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

18 Replies to “Right Winger Sells Lies to Repurpose America’s Past for Conservative Agenda”

  1. The fact that one of the founding fathers said that our rights come to us from our Creator doesn’t make it so. You can pick any number of verses out of the Bible and apply them to the American government. You can also apply them to any other government.

    I find it pretty silly that someone can put the founding fathers so high on a pedestal to think that whatever they say could come straight from God. Anyone who thinks that should read up on the founding fathers.

    I’m not sure how anyone can fall for the fact that the Bible was supposedly written a couple thousand years ago just waiting for America to pop up. I don’t want that creeps brand of religion and lies in my government

  2. Liars have an unfortunate advantage. It goes like this:

    Liar: (unfounded big lie)

    Truthteller: That’s not true!

    Liar: Prove it.

    (Causes Truthteller to waste time in research while Liar cranks out more lies)


    Truthteller: The First Amendment clearly dictates the separation of church and state.

    Liar: That wasn’t what they meant at all. The intention of the Founding Fathers was (cranks out fabricated quotes in letters from Founding Fathers to the King of France and the inventor of Pear’s Soap).

    Truthteller: Huh?

    Liar: See, you haven’t done your research!

    By the time Truthteller has gone through mountains of research trying to refute a negative pregnant, Liar has cranked out a hundred more specious quotes. Of course, the rules of the debate are asymmetrical.

    Well, so let’s try to even it up. Then it goes like this:

    Liar: Benjamin Franklin said our government was established on our Covenant with God.

    Truthteller: Give an exact citation, please.

    Liar (to Audience): See? My opponant is a white-wine drinking liberal elitist who is trying to deceive us with frivolous details. Every ril uhMericun *knows* Ben Franklin said that.

    So what about the Direct Approach?

    Liar: The Thirteenth Amendment was never passed.

    Truthteller: You’re full of shit!

    Liar: See, you’re becoming emotional and vulgar. That proves you know I’m right.

    In short, there is no effective way to refute the arguments the liars make, because they can always lie and slander faster than they can be refuted. The only approach that stands a chance is exposing their *tactics*.

    You’ve made a good start, Hrafnkell. There needs to be a lot more of it, and it needs to get around.

  3. I just want to remind everyone that he, hence forth known as, “Bad Bart” has a new book about Jefferson that has somehow made #11 on the best selling Amazon book list…sigh.

    Chris Rhodda of talk2action.org has been after this guy like Wiesenthal hunting Nazis. I would like to add her info to Hraf’s article as a link to her work; you can scroll down to her video she made the last time “Bad Bart” was on Stewart.


    As a matter of fact, she has a FREE book in PDF that you can down load debunking this lair…she encourages people to share it, pass it around…
    We must, for the sake of what Hraf has so aptly stated, “…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”…

  4. Yes one of the founders wrote the word “creator.” However, what the religious right and “Bartonites” absolutely hate to hear, is the fact that the founder in question didn’t believe in the religious/supernatural nature of the gospels or any of the supernatural trappings of the Bible. What devout Christian would use the word “creator”, if he/she really intended it to be “our Lord Jesus Christ”?

    Several of the most prominent and influential founders were Deists, Freethinkers, and Unitarians, NOT Christians. What’s really important though is that regardless of any religion or lack thereof, the founders intended for government and religion to be separate, and the constitution bears this out.

  5. Yeah, it boggles the mind. How can anyone, after reading Jefferson’s many quotes on the subject, come to the conclusion that he was a Bible believing Christian? Jefferson was very explicit and very clear regarding his beliefs ( or non beliefs ). There is nothing vague or cryptic in his writings at all, and he never recanted any of the statements that he made regarding religion and Christianity.

    The ONLY way a revisionist could write a book about Thomas Jefferson being a devout Christian, is to cobble together a hatchet job of selective quotes taken out of context, in combination with a fictionalized version of events.

  6. A little correction – Lamarck wasn’t the one who came up with the idea of evolution… people were aware of it long before him (I believe the ancient Greeks may have mentioned something about it), but he was one of the earliest theorists to try to explain how it worked.

    Anyone who wants more information about Barton can check out Chris Rodda. She’s debunked his lies time and time again… has a (as of right now) free book she wrote about the subject that she’s made available for downloading. She’s far more of a historian than Barton ever was. I might also add that the REAL historians… those who actually did research, have expressed disgust even at the mention of his name and don’t even consider him a scientist in any way. (I just wish some of them would get out of their ivory towers and help in the fight.)

    Something I’ve noted… the parallels between Barton and Behe. Behe is to creationism and “Intelligent Design” as Barton is to pseudohistory. Both have been proved to be liars and full of (sh)it time and time again… Behe even in court, yet they both keep repeating the same lies over and over and over again. The pseudo-scientists that the dominionists have at their beck and call are a real thorn in the side of the REAL ones… and they distract us from the work we do. (I just wonder how many days worth of time Dr. Miller has spent debunking Behe, even as Chris has spent fighting against Barton.)

  7. Singh, thank you for providing the link. My original intent was to list a number of debunking sources in the article or as an addendum but time constraints put an end to that, especially as I am about to embark on Barton’s book so that I can write my review.

    I will add Rhodda’s link to the bottom of the article.

  8. A correction to a correction: I did not say Lamarck “came up with” the idea of evolution. I said that he introduced it to the world, as Charles Darwin himself said, writing in 1861:

    “Lamarck was the first man whose conclusions on the subject excited much attention. This justly celebrated naturalist first published his views in 1801. . . he first did the eminent service of arousing attention to the probability of all changes in the organic, as well as in the inorganic world, being the result of law, and not of miraculous interposition.”

  9. PZ Myers dug up a good one from Margaret Sanger, which should be printed on t-shirts and coffee mugs:

    “If we do not strike the fetters off ourselves we shall be knocked about until we forget the fetters. To our society apologists, and to their plausible excuses for modern impression, the only adequate answer is — we have done with your civilization and your gods. We will organize society in such a way as to make it certain for all to live in comfort and leisure without bartering their affections or their convictions. Let us turn a deaf ear to the trumpet-tongued liars clamoring for Protection, Patriotism, Prisons, Police, Workhouses, and Large Families. Leave them to vomit their own filth and let us take the good things mother earth daily offers unheeded, to us her children.”

    International Workers of the World

  10. Good explanation… and it supports what I’ve tried to tell people all along – being civil or “nice” to those people is a waste of time. Getting into arguments or discussions with them is a waste of time. You cannot even talk with them for the most part… they take civility as an indicator of interest or as I’ve put it “I’m really interested but trying not to show it – tell me more about Jesus!”. Having been a dominionist, I know that is exactly what they’re taught… any civility or kindness is misinterpreted as “the Holy Spirit is moving in their heart!” – even hostility is considered “The Holy Spirit is convicting them and they’re resisting!”. Arguing against them or exposing their lies is considered a sign of “deh DEVIL attacking through this unbeliever!!!” and thus their violence and unwillingness to even consider the facts.

    The best we can do is try to reach those who haven’t fallen under their influence, and try to undo the “But it’s a church, it can’t be THAT bad!” that has been solidly programmed into most Americans. We can also wait for the fallout from the horrific damage they do to the person of their victims and try to help them.

    We also need to strip them of their power… getting back to eliminating the brainwashing that the American public has undergone. I’ve recently seen evidence of how deep and long that programming has gone on… we’ve been watching old episodes of “Highway Patrol” recently and I’ve noticed how stereotypical everything is… including that the pigs are always the good guys and those in trouble are always completely evil. Knowing a bit of history (especially of that of my own people and other minorities), I know that during the same time that show was being broadcast, for the most part the pigs were involved in things like the Klan and persecuting innocent (minority) people and were NOT really the good guys. Having watched a few other old shows… I know this programming goes to all levels of society including clergy (with the protections they had in those days, I wonder how many women and men were victims of clergy sexual abuse in earlier years!). This country has been steeped in lies for many decades and it’s no wonder that we face the things we do… as you’ve so clearly illustrated.

    We’ve got a tough fight ahead, and Barton is only one small aspect of it. I’m just thankful for people like Chris Rodda who fights against him… and Dr. Miller who has exposed Behe time and time again. We need more people joining in!

    (To all readers… if you have knowledge of dominionist lies and so on, PLEASE expose the lies and help debunk them! If you’re a walkaway, TELL YOUR STORY! The more evidence we have against them, the easier it is to get the American public to listen!)

  11. Great comparison between Behe and Barton. Michael Shermer, scientist and publisher of Skeptic magazine, has called Behe out several times to publish peer reviewed papers and start “playing the game of science” if he ( Behe ) truly believes there is any merit to his crackpot ideas.

    Every scientist that is worth their salt, has had to have their ideas exposed to scrutiny and skepticism. What has validity and merit will shine forth and what is BS will wither on the vine. This “wa wa wa they’re all against me so I can’t get my ideas out” is pathetic, and exposes guys like Behe for what they truly are.

  12. Yeah, and that tells me that (1) he’s not even trying and (2) he knows his stuff isn’t science but religious belief.

    I’ve read articles that were very controversial and not accepted by the scientific community. Most people don’t understand the peer review process… it’s unethical to not publish something just because you don’t accept it… if the science was done right and as the saying goes “All of the ducks are in a row”… then it’s published. THEN it gets attacked. Maybe even attacked and attacked and attacked, if not thoroughly debunked.

    I’ve also read articles that were controversial and originally not accepted by the scientific community, but as time passed proved to be accurate. For instance, pre-Clovis is one such topic. If Behe were serious about it, he’d work on the papers and get them published. However, his focus has always been on the “Good Christians” and the Christians who didn’t know better, not the scientists.

    It’s the same with Barton. He probably long realized that his arguments were bullshit, so he doesn’t even try. His focus is also on trying to convert people and reinforce the prejudices of the “Good Christians”.

  13. Barton is only doing what RWers have been doing for decades now and what Orwell warned that they would do (try to rewrite history). They teach that the Establishment Clause does NOT mean separation of Church and State (which it does) and that separation of Church and State means separation of religion and politics (which it does NOT). They tell us that Darwinism is just a theory, whereas Creationism is “real science”, that God favors the rich over the poor, that the Bible is “pro-life”, and that Christians have the “religious liberty” to discriminate against gays and women just like they used to do against blacks.

  14. Unhappily, Reynardine got it exactly right. Lying liars can lie faster than truth-tellers can refute. The most effective weapon is that “he who asserts must prove.” The Bartons and Becks of this world can’t have it both ways–insisting that those who disagree with them cite chapter and verse while claiming that being, themselves, required to support their own assertions is a diversion.

  15. Mark Twain said, “A lie can make it half way around the world before the truth has time to put its boots on.” The (f)right wing is hoping they can make an unbeatable advantage of that. And Barton is trying his level best to uphold Orwell, in that “He who controls the past, controls the future.”

    With any sort of good fortune, forewarned will prove to be forearmed, and enough people of learning will call Barton and his lackeys out to shut him down before he can cause TOO much damage. But those people of learning can’t count on that. There needs to be some proactive efforts; as long as the (f)right wing keeps Progressives reacting, instead of acting, they get to call the shots.

  16. (Laugh!) In other words, they need to act and speak like scientists rather than blowhard preachers who insist that you accept whatever is said as unquestionable truth.

    I’ve also heard many times from colleagues this aphorism: “Fantastic claims require fantastic proof!” That’s one they really don’t like.

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