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Meet the Religious Right Charlatan Who Teaches Tea Party America The Totally Pretend History They Want to Hear

David Barton is a Republican Party activist and a fast-talking, self-promoting, self-taught, self-proclaimed historian who is miseducating millions of Americans about U.S. history.

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In his interviews and television appearances, Barton talks fast, like a man who has so many stories to tell he doesn’t know where to start or stop. Unfortunately, a lot of the stories Barton has told about the founders and American history simply aren’t true.

One of those stories is about Peter Muhlenberg, a colonial-era pastor who supposedly ended a sermon in early 1776 by shucking off his robe to reveal a military uniform and challenging the men in his congregation to join him in the fight for freedom. As noted by Rob Boston in Church & State, German American history expert Friderike Baer called the story “an invention” on a broadcast of PBS’s “History Detectives” show. Boston also cites research by Chris Rodda of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation refuting one of Barton’s favorite claims -- that Congress printed an official Bible for use in schools in 1782 (you can see Barton making that claim on one of his Capitol tours here)and that Jefferson added the phrase “in the Year of our Lord Christ” to official documents.

Rodda has produced a number of articles and videos tackling Barton’s claims by checking Barton’s descriptions of historical documents. (Barton has a massive collection of original documents from the founding era, which he uses to give a veneer of historical accuracy and drama to his presentations.) One of the most damning fact-checks concerns a letter from John Adams to Benjamin Rush from 1809. Barton cites a long section of the letter in which Adams says, in part, “There is no authority, civil or religious -- there can be no legitimate government - but what is administered by this Holy Ghost. There can be no salvation without it -- all without it is rebellion and perdition, or, in more orthodox words, damnation.” But Barton does not include the sentence which immediately follows, which is “Although this is all Artifice and Cunning in the secret original in the heart, yet they all believe it so sincerely that they would lay down their Lives under the Ax or the fiery Fagot for it. Alas the poor weak ignorant Dupe human Nature.” In other words, Adams was mocking the very point that Barton claims he was making.

Barton and his son Tim appeared last December on Kirk Cameron’s show on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. In that interview, the younger Barton inaccurately described the correspondence in which Thomas Jefferson used the phrase “wall of separation” between church and state. Tim Barton said Jefferson told the recipients of his letter (the Danbury Baptists) to “imagine” that there was such a wall; in fact Jefferson wrote, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.” David Barton has also mischaracterized that letter, claiming (wrongly) that Jefferson described a “one-way” concept of church-state separation more to Barton’s liking. Like father, like son.

While Barton is seemingly undeterred by the evidence he knows most of his supporters will never see, Barton has not been able to simply ignore all questioning of his errors and misstatements. He edited and renamed one book ( The Myth of Separation became Original Intent) after critics pointed out false material. He has publicly admitted that a dozen supposed quotations about the nation’s origin and purpose that he and others have attributed to founding fathers simply can’t be verified. But those quotations continue to be used by others.

 
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