Tag Archives: David Barton

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: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/martycenter/publications/sightings/archive_2012/0430.shtml





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 www.memarty.com.









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.

The “God Squad” Returns

Just when we thought it was safe to go back in the (political) water….

The New York Times, American Constitution Society and other media have recently highlighted David Barton, a character I encountered back in my days at the ACLU. Barton has spent decades providing phony “historical” ammunition to the “Christian Nation” folks, the ones who populate Fox News and the 700 Club insisting that there really isn’t such a thing as separation of church and state. When it looked like the culture warriors were fading, I assumed he and the other historical revisionists had retreated into whatever strange places they inhabit; apparently, that was wishful thinking. According to the Times, Barton is the “favorite historian” of several of the current GOP Presidential aspirants.

Something tells me Barton and his ilk also have the ear of our would-be Governor, Mike Pence–a man who has never experienced humility or doubt, nor let inconvenient historical evidence shake his serenely theocratic worldview.  Pence was the lawmaker who–when he wanted to strip the Supreme Court of jurisdiction over some of his favorite culture war issues–explained that Marbury v. Madison had been wrongly decided. (For those of you hazy on your history, that was the case that established the right of the Supreme Court to have the last word on whether an act of Congress was consistent with the constitution. And I won’t say it’s been established law for a long time, but the “Madison” of the caption was James Madison). Take that, all you smarty-pants law professors and judges!

With Pious Mike as Governor, Indiana can complete that trip back to the Dark Ages we just began with the most recent legislative session.