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The Most Influential Evangelist You've Never Heard Of

Republican activist David Barton speaks before testifying before the Texas State Board of Education in 2009.
Harry Cabluck
Republican activist David Barton speaks before testifying before the Texas State Board of Education in 2009.

David Barton says Americans have been misled about their history. And he aims to change that.

"It's what I would call historical reclamation," Barton explains, in his soft but rapid-fire voice. "We're just trying to get history back to where it's accurate. If you're going to use history, get it right."

Barton has collected 100,000 documents from before 1812 — original or certified copies of letters, sermons, newspaper articles and official documents of the Founding Fathers. He says they prove that the Founding Fathers were deeply religious men who built America on Christian ideas — something you never learn in school.

For example, you've been taught the Constitution is a secular document. Not so, says Barton: The Constitution is laced with biblical quotations.

"You look at Article 3, Section 1, the treason clause," he told James Robison on Trinity Broadcast Network. "Direct quote out of the Bible. You look at Article 2, the quote on the president has to be a native born? That is Deuteronomy 17:15, verbatim. I mean, it drives the secularists nuts because the Bible's all over it! Now we as Christians don't tend to recognize that. We think it's a secular document; we've bought into their lies. It's not."

We looked up every citation Barton said was from the Bible, but not one of them checked out. Moreover, the Constitution as written in 1787 has no mention of God or religion except to prohibit a religious test for office. The First Amendment does address religion.

What about the idea that the founders did not want government entangled in religion? Wrong again, says Barton. On his tours of the U.S. Capitol, for example, he claims that Congress not only published the first American Bible in 1782, but it also intended the Bible to be used in public schools.

"And we're going to be told they don't want any kind of religion in education, they don't want voluntary prayer?" Barton asks his audience rhetorically? "No, it doesn't make sense."

But historians say Barton is flat-out wrong in his facts and conclusion. Congress never published or paid a dime for the 1782 Bible. It was printed and paid for by Philadelphia printer Robert Aitken. At Aitken's request, Congress agreed to have its chaplains check the Bible for accuracy. It was not, historians say, a government promotion of religion.

Vision For A Religion-Infused America

David Barton is not a historian. He has a bachelor's degree in Christian education from Oral Roberts University and runs a company called WallBuilders in Aledo, Texas. But his vision of a religion-infused America is wildly popular with churches, schools and the GOP, and that makes him a power. He was named one of Time magazine's most influential evangelicals. He was a long-time vice chairman for the Texas Republican Party. He says that he consults for the federal government and state school boards, that he testifies in court as an expert witness, that he gives a breathtaking 400 speeches a year.

Seeking his endorsement are politicians including Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz of Texas and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who's mentioned as a possible running mate for Mitt Romney. Newt Gingrich is a fan. So is Mike Huckabee.

"I almost wish that there would be like a simultaneous telecast," Huckabee said at a conference last year, "and all Americans will be forced, forced — at gunpoint, no less — to listen to every David Barton message. And I think our country will be better for it."

Barton claims Jefferson, unlike the other presidents, closes his documents "In the year of our Lord Christ." It's actually a standard form of closing documents, used here by James Madison.
Historical archives / Warren Throckmorton
Warren Throckmorton
Barton claims Jefferson, unlike the other presidents, closes his documents "In the year of our Lord Christ." It's actually a standard form of closing documents, used here by James Madison.

John Fea, chairman of the history department at evangelical Messiah College, doubts that. He says that Barton is peddling a distorted history that appeals to conservative believers.

"David Barton is offering an alternative vision of American history which places God, the providence of God, Christianity, at the center," he says.

Barton On Thomas Jefferson 'Lies'

Most recently, Barton has focused on Thomas Jefferson. His new book, The Jefferson Lies, made The New York Times best-seller list. (The publisher has recently pulled the book from shelves citing factual errors.) Barton's aim is to bust the "myths" about Jefferson. One of them, he told Huckabee on Fox News, is that Jefferson was a religious skeptic. Barton argues that for the first 70 or so years of his life, Jefferson was a "conventional Christian," although he did express doubts in his final 15 years. As evidence of the third president's religiosity, Barton showed Huckabee an original document signed by Jefferson.

"Jefferson, unlike the other presidents, closes his documents: 'In the year of our Lord Christ,' " Barton said, not mentioning that this was a pre-printed form that was required by law.

"But we're always told he was such a secularist and didn't believe in religion," Huckabee protested.

"Exactly," Barton said. He goes on to say that Jefferson started church services at the Capitol, that he ordered the Marine Corps band to play at the services and that he funded a treaty to evangelize the Kaskaskia Indians — three claims that experts say are demonstrably false.

"That's why I say he's the least religious founder," Barton concluded, "but he's way out there further than most religious right today would be."

"Mr. Barton is presenting a Jefferson that modern-day evangelicals could love and identify with," says Warren Throckmorton, a professor at the evangelical Grove City College. "The problem with that is, it's not a whole Jefferson; it's not getting him right."

Throckmorton co-authored Getting Jefferson Right, a book detailing what he says are Barton's distortions. As to Jefferson's faith, Throckmorton says there is no dispute among historians: Jefferson questioned the most basic tenets of Christianity.

"He didn't see Jesus as God," Throckmorton says. He didn't believe that Jesus performed miracles, he dismissed the Trinity. Throckmorton notes that when Jefferson decided to write his own version of the Gospels, now called the Jefferson Bible, "he said he was taking 'diamonds as if from a dunghill.' So he picked out the Sermon on the Mount and the golden rule — those were the 'diamonds.' But the 'dunghill' was the virgin birth, the resurrection of Christ, the Great Commission."

There's another "lie" about Jefferson that Barton sets out to debunk. He says Jefferson — who owned nearly 200 slaves — was a civil rights visionary.

"Had his plans been followed, Virginia would've ended slavery really early on," Barton says. "They would have gone much more toward civil rights. He was not as advanced in his views of slavery as say, John Adams in New England, but he certainly was no racist in that sense."

Barton quotes Virginia law that he says prohibited Jefferson from freeing his slaves during his lifetime — but Barton omits the section of the law that says Virginians could free slaves. Confronted by this, Barton says that Jefferson could not afford to free his slaves.

Yearning For The Past?

The idea that Jefferson was a civil rights visionary appalls the Rev. Ray McMillian, pastor of Oasis Church in Cincinnati.

"Thomas Jefferson hated African-Americans," McMillian says. "He hated the color of our skin. He talked about how inferior we are, in both mind and body."

McMillian is president of Cincinnati Area Pastors, which is boycotting the publisher of Barton's book, Thomas Nelson Publishers. He says by "whitewashing" Jefferson — and all the other slaveholding founders, for that matter — Barton is rewriting history to make it palatable for Christians today.

"All in their hearts they're saying, 'If we could just go back there, America would be right,' " McMillian says. "Right for who?"

Not for blacks, not for women, not for Native Americans, he says — only for white men.

Besides, historians say, this golden age never existed.

"None of the founders were necessarily interested in promoting a specifically Christian nation," says Fea at Messiah College. "Many of the founders believed in something akin to separating church and state even though they didn't use those terms. And in fact, most of the people in America were not regular churchgoers. So what is that great culture that we're returning to?"

"I'm not trying to throw the nation back 200 years," Barton responds. "I don't want the technology to go backward, I love the health [care] stuff we got now. What I try to use is principles that are timeless." And surprisingly relevant. On The Daily Show last year, Barton told Jon Stewart that he's amazed that the founders' insights apply to today's problems.

"I got a call from three congressmen off the floor and they said, 'Hey! Anything in history about bailout and stimulus plans in Congress?'" Barton recalled. "It turns out in 1792 there was a big debate in Congress about bailout and stimulus plans."

Barton says the founders didn't like them. He says they had insights on other modern issues as well. They would oppose abortion because the first inalienable right is the right to life. They even opposed the theory of evolution.

"You go back to the Founding Fathers, as far as they're concerned, they already had the entire debate on creation-evolution," he said on Daystar Television Network. "And you get Thomas Paine, who's the least religious Founding Father saying, 'You've GOT to teach creation science in the classroom. Scientific method demands that.'"

Of course, that was years before Charles Darwin was born.

'A Corrective To Historians'

Still, Barton has many supporters, though few of them are historians. One is Mat Staver, dean of Liberty University's Law School.

"I think he's a corrective to historians," Staver says. "In fact, I would put him against any historian and would have no question who would win in a debate."

Barton says he has a policy of not debating anyone. He adds that he doesn't care if historians disagree with him: He believes his trove of documents proves his points — although historians have seen the same documents and draw different conclusions. Barton also believes his critics might be envious, since his books — and world view — sell so well.

"I don't know if it's jealousy or liberalism," he says. "I certainly know the guys who come after me have made it very clear usually in the introductions of their stuff that they disagree with me, and my religious faith, and my view on America."

Fea, who is an evangelical himself, says he believes Barton is a danger because he's using a skewed version of the past to shape the future.

Diana Gomez and Garrett Mize rally before a state Board of Education meeting in Austin, Texas, in 2010.
Jack Plunkett / AP
Diana Gomez and Garrett Mize rally before a state Board of Education meeting in Austin, Texas, in 2010.

"He's in this for activism," he says. "He's in this for policy. He's in this to make changes to our culture."

Rewriting Texas Textbooks

Nowhere is that more visible than in the Texas textbook controversy. In 2010, the Texas Board of Education voted to rewrite the history textbooks to make them more conservative and Christian-friendly. One of the advisers was David Barton.

Barton later said on the cable talk show Chapter and Verse that it would take another 16 or 18 years before kids go through the entire curriculum, "then another 10 years after that before those kids get elected to office and start doing things. So we're talking 30 years from now. But, it's in the pipe coming down."

Asked about this 30-year plan, Barton says of course he wants to shape future leaders, any educator does. But he says he doesn't see himself as a particularly influential person.

"I'm going to be an active citizen and be involved and do everything I can to help move these principles forward," he says.

Barton's next stop: the Republican National Convention, where as a Texas representative to the GOP Platform Committee, he will lay out his vision of America.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty is the religion correspondent for NPR, reporting on the intersection of faith and politics, law, science and culture. Her New York Times best-selling book, "Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality," was published by Riverhead/Penguin Group in May 2009. Among others, Barb has received the American Women in Radio and Television Award, the Headliners Award and the Religion Newswriters Association Award for radio reporting.