King Of the Christocrats

DAVID BARTON believes the Founding Fathers opposed the separation of church and state—and he thinks he has the historical documents to prove it. Is it any wonder he’s the latest darling of evangelical Republicans everywhere?

September 2006By Comments

DURING PRAYER TEAM TIME at Sojourn Church, in the Dallas suburb of Carrollton, David Barton took the opportunity to transfer some of his lecture materials from his seat in the first row to the podium in the center of the pulpit. Dressed in a conservative dark suit with a lime-green tie, the self-taught historian and Christian conservative activist calmly threaded his way through small clusters of parishioners joined hand to shoulder in prayer, heads bowed. This was the second service of the day, so Barton had already listened to two versions of the surprisingly long Christian pop medley that begins each service at Sojourn, which boasts a ten-piece band, complete with electric guitar and conga drums, and which had the majority of the two hundred or so congregants, aside from a few sullen husbands in the rear pews, on their feet and waving their arms in the air.

His topic for the day was “The Influence of the Bible in America.” He had just gotten back from Europe, where he had addressed the spouses of American troops living on bases in Germany (his topic there had been the wives of the Revolutionary War heroes). Immediately upon his return he was contacted by a representative of the Chinese government about coming to that country to speak on the relationship between church and state in America. Barton, who lives west of Fort Worth in rural Parker County, travels almost continuously, averaging more than 250 speaking engagements per year. He has dozens of presentations, each of which he has committed to memory. It helps, no doubt, that most of them have the same basic message, which is that the founders of our nation were much more religious than today’s historians would have us believe and that they would be uniformly appalled at the degree to which Christianity has been severed from the public sphere in modern America.

Barton is a celebrity of an unusual variety. Although he has labored in relative anonymity for much of his career, he is a star within the insular world of conservative Christianity. His ministry, which he named WallBuilders after an Old Testament passage in Nehemiah (“Come, let us rebuild”), has sold more than a million copies of his books, tapes, and videos. He has appeared on countless Christian radio and television shows. Few people have personally visited as many of the nation’s politically active evangelical Christian churches as Barton has over the past fifteen years, and his credibility in the evangelical community in Texas is golden—good enough to have elevated him to vice chair of the Republican Party of Texas, a position he held for nine years before handing over the reins last summer.

Recently, there have been signs that Barton is poised to take his message to a much larger stage. He has been spending less time in Texas and more time in Washington, D.C., networking with an influential caucus of evangelicals in Congress. In 2004 the Republican National Committee hired him to campaign in battleground states, like Ohio, where he visited evangelical churches, encouraging pastors to get their congregants to the polls. It was a modest contract, but it gave him the imprimatur of the national party and a route to insider status that other evangelicals, like Ralph Reed, have traveled quite successfully. Last year, Time named Barton one of America’s 25 most influential evangelicals, sending newspaper editors across Texas scrambling to figure out who he was.

A slender five feet eleven, with clear blue eyes, a narrow face, and silvery hair parted neatly on the side, 52-year-old Barton looks a little like Jimmy Stewart, whose oddly boyish quality he shares. Barton is an ordained minister, though he prefers to be called an author or a historian. He does not have the charismatic presence of Joel Osteen or the resonant voice of T. D. Jakes. Instead, he dazzles with trivia. He can rattle off the names of all 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, or “the Dec,” as he calls it when he’s on a roll. He has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the lives of the Founding Fathers. He can tell you which of them had seminary degrees, belonged to Bible societies, issued prayer proclamations; which of them signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (there were only 6) and were members of the first Congress or officers in the Revolutionary War. He is a tremendous and unapologetic nerd. Which is not to say his presentations are boring; in fact, he’s much more engaging than your average academically trained historian, and his enthusiasm for history is contagious.

Barton began his lecture at Sojourn, as he often does, in 1947. That was the year the Supreme Court, ruling in a case called Everson v. Board of Education, first referred to a “wall of separation” between church and state, quoting from Thomas Jefferson’s famous letter to the Danbury Baptists. Of all of Barton’s Big Ideas, this is perhaps the biggest: that our understanding of history—and indeed, our entire culture—has been plagued for three generations by that single misunderstood metaphor. The wall Jefferson had in mind, Barton tells audiences, was meant to keep government out of religion, not the other way around. “Over the last fifty years, we have been trained to compartmentalize our faith,” he said, holding his cupped hands out evenly on each side of the lectern. “Faith is over here, but business is over here. Faith is here, but politics is over here. Economics, science, law, government—everything else is separate from faith. We think that’s the way it’s always been, but no. That’s the new paradigm.” The truth, he explained, is that our forefathers turned to the Bible as a practical guide to daily life—the source for every facet of society, law, government, business, and family.

Barton then launched into a PowerPoint presentation, which he projected on a big screen suspended over the pulpit. He flicked quickly to an image of a painting found in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, which shows the pilgrims praying before embarking for America. Barton pointed out the open Bible in the scene—so large in the original painting, he explained, that the text on the pages can actually be read. As the congregation leaned forward, Barton produced with a flourish his own 1608 edition of the same Bible. The audience oohed as if he’d pulled the book from the pastor’s ear. Barton has an extensive collection of rare documents from early America and seldom travels without at least a few cloth-wrapped specimens. When he is in front of a sympathetic audience, which he almost always is, he puts on an adult version of show-and-tell, not unlike when Johnny Carson had exotic animals on The Tonight Show. Like Carson, Barton has a soothing, modest, pleasing voice, reminiscent of a high school science instructor, a job he once held. He has a disarming tendency to refer to historical figures or documents as “cool” or “killer,” as in, “We found a real killer letter to the editor from Noah Webster.”

As Barton moved through his slide show, a woman seated next to me was diligently filling in the sermon notes section of her program. I was doing the same thing. It wasn’t easy to keep up. After he laid out his initial thesis, Barton began speaking quickly, and the rest of the presentation was a relentless recitation of dates, numbers, and quotes, pulled alternately from the writings of the Founding Fathers and the books of the New and Old Testaments. I managed to record the following facts:

1. The pilgrims came up with the republican form of government and the free enterprise system.

2. The Bible addresses the capital gains tax, the progressive income tax, the estate tax, and the minimum wage.

3. The first English-language Bible printed in America (in 1782) was endorsed by Congress, which went so far as to recommend it for use in schools. (“But wait, these are the guys that wanted the Bible out of schools, right?” Barton said.)

4. The U.S. Capitol was frequently used as a church in the early days of the Republic.

5. John Jay, the first chief justice, was the president of a Bible society.

6. Twenty-seven percent of the examples in Founding Father Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary were from the Bible.

And so on.

Barton wrapped up his presentation to sustained and warm applause, which was followed by the collection of an offering for WallBuilders. After the service, Barton’s wife, Cheryl, sold WallBuilders merchandise from a folding table in the foyer. There was no sign of Barton himself. Business was brisk, and I had to wait almost half an hour before approaching her to ask for an interview with him. Cheryl, who is almost as tall as Barton and has a broad face and clear braces on her teeth, frequently travels with him and acts not just as his right-hand man but as the organization’s treasurer. I had already been turned down for an interview by Barton’s scheduler, and I was not surprised when Cheryl put me off a second time. Though he has appeared as a talking head on both cable and network news, Barton has never really needed attention from the mainstream media to be successful. He has plenty of publicity in the world that matters to him. Still, the recent, somewhat unexpected plaudit from Time seemed to have caught his attention. I noticed a stack of color photocopies of Barton’s Time blurb prominently displayed on a corner of the merchandise table. If Barton really were aspiring to take his show to a wider audience, inclusion on Time’s list of big shots would be pure gold for him. A profile in Texas Monthly might not hurt either.

And, indeed, Barton called me the next day. He said he was leaving for D.C. later in the week to take a group of pastors on a tour of the U.S. Capitol building—what he called his “spiritual heritage tour”—and to a briefing with elected officials. I asked if I could come along. “Sure, man,” he said. “Call the office and set it up.”

I MET BARTON AND HIS WIFE AT BULLFEATHERS, a homey pub a few blocks from the Capitol complex, at four o’clock, a couple of hours before the tour was due to start. Barton was wearing a snug pair of black Wrangler jeans, boots, and a dark-blue dress shirt with stars and stripes on the sleeves. Unless he is in church, Barton is almost always in this uniform, which he varies with a seemingly endless collection of solid-color heavy cotton dress shirts, each decorated with a different frieze—silhouetted trees, steer skulls, stars—across the chest and biceps.

Barton grew up in Fort Worth. His father, Grady, was a wind tunnel engineer for General Dynamics, the giant defense contractor. (Barton’s grandfather was also an engineer, with several patented inventions to his credit.) His mother, Rose, was a schoolteacher who quit working when he was born. Even as a child, Barton had an unusual aptitude for memorization, his mother told me: “We didn’t need a phone book. We’d just ask David for the number.” In 1968 Grady and Rose moved the family, which included two younger sisters, out to Aledo, then a sleepy ranching town of 400 about fifteen minutes west of Fort Worth (the population is now closer to 1,500). Barton was just about to enter high school, and his parents were worried about the drug abuse they had heard was rampant in the big city. Barton graduated third in his class from tiny Aledo High. (“Top male student,” he clarified, “but third overall.”) He went to Oral Roberts University, the evangelical Christian college in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on a math and science scholarship but wound up with a degree in religious education.

Barton was raised in a very religious household. For years, Grady and Rose hosted a regular Bible study group in their home. In college, Barton did some youth pastoring at small churches in Tulsa. In 1978 he incorporated his first ministry, Christian Living. He sold Bible study correspondence courses and traveled with a series of Christian musical groups. After his parents’ Bible study group became a full-blown fundamentalist church, Aledo Christian, and came to incorporate a K—12 school, Barton taught math and science, coached basketball, and eventually served as the school’s principal. In 1990 Barton and his father recruited a slate of candidates and replaced the mayor of Aledo and most of the city council in a single election. The main issue was financial mismanagement, though the new council also pushed through the most restrictive sexually-oriented-business ordinance it could think of, says Knox Ross, who became mayor that year and is now a part-time associate pastor at Aledo Christian.

When I asked Barton how WallBuilders got started, he told me that he’d found himself in the basement of a law library in Tarrant County in the late eighties, where he came upon some dusty boxes full of old copies of Supreme Court decisions dating back to the earliest years of the Republic. Barton lifted them out and began reading them. He noticed that the opinions made frequent references to the writings of James Wilson. “So I said, ‘Who in the heck is James Wilson?’ Well, he’s one of only six guys who signed the Declaration and the Constitution. He is an original justice of the Supreme Court appointed by Washington. He did the first law school in America. I consider that to be a significant individual, and I’ve never heard his name in my life.” Barton searched for and eventually purchased an original three-volume set of Wilson’s writings.

Intrigued, Barton began buying works by other lesser-known Founding Fathers mentioned in Wilson’s work, like Francis Hopkinson and Benjamin Rush. He felt as if he were reading the real American history for the first time. “I saw a whole different view of government. Saw a whole different view of separation of powers. Saw a whole different view of faith and religion and morality in public policy. Saw a whole different view of civil rights.” Barton had learned in school that the founders were not Christians but mostly Deists—believers in an abstract God who took little interest in human affairs. But men like Hopkinson and Webster and Rush—who called himself a Christocrat—seemed to Barton to be more like evangelical Christians. They were men who believed, first and foremost, that America was founded on the principles of Christianity. Upon further research, Barton says, he discovered that these obscure figures were commonly mentioned in our history books until World War II; then they mysteriously disappeared.

Barton reincorporated his nonprofit as WallBuilders and announced a new mission statement for his ministry: “Presenting America’s forgotten history and heroes with an emphasis on our moral, religious, and constitutional heritage.” He self-published his first work of history, called The Myth of Separation, in 1989 and followed it up shortly after with a video. He began traveling extensively. By then he and Cheryl had three children. He and his father outfitted a van with a loft-type bed and cabinets, and Cheryl and the kids came along on almost every trip. By the time she was thirteen, Barton’s oldest child, Damaris, who now works at the Texas GOP’s Austin headquarters, had visited all fifty states. If Barton’s hosts paid for the room, the family slept in motels, but more often they slept at the pastor’s house or at the home of a member of the congregation. Da-maris was taken out of school at an early age, and after that Cheryl homeschooled her and her two younger brothers on the road. “We called it van school,” Damaris recalls.

At each of his stops, Barton kept an eye out for historical documents. Eventually, he was buying so much material that professional dealers began contacting him. He now has more than 70,000 items from before 1812 in a special six-sided concrete vault—complete with a gas-powered fire-suppression system—that he had built into the side of a hill at his headquarters in Aledo.

To spend time with Barton is to get a sense of another America, one that has always been around you but that you have never noticed before. Throughout our short talk at Bullfeath-ers, I’d observed a heavyset woman at the next table glancing our way. After Barton had departed to prepare for the tour, she leaned over. “That man looked familiar,” she said. “Is he a minister?”

When I told her it was Barton, she exclaimed with delight. She said she’d seen him on Kenneth Copeland’s TV ministry. “He’s very knowledgeable,” she said.

“Are you a Christian too?” she asked, as I gathered my things to leave.

“No, ma’am,” I said. “I’m a reporter.”

AN HOUR AND A HALF LATER, Barton led a group of about fifty chipper and chatting pastors into the south entrance of the Capitol. They hailed from a variety of states and faiths, though they were virtually all white. (Barton leads a special version of the tour for black pastors.) About half seemed to be from nondenominational churches, with names like New Life Victory or New Beginnings. One trim middle-aged man introduced himself as an Army chaplain stationed at the Pentagon. As we filed two abreast down a long entryway, I found myself next to an excitable South Carolina pastor in a cheap black trench coat and floppy black fishing cap hiding what appeared to be a self-administered haircut. He paused to drink from a water fountain but immediately spit the water back out. “That’s what Jesus said in Revelation: ‘You’re lukewarm water—I’ll spit you out!’” he exclaimed, laughing like a kid at the zoo.

We ascended a narrow set of spiral stairs, cut from uneven stone and barely wide enough for one person to pass at a time, and assembled under the spectacular dome in the main rotunda, where Barton removed his boots and stepped up on a bench to better address his audience. He was still wearing his black jeans, but he had changed into a black dress shirt with red and white bands across the biceps. The effect was vaguely military. Like all of Barton’s presentations, this one was delivered by rote; he has been giving this same tour a few times a year since the late nineties, usually to groups of pastors such as this one. He also sells a popular video version of the tour and a self-guided tour booklet. To make the video, Barton could get access to the Capitol only after hours, and he shot the majority of it in a single coffee-fueled all-night session.

Barton began with a lecture on the large oil paintings on the walls of the rotunda. It soon became clear that I was in for a longer version of the same presentation I had heard in Carrollton. He swung an arm over his head, encompassing the whole of the Capitol. “I’ve heard it called ‘the great secular temple of America,’” he said. “In these paintings you have two prayer meetings and a baptism. Not bad for a secular building.” From there we headed toward the Old Senate Chamber. Barton pointed out his favorite historical figures along the way, such as the statue of the redcoat-fighting pastor John Muhlenberg. Roughly one quarter of all the statues in the Capitol, Barton informed us, were ministers.

Very little of the tour seemed to focus on Congress. What Barton really wanted to talk about was the Supreme Court. The founders intended the judiciary to be the weakest of the three branches, he told the pastors—not the powerful policy-making body it is today. The high court, and the federal judiciary in general, is Barton’s particular nemesis. (He is the author of Restraining Judicial Activism, a short how-to guide on impeaching federal judges.) The list of offending cases, from Roe v. Wade to Lawrence v. Texas (which invalidated anti-sodomy laws), is a long one. Barton has taken the tour of the current Supreme Court building, but for him, the real history of the high court is in the basement of the Capitol, in the Old Supreme Court Chamber, where the justices met until 1935.

For 150 years, Barton joked as we descended another narrow flight of stairs, Congress kept the Supreme Court in its place. The old courtroom was indeed modest. On the far side of the square chamber was an elevated row of nine chairs behind a balustrade of dark mahogany. Barton stepped down into a sort of pit with four green-felt-covered tables, while the rest of us lined up in the rear of the room, behind a thick wooden railing. The walls were made of oversized stone blocks, and the vaulted ceiling seemed unusually low, especially in the dimly lit corners. There must have been very little space for spectators; large columns filled up much of the rear portion of the room. The overall feeling was of being in a crypt. Barton leaned casually on one elbow against the railing behind him. He clearly relished this part of the tour.

He surveyed a few of the cases that had been heard in the room but subsequently lost to history. One 1844 case involved the contested will of a man who’d sought to dedicate his entire estate to the city of Philadelphia for the founding of a college, with the sole proviso that no clergyman ever be employed there as a teacher. The man’s family thought it a very unorthodox (not to mention, from their perspective, unremunerative) request, and they hired the great Daniel Webster to have the whole plan declared illegal. Webster’s main argument, Barton explained, was that there could be no school in a Christian nation such as ours in which the Bible was not taught. In the end, despite spending an entire day quoting from the Bible itself, Webster suffered a rare defeat. The will was legal, the justices found, because it didn’t preclude the teaching of the Bible per se; it only stipulated that the Bible would not be taught by an ordained minister. Webster was correct, Justice Joseph Story wrote for the court, in his contention that Christianity could not be excluded from a public education. Story went on to say, as Barton reports in one of his books (but does not mention on the tour), that the court would not waste its time considering whether a public college could be founded “for the propagation of Judaism or Deism or any other form of infidelity. Such a case is not to be presumed to exist in a Christian country.”

Barton paused to let the implications of this case sink in. “You would never recognize the Supreme Court that practiced in this room,” he said. It seemed hard to argue with that assertion.

Barton’s final flourish was an act of civil disobedience. “I always like to close down here with a prayer,” he announced. The room got quiet. After a tour filled with a litany of ways that our culture suppresses public religious expression, the idea of praying out loud—not only inside the Capitol but in the Old Supreme Court Chamber—felt more than a little transgressive. Then Barton, still leaning against the railing, bowed his head slightly and began to sing the opening lines of “God Bless America.” His eyes were cast down toward the historic red carpeting, but otherwise his posture remained unchanged, as though it were the most normal thing in the world to sing at the end of a tour of the Capitol. Barton’s voice was not particularly powerful, but he sang with admirable confidence, and the pastors readily joined in. The acoustics in the room proved to be surprisingly good, and the song’s soft and familiar final notes resonated sweetly in the chamber.

THE PASTORS’ BRIEFING BEGAN promptly at eight the next morning in a well-appointed conference room in the Jefferson Library of Congress Building. Cheryl instructed the pastors to stand and applaud as each new speaker appeared, and the group was kept bouncing up and down all morning as House members and administration officials dropped by, including Tim Goeglin, President Bush’s point man on evangelical matters, and Claude Allen, his recently resigned domestic policy adviser. (It may have been Allen’s last public appearance for a while; he was arrested the next day for a series of thefts from D.C.-area Target stores.) Several of the elected officials who spoke were members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, a relatively new group of around twenty House members who meet regularly in a special room in the Capitol to pray. Barton is working on a Web site to allow people around the country to sign up to pray along with them in five-minute increments, forming what the caucus is calling a 24-hour “wall of prayer around America.”

Many of the issues the pastors heard about are by now quite familiar: the Defense of Marriage Act, anti-abortion legislation of various stripes. A few are more obscure. Republican congressman Walter Jones, of North Carolina, has called on President Bush to nix a proposed requirement that Air Force chaplains offer only nonsectarian prayers—i.e., that they do not mention Jesus. There is also a move afoot to try to rein in “activist” judges by passing legislation removing the jurisdiction of federal courts over certain issues, like stem cell research.

Between visitors, Barton discussed electoral politics with the pastors. He is an avid reader of polls, and he showed them a slide show on the recent decline in evangelical voter participation. I was surprised to hear Barton tell the pastors that they could endorse candidates from the pulpit provided they made clear that they were speaking on their own behalf, not on behalf of the church. I’d heard Barton tell his Carrollton audience this as well. The IRS, however, says exactly the opposite. In response to a request for clarification of the law in the 2004 election season, the IRS issued a public letter warning churches in no uncertain terms that they could lose their tax-exempt status if their leaders made “partisan comments in official organization publications or at official organization functions, including official church publications and functions.”

What made Barton’s comments all the more puzzling is that the night before he had discussed with me the recent case of a pastor who was under investigation by the IRS for allegedly endorsing John Kerry’s presidential candidacy from the pulpit. He had to have known he was advising the pastors to get into trouble with the government.

IN 1995 THE HISTORIAN ROBERT ALLEY attempted to trace the provenance of a quote that Rush Limbaugh had mistakenly attributed to James Madison, in which Madison purportedly called the Ten Commandments the foundation of American civilization. All roads led to David Barton, whose The Myth of Separation attributed the following quote to Madison: “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 mankind for self government; upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.” Barton cited two sources for the quote: a 1939 book by Harold K. Lane called Liberty! Cry Liberty! and Frederick Nyneyer’s 1958 book First Principles in Morality and Economics: Neighborly Love and Ricardo’s Law of Association. Alley couldn’t find the quote anywhere in Nyneyer’s book, however, and eventually concluded that Barton had pulled it from an article in a journal with the unlikely title Progressive Calvinism, which, in turn, had attributed it to something called the “1958 calendar of Spiritual Mobilization.” In any case, Alley reported, the editors of Madison’s papers were unable to find anything in his writings that was even remotely similar. “In addition,” they added, “the idea is inconsistent with everything we know about Madison’s views on religion and government, which he expressed time and time again in public and in private.”

Although Harold K. Lane was apparently the source of the original misquote, Alley was particularly hard on Barton, whose work, he argued, went beyond revisionism; it was “anti-historical.” Around this time Barton published a sort of mass retraction—a list of “unconfirmed quotes,” including the disputed Madison quote, that he advised his followers to stop using. A couple were simply mistakes attributable to sloppy work by Barton or his researchers, but most seem to have been drawn from questionable secondary sources, which Barton was unable to verify by turning to his now extensive collection of the founders’ original writings. He further announced that he would henceforth adhere to what he called a “legal standard” in his research: Any mention of the founders’ ideas or words in a secondary source would be considered hearsay evidence. He would go by only what he could find in their original writings.

It was a low point in Barton’s career. His critics seized on the list as evidence that he was a quack. In a perverse way, however, the “unconfirmed quotes” incident served to demonstrate just how pervasive Barton’s ideas had quietly become. Barton published his retraction ten years ago, yet the fraudulent Madison quote still pops up like a bad penny all over the Internet. (Steven Waldman, the editor in chief of the influential spiritual news Web site Beliefnet and the author of a forthcoming book about religion and the Founding Fathers, told me he was astonished at how often Barton was quoted on the Internet.) I happened to hear the Madison quote again—sung this time—when Barton appeared in May with Chuck Norris on the Trinity Broadcasting Network’s Praise the Lord show. During the segment, TBN played a video of a song by a Christian pop singer with a version of the quote in its lyrics. The album, for which Barton had served as a consultant, hit the top of the inspirational charts; a copy of the gold record hangs on the wall at his headquarters.

Barton has since completely overhauled The Myth of Separation, removing the offending quotes and adding many new ones, turning it into a sort of catalog of religious utterances by the Founding Fathers. The book, renamed Original Intent, stretches to 534 pages and includes 1,437 footnotes. In the foreword, he declared war on his critics: “Because the portrayal of history so affects current policy, some groups have found it advantageous to their political agenda to distort historical facts intentionally,” he wrote. “Those particularly adept at this are termed ‘revisionists.’”

Barton is not the first evangelical author to take on this material. Years before he hit pay dirt with his best-selling Left Behind thrillers, Tim LaHaye wrote a book about the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers. Barton’s contemporaries include Gary DeMar, William J. Federer (whose best-known work is literally a catalog of religious quotes by the founders), John Eidsmoe, and the prolific Stephen McDowell, who sits on the WallBuilders board of directors. All of these writers offer variations on the same theme—what Rob Boston, the assistant communications director of Americans United for Church and State (who has been keeping an eye on Barton for years), calls the “stolen legacy” theory: the idea that the real America, the Christian America, is out there, waiting to be found and restored to all its original glory.

In a broader sense, Barton’s work is reminiscent of nineteenth-century historians like Charles Coffin and Parson Weems, scholars who wrote from an unabashedly Christian perspective at a time when there was no culture of objectivity among historians. Weems was best known for his biography of George Washington, in which he did his best to claim Washington for the Christians, despite his well-known reputation as a Deist. In a brief, credulous treatise called The Bulletproof George Washington, Barton resurrected an old Weems-era tale about the supposed divine protection of Washington during the French and Indian War.

The intellectual underpinnings of Barton’s ideas about the First Amendment are found in the never-ending battle between and among constitutional scholars and Supreme Court justices over the meaning of the establishment clause, which has long been the great Gordian knot in the study of original intent. Barton draws on the arguments of what is commonly referred to as the accommodationist camp, best summarized by then—Chief Justice William Rehnquist in his dissent in the 1985 school prayer case Wallace v. Jaffree. Rehnquist too lamented the pervasiveness of Jefferson’s “wall of separation” metaphor and argued that the original intent of the establishment clause was merely to prevent the federal government from establishing a national religion or favoring one particular sect over another. It did not require the government to remain, in Rehnquist’s words, “strictly neutral between religion and irreligion.” But Barton goes much further than Rehnquist or any modern mainstream constitutional scholar. Barton objects to more than just individual decisions of the Supreme Court; he does not accept the legitimacy of judicial review itself. Nor does he seem to accept the extension of the Bill of Rights to the states.

And what does it really mean to have a government “firmly rooted in biblical principles,” as one of WallBuilders’ mottoes goes? Barton told me repeatedly that he would oppose the establishment of a state religion or direct funding of religious activities. But what does he want? It was a discussion he seemed surprisingly reluctant to have. When I asked him what an ideal state would look like, it occasioned a long pause. He finally described a place where outsiders could not impose their will on cohesive communities and where losers in the democratic process could not simply run off to court and undo the will of the majority. “It’s not that I want prayer back in every school,” he said. “It’s that I want every community to have the right to decide.” Barton quoted Washington to me: “The fundamental principle of our Constitution enjoins that the will of the majority shall prevail.” That is certainly true, but losers in the political process still have rights; part of the genius of our Constitution is how it protects minority interests.

In an ironic way, Barton’s earnest—and frequently convincing—portrayal of the founders as deeply religious undermines his larger point. These were men, after all, who failed to even mention God in the Constitution. If they had wanted to make the United States a Christian republic, they could have done so. Indeed, in many of the colonies the idea of secular government was anathema, as Barton correctly points out. The earliest settlers may have come to America in search of religious freedom, but on these shores they established their own state religions and began lashing, jailing, and excommunicating one another for the same thought crimes they had once been found guilty of.

Beginning in their home state of Virginia, men like Jefferson and Madison led the fight against this combine of government and religion. They were reading the Bible, certainly, but they were also reading the ancient Greeks and the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers. They were interested in a wall that worked both ways; through Madison’s careful crafting of the First Amendment, that’s what they got. This is the big picture that Barton’s books deliberately ignore: that the views on religion and government of figures like Benjamin Rush fell into obscurity not because of some conspiracy but because they failed to carry the day.

IN LATE MARCH BARTON AGREED to give me a tour of WallBuilders’ headquarters. Aledo still feels like a small town, despite the encroachment of the Fort Worth suburbs. The Barton family church, Aledo Christian, occupies an old bank building downtown. WallBuilders is in a two-story white building on the edge of town. It is built into the side of a sizable hill, at the end of a gravel road that winds upward from a nearby cul-de-sac of tidy ranch houses past a series of large No Trespassing signs. Barton has a staff of perhaps twenty, and the office was bustling with activity when I visited. A staffer was busy processing a set of nineteenth-century newspapers that had just come by UPS, and Barton combed through them with interest.

The WallBuilders library is located in the rear of the first floor, behind a heavy steel door. It is a large room, with eight tall shelving units full of books on one side and a row of display cases running down the opposite wall. The cases are full of ephemera from the colonial era, a collection roughly the size you might find in a small-town history center in West Texas. Barton seemed exceedingly proud of it. He has also recently developed an interest in black history. (As vice chair of the state GOP, he made minority outreach a priority; his daughter, Damaris, is now in charge of it.) He showed me an original proclamation announcing the end of slavery, which he had just bought from Sotheby’s for $4,500. He occasionally allows kids to visit the vault on field trips, he said, and has for some time considered building a separate museum to house his collection.

As a self-publisher, Barton operates on the margins of the $2-billion-a-year Christian publishing industry. He does not have access to the distribution networks available to, say, Rick Warren (whose Purpose-Driven Life is the best-selling book of hardcover nonfiction of all time, in any genre), which means you won’t find his work in Wal-Mart or Barnes & Noble. Yet Barton claims to have sold millions of copies of his books, filling all of the orders out of the modest warehouse on the ground floor of his Aledo headquarters. (There is no way to verify this claim, but he consulted his bookkeeper in my presence about sales of Original Intent and was told he had sold at least 100,000 copies of the paperback alone.) The WallBuilders catalog is thick, but only half a dozen or so of the books listed are authored by Barton himself. Several are reprints of old texts that are no longer copyrighted, such as The New England Primer and Noah Webster’s Advice to the Young. About half the catalog is devoted to Barton’s spoken-word addresses on audiocassette. WallBuilders also sells historical knickknacks: mouse pads, posters, and other wonderama of the Revolutionary period.

Barton sells books almost entirely without advertising. He relies instead on spreading the word through his relentless touring schedule and his appearances on Christian or conservative radio and TV programs. Barton’s periodic newsletter, The WallBuilders Report, and his Web site solicit donations and market his many publications. Some of Barton’s followers might be surprised to learn, however, that revenue from the sales of most WallBuilders publications does not go to the nonprofit but to Barton himself. That’s because WallBuilders is actually two entities: a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation called WallBuilders Presentations and a for-profit enterprise called WallBuilders Inc. (A third corporation, Specialty Research Associates, holds the copyrights for his books.) Barton has not sought accreditation for his nonprofit, which takes in more than $1 million per year in donations. When I asked him why he didn’t submit his ledger to a group like the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, Barton said he already hired an external auditor to examine his books every other year. In fact, it’s unlikely that his revenue arrangement would pass muster with the ECFA. Paul Nelson, the former president of the organization, told me that one of the red flags they look for when publishing is involved is whether a nonprofit is being used to promote sales of a book for which the royalty goes directly to the CEO, not back into the nonprofit.

Barton insisted that he did not use funds from the nonprofit to promote his for-profit business. Still, the benefits of associating his book-selling business with the nonprofit are considerable. A typical publisher will spend $15,000 to $20,000 promoting a new title from a mid-list author. This includes money for travel and lodging for a multicity book tour, hiring a publicist to book the author on talk shows, and perhaps a modest Web site. But Barton tours the country continuously at the expense of the nonprofit side of WallBuilders. In a sense, he has been on the world’s longest continuous book tour. It’s a well-funded one; in 2004, under the category of “Presentation/Promotion,” the nonprofit reported spending over $750,000.

It’s not a particularly efficient way to promote books, but it has paid off. Though his lifestyle does not reflect it, Barton’s book sales seem to have made him a wealthy man. He owns the contents of the vault at WallBuilders, which, he says, are worth “pretty well up there in the seven figures.” (Historical artifacts appreciate like antiques.) The board members of the nonprofit, half of whom are members of the Barton family, pay him a salary of roughly $100,000.

Barton told me that he went to great pains to ensure that the revenue and expenses of the two companies were kept separate and that meticulous records were maintained. In fact, the two companies are highly intertwined. Several of Barton’s employees work for both the nonprofit and the for-profit. According to his tax returns, Barton’s nonprofit pays a “user fee” to his for-profit whenever it uses materials owned by the for-profit. Simply by holding up his 1608 edition of the Geneva Bible in Carrollton, for example, Barton earned the for-profit company—in effect, himself—a 10 percent cut of the day’s take. (If he receives no honorarium or “offering” for his appearance, the for-profit collects nothing.) In 2004, the year of the most recent tax returns available, Barton’s for-profit company collected $99,321 from the nonprofit under this arrangement. When I asked Barton why, as president of both companies, he didn’t simply donate the use of the materials to his nonprofit, he said he preferred to deal with the nonprofit as he would any other company, fearing the appearance of “collusion.” “Sharing creates more problems than it solves,” he said. The nonprofit also paid $32,674 in rent and $83,652 for “professional services” to the for-profit in 2004.

WHAT SEEMS TO HAVE OFFENDED Barton most about his critics is their questioning not his competence but his honesty. (“I mean, this is what we do,” Cheryl said, pointing to the stacks of material in the vault. “We’re not trying to fool anybody.”) But honesty has been a problem for Barton over the years and still is. After he issued his “unconfirmed quotes” retraction in 1995, for instance, a group of independent researchers went over The Myth of Separation with a fine-tooth comb and found more than one quote that Barton apparently fabricated through the flagrant misuse of ellipses. (On page 248, for example, Barton pulled this quote from a Supreme Court of New York case called People v. Ruggles: “This [First Amendment] declaration … never meant to withdraw religion … and with it the best sanctions of moral and social obligation from all consideration and notice of the law.” In the unedited version, however, it is abundantly clear that the “declaration” referred to is not the First Amendment, as Barton indicated in brackets, but an article of the New York state constitution.) In the vault, I finally got to take a closer look at a piece of plastic-sheathed parchment Barton had been waving around on the pastors’ tour in D.C., which he claimed was an example of Jefferson signing a document “In the Year of Our Lord Christ.” It was already pretty flimsy evidence that Jefferson was a Christian, but on closer inspection it appeared that Jefferson himself had not even written the words; the document was the nineteenth-century equivalent of a form letter.

Perhaps the most embarrassing gaffe Barton has been accused of is an egregious mischaracterization of Jefferson’s famous letter to the Danbury Baptists. Barton allegedly said that Jefferson referred to the wall of separation between church and state as “one-directional”—that is, it was meant to restrain government from infringing on the church’s domain but not the other way around. There is no such language in the letter. This mistaken quote does not appear on Barton’s list of retractions, however, and when I asked Barton about it, he denied ever having misquoted Jefferson’s letter in any of his publications. He claimed instead that unspecified critics had merely heard him mention the “one-
directional wall” in a speech and that he had in fact been summarizing Jefferson’s general views on the First Amendment, not purporting to paraphrase or quote from the Danbury Letter. In other words, his critics had dishonestly taken his words out of context to make him look bad.

For whatever reason, Barton is not telling the truth. The mistake in question comes from a 1990 version of Barton’s video America’s Godly Heritage. Here are Barton’s exact words from the tape: “On January 1, 1802, Jefferson wrote to that group of Danbury Baptists, and in this letter, he assured them—he said the First Amendment has erected a wall of separation between church and state, he said, but that wall is a one-directional wall. It keeps the government from running the church, but it makes sure that Christian principles will always stay in government.” In a later version of the video, Barton carefully fixed this mistake, so it’s not something he could have forgotten. He has admitted to making other mistakes, so why not acknowledge this one? It may be that the Danbury gaffe—like his first book, now out of print, in which he claimed that God spoke to him—is something that the new Barton, the Time-approved Barton, can no longer afford.

NONE OF THESE MISSTEPS have done Barton any lasting harm. On the contrary, his legitimacy is growing. In 2003 he published an article in the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics and Public Policy—a sober, rather tame survey of Jefferson’s writings about the First Amendment. Also in the works is a new book, to be published by Broadman & Holman, a major Christian publishing house. This would be Barton’s first title that he has not published himself, which means his work will be in bookstores across the country. In recent years, Barton has begun franchising the WallBuilders brand, arranging for other speakers to be booked through his organization for speaking engagements; the fee, or “love offering,” is split. One of these speakers is Ned Ryun, son of Republican congressman Jim Ryun, of Kansas. Barton’s most promising protégé is Rick Green, the former state legislator from Dripping Springs. Green, a self-described acolyte of motivational guru Zig Ziglar, was in the nutritional supplement business before serving a short, ill-fated career in the House. When I took the spiritual heritage tour in March, one of Barton’s assistants was taping his address for the purpose of training Green to host the tour.

Barton is popular because, as critic Rob Boston puts it, he purports to reconcile the Bible with American history, just as the creationists claim to reconcile the Bible with science. If his views reach a larger audience, it’s not difficult to imagine a shift in the nature of the two-hundred-year-old debate about original intent and the First Amendment. After all, William Rehnquist—unlike Barton—never claimed that anyone’s version of history was a hoax. If the separation of church and state really is a “myth,” then, as with the fight over evolution, there is no room for differing opinions or middle ground—one side has to be right and one wrong. The debate seems to be heating up already: There is a slew of new titles on the subject by mainstream historians, many of them written for popular audiences. Why now? When I put that question to Jim Hutson, the head archivist at the Library of Congress, he suggested that history, like biology, has indeed become another front in the culture war. He quoted George Orwell: “He who controls the past controls the future.”

There’s no question that Barton is focused on the future. He recently began teaching at an annual clinic for law students. “That’s eighty-five kids a year that want to be federal judges someday,” he told the pastors in D.C. “God helps the next generation through this one.” It’s hard to imagine him taking on yet another project, but he seemed tirelessly upbeat almost the entire time I was with him. “The Bible says the Lord will come like a thief in the night,” he said. “I don’t know when he’ll come. So I’ll stay busy until he does.”

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