Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's (R-Tenn.) promotion of a fringe Religious Right activist's "tour" of the U.S. Capitol has sparked controversy in Washington, D.C.
On March 31, Frist sent out letters inviting his colleagues to a "private tour of the U.S. Capitol building with WallBuilders President David Barton." Frist asked senators and their families to come enjoy a "Fresh Perspective on Our Nation's Religious Heritage with a Special Tour of the U.S. Capitol." Barton was described as "a historian noted for his detailed research into the religious heritage of our nation."
But according to research by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Barton is actually a Texas-based Religious Right activist who thinks America is a "Christian nation." Barton is an Oral Roberts University graduate with no credentials as a historian. His self-proclaimed histories have been riddled with errors and amount to nothing more than "Christian nation" propaganda.
Frist's promotion of Barton quickly drew fire from civil liberties supporters. On the Senate floor, Sen. Frank Lautenberg decried the majority leader's move, noting that Barton "intends to prove that the separation of church and state is a myth, and that America's Founders intended for the United States to be a Christian nation."
Lautenberg also noted that Barton has become an increasingly prominent "Christian nation" advocate and harsh critic of the federal courts. During 2004, the Republican National Committee hired Barton to travel the country and speak to friendly congregations about the importance of the elections. Barton, whose Aledo, Texas group is dedicated to promoting the "Godly foundation of our country," also told Beliefnet.com that pastors can legally endorse candidates for public office.
Lautenberg (D-N.J.) urged Frist to withdraw his invitation "to tour the U.S. Capitol with this man who says this should be a Christian-only country."
Launtenberg offered his comments in the overall context of the right-wing effort to undermine the independence of the judiciary and to undo Senate rules and make it easier for the majority to ram through the confirmation process President George W. Bush's growing list of extreme judicial nominees.
The media as well as other lawmakers have taken note of the outrageous attacks on federal judges that have come recently from House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). DeLay suggested that the judges who refused to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case would at some point have "to answer for their behavior" and Cornyn earlier in the week connected recent violence against federal judges to an alleged growing resentment over their "raw political or ideological decisions."
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) asked to have placed in the Congressional Record an April 6 editorial from The New York Times lambasting Cornyn and DeLay for their shrill rhetoric.
Barton has a long track record of attacking federal judges. He regularly argues that the Supreme Court created the separation of church and state, launching a campaign to secularize the nation. His book, Restraining Judicial Activism, which is promoted on the WallBuilders web site, argues that the federal courts are "out of control, dominating both the executive and legislative branches."
Working for the RNC and leading a tour for Frist show how far Barton has come. In the early days, Barton's lecture circuit included Christian Coalition chapters, fundamentalist churches and other right-wing groups. In 1991, Barton even showed up at two events with anti-Semitic, white supremacist overtones. When asked to explain Barton's speaking at gatherings connected with Pete Peters' Scriptures for America, a Wallbuilders aide said "we had absolutely no idea that [Peters] was 'part of the Nazi movement.'"
Barton, however, is today a well-known and controversial figure of the Religious Right, and it is surprising that more senators have not joined in Launtenberg's dismay and disgust at Frist's decision to promote him.