Sects, Lies, and Videotape
By Rob Boston
Richard J. Barnett was flipping TV channels one weekend a few months ago when a program on a local religious station caught his eye.
The Sacramento resident watched as a young, dark-haired man on his television screen blasted separation of church and state and called for a return to America's "Christian heritage."
Barnett. who serves as vice president of the Church-State Council, an organization affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, was suspicious. In his job Barnett works with church-state issues every day, and much of what he heard on the television that day just didn't ring true.
At the end of his presentation, the speaker began hawking copies of a videotape titled, "Foundations of American Government." Curious, Barnett ordered the tape. What he got was a 12 minute attack on church-state separation that attempts to "prove" that the concept is a myth and that founders like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton really meant for government to reflect "Christian" principles.
The man behind the tape turned out to be David Barton, a fundamentalist activist who makes a living attacking separation of church and state. The video Barnett received is a shorter version of Barton's one hour documentary "America' s Godly Heritage." Both tapes in turn are based on Barton's 1989 book The Myth of Separation.
Even though the book and videos are riddled with factual errors, half-truths and distortions, they have become the weapons of choice for Religious Right activists in their ongoing war against separation of church and state. In recent months, Americans United members from around the country have discovered letters to the editor in their local newspapers repeating Barton's charges. The videos have aired on public access and religious stations from coast to coast, and crates of the books have been shipped to evangelical churches for distribution.
Several Religious Right Groups are promoting the books and videos, including branches of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition. Last August Barton spoke at a statewide gathering of the Christian Coalition in Texas. Last September he was interviewed by James Dobson of Focus on the Family, a Colorado based Religious Right group, on Dobson's daily radio program (heard on nearly 2,000 stations nationwide).
In addition, the Rev, Jerry Falwell has praised Barton's book from his televised pulpit and ordered hundreds of copies for the Liberty University book store. Boosted by this momentum, the Texas activist has been traveling the country and making personal appearances before church groups, further spreading his anti-separationist ideas.
In Utah, the state branch of the Eagle Forum used Barton's materials to pitch an anti-separationist argument during a recent unsuccessful effort to water down the strict church-state provisions of the state constitution. According to Utah church-state separation activist Chris Alien, Eagle Forum members sent a 20-page document based on Barton's book to all members of the Utah legislature and to members of a special Religious Liberty Committee that had been formed to examine issue.
Another incident that demonstrates the far reach of Barton's ideas occurred last year in Colorado during the state Republican Party convention. David S. Nelson, state director of the Colorado branch of the Christian Coalition, distributed fliers asserting that "The Separation of Church and State is (1) Not a teaching of the founding fathers; (2) Not an historical teaching; (3) Not a teaching of law (except in recent years); (4) Not a biblical teaching." This language is lifted word for word from Barton's tape.
Nelson also repeated inaccurate Barton charges about Thomas Jefferson's "wall of separation between church and state" phrase. Nelson claimed that Jefferson said the "wall is a one dimensional wall [Barton actually used the term "one directional"]. It keeps the government from running the church but it makes sure that Christian principles will always stay in government." (In truth, Jefferson said no such thing. See [article below] for a refutation of this myth and other Barton errors.)
An updated 1992 version of the video relations omits the "one-directional wall" mistake. Barton also corrected some other errors that appear in the original 1990 version.. For instance, in the 1990 video, Barton mistakenly claimed that Canada does not give tax exemptions to churches. In fact, Canada follows a system similar to that of the United States.
But the new tape still contains plenty of errors and distortions. And, because numerous copies of the early version remain in circulation, its flawed history keeps popping up around the country. A letter to the editor that appeared in The Ann Arbor News on Jan. 24 is typical of many that have given Barton's distorted views wide circulation. Headlined "First Amendment doesn't separate church, stale," the letter by Leanne Wade recycles several of Barton's charges using language taken directly from the 1990 videotape, including the "one directional" wall myth. Unfortunately, no one at the Michigan newspaper bothered to check the letter's accuracy before printing it.
According to Barnett of the Church-State Council, Barton's video has been aired on TV stations and appeared in churches in the Western states he monitors. "It's very subtle," Barnett told Church & State. "The person who is not up on what occurred in American history can be very easily deceived."
Barnett said several Religious Right organizations are distributing the video, primarily D. James Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries and the Christian Coalition. "They all tout the same tune regarding the intent of the founders and their religious beliefs," Barnett said. "They overlook a lot of the facts."
Pauline MacPherson, a Denver religious liberty activist, told Church & State that five people mailed her copies of the early version of Barton's videotape after she wrote an article defending separation of church and state in a newsletter she publishes with her husband Robert.
MacPherson said the tape is a big hit with Colorado's active Religious Right. "They're selling it at all of the meetings, like Dobson's group and the Christian Coalition," she told Church & Stale. "Many people are buying multiple copies. People will buy them and give them to the churches, where it is used right alongside the Bible."
Barton also has ties to extremist elements. In his literature, Christian Reconstructionist authors and organizations are sometimes recommended. Reconstructionist activist Gary DeMar's book God And Government is suggested reading, and Reconstructionist-oriented groups such as the Plymouth Rock Foundation and the Providence Foundation are touted as resources.
Perhaps most alarming, Barton also has had a relationship with the racist and anti-Semitic fringes of the far right. According to Skipp Porteous of the Massachusetts-based Institute for First Amendment Studies, Barton was listed in promotional literature as a "new and special speaker" at a 1991 summer retreat in Colorado sponsored by Scriptures for America, a far-right ministry headed by Pastor Pete Peters. Peters' organization, which is virulently anti-Semitic and racist, spreads hysteria about Jews and homosexuals and has been linked to neo-Nazi groups. (The organization distributes a booklet called Death Penalty For Homosexuals.)
Peters' church is part of the racist "Christian Identity" movement. and three members of The Order, a violent neo-Nazi organization, formerly attended Peters' small congregation in LaPorte, Cole. After members of The Order murdered Denver radio talk show host Alan Berg in the mid 1980s, critics of Peters' ministry in Colorado charged that his hate-filled sermons had spurred the assassination.
Who is David Barton? Why does he dislike separation of church and state so intensely? From the video, an observer might conclude that Barton is simply a hyperactive history student. The 1990 tape depicts him bounding about what appears to be a rec room, pulling frail-looking history books from shelves and speaking breathlessly into the camera about what he has learned. The 1992 version features Barton in the same energetic form, only with a better backdrop and much improved graphics.
Barton believes he is on a mission from God--literally. In his 1988 book America: To Pray Or Not To Pray? Barton explains what got him started: "In July 1987, God impressed me to do two things. First, I was to search the library and find the date that prayer had been prohibited in public schools. Second, I was to obtain a record of national SAT scores (the academic test given to prospective college-bound high school students) spanning several decades. I didn't know why, but I somehow knew that these two pieces of information would be very important."
In America: To Pray Or Not To Pray? Barton attempts to prove that the quality of American life has declined because of the 1962 and '63 Supreme Court rulings banning school-sponsored religious exercises in public schools. Barton believes God is angry at the country and has retaliated by, among other things, lowering SAT scores, raising the crime rate and even increasing alcohol consumption per capita.
Beyond that, details about Barton's background are hard to find. His books and videos list no academic credentials and give no basic biographical information. A call by Church & State to Wallbuilders, Inc., the group Barton runs in Aledo, Texas, was unproductive. A staff member said Barton was traveling. Barton did not respond to Church & State's request for an interview. and his staff refused to answer questions.
Wallbuilders' bio of Barton is very brief and does not name the school he attended, saying only, "Although he entered college in Oklahoma on a science scholarship, he graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Religious Education." The bio asserts that Barton taught math and science before forming Wallbuilders, though it does not say where. (Wallbuilders takes its ironic name from a passage in Nehemiah 2, which reads, "Ye see the distress that we are in, how Jerusalem lieth waste, and the gates thereof are burned with fire: come, and let us build up the wall of Jerusalem, that we be no more a reproach." Like the Old Testament prophet Nehemiah, Barton apparently sees himself as chosen by God to rebuild his nation's moral foundations.)
According to Steven K. Green, legal counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the type of bad history promoted by Barton and others is increasingly common in Religious Right circles.
Green, who is working on a Ph.D. dissertation in church-state relations during the 19th century, says Religious Right revisionists are trying to re-write American history to suit their political agenda. Green said the effort today is an extension of activity begun by conservative religious figures during the 19th century. "During the post-Revolutionary period, orthodox ministers criticized the Constitution as being unChristian and attacked many of the founders--especially Jefferson--for their non-traditional religious views," Green said. "These ministers advocated the continuation of state churches and saw the First Amendment as a threat to their privileged positions. But it wasn't until the mid 19th century that evangelicals began rewriting the history of the founding period to fit their perspective of America as a 'Christian nation."'
Continued Green, "This type of revisionism is dangerous because it distorts the historical record by removing certain statements and events from their historical context. A distorted fact is always more persuasive than an outright lie."
(This article was printed originally in the April 1993 issue of Church & State.)