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Using History to Mold Ideas on the Right

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David Barton, a self-taught conservative historian, argues that the Supreme Court (in the 1879 decision of Reynolds v. United States and the 1947 decision of Everson v. Board of Education), misconstrued Thomas Jefferson’s statement that the First Amendment of the US constitution erected a ‘wall of separation between church and state.’ The way in which secular states construe the relationship between religion and government has been hotly contested, most recently in relation to the French ban on wearing Islamic veils in public.


By Erik Eckholm

May 4, 2011




ALEDO, Tex. — In an unmarked office building in this ranching town, among thousands of Revolution-era documents and two muskets with bayonets, David Barton might seem like a quirky history buff. But the true ambition of this slender man in cowboy boots is to use America’s past to remake its future, and he has the ear of several would-be presidents.

Mr. Barton is a self-taught historian who is described by several conservative presidential aspirants as a valued adviser and a source of historical and biblical justification for their policies. He is so popular that evangelical pastors travel across states to hear his rapid-fire presentations on how the United States was founded as a Christian nation and is on the road to ruin, thanks to secularists and the Supreme Court, or on the lost political power of the clergy.

Through two decades of prolific, if disputed, research and some 400 speeches a year on what he calls the forgotten Christian roots of America, Mr. Barton, 57, a former school principal and an ordained minister, has steadily built a reputation as a guiding spirit of the religious right. Keeping an exhaustive schedule, he is also immersed in the nuts and bolts of politics and maintains a network of 700 anti-abortion state legislators.

Many historians call his research flawed, but Mr. Barton’s influence appears to be greater than ever. Liberal organizations are raising the alarm over what they say are Mr. Barton’s dangerous distortions, including his claim that the nation’s founders never intended a high wall between church and state.

“I’ve met with several of the potential candidates this time, always at their call,” Mr. Barton said of the Republican presidential hopefuls. They usually seek specific advice, he said: whom to hire or contact in a particular state, how best to phrase a sensitive point.

And they are apt to get their policy recommendations with his special twist. “I keep being amazed at how much the founders wrote about issues that we’re dealing with today,” Mr. Barton said in his library the other day, in this small town west of Fort Worth. “Can you believe it, James Madison opposed a bailout and stimulus plan in 1792!” he said, pointing out a Congressional debate over subsidies for the codfish industry.

Among the possible Republican presidential candidates who seek his advice are Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich and Representative Michele Bachmann.

Mr. Huckabee, who has known Mr. Barton since his days as governor of Arkansas, calls him “maybe the greatest living historian on the spiritual nature of America’s early days.”

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who echoes Mr. Barton’s themes with his own declarations that American freedoms are divinely granted, said he would call on Mr. Barton for advice if he ran for president. Ms. Bachmann of Minnesota, leader of the House Tea Party Caucus, said she planned to have Mr. Barton lecture lawmakers on Constitutional history.

But many professional historians dismiss Mr. Barton, whose academic degree is in Christian education from Oral Roberts University, as a biased amateur who cherry-picks quotes from history and the Bible.

“The problem with David Barton is that there’s a lot of truth in what he says,” said Derek H. Davis, director of church-state studies at Baylor University, a Baptist institution in Waco, Tex. “But the end product is a lot of distortions, half-truths and twisted history.”

Mr. Barton says it is his critics who cherry-pick history by underplaying the religious dimension. Over the years, he has only dug more deeply into his documents, filling out books like “Original Intent” (published by WallBuilders, his organization here).

One of his most contested assertions is that the Supreme Court has misconstrued Thomas Jefferson’s statement that the First Amendment erected a “wall of separation between church and state.” According to Mr. Barton, Jefferson meant that government should not interfere with the public exercise of religion — not that public spaces should be purged of prayer. He also cites biblical passages that, he says, argue against deficit spending, graduated income taxes, the minimum wage and costly measures to fight global warming.

WallBuilders is sustained by donors and the growing sales of his books and videos. Mr. Barton declined to say how much revenue they generate, but said that the proceeds were plowed back into library acquisitions and research.

It is hard to know when Mr. Barton finds the time to pore over documents and write, let alone ride the horses he keeps on a small ranch. Beyond his hundreds of speeches, he tapes a daily radio program, manages a staff of 25 and keeps in touch with his national network.

“He doesn’t sleep much,” said his wife, Cheryl, who stayed near through an interview and helped him recall key dates in his improbable career.

Mr. Barton burst onto the conservative scene in 1988, when he published a study that blamed a decline in SAT scores and other social ills, like violent crime and unwed births, on the Supreme Court decisions in 1962 and 1963 that banned prayer in public schools.

Mr. Barton had gathered data on nights and weekends while teaching math and science and managing the Christian school he founded here in association with the evangelical church his father established.

Scholars derided his report as a classic confusion of correlation and causation. But Mr. Barton still thinks otherwise. “The nation walked away from God,” he said, and the consequences came swiftly.

In 1988, the message found ready ears. Mr. Barton set out in a Ford van with Cheryl and their three small children, giving 72 speeches in 52 days — a pace that has never flagged.

He also dived into politics, serving as vice chairman of the Texas Republican Party from 1997 to 2006. In 2004, he was hired by the Republican National Committee to mobilize Christians for George W. Bush.

Groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State have long challenged Mr. Barton’s conclusions. Now, his critics are ratcheting up their alarms. The liberal group People For the American Way recently devoted a report to Mr. Barton, warning about his “growing visibility and influence with members of Congress and other Republican Party officials.”

As he proudly showed a visitor his library, which holds a shock of George Washington’s hair, it was clear that Mr. Barton had affection not just for yellowed pages but also for the hunt itself. And he is looking forward, even as he looks back. “We haven’t had the time to read through even 5 percent of these things,” he said, opening a sheaf of 18th-century newspapers. “You never know what you’ll find.”

 

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