The constitutional principle of separation of church and state has given Americans more religious freedom than any people in world history. Around the globe, those suffering under the heavy heel of government-sponsored religious oppression look to America's church-state model with longing. The "wall of separation between church and state" is America's bulwark of true religious liberty.
Despite its proven track record of success, separation of church and state is increasingly becoming just another target for the Religious Right's smear campaign strategists. In the past few years, an entire cottage industry has sprung up in Religious Right circles that seeks to "prove" that mainstream history is all wrong. The United States was really founded to be a fundamentalist Christian nation. Separation of church and state was never intended; it was, these far-right activists allege, foisted on the country by the Supreme Court in recent times.
The Religious Right's leading practitioner of this type of historical revisionism is David Barton, who runs an outfit called WallBuilders out of Aledo, Texas.1 Barton makes a lucrative living traveling the right wing's lecture circuit where he offers up a cut-and-paste version of U.S. history liberally sprinkled with gross distortions and, in some cases, outright factual errors. Crowds of fundamentalist Christians from coast to coast can't get enough of it.
Barton's propaganda frequently leaches into the secular media. Fundamentalist activists who have read his self-published books or watched his videotape "America's Godly Heritage" use the material to attack separation of church and state in local newspapers through letters to the editor and opinion columns. Religious Right-backed candidates spout Barton's history as they seek public office.
In addition, Barton has been eagerly embraced by TV preacher Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition. For three years running Barton has been a featured speaker at Christian Coalition meetings, where his presentation on America's "Christian" roots and salvos against church-state separation draw huge crowds.2 Local units of the Christian Coalition have hosted Barton as well, and some sell his books and videos.
Other major Religious Right luminaries have lauded Barton's "research." Jerry Falwell has praised Barton's anti-separation of church and state screed The Myth of Separation (1989) from his television pulpit and sells it through Liberty University's bookstore. Barton has been interviewed by Dr. James Dobson, the radio psychologist who heads the wealthy and powerful Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs. During a flap over religion in public schools in Utah four years ago, Barton materials surfaced through the local branch of Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum. The Rev. D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministries is also an enthusiastic Barton booster.3
Robertson, Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed, and other Religious Right bigwigs have hooked up with Barton despite his links to the most extreme elements of the radical right wing. On two occasions Barton has delivered his presentation before white supremacist organizations with ties to neo-Nazis.
In 1991 Barton addressed the Rocky Mountain Bible Retreat of Pastor Pete Peters' Scriptures for America, a group that espouses the racist "Christian Identity" theology. Advocates of this bizarre dogma insist that white Anglo-Saxons are the "true" chosen people of the Bible and charge that today's Jews are usurpers. Aside from being a virulent anti-Semite, Peters has advocated the death penalty for homosexuals. According to the Anti-Defamation League, other speakers at the event included white supremacist leader and 1992 presidential candidate James "Bo" Gritz, a leader of the radical and increasingly violent militia movement, and Malcolm Ross, a Holocaust denier from Canada. In November of that same year, Barton spoke at Kingdom Covenant College in Grants Pass, Oregon, another "Christian Identity" front group with ties to Peters.4
Asked to explain these actions, Barton's reply amounted to a not very creative "I didn't know they were Nazis" dodge. In a July 1993 letter, Barton assistant Kit Marshall wrote, "At the time we were contacted by Pete Peters, we had absolutely no idea that he was 'part of the Nazi movement.' He contacted us for David to speak for Scriptures for America. The title is quite innocuous. In all the conversations that I personally had with Pete Peters, never once was there a hint that they were part of a Nazi movement. I would also like to point out that simply because David Barton gives a presentation to a group of people does not mean that he endorses all their beliefs."5 An excuse like that might have washed one time, but it stretches the bounds of credulity to accept that Barton was twice duped by innocuous-sounding extremist organizations.
Barton has no legitimate credentials as an historian, and it shows. Shoddy research, astounding lapses of logic and outright errors are hallmarks of his work. For his first book, America: To Pray Or Not To Pray? (1988), Barton reports that God ordered him to go to the library and look into the connection between the removal of state-mandated prayer in public schools by the Supreme Court in 1962 and 1963 and the drop in SAT scores. "I didn't know why," Barton writes in the book's introduction, "but I somehow knew that these two pieces of information would be very important."6
Lo and behold, Barton soon learned that ever since the school prayer rulings, all sorts of bad things have happened in the country: SAT scores have plummeted, the teen pregnancy rate has shot up, crime has escalated and even per capita alcohol consumption has increased. (Barton stops short of blaming the assassination of John F. Kennedy on the school prayer rulings, but, believe it or not, other advocates of mandatory prayer in schools have seriously advanced that argument.)
It's clear that Barton has never taken a course in basic statistics and doesn't understand that correlation is not causation. Nevertheless, this type of pseudo-scientific diddling is what passes for "scholarship" among the Religious Right, and across the country millions of fundamentalists are convinced that Barton has proven incontrovertibly that God was so offended by the school prayer rulings that He retaliated by making students dumber and more promiscuous. (In reality, the drop in SAT scores can be attributed to the fact that these days a wider variety of students from a broader range of socioeconomic backgrounds take the test, not just well-off kids from the suburbs as was common in the 1950s. Barton, however, is never one to let facts stand in the way of a good jeremiad.)
Barton's follow-up book, The Myth of Separation, is even worse. The tome is essentially a compilation of quotes from historical figures discussing the importance of religion or morality to government. Wrenched from their historical context, the comments are made to support Barton's thesis that America used to be a "Christian" (read: fundamentalist Protestant) nation that has now seriously wandered off track, thanks to God-hating lawyers at the ACLU and the flaming left-wingers on the Supreme Court.7
The authenticity of some of the quotes is dubious. One attributed to James Madison claiming that the future of the U.S. government is "staked upon...the Ten Commandments" does not appear in the body of Madison's writings. Madison scholars do not acknowledge it as genuine.
But Barton's biggest whopper concerns Thomas Jefferson, who coined the metaphor "wall of separation between church and state." Jefferson used that phrase in an 1802 letter to the Danbury (Conn.) Baptist Association. According to Barton, Jefferson went on to add that the "wall" was meant to be "one directional," protecting the church from the state but not the other way around, and, furthermore, that it was intended to keep "Christian principles in government."
This is a complete fabrication, and if Barton would take the time to actually read Jefferson's letter he would see that he is simply wrong. Jefferson's letter says nothing about the wall being "one directional" and certainly does not assert that it was meant to keep "Christian principles" in government. Such sentiments appear nowhere in the body of Jefferson's writings or speeches. In fact, they conflict sharply with our third president's well known advocacy of church-state separation and religious freedom.8
Barton also loves to quote colonial leaders such as Patrick Henry, who advocated taxation for religion, limiting public office to "Trinitarian Protestants" and other intolerant ideas. Henry and his cronies — and there were many of them in the post-Revolution period — would have liked to have made the United States a Protestant theocracy and a church state, but their views failed to carry the day. Henry's comments are interesting historically, but they represent the losing side of the struggle, a fact Barton fails to point out when quote peddling.
Another favorite Barton tactic is to cite obscure legal decisions from state and federal courts in the 19th century that failed to uphold separation of church and state. These magically become "proof" that the concept is mythical. Again, no context is given, and needless to say, the voluminous court decisions that reached the opposite conclusion are not mentioned.
Some might ask, "What's the harm in all of this?" After all, Americans have always been weak on their own history, and a few bad quotes here and there aren't going to make the country a theocracy. The problem is that Barton's mythology has influence that extends beyond the pews of local fundamentalist churches. He is tied in with the Religious Right's increasingly powerful political machine, a movement that currently holds the Republican Party in a headlock and enjoys the attention of Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, Phil Gramm and other top GOP leaders. (At a Heritage Foundation speech pushing a school prayer amendment held on October 5, 1995, Gingrich, who considers himself an historian, praised Barton's books, calling them "most useful" and "wonderful.") When Rep. Ernest Istook (R-OK) held a powwow with Religious Right leaders last year to plot strategy for ramming a school prayer amendment through Congress, Barton was there. Powerful people don't view Barton as just some nut peddling phony quotes on the street corner; he is taken seriously.
Politics is fast becoming Barton's obsession. Following the November 1994 elections, Barton wrote an article for his newsletter, The WallBuilder Report, lauding the efforts of IMPAC, a political action committee in Washington state that funnels money to "Bible-believing Christians" seeking public office. IMPAC endorsed four candidates for the state legislature last year, all of whom won.
The IMPAC candidate questionnaire asked political hopefuls seeking funding to "Describe your present walk with the Lord" and queried, "Do you believe the Bible is the only inspired, infallible Word of God?" Not surprisingly, potential endorsees were asked to give their views on only three actual issues: abortion, homosexuality and AIDS, all Religious Right hot buttons.
Calling the November 1994 results "a moral revolution, one step at a time," Barton also praised the "new congressional conservatives" in the House of Representatives. The list encompasses some of the most extreme right wing members of the freshman class, including Helen Chenoweth of Idaho, Steve Stockman of Texas, Linda Smith of Washington, J.C. Watts of Oklahoma and Todd Tiahrt of Kansas.9
In 1994 Barton spoke at the inaugural prayer breakfast of Virginia's ultra-conservative Governor George Allen. Later that June, he popped up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, as featured speaker at a "Commonwealth Prayer Breakfast" attended by the lieutenant governor, assorted state legislators, judges and other state officials. (Also attending was Ellen Casey, wife of former Pennsylvania governor Robert Casey, a stridently antiabortion Democrat who toyed with challenging President Bill Clinton in the 1996 elections.)
Barton has a heavy speaking schedule and on any given weekend appears in cities and towns across the country. Although he often speaks in right wing churches, occasionally right wing groups rent public halls for his appearances.
If there is any cloud on the horizon for Barton, it's that someone may embarrass the Christian Coalition by pointing out that his "Christian nation," anti-separation of church and state message conflicts with the group's well orchestrated public relations campaign to appear moderate. Speaking before the Anti-Defamation League in Washington on April 3, 1995, Reed insisted that the Christian Coalition "believes in a nation that is not officially Christian, Jewish or Muslim, a nation where church and state, as institutions, are separate."10
Critics of the group have myriad reasons to be skeptical of Reed's comments and to doubt his sincerity, but at a minimum it seems fair to ask how Robertson and Reed can square those claims with their continued advocacy of a man who insists America was meant to be a "Christian nation" and who calls separation of church and state a myth.
Rob Boston is assistant director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
1 The group takes its ironic name from Nehemiah 2:17: "You see
the distress we are in, how Jerusalem lieth waste and the gates
thereof are burned with fire. Come, let us build up the wall of
Jerusalem, that we be no more a reproach." Like the Old T
estament prophet Nehemiah, Barton apparently sees himself as chosen by
God to rebuild his nation's moral foundation.
2 See "Behind the Mask" by Joseph L. Conn, Church & State, November 1994.
3 See "Sects, Lies, and Videotape" by Rob Boston, Church & State, April 1993.
4 Coalition for Human Dignity press release, Aug. 6, 1993.
5 Letter from Kit Marshall, July 2, 1993.
6 David Barton, America: To Pray or Not to Pray?, Specialty Research Associates, Aledo, Texas, 1989.
7 David Barton, The Myth of Separation, WallBuilder Press, Aledo, Texas, 1989.
8 For the full text of Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists, see The Republic of Reason: The Personal Philosophies of the Founding Fathers by Norman Cousins, Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1988.
9 The WallBuilder Report, Winter 1995.
10 See "Christian Coalition Seeks Social Issues 'Contract' As Anti-Semitism Charges Continue To Swirl," Church & State, May 1995.