I wish that every single young person in America would be able to be under his tutelage and understand something about who we really are as a nation. I almost wish that there would be a simultaneous telecast and all Americans would be forced, at gunpoint no less, to listen to every David Barton message. And I think our country would be better for it. I wish it would happen. ~ Mike Huckabee
In case you missed it, the mainstream media has discovered David Barton. Last week The New York Times ran a front-page feature article on Barton's influence in the Republican Party and Jon Stewart had him as a guest on The Daily Show. By the time the 2012 primary season rolls around, Barton will be a household name.
But who is he? David Barton is the former vice-chairman of the Texas Republican Party and the president of Wallbuilders, an organization founded to present "America's forgotten history and heroes with an emphasis on our moral, religious, and constitutional heritage." During his appearance on The Daily Show, Barton claimed to advise dozens of members of Congress—both Democrats and Republicans—on matters related to the so-called Christian roots of America. If you are a congressperson and need a nice historical quote to help you convince your fellow lawmakers to support your proposed piece of legislation, Barton is your man.
In addition to helping politicians, Barton employs a team of speakers—including his son, Tim, and his daughter, Damaris—to spread his God-and-country message to evangelical churches throughout the nation. He has a daily radio show and a television show. Barton is the most influential conservative Republican you have never heard of.
Wallbuilders is a political organization that selectively uses history to promote a religious and ideological agenda. Barton believes that America's last, best hope is a return to its so-called Christian roots. In his most famous book, Original Intent, Barton argues that the removal of Christianity from the public square has resulted in a rise in birth rates for unwed girls, a spike in violent crime, more sexually transmitted diseases, lower SAT scores, and an increase in single parent households. And he has convinced thousands and thousands of Christians that he is right.
Barton claims to be a historian. He is not. He has just enough historical knowledge, and just enough charisma, to be very dangerous. During his appearance on The Daily Show, Barton impressed the faithful with his grasp of American history and his belief that Christians are being subtly persecuted in this country. But if you watch the show carefully, you will notice that Barton is a master at dodging controversial questions. He refuses to admit that sometimes history does not conform to our present-day political agendas.
The more popular Barton becomes, the more his views will be debunked by what I am imagining will be an ever-growing chorus of critics. He cannot continue to sustain the one-sided view of history he is promoting. But at the moment, Barton remains popular. Here are a few ways in which he has managed to draw such a large group of followers:
First, Barton claims to be opposed to "revisionist history." But he fails to recognize that all history is revisionist, including his own. Barton wants to "revise" much of the history written in the 1960s and 1970s because he believes it has removed God and Christianity from the story of the American past. Revisionism is the lifeblood of history. Barton has demonized the term.
Second, Barton impresses his constituency with the thousands and thousands of original documents that he claims Wallbuilders owns. He even brings these documents to his various speaking engagements. By touting these primary sources, Barton implies that he has some kind of special insight into the meaning of these texts simply because he has them in his possession. But the texts for most of the documents he owns can easily be found in any good college library or via the internet. There is nothing sacred about these documents. While not all Americans can see the originals, they can read them. And by the way, if Barton is really serious about bringing United States history to the people, then what is he doing hoarding all of these documents at the Wallbuilders headquarters in Aledo, Texas? Why not donate them to an archive or library where they will be properly protected and where everyone can see them?
Third, Barton is not particularly interested in interpreting the original documents that he owns. He likes to brag about how many footnotes are in his books. Fair enough, Barton does a lot of research. But historians do not merely quote, they interpret. Doing history requires investigating original sources in light of the "Five C's of Historical Thinking": change over time, context, causality, contingency, and complexity.