Don’t Know Much About History…

Before my stint as Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, I had never heard of David Barton. When that job required me to engage in discussions with people who refused to believe in the separation of Church and State, however, he was frequently quoted.

Barton–a total fraud–was frequently touted in these debates, cited as a “respected Christian historian,” and it was unsurprising that  the folks making those assertions  dismissed the debunking protestations of a female ACLU lawyer (Jewish, to boot!). 

That background may explain why I immediately clicked through to read a Politico article titled “The Bogus Historians Who Teach Evangelicals They Live in a Theocracy.” Here’s what the author–himself a devout Evangelical–had to say about Barton:

The people packed into FloodGate Church in Brighton, Mich., weren’t here for Bill Bolin, the right-wing zealot pastor who’d grown his congregation tenfold by preaching conspiracy-fueled sermons since the onset of Covid-19, turning Sunday morning worship services into amateur Fox News segments. No, they had come out by the hundreds, decked out in patriotic attire this October evening in 2021, to hear from a man who was introduced to them as “America’s greatest living historian.” They had come for David Barton. And so had I.

It would be of little use to tell the folks around me — the people of my conservative hometown — that Barton wasn’t a real historian. They wouldn’t care that his lone academic credential was a bachelor’s degree in religious education from Oral Roberts University. It wouldn’t matter that Barton’s 2012 book on Thomas Jefferson was recalled by Thomas Nelson, the world’s largest Christian publisher, for its countless inaccuracies, or that a panel of 10 conservative Christian academics who reviewed Barton’s body of work in the aftermath ripped the entirety of his scholarship to shreds. It would not bother the congregants of FloodGate Church to learn that they were listening to a man whose work was found by one of America’s foremost conservative theologians to include “embarrassing factual errors, suspiciously selective quotes, and highly misleading claims.”
All this would be irrelevant to the people around me because David Barton was one of them. He believed the separation of church and state was a myth. He believed the time had come for evangelicals to reclaim their rightful place atop the nation’s governmental and cultural institutions. Hence the hero’s welcome Barton received when he rolled into FloodGate with his “American Restoration Tour.”

Throughout his decades of public life — working for the Republican Party, becoming a darling of Fox News, advising politicians such as new House Speaker Mike Johnson, launching a small propaganda empire, carving out a niche as the American right’s chosen peddler of nostalgic alternative facts — Barton had never been shy about his ultimate aims. He is an avowed Christian nationalist who favors theocratic rule; moreover, he is a so-called Dominionist, someone who believes Christians should control not only the government but also the media, the education system, and other cultural institutions. Barton and his ilk are invested less in advancing individual policies than they are in reconceiving our system of self-government in its totality, claiming a historical mandate to rule society with biblical dogma just as the founders supposedly intended.

The author went on to describe the speech Barton delivered, which he described as “exalting a curious version of the Christian ideal.” Evidently gun restrictions are un-Christian. So too are progressive income taxes, government health care and public education. During his denunciation of critical race theory, he shared a slide showing logos for The New York Times’s 1619 Project and Black Lives Matter framed around a Soviet hammer and sickle.

There was much more…

What the deeply religious author described is part and parcel of a phenomenon that has become increasingly obvious over the past several years: the transformation of Evangelical Christianity from a religion into a political ideology. In this essay and in his new book,”The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism,” he documents what he calls the “deterioration of American Christianity.”

The Politico article is quite lengthy. And terrifying. I strongly encourage you to click through and read it in its entirety. It illustrates the politicization of the churches the author witnessed firsthand in his research for the book–research that took him to “half-empty sanctuaries and standing-room-only auditoriums” and included shadowing big-city televangelists and small-town preachers. He says he reported from inside hundreds of churches, Christian colleges, religious advocacy organizations, denominational nonprofits, and assorted independent ministries.

Among the other things his chilling descriptions illuminated was the importance of  teaching accurate history–and the motives of the Christian Nationalists who are attacking the public schools that teach that history.


  1. The term, “respected Christian historian” is a contradiction in terms by any definition.

    But what this demagogue wannabe Barton represents is how gullible, ignorant and needy so many people are to actually buy into bullshit, his and just about any Republican’s. Confirmation bias, cultism, etc., all attempt to analyze these mental deficiencies to little avail.

    These are the hardest of the hard-core true believers will NEVER admit they are mistaken about their beliefs no matter how much evidence is piled up at their intellectual doorstep. They simply won’t open that door for fear of having their entire belief structure crumble and prove to the world that they’ve been suckers and losers all along.

    That is how religions work – in essence: Unfounded beliefs, repeated lies, fear of consequences, loads of guilt and a massive dose of tribalism thrown in.

  2. Good comment Vernon! The only thing I see that is good about some churches is thier capacity to care for each other and initiate programs that support a community.

  3. Vernon, that’s unfair. There _are_ respected Christian historians. But still, it made me laugh, as was likely the point, so thank you. 🙂

    My only real quibble with your post is that Barton isn’t a “wannabe:” he _is_ a demagogue, and with a terrifyingly larger audience than one might reasonably expect.

    I’d also add one item to your list of characteristics at the end of the post: a determined and purposeful ignorance. And of all the negative characteristics, I find this hardest to accept; it seems to me that being human is based around the exact opposite idea: a fundamental desire for growth, exploration, and learning.

  4. I think it’s important to characterize people of faith by groups. I’m a non-believer but wouldn’t criticize my family or friends who are people of faith.

    They call it faith and not facts for a reason. Where I draw a clear line is when people of faith believe their faith is the only ‘true’ one and seek to impose their belief system on others.

    Fifteen years ago I spent a week in Montana on a ranch which offered fly fishing, hiking, horseback riding and yoga. A group of 12-14 and, amazingly to me, included two brothers, one who lived in London and the other in Israel on a kibbutz. We talked every evening over the dinner table and I recall the brother who lived on a kibbutz talking about life there. He mentioned that Jews, Christians and Muslims worked there, each group with its own day of worship. Different faiths and living together in harmony.

  5. Another example of how emotion always overrules reason.
    Religious institutions rely on working up their congregations into an emotional frenzy, at which point the congregants open their wallets and give, give, give. And I speak as a recovering evangelical, raised in a Southern Baptist church. I speak from personal experience.
    Jesus said “Many will come in my name”, and he was talking about false prophets. Lo and behold, here they are…

  6. I am into the last pages of Rachel Maddow’s book Prequel, and I must write that this report about Evangelicalism from Politico has an eerie and disturbing ring to it. I am compelled to ask how is it that propaganda pushing the idea that democracy is done and we need to move onto a dictatorship has arisen in various religions, in nationalist organizations, in racist organizations, and segments of the media? How is that?????
    If you do not believe that history repeats itself you need to read Maddow’s book. Like me, you may find yourself yelling at the top of your lungs “Holy Mackerel!”

  7. James Todd is correct in some aspects and Sheila is correct that Mr. barton got some things wrong. However the separation of church and state did come from the fact that people came here to be free from a theocracy, England and its Anglican church. Not to establish a theocracy. Of the hundreds if original documents that Mr Barton has collected, he comes to some conclusions correct and some not as “detailed enough” to draw some conclusions.
    Saying that MR Barton wants a theocracy is incorrect. I also listened to the anecdotal clip of Huckabee stating that people should be forced to listen at gunpoint to Barton and the crowd took it as a joke laughing at the proposition. An ironic proposition.
    Religious militancy only creates people that nod their heads and go along with who ever is in charge but do not really adhere to it.
    To say Mr Barton gets all things incorrect is ludicrous. Saying that Congress checked put a 1782 translation of the scriptures and were withdrawn and were totally exclusive is merely a poor semantical argument. It takes a deep knowledge of the Greek language and understanding the Bible to make assertions that the text is wrong or correctly translated.
    Congress was involved in religious.

    Either way no one is asserting that a theocracy can be outlined in the constitution. Not even Barton, but are his claims that biblical applications were made in writing it up. If these men from different Christian religious sects wrote it and some of the documents point historically to that, then this is all that one can conclude.
    The constitution states all men are created equal. So there is no God? Slavery is not questioned here? They didn’t fervently believe we have rights given by God?
    Secularists haven’t gotten a lot incorrect and rewritten history? Whoever writes the books and teaches their version of history wins.
    In 1892 the Supreme Court stated that the US was a Christian nation. Thats a fact. Were they implying a theocracy, no only that its roots were Christian at best.

  8. In God We Trust was first introduced on a two cent coin to boost morale among Union troops during The Civil War. By the 1950’s, during the Eisenhower Administration, the phrase became our national motto and published on all American currency supported by polls with 90% support of American citizens. The motto officially enshrined on currency has never been tested during a seated Supreme Court. What are the differences in dynamics of history for one practice accepted and another, such as open prayer in schools, contested?

  9. Reading the description of what kinds of things Barton’s audiences eat up reminds me of Donald Trump’s audiences.

  10. This is eye-opening and extremely frightening!

    Those of us who aren’t evangelical Christian Nationalists must find a way to stop Barton and his ilk from continuing to brainwash those that want to be told what to think and what to do.

  11. To my earlier post regarding widespread acceptance of our national motto … is one difference to the current argument (efficacy of substantiated scholarship aside) the presence of sponsorship for ceremonial deism infringing on boundaries between church and state?

  12. I agree, Pascal. Trump has stolen the talking points of both Hitler and Evangelists. He knows he’s talking to a gullible crowd that part with their dollar to support the cause and are highly motivated to vote. It’s a great con because it works so well.

    If I write a book on Thomas Jefferson, doesn’t that make me a historian? And does it matter if it’s inaccurate in spots?

    Picky, picky…it’s all about the “almighty dollar” and votes.

  13. How is his teaching any different than the Islamic Republic of Iran?
    It’s right there in the name of the country. That is what he’s saying.
    Only change the religion and you end up with repressed women and minorities and false gods. Makes me wanna puke. We don’t need your gawd damn xtian religion. Go worship at home, like Jesus taught. Freaking hypocrites.

  14. When people are taught to “Just Believe,” and then told fairy tales that they must “Just Believe,” anything is possible. Facts become the “annoyances” that St. Reagan called them, and when someone tells them that their god-thing wants things a certain way, they have no way to respond other than to believe the BS.
    I’m going to get “Prequel” from my library, thanks.

  15. Saying all religions are bad is an act of bald prejudice. Some people find and practice community and values in faith. In a time when morals/values are more and more “whatever I want/need them to be for me” we need a notion of goodness to center on/guide us.

  16. Had I not just seen this on the morning news, I wouldn’t have questioned this. It featured a new book by Tim Alberta named ”The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism” I could not find any reference to Alberta in today’s essay. What am I missing?

  17. Well, I attempted to tease a more in depth discussion of Constitutional debate without success, but thank you, Theresa.

    The tenor of exchange here reminds me of a caged mountain male gorilla in the zoo of my hometown. The local news picked up (no pun intended, read on) the story that the enormous ape had a habit of throwing his anal discharge at his admirers. The media coverage actually attracted more visitors to the zoo to the astonishment of zoo keepers. The gorilla exhibit became all of a sudden the most popular attraction.

    It is it seems human nature to be entertained and not necessarily enlightened. At least some have learned to shine their light in more civil ways.

  18. Today I looked at a request for a donation from the Indiana Sheriff’s Association, an organization I have donated to in the past. Their newsletter profiled two county sheriffs. The sheriff of Floyd County has instituted a program called Residents Encountering Christ which is a 3 day retreat where Sheriff Bush “went in and talked to inmates, sharing his faith and encouraging them in theirs. In all, 41 inmates were baptized during this event. Local news media took note of the program’s success.”
    I’m not sure which I find more appalling, that a law enforcement officer uses his position of power to proselytize to inmates or that local “journalists” consider baptisism achieved under these conditions to be ” a success.”
    I did not send them any money.

  19. I’m sometimes fascinated by the “Evangelical Movement” and sometimes frightened by it. I’m a bit frightened by the zealous nature of their beliefs and their apparent willingness to sacrifice the rest of us to achieve their dreams. I haven’t found any aspect of “Christianity” in their writings or their sermons.

  20. Sharon – welcome to an early preview of life in the Christian States of America – coming soon!

  21. I am surprised that some politicians operating as pro church and state enthusiasts are church and state enthusiasts. Don’t they recognize that this is a two-way street and that the state may swallow up the church in who runs the government in such an arrangement – and not vice versa? History records that we have had a pope who led armies (thou shalt not kill?) and a testosterone-laden English king who was mad at the pope for not allowing him a divorce and started his own church (the Anglican), which he headed, and which under his and successive royal leadership became worse than the Roman church from which he “divorced” himself and his subjects, which in turn caused many to flee the church and state marriage to Holland and colonial America.

    This thumbnail sketch, plus the ill-fated Holy Roman Empire, whose emperors were appointed by popes, show conclusively that mixing church and state is a bad idea either from a religious or secular point of view, which our Founders recognized by the language of our Constitution and its Amendments. Voltaire, the French Mark Twain of his day, famously and correctly noted that “The Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, Roman nor an Empire.” It was government by pope, a status quo centuries-old arrangement finally loosened by the Enlightenment.

    I am beginning to wonder if today these church and state enthusiasts are not really church and state enthusiasts but are rather using that slogan as a cover for an authoritarian takeover of our government based on the 1930s design of European dictators, given Prequal evidence of such a plot. A plot? Yes. We have had our burning of the Reichstag on 1/6, and daily destruction of our democratic institutions which undergird the Constitution and rule of law continue apace and has even been normalized. To do? Wake up, vote, and loudly support our democracy, our most precious asset we hold in common, and one of the last few things left worth dying for.

  22. Seems search for truth is central for enlightenment and if those attempts are systematically blocked by religion or bad governing, we have a problem. The framework (constitution and bill of rights) of this country needs to be protected from authoritarian takeover. Some Americans want to address their spiritual matters with traditional religious practices of their ancestors and families, present day and they’re free to do that. They are not free to impose those beliefs/practices on captive vulnerable audiences like children and prisoners.
    In reading Prequel, I was appalled that Father (I hated having to call priests “father” as a child in Catholic Church) Coughlin the “radio priest” mixed his authoritarian theology and promoted fascism in US. Glad to see present day Pope sanctioning bishops in US who are persecuting minorities that don’t adhere to their strict rules/morals. Just wondering if the Vatican cardinals have their poison rings open, since the Pope has been ill?
    Present day Mike Johnson needs some stay in his lane classes and made aware that most Americans want to keep their personal freedoms. What if he was threatened with, he couldn’t practice his religion here? That’s the equivalency.
    I can’t jump on the bandwagon of people are ignorant, backward if they pray or believe in transcendence or enlightenment or pray. There’s a lot to this life worth searching for.

Comments are closed.