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David Barton: the religious right's master of phony history.

I HAVE BEEN MONITORING the activities of an activist named David Barton for years.

While certainly not as well known as some of the TV or radio preachers, Barton's had a powerful influence over the religious right and, by extension, American culture. If you've ever wondered where people get the idea that the United States was founded as a "Christian nation" or that the Founders were right-wing fundamentalists, I can tell you much of that comes from this man.

From his base in the small town of Aledo, Texas, Barton issues a steady stream of religious right propaganda designed to rewrite U.S. history. His group is the one-word WallBuilders (a name that's ironic considering that he wants to tear down the church-state wall). It was inspired by a passage in he Book of Nehemiah that refers to rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem and restoring the moral foundations of the nation. By uncovering our secret "Christian" history, Barton apparently believes he will restore our nation's moral greatness.

I'm wary of the man because he lacks anything resembling critical thinking skills. His first book, America: To Pray? Or Not to Pray? (yes, he appears to have managed the skill of typing), is a self-published screed demanding the return of state-sponsored prayer in public schools. To make his case, Barton musters up page after page of charts "proving" that since 1962 (the year the Supreme Court struck down official school prayer) SAT scores have plummeted while the rate of teen pregnancies, divorce, and crime have skyrocketed. Apparently, no one ever told him that correlation is not causation. The tome is, to be frank, ridiculous and laughable.

Self-published book number two, The Myth of Separation, is equally bad. Designed to prove that we are a Christian nation, the volume was riddled with quotations from the Founders that turned out to be bogus, as Barton himself later admitted. (He didn't make the stuff up, he just relied on bad sources.) He has since rewritten the book and now calls it Original Intent.

Barton's favorite trick is to cherry pick history, pulling quotes out of context and telling only part of the story. For example, he likes to portray John Adams as a fan of merging religion and government. He never mentions that the deistic Adams rejected belief in the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus. If Adams wanted more religion in government, it sure wasn't Barton's religion.

Mainstream historians have panned Barton's work. The respected scholar Mark Lilla has called The Myth of Separation "schlock history" and a "bizarre pastiche" that relies on "selective quotations out of context to suggest that the framers were inspired believers who thought they were founding a Christian nation."

None of this has hurt Barton's standing with the religious right, however. He's been lauded by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and often leads tours in Washington, DC, designed to expose the nation's spiritual history. In 2005, Time magazine named him one of the twenty-five most influential evangelicals in America. He claims to speak in hundreds of fundamentalist churches every year.

As vice chairman of the Texas Republican Party from 1998-2006, Barton engineered votes labeling church-state separation a "myth." In 2004 he traveled the country on behalf of the GOP, whipping up the party's religious base just before the election. In 2007 he created a voter's guide and told churches they could distribute it--even though it was stacked to favor Mike Huckabee.

Barton has no credentials as a legitimate historian (he holds a bachelor's degree in Christian education from Oral Roberts University). Despite his thin resume, in 1998 he was appointed to a committee in California overseeing the development of new history standards for public schools. Barton attempted to remove every reference to separation of church and state from the portion of the standards that dealt with the development of religious freedom. He was turned back only after activists with Americans United for Separation of Church and State and others mobilized.

Barton is preparing to strike again. Christian fundamentalists on the Texas State Board of Education are working to put Barton on an "expert" panel that will oversee the development of new social studies standards. Texas is a big state and buys a lot of textbooks. If Barton unduly influences its textbooks, chances are those books will find their way to other states.

Facts remain the best antidote to Barton and his ilk. My book, Why the Religious Right Is Wrong about Separation of Church & State, was a modest attempt to debunk him. I also recommend The Godless Constitution by Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore; Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby; and Brooke Allen's Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers.

Plenty of other good books debunk Barton's phony "Christian nation" history. Arm yourself in case he comes to your state next.

Rob Boston is senior policy analyst at Americans United for Separation of Church and State and is a board member of the American Humanist Association.
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Title Annotation:Church & State
Author:Boston, Rob
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2009
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