Isaiah 33:22? You won’t find it in any of their writings, either public or private. You won’t find it in the Constitution.

And then there is the famous fake John Quincy Adams quote for which Barton is justly infamous:

“The highest glory of the American Revolution was this: ‘It connected in one indissoluble bond the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity.’”

The fly in the buttermilk is that this is not a quote from John Quincy Adams. He never said this. He never said anything close to this.

Where then does it come from you might ask. I will tell you. It comes from David Barton, from his America’s Godly Heritage series, a veritable treasure-trove of falsehoods. Ed Brayton at Scienceblogs has written that “the quote, to be blunt, is a fake” and there is no other way to say it.

And we’d be remiss if we did not revisit Barton’s equally infamous claim that Christianity has always been opposed to slavery.

We have documented numerous examples here of Barton’s lies and numerous as they are they again are only the tip of the iceberg. You might remember when he said the Founding Fathers settled the “evolution” debate 72 years before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species and 13 years before Lamarck introduced the idea of evolution to the world. The Founding Fathers were remarkable men indeed!

Referencing an earlier visit of Barton on the Daily Show, Ed Brayton wrote that “John Fea, chair of the history department at Messiah College, pointedly asks, “Should Christians trust David Barton?” And answers in the negative.”

Barton claims to be a historian. He is not. He has just enough historical knowledge, and just enough charisma, to be very dangerous. During his appearance on The Daily Show, Barton impressed the faithful with his grasp of American history and his belief that Christians are being subtly persecuted in this country. But if you watch the show carefully, you will notice that Barton is a master at dodging controversial questions. He refuses to admit that sometimes history does not conform to our present-day political agendas…

Here is the bottom line: Christians should think twice before they rely on David Barton for their understanding of the American founding. Let’s not confuse history with propaganda.

Fea, author of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction, is far from a lone voice crying in the wilderness. Brayton mentions several more, including Randall Stephens, a professor of history at Eastern Nazarene University, who writes:

Nearly any trained historian worth his or her salt who takes a close look at Barton and his hyper-politicized work will see glaring gaps in what he writes and talks about. He dresses his founders in 21st-century garb. He’s not interested in knowing much about the history of colonial America or the US in the early republic. Why? Because he’s using history to craft a very specific, anti-statist, Christian nationalist, evangelical-victimization argument in the present. (Remember the many unconfirmed quotations Barton used in the 1990s? He did so because, first and foremost, he was trying to make a political point.)

In history circles this is what we call “bad history.”

The consensus view of historians (Barton’s despised “academic collectivism”) is that Barton is seriously misrepresenting American history. His claim that his fundamentalist form of Christianity is not at the heart and soul of his chronic dishonesty is a claim that is easily exposed, as his inevitable references to Scripture demonstrate.

We can legitimately question how many of Barton’s lies are intentional. John Fea, referencing Barton’s appearance on the Daily Show the other day, says of a Barton non-sequitur (it does not follow) that “He misleadingly (actually, I don’t think he is deliberately trying to mislead here, I think he just doesn’t get it).” This is entirely possible. He may not get it; the issues may be too complex for his mind or it may be his lack of education as a historian. There is a very good reason historians specialize; I once had a professor who specialized in Alsace-Lorraine at a specific point in history: a far narrower focus than “the founding era” as Fea refers to it. As Fea says, “historians know the past is complex.” Barton does not.

What we have here is a man who is has a deep seated hostility toward facts. Whether he knows how ill-informed he is, he shows no desire to improve his state of ignorance; a man who has and will lie at every opportunity, who will avoid direct questions in order to redirect the conversation to avoid having to answer when he is pinned down.  Barton claims that he has never been caught in a lie when there is abundant, even overwhelming evidence of his being caught in a veritable Babel of lies time and time again. The documentation is too voluminous to repeat here and what has been provided must stand as only the barest outline of Barton’s perfidy.

And remember that Barton is only the tip of the iceberg, that he is only repeating what other conservatives want to hear and want to believe. When we struggle against Christian theocracy on Election Day, remember who is giving voice to this history as it should have been. Hopefully, you will have spent every waking moment until then doing your part to expose him. As they used to say back in World War II, we must all do our part, and we must take “fair share” far more seriously than has any Republican in recent memory. Our future depends upon it.

[1] George Lakoff, The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain (Viking, 2008), 40-41.

[2] Chris Mooney, The Republican War on Science (Basic Books, 2005).

[3] David Barton is the author of The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed about Thomas Jefferson  (Thomas Nelson, 2012), which I will be reviewing here in a few days. For now, please see Chris Rhodda’s  debunking of Barton’s book here: Pseudo-Historian David Barton’s New Jefferson Book is a Load of Crap — and a Bestseller

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