For years, a self-proclaimed historian named David Barton has traveled the nation, offering fundamentalist Christian audiences a cut-and-paste version of American history that intends to prove that separation of church and state is a myth and that America's founders intended for the United States to be a "Christian nation."
Mainstream historians have pointed out the numerous flaws and outright errors in Barton's history. Nevertheless, he remains phenomenally popular among the Religious Right and often speaks at national conferences. Barton's Texas-based group, WallBuilders, distributes "Christian nation" books, videos, DVDs and other materials to eager audiences.
A few years ago, Barton took a big jump into partisan politics and became deputy chairman of the Texas Republican Party. Under his guidance, the state GOP platform has increasingly reflected the Barton viewpoint. For example, it attacks church-state separation and is laced with religious references. Endorsement of the platform sparked some controversy this year.
Now Barton appears to be angling for a spot on the national stage. He is touring the nation again, this time with financial support from the Republican National Committee as part of what is described as a larger get-out-the-vote effort.
As he tours the country, Barton leads pastors in sessions examining the role Christianity played in America's founding and puts forth his usual shaky thesis. But Barton doesn't stop there. Barton's not-so-subtle message is that America's Christian heritage is at risk – and only voting Republican can save it.
Although Barton's events are closed to the press, one attendee at an event in Eugene, Oregon, yesterday said the partisan tone was unmistakable. "The whole structure of the event is meant to support the Republican Party and meant to cast negative views on the Democrats," he said. This attendee noted, for example, that Barton contrasted the two parties on such issues as abortion and same-sex marriage, making it clear which party he prefers, according to The Oregonian.
It's not surprising that a Republican Party official would promote the Republican Party in a speech. What is surprising is that a church would give a platform to such a partisan event.
Electioneering in churches has proven to be a source of controversy for both parties in this election year. Americans United has already filed complaints with the IRS against a church in Boston for introducing John Kerry to the pulpit with an endorsement and against Jerry Falwell for using his tax-exempt organization to endorse George W. Bush and for encouraging donations to a PAC.
The presidential election is expected to be close, and it is tempting for both parties to encourage churches to risk their tax-status in an effort to squeeze out every possible vote. Religious leaders need to understand what is at stake: The candidates risk nothing for themselves in these escapades and only end up showing disregard for the nation's tax laws. If the IRS cracks down, it will move against the churches, not the campaigns. Pastors should think about this the next time David Barton, or officials of any political party, come to call.