David Barton’s ascendant star as a self-taught “historian” and influential leader of the evangelical far right crashed in a storm of ridicule when the world’s largest Christian publisher recalled Barton’s 2012 book, The Jefferson Lies, for too many serious whoppers — the kind of gross factual mistakes that are a death knell for any real historian. A prolific propagandist, Barton has long promoted the canard that our Founding Fathers never intended the separation of church and state but rather sought to construct a Christian nation. His Texas-based group, WallBuilders, sells an abundant bounty of books and DVDs pushing Barton’s fun-house vision of religious patriotism. And this distorted message has sold well. Anointed “one of the 25 most influential Evangelicals” by Time Magazine in 2005, Barton has been a political consultant to the Republican National Committee and served as vice chairman of the Texas Republican Party. Although even a large group of conservative Christian history scholars has meticulously refuted the claims in his Jefferson book, Barton continues to sell it and to promote his views online and in the media.
In His Own Words
“Money does not belong to the government, it belongs to individuals, and to steal money from individuals through whatever government spending program is taking private property, and you’re not supposed to do that.”
—WallBuilders broadcast, January 2011
“Jesus says the sun shines on the just … the rain falls on the wicked. … God treats everybody exactly the same, whether you’re rich or poor you pay a ten percent tithe. … The concept of justice goes out with the progressive income tax which is why the Bible is opposed to it.”
—“Making the Constitution Obsolete: Understanding What is Happening to America’s Economic and Cultural Heritage,” an educational DVD marketed by the American Family Association, 2011
“There’s a passage that I love in Romans 1. … [I]t talks about homosexuality and it says that they will receive in their bodies the penalties of their behavior. … The Bible [is] right every time … and that’s why AIDS has been something they haven’t discovered a cure for or a vaccine for. … And that goes to what God says, ‘Hey you’re going to bear in your body the consequences of this homosexual behavior.’”
—WallBuilders broadcast, April 27, 2012
“People use Jefferson all the time and say, ‘Hey, you can’t do religious stuff at a school, Jefferson’s opposed to it.’ … He wasn’t opposed to that kind of thing.”
—“The Daily Show,” Comedy Central, May 1, 2012
The self-proclaimed historian has lived most of his life in the Fort Worth, Texas, suburb of Aledo. After earning a B.A. in religious education at Oral Roberts University, Barton taught at religiously affiliated schools. Although he has no academic credentials in history, in 1987 Barton founded a company called Specialty Research Associates Inc., whose stated goal was to do historical research “relating to America’s constitutional, moral, and religious heritage.” In 1988, that company morphed into WallBuilders, a multi-purpose propaganda machine promoting Barton’s view that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and therefore ought to be ruled by biblical principles.
Barton quickly got busy revising history according to his convictions — he’s now written 10 books that are sold on the WallBuilders website. He also began to host a WallBuilders-linked nationally syndicated radio program that trumpets anti-gay and antigovernment views.
Through WallBuilders, Barton branched out into public policy in 1998 by launching what he called the ProFamily Legislative Network to help “conservative, God-fearing legislators.” The group’s annual conference and regular updates still keep several hundred state and national legislators apprised of “pro-family” legislation. That includes bills to ban abortion and prevent gay marriage, support religious expression in public schools and public life, and resist gun control. The network provides expert referrals for legislation and supportive research. Its conferences also offer media training and strategy sessions to far-right lawmakers who want tips on how to succeed in getting their legislative agenda through.
As his reputation grew, Barton made political inroads into the Republican mainstream and, from 1997 to 2006, he was vice chairman of the Texas Republican Party. In 2004, the Republican National Committee hired him as a consultant during that year’s presidential campaign. Barton’s charge was to reach out to evangelical clergy, and media reports indicate he spoke to hundreds of local evangelical pastors in his drive to get George W. Bush re-elected that year.
Barton ultimately became a “go-to” man for tips on lassoing conservative Christian voters. He has served as an advisor to Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and Mike Huckabee. With his “Leave it to Beaver” looks, the silver-haired Barton has an “aw shucks,” Tom Sawyer-esque manner and is personally quite engaging as he spins historical revisions. In its 2005 piece on the nation’s most influential evangelicals, Time Magazine pictured Barton in a white cowboy hat, calling him “a hero to millions — including some powerful politicians.”
Brownback has said that Barton “provides the philosophical underpinning for a lot of the Republican effort in the country today.” Also among Barton’s most ardent fans is Huckabee, the Republican conservative from Arkansas who declared in 2011, a year before his failed presidential run, “I don’t know anyone in America who is a more effective communicator. I just wish that every single young person in America would be able to be under his tutelage and understand something about who we really are as a nation. I almost wish that there would be something like a simultaneous telecast and all Americans would be forced, forced — at gunpoint no less — to listen to every David Barton message.”
As a regular since 2010 on Glenn Beck’s “Founders’ Fridays” radio broadcasts and a teacher in Beck’s online university, Barton’s outreach has continued to grow. But along the way, and even before the Jefferson book debacle, his nose should have been growing too, as the web of his untruths became ever denser. Some of Barton’s false claims about history and politics appear to stem from simple ignorance, but others have been exposed as flagrant omissions and distortions that bend reality to his own fact-free vision of American history.
For example, Barton has claimed that President Ronald Reagan, even after surviving an assassination attempt, opposed gun control. That’s entirely false. In fact, after being shot in 1981, Reagan voiced clear support for the Brady gun control bill in an opinion piece published in The New York Times.
Another Barton whopper is his repeated claim that John Adams supported religious control of the U.S. government. To make that point, Barton quoted the following Adams passage: “There is no authority, civil or religious — there can be no legitimate government — but what is administered by this Holy Ghost. There can be no salvation without it — all without it is rebellion and perdition or, in more orthodox words, damnation.” But Barton conveniently omits the next part of the quote, in which Adams makes it crystal clear he is mocking those with this belief. As People for the American Way, a liberal group, concluded on its website: “He has deliberately, clearly and completely transformed Adams’ actual meaning.”
A fervent homophobe, Barton has claimed that gay people die “decades earlier” than others and have more than 500 partners apiece in their lifetimes. On his WallBuilders radio broadcast, he’s flagrantly misled listeners by saying that the “leading pediatric association in America” has cautioned educators against providing education about homosexuality. But the American College of Pediatricians that Barton referred to has only a couple of hundred members and is, in fact, a right-wing breakaway group from the 60,000-member American Academy of Pediatrics, which is the real “leading pediatric association in America.” The group he cited split with the American Academy of Pediatrics explicitly because it had taken an official stand that there is no harm associated with same-sex parenting.
Some of Barton’s claims are mind-boggling to any reasonably well-educated person. For example, in his version of history, the founding fathers “already had the entire debate on creation and evolution,” and chose creationism. Reality check: Charles Darwin didn’t publish his theory of evolution in The Origin of Species until 1859, more than half a century after the founding fathers were active. Barton also has asserted that the American Revolution was fought to free slaves. “That’s why we said we want to separate from Britain, so we can end slavery,” Barton said. Actually, that’s ridiculous. Many of the founding fathers were slaveholders, slavery is acknowledged (although it is not named) in the constitution that they wrote, and the British Empire outlawed slavery three decades before the United States did.
Barton also has promoted the anti-immigrant cause and engaged in Muslim-bashing. He opposes immigration reform, saying that God established national borders (tell that to the Russians and the Poles, who have seen their borders changed repeatedly over the course of history), and has appeared on the radio show of hard-line nativist William Gheen. Barton cited infamous Islamophobe Robert Spencer in attacking U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim congressman.
In 2010, Barton joined the battle to bowdlerize the Texas social studies curriculum for public schools, supporting efforts to excise Martin Luther King Jr. and 1960s farm worker activist Cesar Chavez from textbooks. As reported by Washington Monthly, Barton said King didn’t deserve to be included for advancing minority rights because “only majorities can expand political rights.”
After establishing a 25-year record of Big Lie propaganda, Barton finally got taken down in a decisive way in 2012 — and among the most effective at eviscerating his reputation were fellow Christian conservatives. Barton’s book, The Jefferson Lies, had actually made The New York Times best-seller list. But then Jay Richards of the Discovery Institute, a think tank known for it advocacy of “intelligent design,” asked 10 conservative Christian professors to evaluate Barton’s work. They found the book riddled with errors. Professors Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter of Grove City College, a conservative Christian school in Pennsylvania, even wrote another book in 2012, Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President, that debunks Barton’s claims. The same year, Richards said that Barton’s books and videos were full of “embarrassing factual errors, suspiciously selective quotes, and highly misleading claims.”
The coup de grace also came in 2012, when readers of the History News Network voted Barton’s new book the “least credible history book in print.” The nonpartisan network, affiliated with George Mason University, describes its mission as putting current events in historical perspective and features articles by prominent historians.
Meanwhile, a multi-ethnic coalition of evangelical ministers, based in Cincinnati, asked Thomas Nelson, the book’s Christian publisher, to withdraw the book. The pastors said the book inaccurately portrayed Jefferson’s true views on race, his record as a slaveholder, and his negative views of Jews. “You can’t be serious about racial unity in the church, while holding up Jefferson as a civil rights hero and champion of freedom,” the Rev. Ray McMillian told Grove professor Throckmorton for an article published on the crosswalk.com website.
After all of this pressure and negative publicity, a Nelson spokesman announced in August 2012 that the publishing company had reviewed Barton’s book and found enough errors to recall copies not yet sold and stop new shipments. This came despite the book’s commercial success.
His reputation in tatters, Barton accused his critics of exaggerating his claims about Jefferson’s Christian faith. Then he reportedly bought up 17,000 remaining copies from Nelson and continued to sell them on Amazon. He also said that he would publish a new edition (it wasn’t clear where) that won’t include any substantial changes but will alter a few phrases to clear up any confusion.
Barton still retains some influence, but only in the most extreme and uneducated segments of the Christian Right. Virtually all serious conservatives have repudiated him, and his chances of making a comeback seem remote, to be kind, although he sounds just as glib and sure as himself as ever.