The Most Influential Evangelist You've Never Heard Of Texas evangelist David Barton is not a historian, but his Christian-nation view of American history is wildly popular with conservative churches, universities and the GOP. His supporters call him a hero; his detractors say he's a danger.

The Most Influential Evangelist You've Never Heard Of

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block.

David Barton is an evangelical Christian and a writer with a controversial view of U.S. history. He believes America has been, from its founding, a deeply Christian nation. That view is wildly popular with conservative churches, schools and Republican politicians; they call Barton a hero. But his detractors say he's a danger.

NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty has his story.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: David Barton says Americans have been misled about their history and he aims to change that.

DAVID BARTON: It's what I would call historical reclamation. We're just trying to get history back to where it's accurate. If you're going to use history, get it right.

HAGERTY: Barton has collected 100,000 documents from before 1812. He says they prove that the Founding Fathers were deeply religious men who built America on Christian ideas. So, for example, you've been taught that the Constitution is a secular document. Not so, says David Barton. The Constitution is laced with Biblical quotations.

Here he is on Trinity Broadcasting Network.

BARTON: You look at Article 3, Section 1, the treason clause, direct quote out of the Bible. You look at Article 2, the quote on the president has to be a native born, that is Deuteronomy 17:15, verbatim.

HAGERTY: Uh, no. At least not in any Bible we could find. And the Constitution of 1787 has no mention of God or religion, except to prohibit a religious test for office.

So what about the idea that the Founders did not want government entangled with religion? Wrong again, says Barton.

BARTON: This bible was printed by the U.S. Congress in 1782...

HAGERTY: In this video tour of the U.S. Capitol, Barton claims that the federal government published the first Bible with the idea that it would be used in public schools.

BARTON: And we're going to be told they don't want any kind of religion in education, they don't want voluntary prayer? No, it doesn't make sense...

HAGERTY: But historians say Congress never published or paid a dime for this Bible. It only agreed to the publisher's request to have its chaplains check it for accuracy.

Barton is not a historian. He has a Bachelor's Degree in Christian Education from Oral Roberts University, and runs a company called Wallbuilders in Aledo, Texas. But his vision of a religion-infused America is hugely popular and that makes him a power.

He was named one of Time magazine's most influential evangelicals. He says he consults for the federal government and state school boards. Politicians seek out his endorsement, including Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who's mentioned as a possible running mate for Mitt Romney. Newt Gingrich is a fan. So is Mike Huckabee, who expressed this hope at a conference last year.

MIKE HUCKABEE: I almost wish that there would be like a simultaneous telecast. And all Americans would be forced...


HUCKABEE: ...forced at gunpoint, no less...


HUCKABEE: listen to every David Barton message. And I think our country would be better for it.

John Fea doubts that. Fea chairs the history department at Messiah College, and says that Barton is pedaling a distorted history that appeals to conservative believers.

JOHN FEA: David Barton is offering an alternative vision of American history which places God, the providence of God, Christianity at the center.

HAGERTY: Most recently, Barton has focused on Thomas Jefferson. His new book, "The Jefferson Lies," made The New York Times bestseller list. One so-called lie that Barton wants to expose is that Jefferson was a religious skeptic.

BARTON: Jefferson is not a Deist by today's definition. He was not a secularist. He was not anti-religion, he was not anti-God. He was never anti-Christianity.

HAGERTY: He says Jefferson had doubts in his last years, but...

BARTON: In the first 70 years of his life, he did not. He was orthodox throughout.

WARREN THROCKMORTON: Mr. Barton is presenting a Jefferson that modern day evangelicals could love and identify with. The problem with that is, it's not a whole Jefferson. It's not getting him right.

HAGERTY: Warren Throckmorton is a professor at the evangelical Grove City College. He's co-authored a book detailing what he says are Barton's distortions. Throckmorton says throughout Jefferson's life, he wrote letters questioning the basics of Christianity.

THROCKMORTON: He didn't see Jesus as God. He didn't hold to the virgin birth. When he did the so-called "Jefferson Bible," he said that he was taking diamonds as if from a dunghill.

HAGERTY: Barton aims to debunk another so-called lie about Jefferson. He says Jefferson, who owned more than 200 slaves, was a civil rights visionary.

BARTON: He himself, had his plans been followed, Virginia would've ended slavery really early on. They would have gone much more towards civil rights. He was not as advanced in his views of slavery as say, John Adams in New England, but he certainly was no racist in that sense.

REVEREND RAY MCMILLIAN: Thomas Jefferson hated African-Americans. He hated the color of our skin. He talked about how inferior we are, in both mind and body.

HAGERTY: That's Reverend Ray McMillian, pastor of Oasis Church in Cincinnati. He's leading a group of pastors who see Barton's book as an affront to African-Americans. McMillian says by, quote, "whitewashing Jefferson and all the other slaveholding Founders, for that matter, Barton is rewriting history to make it palatable for Christians today."

MCMILLIAN: All in their hearts they're saying, if we could just go back there, America would be right. Right for who?

HAGERTY: Not for blacks, not for women, not for Native Americans, he says, only for white men.

Besides, historian John Fea says, this golden age never existed.

FEA: None of the founders were necessarily interested in promoting a specifically Christian nation. Many of the Founders believed in something akin to separating church and state, even though they didn't use those terms. And in fact, most of the people in America were not regular church-goers. So what is that great culture that we are returning to?

BARTON: So I'm not trying to throw the nation back 200 years.

HAGERTY: David Barton.

BARTON: I don't want the technology to go backwards, I love the health stuff we've got now. What I try to use is principles that are timeless.

HAGERTY: And surprisingly relevant. Here's Barton on "The Daily Show" last year, telling Jon Stewart he's amazed that the Founders' insights apply to today's problems.

BARTON: I got a call from three congressmen off the floor and they said, hey, anything in history about bailout and stimulus plans in Congress? It turns out in 1792, there was a big debate in Congress over bailout and stimulus plans.

HAGERTY: Barton says the Founders didn't like them. He says they had insights on other modern issues. For example, he said on Daystar Television Network, they even opposed the Theory of Evolution.

BARTON: You go back to the Founding Fathers, as far as they were concerned, they already had the entire debate on creation-evolution. And you get Thomas Paine, who's the least religious Founding Father saying, you've got to teach creation science in the classroom. Scientific method demands that.

HAGERTY: Of course, that was years before Charles Darwin was born.

Still, Barton has many supporters, though few of them are historians. One is Mat Staver, dean of Liberty University's Law School.

MAT STAVER: I think he's a corrective to historians. And in fact, I would put him against any historian and would have no question who would win in the debate.

HAGERTY: Barton says he doesn't care if historians disagree with him. He says his trove of documents proves his points, though historians have seen the same documents and draw different conclusions. Barton also believes his critics might be envious, since his books and world view sell so well.

BARTON: I don't know if it's jealousy or liberalism. I certainly know the guys who come after me have made it very clear, usually in the introductions of their stuff, that they disagree with me and my religious faith, and my view on America.

HAGERTY: Historian John Fea is an evangelical himself and he believes Barton is a danger, because Barton is using a skewed version of the past to shape the future.

FEA: He's in this for activism. He's in this for policy. He's in this to make changes to our culture.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Breaking news out of Austin, Texas tonight on one of the most closely watched stories by teachers, parents and politicians across the nation.

HAGERTY: The controversy: The Texas Board of Education voted in 2010 to rewrite the history textbooks to make them more conservative and Christian-friendly. One of the advisors was David Barton. Barton later said, on the cable talk show "Chapter and Verse," that it would take another 16 or 18 years before kids go through the entire curriculum.

BARTON: And then, 10 years after that, before those kids get elected to office and start doing things. So we're talking 30 years from now. But it's in the pipe coming down.

HAGERTY: Asked about this 30-year plan, Barton says of course he wants to shape future leaders, any educator does. But he says he does not see himself as a particularly influential person.

BARTON: I just - I'm going to be an active citizen and be involved, and do everything I can to help move these principles forward.

HAGERTY: Barton's next stop: The Republican National Convention, where as a Texas representative to the GOP Platform Committee, he will lay out his vision of America.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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