08.11.12

Christian Right Historian David Barton in Freefall Over ‘Jefferson Lies’

David Barton has been a hero to the right for claiming the founding fathers wanted a Christian nation. But now even his conservative peers are disowning his work. By Michelle Goldberg

At the Rediscovering God in America conference in 2011, Mike Huckabee gave an impassioned introduction to David Barton, the religious right’s favorite revisionist historian. “I almost wish that there would be something like a simultaneous telecast and all Americans would be forced, forced—at gunpoint, no less—to listen to every David Barton message,” he said. “And I think our country would be better for it.”

It’s hard to overstate how important Barton has been in shaping the worldview of the Christian right, and of populist conservatives more generally. A self-taught historian with a degree in religious education from Oral Roberts University, he runs a Texas-based organization called WallBuilders, which specializes in books and videos meant to show that the founding fathers were overwhelmingly “orthodox, evangelical” believers who intended for the United States to be a Christian nation. Newt Gingrich has called his work “wonderful” and “most useful.” George W. Bush’s campaign hired him to do clergy outreach in 2004. In 2010, Glenn Beck called him called him “the most important man in America right now.” At the end of the month, he’s slated to serve on the GOP’s platform committee at the Republican National Convention in Tampa.

But now, suddenly, Barton’s reputation is in freefall, and not just among the secular historians and journalists who have been denouncing him for ages. (I’m among them; I wrote extensively about Barton in my 2006 book Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism.) Earlier this week, the evangelical World magazine published a piece about the growing number of conservative Christian scholars questioning his work. Then, on Thursday, Thomas Nelson, the world’s largest Christian publisher, recalled Barton’s most recent book, the bestselling The Jefferson Lies, saying it had “lost confidence in the book’s details.”

For decades, Barton has tried to write enlightenment deism out of American history, but it seems that by attempting to turn the famously freethinking Thomas Jefferson into a pious precursor of the modern Christian right, he finally went too far. “Books like that makes Christian scholarship look bad,” says Warren Throckmorton, an evangelical professor of psychology at Grove City College, a conservative Christian school in Pennsylvania. “If that’s what people are passing off as Christian scholarship, there are claims in there that are easily proved false.”

Throckmorton and another Grove City professor, Michael Coulter, have been so disturbed by Barton’s distortions that they wrote a recent rejoinder to his Jefferson book, titled Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims About Our Third President. Their book appears to have inspired other conservative Christians finally to take a critical look at Barton.

Jay Richards, a senior fellow at the conservative Discovery Institute who spoke alongside Barton at a conference last month, read Getting Jefferson Right and got in touch with Throckmorton. According to World, Richards proceeded to ask 10 conservative Christian scholars to review Barton’s work. When they did, the response was extremely negative, leading Richards to conclude that Barton’s books and videos trafficked in “embarrassing factual errors, suspiciously selective quotes, and highly misleading claims.”

The most serious of Barton’s deceptions involve his efforts to whitewash Jefferson’s racism, part of Barton’s broader project of absolving the founders of the original sin of slavery, which would taint his picture of the country’s divine origins. His book argues, falsely, that Jefferson wanted to free his slaves, but couldn’t do so because of Virginia law. That claim so incensed some Cincinnati-area pastors, both African-American and white, that they threatened a boycott of Thomas Nelson publishers. “You can’t be serious about racial unity in the church, while holding up Jefferson as a hero and champion of freedom,” one of them said in a press release.

Barton’s history around race is complicated. As I’ve previously written, he got his start on the racist far right. In 1991, the Anti-Defamation League has reported, he spoke at a summer gathering of Scriptures for America, a Christian Identity group. A fringe creed, Christian Identity holds that Jews are the Satanic offspring of Eve’s liaison with the serpent in the Garden of Eden, while Africans are a separate species of “mud people.” Other speakers at the meeting were Holocaust denier Malcolm Ross and white supremacist Richard Kelly Hoskins. That fall, Barton was featured at another Christianity Identity gathering, in Oregon.

For decades, Barton has tried to write enlightenment deism out of American history.

As Barton went mainstream, however, he distanced himself from outright racism. Instead, he’s sought to prove that liberals have exaggerated the scale of black oppression in early America, and to paint contemporary Republicans as the champions of African-American freedom. In one document on the WallBuilders website, he attributes Strom Thurmond’s 1964 break with the Democrats to the senator’s “dramatic change of heart on civil rights issues,” as if the former Dixiecrat had turned Republican out of outrage at segregation rather than civil rights.

Until this week, such outrageous claims had not diminished Barton’s influence. Perhaps now that will change.“If you’re going to have a discussion about political ideas, have it based on facts, not political distortions,” says Throckmorton. He sees Barton’s conviction that there’s a straight line linking fundamentalist theology, American history, and contemporary political questions as particularly pernicious. “When you say that, in a policy discussion, that a certain outcome is God’s will, then anybody who is opposing you is not just incorrect, they’re against God,” Throckmorton says. “I think it hurts discourse. I’m an evangelical, but I wouldn’t want to claim that my policy positions are anointed. There’s a danger in that that I think Mr. Barton has fostered.”