Like many evangelicals of my generation, I’m trying to reorient my political vision after a childhood spent under the dysfunctional influence of far-right religious conservatism. Growing up, Rush Limbaugh was on the car radio and voting Democrat was a sin. For some, this reorientation has led to a wholesale rejection of conservative positions on life, the power of the federal government, and our rights and freedoms. Others have sought to rethink what it ought to mean to be conservative, what effective and loving policies are, and how our faith should relate to our politics. That’s where I’ve found myself. I want to vote for and support a good conservative candidate who will defend a culture of life and promote social mobility and whole-life flourishing for all classes.
But repeatedly I find that some of the most notable and powerful conservative politicians pander to and seek the approval of disreputable, dishonest, and radical conservatives, many of whom have made a career out of using the name of Christ as political capital. Take, for example, last week’s ProFamily Legislative Network Conference, which featured, among other conservative leaders, Senator Ted Cruz as a speaker. Even before this conference Cruz was not my ideal conservative candidate, but as someone whose name has been thrown around in conversations about 2016, his presence at this conference is significant.
The conference was run by David Barton’s WallBuilders organization, and other speakers included Glenn Beck, Lt. Gen. (ret) Jerry Boykin, and Barton. Beck, Boykin, and Barton are all toxic influences upon conservative politics and evangelicals.
Beck needs no introduction; his gross exaggerations, manipulative rhetoric, and alarmist tone have long set him apart as a far-right pundit, and I’ve written about the deceptive reporting of his news site, The Blaze. Boykin is less well-known, but still quite influential. As I’ve documented before, Boykin, the Family Research Council’s Executive Vice President, has repeatedly taken extreme and conspiratorial positions on political issues. As a leader at the most powerful evangelical political organization, Boykin’s influence should not be ignored. Neither man should be trusted or respected.
The leader of this conference, and its most troubling speaker, is David Barton. For years, Barton has enjoyed celebrity status among Tea Party conservatives, Dominionists, homeschoolers, and Texas evangelicals for his argument that the United States is truly and historically a Christian country. His organization, WallBuilders, has a mission to defend and promote a “biblical” foundation for our government, which leads them to drawing the extra-biblical conclusion that certain taxes, like income tax, are unbiblical and therefore wrong. Recently, Barton’s influence has suffered a series of significant setbacks — setbacks which should have ostracized him from mainstream conservative politics, but haven’t. As this conference demonstrates, Barton remains an influential figure.
Warren Throckmorton is something of a David Barton expert. He helped lead the criticism of Barton’s recent book, The Jefferson Lies, criticism which eventually led Barton’s publisher, Thomas Nelson, to pull the book over concerns about its historical inaccuracies. I joined in this criticism, pointing out at the time that Barton was either a liar or horribly ignorant. Last week, Throckmorton drew my attention to this conference and highlighted why it should be alarming:
Barton has come under fire in recent weeks due to endorsement of claims that climate change is related to legal abortion, that Christian professors are responsible for half of Christian students leaving their faith, that the U.S. military is God’s arm of judgment and that post-traumatic stress disorder can be discarded because of an Old Testament Bible verse.
The latter claim is one of Barton’s most disturbing statements, and The Gospel Coalition’s Joe Carter wrote a fantastic piece on why it’s evil to tell soldiers that they have PTSD because they didn’t have enough faith. In summation, Barton is a caricature of the worst stereotypes of evangelical conservatives. He is a deceptive, dangerous, and influential fool, and I don’t use that term lightly.
You may have some objections, such as:
- Isn’t Cruz a different man?
- Isn’t guilt by association a rhetorical fallacy?
- Why should we judge Cruz for attending and speaking at Barton’s conference?
- Don’t conservatives need a big tent in order to have the political influence needed to oppose the liberals?
Judging someone based on an association he or she has with a “guilty” person or group is not always a rhetorical fallacy. The validity of the judgement is determined by the kind of association they have. For example, it would be a logical fallacy to judge Cruz based on the things his father, Rafael Cruz, has said. Their association is biological and familial. Cruz didn’t get to pick his father, so we can’t logical hold him responsible for what his father says.
But Cruz has chosen to associate with David Barton and speak at his conference, a conference with a very specific worldview which has been defined by Barton. Whether he likes it or not, this action by Cruz signals something to voters. It signals that he believes Barton to be an ally and a legitimate political figure. By participating in this conference, he is implicitly lending support to Barton and his work.
It would be one thing if Cruz intended to challenge Barton’s toxic theology and politics, but the nature of these kinds of conferences discourages self-criticism. Its small size and emphasis upon a specific political worldview creates an incentive to build up and encourage one another while condemning and mocking outsiders.
Barton is a fraud and a hack, as is Beck and Boykin. These figures should not have direct influence on conservatives and evangelicals, but they do. They do, in part, because politicians like Cruz don’t have the integrity and boldness to ignore them, which is what they must do if they want conservatism to have credibility. When I share some wild article about what Barton or Beck or Boykin has said, the response I often get from fellow conservatives is that these guys are fringe crazies and we should just ignore them. To call attention to them is to give them more credit than they deserve. This has led me to share fewer and fewer posts about fringe political rhetoric (I’m sorry and you’re welcome). The problem is that in this case, established conservative leaders are the ones who support and promote these fools. Barton continues to have influence in conservative politics, especially in Texas, in part because politicians respect him, listen to him, and participate in his political events.
My intention here is not to attack Senator Cruz but to highlight toxic elements in conservative politics, elements which helped drive away many of my generation’s evangelicals, elements which we vehemently criticize when they appear in their liberal form, elements which have created a cottage industry out of abusing Christ’s name to pander to well-intentioned conservatives (take, for example, anti-Muslim rhetoric from Christian political institutions).
Of course I believe the conservative movement should be a big tent, but we all know that there are some positions that cannot be let in the tent. White nationalists, libertarian anarchists, overt dominionists, fascists — we have no problem excluding these groups, but more self-criticism and purging is necessary. There’s no reason why figures like Barton, Beck, and Boykin should be treated as valuable allies by a leader like Senator Cruz. Conservative politics has much to offer our country, but judgement needs to begin in our house.