The Candidate and the Charlatan Historian

Back in the fall of 2017, it was found that Pennsylvania US Representative Tim Murphy not only had an affair, but also pressured his mistress to have an abortion during a pregnancy scare. Also, that he was a bastard to his staff that his office experienced a 100% turnover rate one year. So amid all the blatant hypocrisy and drama, Murphy resigned in October. Now a special election is set for March 13 for those in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District. The candidates are Republican state legislator Rick Saccone and a former federal prosecutor named Connor Lamb. Naturally I throw my support for Lamb since he fits his district like a glove. He’s an ex-Marine and 33. And he at least tries to present himself as a viable candidate who campaigns on issues important to southwestern Pennsylvania like the opioid crisis, jobs and infrastructure, unions, student debt, affordable healthcare, protecting Medicare and Social Security, and modern energy development.

But most importantly, I support Connor Lamb for his bid to represent Pennsylvania’s 18th district is that he doesn’t endorse any fraudulent historians with theocratic ambitions. You can’t say the same about his opponent Rick Saccone. Saccone is a fan of the much-criticized Christian nationalist historian David Barton. He chose this man to introduce him at a rally in early 2017, signaling the state legislator’s wider political and religious views. For those following Saccone’s political career, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. The state lawmaker’s rhetoric centers around Barton’s idea of America as a foundationally Christian nation. In fact, Saccone’s own book, God in Our Government, appears straight out of Barton’s playbook. In it, he argues that secularists have conspired to skew the United States’ Christian history. He’s advocated posting “In God We Trust” on public school walls. Longtime Christian nationalism critic, refers to Saccone on his blog as, “one of Pennsylvania’s biggest David Barton supporters.” This is not a man we should have representing Pennsylvanians in Congress.

As a practicing Catholic, I have nothing against Christianity or religion in general. But what I do take issue with is people using their beliefs to skew history to promote a certain agenda religious or otherwise. But this is exactly what David Barton does to American history. As a self-taught historian and activist who’s received little formal historical training, his sole credentialed degree is a bachelor’s in religious education from Oral Roberts University. Although he later claimed to have earned a doctorate from an officially unaccredited Life Christian University on the basis of his published works. He’s is best-known for a series of books including Original Intent: The Courts, the Constitution, and Religion, and The Jefferson Lies. Both books argue that America was founded by “orthodox, evangelical” Christians as a Christian nation, and that the Founding Fathers intended for America to be run on Christian principles. In 1987, he 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.” This would morph into his multi-purpose propaganda machine, WallBuilders that sells a wide assortment of books and DVDs pushing for his fun-house vision of religious patriotism. He hosts a WallBuilders-linked nationally syndicated radio show where he describes himself as “America’s premier historian.” In 1998, Barton launched what he called the ProFamily Legislative Network to help “conservative, God-fearing legislators,” whose annual conference and regular updates still keep several hundred state and national legislators apprised of “pro-family” legislation with expert referrals and supporting research. This includes bills to ban abortion, prevent gay marriage, support religious expression in public schools and life, and resist gun control. Its conferences also offer media training and strategy sessions for far-right lawmakers on how to succeed in getting their legislative agenda through.

However, we shouldn’t see David Barton as an authority on American history. For one, the guy has less academic credentials in history than I have, a history major in college. Secondly, his historical narrative that paints America’s founding as a Christian nation is just plain wrong. Actual historians will tell you that Barton distorts quotes, cherry picks information, cites fraudulent sources, and straight up makes up history to serve his political goals. He’s argued that the Founders never intended for a separation of church and state, which he derided as a “liberal myth.” In his 2000, book Original Intent: The Courts, the Constitution, and Religion, he claimed that secular, liberal historians were involved in a conspiracy to cover up the “truth” about America’s Christian origins for their own nefarious goals. In reality, countless writings from the Founding Fathers make their intentions for a separation of church and state clear. Because since the 1600s, many colonists from various Christian denominations came to the US to worship as they please. And that not all Americans Christians practiced their faith the same way. As for the Founding Fathers, their religious views were more complicated, often blending Christian aspects with deism, an Enlightenment-era belief in an unknowable creator deity who didn’t operate in human form. In 2012, Christian publishing house Thomas Nelson recalled The Jefferson Lies, after it was revealed to contain major factual inaccuracies despite it making to the New York Times’ bestseller list. One of Barton’s dubious claims has Thomas Jefferson starting church services in the US Capitol. Still, it’s a hagiographic work arguing that Jefferson wasn’t a deist but an evangelical Christian who vigorously opposed slavery and racism. Not the Christian deist who owned slaves and endorsed a wall of separation between church and state, which he certainly was. A book containing as many gross factual mistakes like in The Jefferson Lies would’ve been a death knell for any real historian. To add insult to injury, historians, professors, and Christian scholars voted The Jefferson Lies, “the least credible history book in print.” As Warren Thockmorton and Michael Coulter stated, “David Barton claims he is setting the record straight with this book, but that claim is far from reality. Barton misrepresents and distorts a host of Jefferson’s ideas and actions, particularly his views and practices regarding religion, slavery and church-state relations. As Jefferson did with the Gospels, Barton chooses what he likes about Jefferson and leaves out the rest to create a result more in line with his ideology. In fact, there were so many problems with his book that we wrote an entire book in response.”

Even before the Jefferson book debacle, some of Barton’s claims seem to stem from simple ignorance. But others have been exposed as flagrant omissions and distortions which conform reality to his own fact-free vision of American history. He’s said that Ronald Reagan opposed gun control even after surviving an assassination attempt. Except that after being shot in 1981, Reagan wrote a New York Times op-ed clearly supporting the Brady gun control bill. He’s repeatedly claimed that John Adams supported religious control of the US government, quoting the 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 quote’s next part in which Adams clearly mocks those with this belief. As the liberal People for the American Way said on its website, “He has deliberately, clearly and completely transformed Adams’ actual meaning.” Some of his other claims can be more mindboggling to even a child. For instance, according to Barton, the founding fathers, “already had the entire debate on creation and evolution,” and chose creationism. Except that Charles Darwin didn’t publish his theory of evolution in The Origin of the Species in 1859, a time when most of them were long dead. He’s also asserted that the American Revolution was fought to free slaves, which is ridiculous. Since many of the Founding Fathers were slave owners, acknowledged slavery in the constitution they wrote, and the British Empire outlawed slavery 30 years before the United States did. Also, we fought a major war over slavery in the 1860s which Barton doesn’t seem to remember for some reason. In 2010, Barton joined the battle to bowdlerize a Texas social studies curriculum for public schools and supported efforts to excise Martin Luther King Jr. and 1960s farm worker activist Caesar Chavez from textbooks. Because Barton said King didn’t deserve inclusion for advancing minority rights because “only majorities can expand political rights.” Despite that if King didn’t pressure politicians to enact civil rights legislation, much of the country could still be living with legally sanctioned Jim Crow. It’s basically his way of saying that “only white people matter.” Oh, and he thinks that Joe McCarthy was right about everything even though he wasn’t.

David Barton’s revisionist American history is about blending his brand of Christianity with a very specific form of American (usually white) nationalism. Figures like Barton blend the idea that America is a “Christian country” with the idea that the only critiques of the Founding Fathers that mention them owning slaves or contributing to racial inequality come from “politically correct” historians seeking to discredit America’s great history for political ends. Because the Founding Fathers have to be hero-saints in Barton’s view. But central to the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation is the notion that America was founded unproblematically (it wasn’t). And that only a return to this mythologized past will somehow solve perceived problems of structural inequality (it won’t). Thus, “real” America in his view, is above criticism. As Messiah College professor John Fea remarked, “Barton is not interested in seeing historical actors as flawed human beings. Instead, the founders seem to occupy some kind of exalted position. They are not quite angels, but they are not quite ordinary human beings either. They have been somehow immune to sin, which the last time I checked was an important part of the Christian understanding of what it means to be a human being.”

Nevertheless, David Barton’s deeply skewed perspective on American history has been used by several Republican politicians to promote the false narrative of America as a historically Christian nation. Barton remains a prominent figure in evangelical and dominionist circles and a regular on conservative conference circuits. Though since his 2011 fall from grace, fewer and fewer politicians publicly cited him, making Saccone’s choice to feature him at an early rally striking. But despite this, his influence is such that some on the right take his particular narrative as gospel, mostly from the most extreme and uneducated segments of the Christian right. Since the 1990s, Barton and his ideas have made inroads in the political sphere. From 1997-2004, he served as the Texas Republican Party vice chair and was a Republican National Committee counselor in the 2004 presidential election, helping to court evangelicals. In 2005, Time Magazine named him as among the nation’s 25 most influential evangelical Christians. In fact, he’s become the go-to man for tips on conservative Christian voter outreach, advising Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback and Mike Huckabee. But more generally, some within the Republican Party more widely have adopted Barton’s narrative of American history while his work has been regularly championed by the Christian and broader political right. Outgoing Kansas Governor Sam Brownback referred to the fake historian as providing, “the philosophical underpinning for a lot of the Republican effort in the country today.” He’s also said that Barton is “one of my big heroes,” for his preservation of America’s “beautiful heritage.” In 2010, Glenn Beck called him, “the most important man in America.” In 2011, TV news pundit and former politician Mike Huckabee told attendees at a Rediscovering God in America conference, “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.”

One major reason for David Barton’s prominence in the Christian and political right is that many political figures like Ted Cruz and Roy Moore have embraced a form of Christian nationalism or Dominionism. Now Dominionism is based on the idea that the American government should run on Christian principles. Therefore, its ultimate goal should be a Christian theocratic state necessary to properly usher in the apocalyptic End Times. It takes many forms from R.J. Rushdoony’s “hard dominionism,” advocating pure theocracy to the “softer” Seven Mountains movement, which encourages Christians to take over the “seven mountains” of culture as a whole, from arts to education to government. But the fundamental principle is that same that Christians must work toward a theocratic state in which Christians are in control. Or, as Republican congressional candidate Rick Saccone said in an interview last year with Pastors Network of America, God wants Christians, “who will rule with the fear of God in them, to rule over us.”

David Barton’s focus gives Dominionism legitimacy through perpetuating a cycle. By creating a deeply unbalanced history of America’s foundations, he can legitimize the Christianized state he’d like to promote. And as an (at least ostensible) historian, he can partner with Republican lawmakers to cast a veneer of academic respectability over a thoroughly anti-academic message. That Barton has continued to nurture a reputation as a credible historian and activist says a lot in which some politicians on the religious right feel the need to construct a façade of legitimacy to support their political ends. To create a mythical and simplistic version of the past in which America was founded as a clear-cut theocratic state is to provide an easy, useful narrative. Because the true narrative of America’s actual founding by a nation of Christians, deists, and other post-Enlightenment thinkers working out a complicated project of nationhood doesn’t fit their vision. In the Barton narrative, the United States is supposed to be a Christian nation and thus, any means taken to make the country more theocratic is automatically viewed legitimate.

Of course, considering that historians are human beings, all historical accounts can also be propaganda in a sense. Any narrative of America’s foundation will be mediated by a teller’s specific biases and concerns. National myths have always been about who we want to be as who we really were. And that’s all the reason to promote a wide variety of voices from all sides of the political aisle within the realm of academic history. But what David Barton and his political allies do is worse than that. Like Washington DC’s new Museum of the Bible, Barton uses the appearance of academic inquiry without any of its meticulousness to promote a Christian dominionist approach to governments that ideologues like Saccone are all too happy to accept without question. Still, Christian dominionist concerns are ultimately focused not on America’s history but the apocalyptic End Times a Christian nation is supposed to usher in, according to certain evangelical belief strains. And as Barton’s history centers more on his apocalyptic vision than the actual past, Americans are becoming more ill-informed for it.

Still, we must understand that David Barton is neither brilliant nor a historian. In fact, he’s a right-wing bigot with his own extremist profile at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Aside from all his dominionist nonsense, Barton inhibits very extreme views even by conservative Christian standards. He thinks gays should be sent to prison and thinks they die “decades earlier” than others as well as have more than 500 partners in their lifetimes. He has promoted the anti-immigrant cause and engaged in Muslim-bashing. He opposes immigration reform, saying God established national borders and ignoring American expansionism to the West which involved the US taking a bunch of land in Mexico, including his home state of Texas. He has appeared on hard-line nativist William Gheen’s radio show. And he has cited infamous white supremacist Richard Spencer in attacking US Representative Keith Ellison, the first Muslim congressman. In 2012, he claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood had infiltrated the government at all levels. He insists, based on nothing but his own highly unusual biblical reading, that environmentalism, the graduated income tax, the minimum wage, deficit spending, unions, and measures to battle global warming are all opposed by God.

No one’s saying that David Barton can’t make whatever reckless and false claims he wants. The First Amendment protects him as much as any of us. Yet, that doesn’t mean he should be taken seriously, given a podium, or boosted as a must-read “historian.” Instead, let’s consign Barton’s baseless propaganda to the dumpster of false and obnoxious ideas where it belongs. As a historian, Barton is a fraud, a conman who conveys a false rendering of American history to promote a toxic religious agenda and make money. His vision of American history should never be legitimized by any politician, church group, or anyone else. Since Rick Saccone endorses this historic flim flam man with extremist views, he shouldn’t be elected to represent Pennsylvania’s 18th district.

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