Glenn Beck is obsessed with American history, and he’s helped make David Barton the most influential historian in America. A wiry, boyish Texas fundamentalist and master revisionist, Barton specializes in a version of history in which America was founded to be a Christian nation but has been hijacked by a godless minority that uses the courts to impose its fraudulent doctrine of church-state separation. He’s been a fixture on the religious right for years, but thanks to Glenn Beck and the Tea Party, he’s now bigger than ever. For large swaths of the country, he defines the American past, a past the right is desperate to recreate.
“David is, I think, the most important man in America right now,” Beck said in July, introducing one of Barton’s many appearances on his show. In addition to being a frequent TV guest of Beck’s, Barton is also one of three professors at Beck’s online school, Beck University. He was a member of the expert panel that created Texas’ controversial new history standards, which played down Thomas Jefferson and played up John Calvin. In September, he spoke at a rally for Florida Senate candidate Marco Rubio, where he was billed as a “constitutional scholar.” Later this month, he and Newt Gingrich will headline a meeting for Nevada pastors at a Las Vegas resort, meant to mobilize them ahead of the upcoming elections.
“Barton’s role in the Tea Party movement is much like it’s been in the Republican Party for the last decade,” says Dan Quinn, communications director of the Texas Freedom Network, a civil liberties group that has watched Barton for years. “He is acting as an intellectual resource for them. He gives them the words in their increasingly extremist vocabulary. On the right he has become this great icon of American historical scholarship, when he’s anything but.”
In fact, Barton doesn’t have any historical training all. His sole academic degree is a bachelor’s in religious education from Oral Roberts University—though given the right’s rampant populism, his fans are unlikely to care about his lack of credentials. Barton’s past association with white supremacists and Holocaust deniers might be more damaging, if anyone paid attention. Still, he’s gotten much more sophisticated about race over the last two decades. These days, he’s more likely to be hurling accusations of racism than fending them off.
Barton built his career by arguing, via a selective reading of documents from the Founding Fathers, that the Constitution is rooted in biblical values and that the founders never intended to separate church and state. He claims, falsely, that 52 of the 55 founding fathers were “orthodox, evangelical Christians,” and that they always intended for Christianity to shape American government. Public secularism, in his view, constitutes an unconstitutional tyranny that is systematically robbing the country of its religious heritage.
This is in many ways an old story. People who write about the religious right—myself included—have often marveled at the intricacy and resilience of the movement’s carefully wrought alternative history. The Anti-Defamation League was criticizing Barton as far back as 1994, writing in one report: “This ostensible scholarship functions in fact as an assault on scholarship: in the manner of other recent phony revisionisms, the history it supports is little more than a compendium of anecdotes divorced from their original context, linked harum-scarum and laced with factual errors and distorted innuendo.”
Yet Barton just keeps getting more powerful and more mainstream. His public career began in the late 1980s when, he has written, God ordered him to the library to investigate the ostensible correlation between the end of state-mandated school prayer and declines in SAT scores. “I didn’t know why,” he wrote in the introduction to his 1988 America: To Pray Or Not To Pray?, “but I somehow knew that these two pieces of information would be very important.”
The next year he published The Myth of Separation, a farrago of quotes torn from context and outright misinformation. It claimed, wrongly, that Thomas Jefferson described the wall of separation between church and state as “one directional,” keeping the state out of the church while maintaining “Christian principles in government.” It also falsely attributed a quote to James Madison, that the government’s future was “staked upon the Ten Commandments.” He later issued an extended correction for these and other mistakes, though that hasn’t stopped them from being repeated endlessly online.
Barton found an eager audience for his Christian nationalist history on the right-wing fringe. In 1991, as the ADL has reported, he spoke at a summer gathering of Scriptures for America, a group founded by Pete Peters, a pastor in the Christian Identity movement. Christian Identity holds that Anglo-Saxons are the true children of Israel, while Jews are the Satanic offspring of Eve’s liaison with the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Black people, according to Christian Identity theology, are a separate species of “mud people.” Other speakers at the meeting were Holocaust denier Malcolm Ross and white supremacist Richard Kelly Hoskins. Barton was advertised as “a new and special speaker” who would ask, “Was it the plan of our forefathers that America be the melting pot home of various religions and philosophies?” (One can assume that the answer was no.) On November 24 of that year, Barton spoke at another Christianity Identity gathering, this one in Oregon. According to the ADL, his self-published books were advertised in “The Watchman,” a Christian Identity publication.
Soon, though, Barton’s star started rising on the mainstream right, and he denounced Christian Identity, claiming that he hadn’t known he was addressing racist groups when he appeared at the movement’s meetings. That sounds implausible—it’s hard to imagine how one might speak at two white supremacist summits in five months by accident. Still, the association didn’t seem to hurt him. By the middle of the 1990s, every major religious right organization marketed Barton’s self-published books. In 1994, Newt Gingrich, then the House minority whip, praised Barton’s “wonderful” and “most useful” work, and, in 1997, Barton was elected vice chairman of the Texas Republican Party. The Bush campaign hired him to do clergy outreach in 2004.
In recent years, Barton has pioneered a new kind of historical revisionism, one that absolves conservative Republicans of any complicity in American racism, which he lays entirely at the feet of Democrats. He points out, correctly, that before 1964, many of the country’s most virulently racist politicians were Democrats. He neglects to mention that they fled to the GOP en masse after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Indeed, in one astonishing document, he attributes Strom Thurmond’s break with the Democrats to his “dramatic change of heart on civil rights issues,” as if the former Dixiecrat had turned Republican out of outrage at segregation. In an equally audacious reinterpretation of history, he paints the founding era as a golden age of racial comity, denying that racism was ever an essential part of America’s DNA.
Such rhetorical maneuvers have been particularly useful to Beck, obsessed as he is with secret histories and a prelapsarian version of the American past. Over the summer, Beck hosted a series of shows he called “Founders’ Fridays,” revisionist forays into American history guided by Barton. Under the guise of teaching black history, Founders’ Fridays argued against the idea that black people had been oppressed by the Revolutionary generation. On July 5, for example, Barton presented a newspaper from the late 18th century that featured the obituary of a black man who had fought in the Revolution. The obituaries, Barton pointed out, were “not broken out black and white. … It’s telling you who’s died, didn’t matter whether were you black or white or anything, you’re a citizen.”
Denying the racial sins of the Founding Fathers makes it easier to deify them—and, in turn, to promote faith in America’s Christian destiny. “In learning about the founders and seeing the heroes that were involved, it only strengthens my view that this was a divine document, the Declaration of Independence,” said Beck at the end of one show. “For the most part, these guys were amazing. And they struggled in their time to do the right thing. You say that they’re not Christians. They were Christians. And they fought for people who weren’t. The same thing with [saying] they were all white. Well, they fought for people who weren’t.”
Barton has given American history an immaculate conception, one that turns slaveholders into civil-rights heroes. He’s helped recreate a myth of a golden age of unimpeachable American righteousness. “[T]he national motto is e pluribus unum, out of many we became one,” said Barton during one of his appearances on Beck. “And we have tried for 20 years to make it e unum pluribus, out of one we’re going to be all these groups.” In some ways Barton hasn’t changed much at all. He’s still making the case against diversity, and coating it in divinity.
Michelle Goldberg is a senior contributing writer at The Nation. She is the author, most recently, of The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West. Her Twitter feed is @michelleinbklyn.