Last week, Religion News Service reporter Jack Jenkins wrote an important story about David Barton, a Christian nationalist pseudo-historian who for decades has been spreading the lie that separation of church and state isn’t in the Constitution and was never the founders’ intention. (They wanted to create a “Christian nation,” you see – odd that they neglected to say that in the Constitution.)
My colleague Andrew Seidel, author of the forthcoming book, American Crusade: How the Supreme Court Is Weaponizing Religious Freedom, was quoted in the story. Andrew got straight to the heart of the matter, noting that Barton is “the source of a lot of Christian nationalist disinformation.”
I first encountered Barton in 1993 when a contact in California sent me one of his videos. I was appalled. The misinformation Barton was spewing was so blatant that I thought all we needed to do was correct the record, and he’d be vanquished. So, that’s what I did. The April 1993 issue of Church & State contained a point-by-point refutation of Barton’s bad history. (In this pre-internet age, Barton spread his misinformation largely through VHS tapes, which led Joe Conn, then the editor of Church & State, to give the story a memorable headline: “Sects, Lies And Videotape.”)
It was, of course, naïve of me to believe that simply correcting Barton’s errors would lead to his downfall. Even as early as 1993 we were seeing the stirrings of “alternate facts,” and charges of “fake news” were being lobbed at any inconvenient truth that challenged Christian nationalists’ worldview. Indeed, Barton is as popular as ever in fundamentalist Christian circles and has for years made a nice living peddling his tall tales about the nation’s founding.
But I still have hope that his time will pass. Barton is to history what the creationists are to biology. Legitimate scientists recognized the threat posed by creationists and stepped up their efforts to set the record straight. As a result, the percentage of Americans who accept the reality of evolution has been steadily growing.
Real historians are doing the same to Barton. They scored a notable win in 2012 when it was determined that Barton’s book, The Jefferson Lies, was so riddled with errors that the publisher pulled it, noting that “basic truths just were not there.” (I could have told them that!)
Truth will eventually carry the day. Unfortunately, it’s taking a little longer than I first thought.
Photo: Barton (right) at a 2016 rally for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in Nevada. Getty Images.