Editor’s Note: Chris Rodda is senior research director for the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and a longtime debunker of Religious Right figure David Barton. Rodda’s new book, Liars for Jesus: The Religious Right’s Alternate Version of American History, Volume 2, has just been released and is available on Amazon.com. Rodda talked about the book recently with Church & State Editor Rob Boston.
Q. How did you get into this kind of research, especially taking on David Barton? Was there a defining moment that made you want to debunk him?
Rodda: I got into this sort of by accident. It was back in 2002, and I was reading a news story on America Online (AOL) about the battle over Roy Moore’s Ten Commandments monument in the Alabama courthouse. I had a few minutes to kill, so I clicked on the link to a message board about the story. I had no idea that this kind of history revisionism even existed or that such a heated debate was going on over it until I went to that AOL message board and saw the nonsense that people were posting there. I started posting what were just short responses to some of the posts but very quickly found myself doing some serious research and posting long, detailed rebuttals, complete with footnotes. These posts led to some people on this message board telling me that I should write a book and also telling me that most of the lies and misquotes that were being copied and pasted from around the web were coming from one source – some guy named David Barton. So, I ordered a copy of Barton’s book Original Intent. After reading that book, the idea of my writing a book debunking the lies suddenly didn’t seem so crazy, and I started writing what became the first volume of Liars For Jesus.
Q. Tell us a little about how you do your research. I have this image of you in a library basement surrounded by dusty tomes, but I suspect there’s more to it. How much of what you do is via the web?
Rodda: Much more can be done via the web now than when I started back in 2002. There was some stuff on the web back then, but when it came to finding the obscure old books cited by Barton, it usually meant having to locate a library that had the book or hunting down a copy on the used bookseller websites and buying it. Now, with things like Google Books and other digitization projects, there’s a good chance that an old book cited by Barton can be found somewhere online. There are still quite a few things that aren’t online and need to be hunted down the old-fashioned way, but I would say that about 75 percent of my research is now done online, either through free archives or archives that I subscribe to.
Q. Let’s talk a little more about Barton specifically. You and I and others have been debunking him for years, and his last book was actually withdrawn by its publisher for its many errors. Nevertheless, he remains popular in Religious Right circles. Why is this so?
Rodda: He did some extremely effective damage control, with a lot of help from his biggest cheerleader, Glenn Beck. With Beck’s help, he was easily able to convince his audience that his book was pulled because of a liberal conspiracy to silence him and keep the “truth” about history from coming out. He was even able to get his audience to believe that his publisher – the Christian publisher Thomas Nelson – was part of this liberal conspiracy. This tactic of making himself out to be the victim of a liberal conspiracy to silence him worked like a charm and made him more popular than ever.
Q. Do you believe we’re making any headway against Barton? If people are going to believe whatever they want regardless of the facts, why should we even continue?
Rodda: It does get very frustrating, and there have been many times when I’ve asked myself why I even bother trying to fight this guy, especially since 2010 when he hooked up with Beck and suddenly had a reach that was exponentially greater than he had ever had before. What stops me from giving up are things like the occasional emails I get from Christian homeschooling parents who happen to stumble upon one of my articles or videos and write to me saying that they no longer want to use Barton’s materials and asking me to recommend a reputable history curriculum. So, there are those glimmers of hope. Plus, once you know that something like this is going on, you can’t just ignore it and do nothing, no matter how impossible it might seem to fight it.
Q. Tell us a little about how Bartonism has infiltrated public institutions, especially our public schools.
Rodda: The biggest way is through the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools (NCBCPS) course, which, according to the NCBCPS, has now been voted into nearly 1,200 school districts in 39 states. Barton is on the NCBCPS advisory board, and the curriculum not only contains many of his lies and misquotes but also recommends and promotes his materials – even providing the phone number for WallBuilders right in the curriculum.
Another place where Barton’s version of history is heavily promoted is our military. In fact, it was because of discovering that there was a Barton essay about the “myth” of separation of church and state in the JROTC American history textbook back in 2007 that I was introduced to Mikey Weinstein and started working for the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. We’re constantly seeing Barton’s brand of revisionist history promoted in places like military base newspapers. Barton’s books are even in the libraries at West Point and the Air Force Academy. He also speaks at military bases and recently claimed that he was asked to train military leaders, one of his few claims that is unfortunately probably true.
Q. Let’s talk about some specific historical instances covered in your book. For example, what is the so-called “George Washington prayer book”?
Rodda: The so-called Washington prayer book is claimed by the revisionists to have been written by Washington at 20 years old, when he was a young officer in the French and Indian War. It was found in a trunk at Mount Vernon in the late 1800s, and, despite the fact that it is clearly not in Washington’s handwriting and was rejected by the Smithsonian Institution, was sold at an auction in 1891 as a genuine Washington manuscript. It was printed several times in the late 1800s and early 1900s and is still used in the current revisionist history books to claim that Washington was an orthodox Christian.
Q. For years a phony quote allegedly uttered by James Madison lauding the Ten Commandments as the foundation of the U.S. government has appeared on Religious Right websites. You discovered something interesting about this “quote.” Tell us about it.
Rodda: Although Barton didn’t invent this bogus Madison quote, it was Rush Limbaugh’s use of it that first brought Barton and his work under scrutiny, as you’d know better than anyone since you wrote about it way back in 1996. Others have traced this bogus quote’s first appearance back to 1958, but I finally found its exact source – a speech that Clarence Manion, dean of Notre Dame’s law school, was traveling the country delivering in the early 1950s.
In what was likely just a simple case of quotation marks being put in the wrong place by someone transcribing Manion’s speech, Manion’s words about the Ten Commandments got combined with his paraphrasing of a Madison quote, putting both Madison’s and Manion’s words together inside the quotation marks as if the whole thing were a quote from Madison.
As obvious as it was that Manion’s speech was the original source of this misquote, there was one little problem – the source cited by Barton for it was a book from 1939, 13 years before Manion began giving this speech. What further research revealed, however, was that this 1939 book cited by Barton appears to be a completely fabricated source. An exhaustive search for this 1939 book, with help from several major libraries, not only turned up no trace of the book but no trace of its supposed publisher or author either. So, I think we can finally say that the case is closed on the source of the infamous Madison Ten Commandments misquote.
Q. What’s next for you? Will we see a Liars volume 3?
Rodda: Yes, there will be a volume 3 of Liars For Jesus. But what I’ll be doing before that is a video series based on volumes 1 and 2, which I’ve already started working on. The YouTube videos I’ve done in the past served their purpose, but my goal now is to do a much more professional quality video series.