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