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Christian Cowboy Plots to Bring Christ into Kids' Social Studies Class

David Barton likens himself to a biblical prophet. He wants to destroy the separation of church and state. Why is he designing school curricula?

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Throughout the 1990s, Barton was a fixture at Religious Right gatherings. He hobnobbed with the Christian Coalition, then the most powerful Religious Right group in the nation, and surfaced at other Religious Right meetings as well. He was even embraced by prominent politicians, such as Gingrich, former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

The Barton-Gingrich alliance has grown closer recently, as Gingrich apparently sees Religious Right legions as his vehicle back into national politics. Last month, both men appeared (alongside Mike Huckabee) at a pastors conference in Norfolk sponsored by the Virginia Renewal Project. Virginia is one of two states with a gubernatorial election this year, and it’s likely the event was designed to mobilize conservative clergy in advance of the polling.

Barton is feted by Gingrich and other political leaders even though his research is slipshod -- and sometimes just plain outrageous. Barton’s first book, America: To Pray Or Not To Pray, is a good example.

In the self-published tome, Barton claims to have "proven" that the Supreme Court’s 1962 decision outlawing state-sponsored prayer in public schools has had a deleterious effect on the country. The book consists mainly of a series of charts, showing that since the ruling, social problems such as divorce, venereal disease and out-of-wedlock births have increased.

Barton has apparently never taken a basic course in statistics, or he would know that correlation is not causation. In other words, the fact that two things occur in sequence does not automatically mean that one caused the other.

Barton followed that book with The Myth of Separation, which he subsequently updated and re-titled Original Intent. In its original incarnation, The Myth of Separation was riddled with errors and quotes that turned out to be unsubstantiated.

Perhaps realizing he had a credibility problem, Barton in 1996 issued a list of 12 quotations from the Founders and others that he labeled "questionable." Nine of the quotations had appeared in The Myth of Separation, but Barton now advised his followers to stop using them.

One of the bogus quotations, a statement by James Madison lauding the Ten Commandments as the basis for the U.S. government, has proved impossible to kill. Even though Barton disowned it 13 years ago, the orphaned quote still wanders through cyberspace, often gracing fundamentalist Web sites and appearing in letters to the editor.

Even after ditching the phony quotes, Barton continued to misconstrue the facts. On May 2, 1996, he appeared on a radio broadcast with Focus on the Family’s Dobson and opined that Thomas Jefferson favored using "Christian principles with government" -- a sentiment that appears nowhere in the private or public statements of Jefferson.

But perhaps Barton’s most common sin is that he engages in rampant errors of omission. In fact, he revels in it, cherry-picking history and wrenching quotes and stories out of context to buttress his set-in-stone beliefs.

Barton’s slapdash research and willingness to play fast and loose with the facts has sparked criticism in academic circles.

In a 2005 New York Times column, Mark Lilla, a well-respected scholar who has taught at the University of Chicago and Columbia University, scored the "schlock history written by religious propagandists like David Barton, the author of the bizarre pastiche The Myth of Separation, who use selective quotations out of context to suggest that the framers were inspired believers who thought they were founding a Christian nation."

Many of Barton’s critics come from the Christian tradition. Richard T. Hughes, professor of religion at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., takes issue with Barton and other "Christian nation" advocates in his recently published book Christian America and the Kingdom of God.