Consumer Alert: WallBuilders' Shoddy Workmanship
by Rob Boston
author of The Most Dangerous Man in America?
Pat Robertson and the Rise of the Christian Coalition
“We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all of our political institutions upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God."
So said James Madison, architect of the Constitution, defender of religious freedom and fourth president of the United States, according to the Religious Right.
But to church-state separationists and historians of the post-colonial period, something about this Madison quote has never felt quite right. It seemed unlikely that the same Madison who advocated "total separation of the church from the state" and battled to disestablish the Anglican Church in Virginia would say it. The sentiment appeared to clash with his well-known advocacy of a healthy distance between religion and government.
A few years ago, with the quote popping up increasingly in the mass media (including Rush Limbaugh's daily radio show), Robert S. Alley, professor emeritus at the University of Richmond and author of James Madison on Religious Liberty, undertook a dogged effort to track it down. Enlisting the help of the editors of The Papers of James Madison at the University of Virginia, Alley scoured reams of documents, books and writings. After coming up empty-handed, the Madison scholar concluded that the quote was probably fictional.
Now the major purveyor of the quote, Texas-based Religious Right propagandist David Barton, has admitted it's bogus. Last year Barton's group, WallBuilders' issued a one-page document titled "Questionable Quotes," a list of 12 statements allegedly uttered by Founding Fathers and other prominent historical figures, that are now considered to be suspect or outright false. Madison's alleged comment about the Ten Commandments is number four on the list and is flatly declared by Barton to be "false."
Advocates of separation of church and state were left breathless over Barton's audacity. For nearly 10 years, the Texas propagandist has traveled the country, putting on programs about America's alleged "Christian heritage" at fundamentalist churches and other venues. During these events, Barton argued that the separation of church and state is a myth foisted on the country by the Supreme Court 50 years ago. The United States, he insisted, was founded by Christians and was intended to be a fundamentalist-style "Christian nation."
What was Barton's proof for these claims? Many of the quotations he now admits are groundless! At least nine of the 12 were included in Barton's 1989 book, The Myth of Separation, and appeared in the video version, "America's Godly Heritage." Barton was so enamored of one quote supposedly uttered by Benjamin Franklin ("Whosoever shall introduce into the public affairs the principles of primitive Christianity will change the face of the world.") that it was included on a biographical sketch WallBuilders distributes about Barton, saying it "fully sums up what David believes and teaches." Barton now admits the quote is "questionable" and recommends people don't use it.
Alley finds Barton's reliance on phony history disturbing. "It's one thing to get up and make a speech and allude to something that isn't there, but when you have somebody parading a document in a book and that turns out to be an outright lie, it's more dangerous," Alley told Church & State magazine. "The danger is that people will find credibility in what he does largely because he represents himself in that mode. He's a double fraud."
Continued Alley, "For Barton to withdraw these quotes is fine, but that doesn't change the fact that they were wrong to begin with."
Barton's "Questionable Quotes" sheet tries to minimize the importance of the use of phony material. "Inevitably, the quotes will continue to be heard at the 'popular' level," reads the introduction. "Fret not; the sun will still rise. But at the scholarly level, please refrain from, or at least be cautious in, using any quotation that cannot be authenticated. Thank you for purifying your own waters in the world's rhetorical rivers."
In fact, much damage to Americans' understanding of their own history has already been wrought by these fake quotes. As Barton himself notes in promotional materials, "Many people have used quotes from our videos in writing 'Letters to the Editor' or sharing information with friends or public of officials." They have appeared incessantly in both right-wing and mainstream media and have been paraded about by conservative columnists and talk radio programs across the nation. On October 7, 1992, former U.S. Rep. William Dannemeyer of California, a staunch ally of the Religious Right, read the phony Madison quote into the Congressional Record. Millions of people may have been misled by this false information, only a tiny fraction of whom will ever see Barton's "correction."
Barton's sloppy research and predilection to rely on questionable sources never stopped Religious Right activists from recommending his materials. Television preacher and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson has lauded Barton as a "wonderful man." "I admire him tremendously for his breadth of information," Robertson gushed.
Barton has addressed Christian Coalition national gatherings for three years running and is active in the group's Texas chapter. El Cajon, Calif., City Council member Bob McClellan, a Barton groupie, often accompanies the Texas propagandist to meetings and hawks his books and tapes. McClellan, a Coalition activist, posts a banner saying the materials "have been invaluable in furthering the principals [sic] behind the Christian Coalition in San Diego."
The Rev. Jerry Falwell sells Barton's materials at the Liberty University bookstore, and the Texas activist has been interviewed at least twice by James Dobson on Focus on the Family's daily radio broadcast.
Even [past] Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has praised Barton. In a speech about school prayer delivered at the Heritage Foundation on Oct. 5, 1994, before he was named speaker, Gingrich -- who considers himself a historian -- called Barton's Myth of Separation book "most useful" and "wonderful."
Incredibly, Barton appears to have emerged undamaged even after admitting that many of his quotes are bogus, and he continues spreading incorrect information through the Religious Right's media empire. During his most recent interview with Dobson May 2, Barton conceded that Thomas Jefferson's famous 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists of Connecticut calls for a "wall of separation between church and state." But Barton went on to claim that later in the letter Jefferson says separation "means the government will not run the church, but we will still use Christian principles with government." In fact, Jefferson's letter says no such thing. (For more information about this and other Barton errors, see "Sects, Lies and Videotape," and "David Barton's Bad History," April 1993 Church & State magazine.)
Barton is apparently at least somewhat embarrassed by his inaccuracies, or at least wants to cover them up. Thus, The Myth of Separation has been "updated" and re-titled Original Intent. The new, longer volume omits the phony quotes and some of the more egregious errors in The Myth of Separation but remains rife with distortions of history and court rulings. Throughout, the book pitches the line that the United States was founded to be a "Christian nation" and charges that the modern Supreme Court and church-state separationists have covered up this legacy.
In his WallBuilder Report newsletter, Barton brags that the new volume contains "over thirteen hundred footnotes." He does not point out that The Myth of Separation also contained extensive footnotes but was still inaccurate because the sources Barton relied on were wrong.
Meanwhile, a federal court ruled recently that Barton's materials are inappropriate for use in public schools. The case was brought by Lisa Herdahl, an Ecru, Miss., mother whose objection to official prayers at the local public school has captured national headlines. A less-noticed part of her lawsuit challenges a class at the school known as "A Biblical History of the Middle East."
Herdahl asserted that the course was a ruse for teaching fundamentalist Christianity, and U.S. District Judge Neal B. Biggers Jr. agreed. In his June 3 decision, Biggers noted that course instructors used Barton's video "America's Godly Heritage," as well as other fundamentalist tapes, in class.
"[T]he only implication the court can draw from the showing of this and other religious films to a class of students supposedly studying Middle East history is that the teachers are attempting to indoctrinate the students in their religious beliefs by claiming to teach Middle East history," Biggers wrote. "This practice cannot be condoned in the context of a public school system. It is best left to the family and the church."
Barton's recent misfortunes are not likely to slow down the "Christian nation" movement. He continues to speak around the country, and scores of other Religious Right propagandists are also active, including Christian Reconstructionist Gary DeMar, TV preacher D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministries, and the Rev. Peter Marshall who, like Barton, is a Christian Coalition favorite. These and some lesser known Religious Right activists crank out books, videos and other materials attacking separation of church and state and advocating union between religion and government.
Commenting on the Madison "Ten Commandments" fiasco in a 1995 article for the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, Alley, who serves on Americans United's Board of Trustees, noted, "Proving that a quotation does not exist is a daunting task. If you cannot find it in any extant manuscripts or collections of Madison's works, just how does one prove it will not turn up in someone's attic tomorrow? Of course you cannot.... But, after all, it is incumbent solely upon the perpetrators of this myth to prove it by at least one citation. This they cannot do. Their style is not revisionism, it is anti-historical."
Concluded Alley, "We likely have not heard the last of this nonsense, but it is important to press the new media frauds to document what they claim. Because they cannot do so in most instances, time may ultimately discredit the lot of them."
(This article originally appeared in the July/August 1996 issue of Church & State.)