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.


File Under: Just Shoot Me Now

The brazen David Barton strikes again.

If we did even a reasonable job of civics education in this country, people like Barton would be objects of laughter–as they so richly deserve.

That said, this latest bit of historical revisionism is so self-evidently ridiculous, the only people who would fall for it would be those who really want to believe…


Filling the Void

I know I keep harping on the damage caused by Americans’ ignorance of our most basic history and philosophy, but the evidence just keeps piling up. I’m pasting, below, a recent essay by noted religious historian Martin Marty, in which he weighs in on David Barton–a charlatan who has made a living by manufacturing the sort of history fundamentalists want to believe. It’s easy, because most of us come to these issues with absolutely no knowledge. Instead, we have large voids, which these people are all too eager to fill. UPDATE: IF YOU CANNOT READ THE ATTACHMENT BELOW, HERE’S  THE LINK:

Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion
The University of Chicago Divinity School

Sightings 4/30/2012

David Barton’s Jefferson

— Martin E. Marty

Our premier historian of late colonial and early republican America, Gordon Wood, while reviewing a book on Roger Williams warms up readers with references to Thomas Jefferson. “It’s easy to believe in the separation of church and state when one has nothing but scorn for all organized religion. That was the position of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s hatred of the clergy and established churches knew no bounds. He thought that members of the ‘priestcraft’were always in alliance with despots against liberty. For him the divine Trinity “was nothing but ‘Abracadabra’ and ‘hocus-pocus’. . . Ridicule, he said, was the only weapon to be used against it.”

If you wanted to promote the idea of “a Christian America,” one which would privilege one religion, a version of Christianity, and de-privilege all others, and if you want to get back to roots and origins, the last of the “founding fathers” on whom you’d concentrate would be Jefferson. Yet the most ardent public and pop advocate of privilege and virtual establishment, David Barton, cites Jefferson for Bartonian positions which are directly opposite of Jefferson’s. Never heard of David Barton? Most of the historians you would ever meet never heard of him, and if you told them about him and his positions, they would yawn or rage about listing him among those who deal honestly with Jefferson.

Sightings does not over-do ad hominem and sneering references, so we leave to others all the disdaining that Barton so richly merits. Do note, however, that he has invented a case and product which serve his viewpoint and draw him enormous followings among “conservative” factions which oppose separation of church and state in most cases except those they choose. Listen to Mike Huckabee or Glenn Beck or rightist cable TV and you will find Barton showing up everywhere.

His favorite founder seems to be Jefferson, of all people. How does he work his way around to the prime builder of “a wall of separation between church and state,” in the metaphor that would not be my favorite. Sample: Thomas Jefferson, razor in hand snipped all supernatural references out of his copies of the Gospels (in the four languages he read in White House evenings), to keep Jesus as a pure ethical humanist. This spring Barton is publishing The Jefferson Lies, which most historians would title Barton’s Lies about Jefferson. Astonishingly, he twists a slight reference to Jefferson’s book on Jesus and turns it into a tract which, Barton says, Jefferson would use in order to convert the Indians to Christianity. Reviewer Craig Ferhman in theLos Angeles Times found all that Barton found to be “outrageous fabrication.” On TV, Barton even said, with no evidence, that Jefferson gave a copy of his Jesus book to a missionary, to use “as you evangelize the Indians.” Had the Indians been converted with that text, their heirs would have had no place to go but to what became the humanist wing of the Unitarian-Universalist church.

Why does any of this matter? One, basic honesty is at issue; do American religionists need to invent such stories in order to prevail? Two, what if they did prevail? Most of the founders thought that religion was most honest and compelling when its leaders and gatherings did not depend upon lies about the state and, of course, upon the state itself. “Separation of church and state” is admittedly a complex issue, dealing as it does with inevitable conflict and messiness in a free and lively republic. May debates over it go on, but with honest references to Jefferson and his colleagues and not on the grounds David Barton proposes.


Gordon S. Wood, “Radical, Pure, Roger Williams,” New YorkReview of Books, May 10, 2012.

People for the American Way, “David Barton’s ‘Outrageous Fabrication’ about Thomas Jefferson,” Right Wing Watch, January 9, 2012.

Martin E. Marty’s biography, publications, and contact information can be found at


This month’s Religion& Culture Web Forum features “Three Lights on the Queen’s Face: On Mixing, Muddle, and Mêlée” by Larisa Jasarevic. Jasarevic writes about encounters at a singularly popular therapist in Bosnia, Nerka, whom patients have lovingly titled “the Queen of Health.” In the midst of the new medical and magical market, sorcery and Koranic healing appeal to people inBosniairrespective of their religious backgrounds, upsetting the conventional image of Bosniaas forever divided by ethno-national-religious considerations. According to Jasarevic, Nerka irreverently puts into play and displaces the differences reified since the 1990s genocidal conflict. Beginning with Jean-Luc Nancy’s reluctant writing on identity and mixing–provoked by the Bosnian war and discourse of ethnic cleansing–Jasarevic’s essay visits some local, ritual, and habitual responses to magical, medical, and religious mixing and paints a gathering around the impossibility of belonging. Read Three Lights on the Queen’s Face: On Mixing, Muddle, and Mêlée.


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
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Historic Dyslexia

Republicans these days seem to be having an awful lot of trouble with timelines.

Example #1: David Barton–Michele Bachmann’s very favorite constitutional “expert,” recently argued that the nation’s Founders “had already had the creationism-evolution debate.” Now I knew the Founders were brilliant men; what I didn’t know is that they had debated the theory of evolution a full century before Darwin published “Origin of Species” in 1859. Imagine that!

Example #2: Presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty recently delivered a speech advocating huge tax cuts, insisting that “we know” tax cuts lead to economic growth. Unfortunately, in one of those danged timeframe inversions, the periods of economic growth he cited came after tax increases. The weakest economic performance followed Bush’s tax cuts. (Well, that was inconvenient…)

Example #3: In yet another display of her “intellectual” skills, Sarah Palin–speaking after visiting Boston’s historic sites–insisted that Paul Revere rode to warn the British, and to uphold Americans’ right to bear arms. (She also said he rang bells and fired shots….news to numerous American historians.) It is difficult to understand how Revere’s ride could have been to protect the right to gun ownership, since  that right was secured by the Second Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1791. Revere’s ride–and the date it occurred–was immortalized by Longfellow. .

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

Sarah obviouly doesn’t remember that “famous” day and year, either.

Civic literacy, anyone?


Enabling the Frauds

A colleague emailed me this morning to alert me to the cover story in the current American Bar Association Journal, which bemoans the sorry state of civics education in the U.S.  My email box also included my Monday issue of Sightings, Martin Marty’s e-newsletter from the University of Chicago Divinity School. Marty is perhaps the pre-eminent scholar of religion in this country; his message this morning highlighted one of the great frauds of our generation, David Barton.

Marty discussed Barton’s lack of both credentials and credibility, and noted sadly that efforts by legitimate historians would undoubtedly be met with assertions of “liberal bias,” despite the fact that a number of quite conservative Evangelical scholars have pointed out numerous flaws and outright fabrications in Barton’s “scholarship.”

“Notice that self-identified “evangelicals” are not at the edges but in the center of the professional historian elite—among them, across the spectrum of non-secularists,  Mark Noll, Joel Carpenter, Edith Blumhofer, George Marsden, Grant Wacker, Harry Stout, and dozens more who deservedly all but dominate their caste as it covers religious history. Find one who respects what Barton does to their field of work or through his methods. Ask them. Some other critics use the word “fraud” and more, with good reason, come up with terms like “distorter” or “ideologue.” Barton’s cause: to show from eighteenth-century documents that Founding Fathers determinedly and explicitly established a Christian state, which leaves all non-Christians as second-class citizens. He and his “Wall Builders” institute cherry-pick lines from the documents and banner them or engrave them in public expressions. Barton & Co. get to pick the history texts for Texas etc., and thus push out of contention authors and publishers who, for all their flaws, are vocationally committed to fairness and, yes, truth-telling.”

These two items are not unrelated. Civic ignorance enables frauds like Barton. It encourages those who are so inclined to choose their own version of history, their own reading of the Constitution, and to trot out their own “experts” to explain away inconvenient facts.

This ignorance is not limited to civics, of course. There’s a long tradition of “know-nothingness” in America. During the last Presidential election, a majority of Republican primary candidates reportedly didn’t believe in evolution. The current batch–from crazy Michelle Bachmann to grizzly-bear “laughing all the way to the bank” Sarah Palin, to “man on dog” Rick Santorum, et al–cite Barton as their “historian.”

When such astonishingly ignorant people are elevated to positions of prominence, it does not bode well for the American future.