September 2010 Church & State | Featured

The story told about colonial-era Lutheran pastor Peter Muhlenberg is certainly dramatic.

Addressing his Virginia congregation on Jan. 21, 1776, Muhlenberg stunned the congregation by announcing that this sermon would be his last. At the end of the address, he threw back his clerical robe to expose a military uniform and announced he was off to fight for American independence. Moved by his oratory, 300 men signed up on the spot to join him.

The story has made the rounds on Religious Right Web sites for years. It’s cited as evidence of the influence of Christianity on America’s founding and even as a prop for the idea that churches should always be active in politics.

David Barton, a Texas-based Religious Right activist and self-styled historian, recently cited the Muhlenberg tale as evidence that Christian pastors were involved in “every aspect” of the founding.

Unfortunately for Barton and his allies, the story is almost certainly untrue. No contemporary accounts of it exist. The tale first appeared in 1849 – long after Muhlenberg’s death – during a time when an influx of immigrants from Germany was eager to prove its loyalty by holding up a hero with genuine revolutionary credibility.

Most likely, the tale is a “pious legend” designed to inflate the importance of a historical figure by underscoring his essential goodness. It’s akin to stories of the young George Washington refusing to tell a lie about that cherry tree.

In 2007, PBS’ popular “History Detectives” investigated the Muhlenberg story. The program quoted Friederike Baer, an expert on German-American history, who called it “an invention.”

Chalk up another myth for David Barton.

It’s not surprising that Barton would tell a story that turned out not to be true. He’s been doing that for years. What is unusual is the venue where he told it: on a video being circulated by Fox News Channel’s controversial host Glenn Beck as part of an endeavor called “Beck University.”

The purpose of the “university” – which exists only in cyberspace – is ostensibly to teach Americans about the true “Christian” roots of the country. Based on the first lesson, Beck and Barton are off to a stumbling start.

On Beck’s Web site, Barton is referred to as “Prof. David Barton.” But Barton, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Christian Education from Oral Roberts University, holds no advanced degrees and does not teach at any legitimate institution. While he’s not an actual historian, Barton has posed as one since the early 1990s. He’s a fixture at Religious Right meetings and often delivers his cut-and-paste “Christian nation” history to far-right religious groups nationwide.

Despite his lack of credentials, Barton played a pivotal role in the recent rewriting of social studies standards in Texas. Fundamentalists on the state board of education appointed him to an advisory committee to examine state standards. Several of Barton’s recommendations found their way into the final version. (See “Texas Tall Tale,” July-August 2009 Church & State.)

Now Barton’s profile is becoming even more prominent. His partnership with Beck, whose viewership reaches 1.5 million nightly, could move Barton from the precincts of the Religious Right, where he has dwelled for many years, right into America’s living rooms.

Since March, Barton has appeared on Beck’s program at least 15 times. In fact, Beck has taken to featuring Barton in regular Friday appearances, what Beck calls “Founders’ Fridays.”

The two make for an unlikely tag team. Barton, a fundamentalist Christian, has long hawked his “Christian nation” goods to eager right-wing fundamentalists. Beck, a Mormon whose religion is often attacked by fundamentalists, admits to being as much an entertainer as a political commentator.

But working together, they might just re-energize the Religious Right. That movement, dispirited over the presidency of Barack Obama, is somewhat rudderless at the moment with few acknowledged high-profile leaders. It is, however, hoping for a big comeback after the fall elections. The question of who will take charge of the movement remains unclear.

While neither Beck nor Barton is a likely leader for the theocratic right – the gangly, silver-haired Texan talks at a fast clip and has little charisma and Beck’s Mormonism is too high a barrier – they could provide important cheerleading and valuable media exposure to the movement’s newly emerging leaders. Although bombastic, Beck’s overwrought nightly performances definitely resonate with disaffected Fox News viewers, Christian nationalists and Tea Party activists – the very crowd the Religious Right seeks to mobilize.

The two bring different skills to the partnership.

Beck has parlayed his cable-news celebrity into a growing financial empire. Over the summer, he made a round of personal appearances at right-wing conferences and published a paranoid, didactic novel called The Overton Window that topped the bestsellers’ lists.

Beck University is part of the host’s expanding realm. Fans who want access to Barton’s pearls of wisdom must sign up through Beck’s Web site and plunk down fees ranging from $6.26 to $9.95 per month for “insider extreme” access. For the money, viewers are promised not only Beck University videos but also “exclusive video you can’t get anywhere else” and “the ultimate in Glenn Beck access.”

On the air, Beck comes across as a more sedate version of Howard Beale from the 1976 film “Network” mixed with occasional forays into TV evangelism.

“[P]ray, find your relationship with God,” Beck implored his audience July 19. “Pray on your knees every night. Make this commitment. Pray on your knees every night for the next 40 nights…. I believe it’s impossible to restore America without restoring God in our country. Turn to him. Re-establish your relationship with him.”

Although less of a showman, Barton has traveled a similar path of hucksterism. His Aledo, Texas-based outfit, WallBuilders, has a non-profit division but makes most of its money through a for-profit operation that peddles books, DVDs and other materials promoting the Texan’s revisionist history.

Barton’s primary product is a fat book titled Original Intent. Called The Myth of Separation when it first appeared, Original Intent is popular with followers of the Religious Right because it tells them what they want to hear: that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and that church-state separation was never intended by the founders.

The constitutional division between church and state, Barton argues, was imposed on an unwilling nation by the Supreme Court in 1947.

Barton’s “history” is studded with errors. The Myth of Separation contained so many mistakes that Barton withdrew the book and re-titled it Original Intent.

Barton is also less eager to talk today about his first book, America: To Pray or Not To Pray? It’s an embarrassing collection of charts that Barton uses to “prove” that the 1962 Supreme Court decision striking down school-sponsored prayer led to an increase in crime, higher rates of venereal disease, more alcoholism and so on. The self-published tome is no longer featured on the WallBuilders site – although Beck mentioned Barton’s charts on the air July 1.

But none of this has slowed Barton down. If anything, his celebrity in the Religious Right has only increased. These days, his site proudly proclaims, “As Seen on Glenn Beck.” Original Intent is selling briskly on This summer, he appeared with Beck at a series of rallies dubbed the “American Revival Tour,” a national campaign slated to culminate with Beck, Barton and Sarah Palin joining forces at an Aug. 28 “Restoring Honor” event at the Lincoln Memorial.

Despite his newfound fame, Barton’s research is as sloppy as ever.

Researcher Chris Rodda of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation has posted several video clips and articles online debunking the claims Barton has been making on Beck’s shows. Rodda, author of the book Liars for Jesus, says Barton often doesn’t tell the whole story.

In her blog postings, Rodda cites two claims Barton made on Beck’s show on March 16. Barton asserted that Congress printed an official Bible for use in schools after the Revolution in 1782 and that Thomas Jefferson added the phrase “in the Year of our Lord Christ” to official documents.

Both stories stretch credulity. The United States was in poor shape financially after the war, and it seems unlikely scarce funds would have been spent on printing Bibles. And to anyone familiar with Jefferson’s much-discussed religious skepticism – this is the man, after all, who rewrote the New Testament to remove all references to Jesus’ divinity and miracles – the claim about him adding Jesus’ name to government documents is jarring.

The real facts are much more mundane. The Jefferson documents Barton refers to were pre-printed papers carried on board ships to prove their country of origin. Under terms of an international treaty that had been signed by President John Adams, the United States agreed to use a standardized version of language drawn up by Dutch officials that included the religious reference. (Holland at that time was an officially Christian nation.)

The fledgling United States was in no position to quibble over a minor detail of wording, and the form remained in use until the 1820s. The language, however, was in no way Jefferson’s doing.

Barton’s assertion about the congressional Bible is equally specious.

The claim is suspicious from the start. There simply weren’t any public schools as we know them in 1782. Rodda explains what really happened: A man named Robert Aiken produced a version of the Bible and tried repeatedly, without success, to get the U.S. government to print and distribute it.

In the end, Congress agreed to ask some chaplains to examine the Bible. The chaplains liked the edition, so Congress issued a resolution lauding the work as accurate – probably because they were interested in giving a boost to the new U.S. publishing industry.

Aiken tried repeatedly to persuade the federal government to print his Bible, even appealing to George Washington. Nothing came of it. In fact, he was unable to sell most of the 10,000 Bibles he had privately printed and lost money on the deal. 

Barton also claimed on a Beck University video that 29 of the signers of the Declaration of Independence had attended seminaries and were ministers. In fact, as Rodda points out, only two signers of that document became ministers. During the colonial period, “seminary” was used to mean “college.”

In a way, Barton’s appearances on Beck’s program make perfect sense. Misinformation is right at home there, and the show isn’t exactly a font of accuracy. Beck and his guests often spread wild tales.

On July 1, Barton appeared on the program arguing in favor of having a religious basis to government. During the show, Beck attacked churches that propagate “social justice” (a frequent obsession of Beck’s) and asserted that Charles Coughlin, a notorious anti-Semitic priest who did radio broadcasts in the 1930s, was a leftist. In fact, Coughlin became a vociferous opponent of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and was a Nazi sympathizer. His crude ultra-nationalism had clear fascist tendencies.

Appearing on the same program was Robert George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University and a favorite of the right wing. George opined that the Nazis were socialists, even though scholars of the era recognize that Nazi ideology was totalitarian/fascist with an economic policy generally favorably to big business; in addition, the Nazi obsession with racial hierarchies ran counter to the utopian socialist dreams of a classless society that were common during that era.

(The July 1 program featured a veritable cavalcade of Religious Right zealots. Jim Garlow, a pastor who chairs Gingrich’s Renewing American Leadership group, was on hand alongside disgraced former Christian Coalition wunderkind Ralph Reed and even Pastor John Hagee, who remains as convinced as ever that the world is about to end any day now.)

What’s the harm in the Beck-Barton bogus history onslaught? Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which has been monitoring Barton since the early 1990s, says the Religious Right activist has several goals. One is to destroy public respect for church-state separation. Barton hopes to persuade people that separation of church and state is something foreign to the founders. If he’s successful, people will be more supportive of Religious Right candidates for office and more outraged when church-state separation is upheld by the courts and other arms of government.

“The bogus, self-appointed ‘historians’ of the Religious Right have one objective: to turn the American people against church-state separation,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “They’re twisting history into knots, and we can’t let them get away with it.”

The Rev. J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, said Barton’s patchwork history has appeal among certain conservative Christians who believe American society is adrift.

The threat of the Barton-Beck approach, Walker said, is that it creates the impression that fundamentalist Christianity once had some type of special status with the government and deserves that again. The clear implication is that other types of believers or non-believers are second-class citizens.

“It is dangerous because it impugns religious liberty for Christians as well as non-Christians,” Walker said. “If anyone’s religious liberty is denied, everyone’s is threatened.”