Meet the Far Right's Favorite Quack Historian
The popular dissemination of Reconstructionist ideas is evident in the framing and language used by people in the religious right, if you have an ear for it. I think of this as analogous to the way in which a New Englander can hear the difference between a Maine accent and a Boston one, or how a Southerner can tell if a speaker is from North Carolina or South Carolina; it is subtle, but it is undeniably there.
There is perhaps no better example of Christian Reconstructionist influence on the broader culture than the work of Tea Party “historian” David Barton. Barton does not explicitly identify as a Christian Reconstructionist, and Christian Reconstructionists would not claim him as one of their own.Barton does have ties to several Reconstructionist groups, including the Providence Foundation; he occasionally cites the work of Rousas Rushdoony and promotes views on race and slavery that are rooted in Rushdoony. While Barton doesn’t use the language of theonomy or postmillennialism, as we will see, he speaks of dominion, biblical law, the necessity of bringing every area of life under the lordship of Christ, and sphere sovereignty of biblically ordained institutions. He embraces the whole range of political views advocated by Reconstructionists from the right-to-life and creationism to more narrowly held positions on issues such as the history of slavery and opposition to the Federal Reserve System. As we shall see, the approach to history that has made Barton famous is rooted in Rushdoony’s biblical philosophy of history.
Barton was born in 1954, raised in Aledo, Texas, and graduated from public high school in 1972, the same year his parents started a house church with Pentecostal leanings. By 1974 the church had moved into facilities that now also house the Christian school they started in 1981, as well as Barton’s organization, Wallbuilders. After high school, Barton attended Oral Roberts University, where he received a degree in religious education in 1976. Upon returning home, he became principal of Aledo Christian School until, a decade later, as he tells it in an interview, God led him to his first book by showing him the connection between the Supreme Court decisions on prayer and Bible reading and “plummeting” academic achievement scores and “soaring” student crime and immorality.
In July 1987, God impressed me to do two things. First, I was to search the library and find the date that prayer had been prohibited in public schools. Second, I was to obtain a record of national SAT scores . . . spanning several decades. I didn’t know why, but I somehow knew that these two pieces of information would be very important.
The result was his America; to Pray or Not to Pray, which is a statistical analysis of the “volume of prayers being offered” overlaid with data on a number of social problems, to compare the “prayer years with the post prayer years.” According to Barton, the drop in prayer was so dramatic that its impact was felt not just in the schools but in every aspect of our national life. Barton seemed unaware of the notion that correlation is not causation.
A self-styled historian with no real academic credentials, Barton went on to build an extensive collection of primary source documents from America’s founding era and write several “Christian American history” books that argue that the founding fathers intended America to be a Christian nation and that argue for a Christian reading of the Constitution they wrote. This work has shaped a generation of Christian school and homeschool students.
Despite being roundly rejected by scholars, Barton claims to be a “recognized authority in American history and the role of religion in public life.” For example, an amicus brief filed by Wallbuilders in McCollum v. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation claims Barton works as a consultant to national history textbook publishers. He has been appointed by the State Boards of Education in states such as California and Texas to help write the American history and government standards for students in those states. Mr. Barton also consults with Governors and State Boards of Education in several states, and he has testified in numerous state legislatures on American history.
Examples include a 1998 appointment as an advisor to the California Academic Standards Commission and a 2009 appointment as a reviewer in the Texas Board of Education’s effort to revise the state’s social science curriculum. In each case, Barton was one of three conservative “outside experts” appointed to review the curriculum to ensure that children learn that America was founded on biblical principles. As “experts” they sought changes to the curriculum to ensure that Christianity was presented “as an overall force for good—and a key reason for American Exceptionalism, the notion that the country stands above and apart.” Indeed, when Barton invoked his position as a curriculum consultant on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, Stewart asked for whom he had done this work, and Barton refused to name anyone, saying “if they don’t name names then I don’t.”
In 2005 Barton was included in Time magazine’s list of the twenty-five most influential evangelicals, but it was his association with Fox News’ Glenn Beck, who called him the most important man in America, that catapulted him into another level of influence. By 2011 Barton could boast that Republican primary presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann consulted him. Bachmann even invited him to speak to her congressional Tea Party Caucus on the history of the Constitution. Mike Huckabee infamously said that “every American should be forced to listen to Barton at gunpoint.” Barton’s presentation style makes on-the-spot critical engagement difficult. He jumps, at lightning speed, from one piece of data to another, interpreted through his “biblical” framework; he creates a barrage of information, tied to small pieces of familiar truth and rooted in an apparently vast collection of primary documents. Barton is one of the very best examples of the way in which the Tea Party is about much more than taxes, and he’s been at the center of its rise. In addition to being promoted by Glenn Beck, he travels the country presenting his Constitutional Seminars and selling materials promoting his views to churches, civic organizations, Christian schools, and Christian homeschoolers.
Barton’s work has been the subject of extensive critique by bloggers, reporters, and other critics, some of whom are scholars publishing peer-reviewed critiques, but, for the most part, scholars have not devoted a lot of attention to debunking his claims. Beginning in about 2011, two conservative Christian professors from Grove City College, Warren Throckmorton, professor of psychology, and Michael Coulter, professor of humanities and political science, published a critique of Barton’s The Jefferson Lies entitled Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President. The book was received well by scholars, and the authors’ credentials as conservative Christians undermined Barton’s defense that criticism of his work was ideological rather than factual. The Jefferson Lies was withdrawn by its publisher. One might expect under the weight of such resounding rejection, Barton would disappear into obscurity. Yet Barton’s supporters remain as devoted as before. Criticism from scholars (whether Christian or not) is dismissed as liberal, socialist, and even pagan. Discredited in the larger culture, Barton remains influential in the conservative Christian subculture.
Barton and the Constitution
In 2011, Barton’s radio program Wallbuilders Live carried a three-part series on the Constitution and “the principles of limited government” that illustrated well how he draws the conclusions he does regarding what the Constitution meant to the founders. The spectrum of activists calling themselves “constitutionalists”—including Barton but ranging from avowed Reconstructionists to Tea Partiers who claim their movement is solely about taxes and limited government—read the Constitution in the context of the Declaration of Independence to invoke the authority of the Creator in an otherwise godless document. The first of Barton’s three-part series lays out exactly how this works.
Many look at the US Constitution and see little mention of religion and wonder how conservative Christians can insist that it is a template for a Christian nation. But Barton is careful to speak, instead, of our “original national founding documents.” For Barton and his followers, the Declaration of Independence, though never ratified and carrying no legal authority, has the same status as the Constitution. Indeed, in their view, the Constitution can only be read in the context of the Declaration:
Go back to our original national document, our original founding document, the Declaration of Independence. In the first forty-six words . . . they tell us the philosophy of government that has produced America’s exceptionalism . . . two points immediately become clear in that opening statement of our first national government document. Number one, they say there is a divine creator, and number two, the divine creator gives guaranteed rights to men . . . there’s a God and God gives specific rights to men.
Barton asserts that the founders believed there were a handful of unalienable rights, the most important of which are life, liberty, and property. He occasionally acknowledges that the language in the Declaration is slightly different (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness), but he argues that the pursuit of happiness is grounded in property, making the two terms interchangeable. He more often uses the term “property.” These rights are understood to come directly from God, and the purpose of government (and therefore the Constitution the founders wrote) is limited to securing those rights. According to Barton, in language that became common Tea Party rhetoric, an inalienable right is “a right to which we are entitled by our all-wise and all-beneficent creator; a right that God gave you, not government.” Any other perceived rights, not understood as coming from God, cannot be legitimately protected by the civil government.
This is the very point of criticism made of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan by Herb Titus, described earlier. Rooted in the three-part division of authority popularized by Rushdoony and the Reconstructionists, Barton argues that the Bible (which he believes the founders read in the same way he does and upon which he believes they based the Constitution) limits the jurisdiction of civil government. That life, liberty, and property are “among” the God-given rights that Barton finds in the Declaration left room for the articulation of more rights derived from God to be “incorporated” into the Constitution, most clearly in the Bill of Rights, which he calls “the capstone” to the Constitution. “They said, we’re going to name some other inalienable rights just to make sure that government does not get into these rights . . . When you look at the ten amendments that are the Bill of Rights, those are God-granted rights that government is not to intrude into.” He then offered some unique interpretations of the rights protected in the first ten amendments. The First Amendment religion clauses, for Barton, become “the right of public religious expression.” The Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms is, according to Barton, “what they called the biblical right of self-defense.” The Third Amendment prohibiting the coerced quartering of soldiers is the biblical and constitutional protection of the “the sanctity of the home.” Finally, all the protections against unjust prosecution in the Fifth Amendment are reduced to the protection of “the right to private property.”
While the “limited government” enshrined in the Constitution protects basic rights given by God and precludes government from doing anything not within the purview of its biblical mandate, it also, according to Barton, prohibits abortion. Barton says that, according to the founders, the first example of “God-given inalienable rights is the right to life.” Barton claims that when the founders invoked the God-given right to life they intended to prohibit abortion. He claims that “abortion was a discussed item in the founding era.” As evidence he says, “as a matter of fact we have books in our library of original documents—observations on abortion back in 1808,” and that “early legislatures in the 1790s were dealing with legislation on the right to life on the abortion issue.” But Barton gives no examples and provides no references to any evidence. After this slippery claim, he goes on at length with quotes from founders on the right to life, none of which mention abortion. “They understood back then that abortion was a bad deal and that your first guaranteed inalienable right is a right to life. Consider how many other founding fathers talked about the right to life.” In another example of slipperiness, he quotes founder James Wilson: “Human life, from its commencement to its close, is protected by the common law. In the contemplations of law, life begins when the infant is first able to stir in the womb.” Realizing that this won’t do the work of banning abortion from conception, Barton redefines the question, moving the focus from the development of the fetus to what the mother “knows.”
Very simply, he [Wilson] says as soon as you know you’re pregnant, as soon as you know there’s life in the womb, that life is protected by law. That’s where the technology difference is, we can know that there’s life in the womb much earlier today than what they knew back then. But the point is the same there: as soon as you know there’s a life there, it’s protected.
But this is not what Wilson said, and Barton’s argument gets worse. In his view this understanding of the right to life is a bellwether for a number of other issues that are at the top of the religious right’s agenda: “Our philosophy of American exceptionalism is very simple: there is a God, he gives specific rights, [and] the purpose of government is to protect the rights he’s given.” If someone is “wrong” on “life issues,” they’re likely to be wrong on the right to self-defense (the right to own guns), the sanctity of the home (his interpretation of what it means to not have soldiers in your house), private property (his reading of the rights of the accused culminating in the protection against eminent domain), and “the traditional marriage issue” (for which he makes no connection to the founders or the Constitution). Barton’s interpretation doesn’t even resemble a close reading of the text with an eye toward the founders’ intentions—or any coherent application of the value of limited government—yet he successfully frames it as such in populist discourse.
In 2011, the Ninth Circuit Court rejected an appeal challenging the policy of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that allows only leaders of “five faiths” (Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, and Native American) to serve as paid chaplains (McCollum v. CDCR). The ruling had nothing to do with the legitimacy of the claim that the policy unconstitutionally favors some religions over others but rather whether McCollum (a Pagan minister) had standing to bring the case. An amicus brief filed by Wallbuilders in support of the CDCR to privilege the “five faiths” provides a glimpse into how Barton reads the Constitution.
For him the Constitution represents a consensus—as though there is a singular view that can be attributed to “the founders.” Barton’s style of reading the Constitution is modeled on his style of reading the Bible, which he also treats as a coherent document that can be read from start to finish to yield a clear, undisputed, objective meaning, instead of a collection of fragmented texts written over a very long period of time in different cultures, assembled into larger texts, then chosen from an even larger collection of texts in a political process, translated from ancient languages, and finally interpreted in different ways by different communities. Every stage of that process continues to be profoundly disputed by scholars, and there is always an interpretative framework (albeit all too often an unrecognized one) underlying any reading of it. While the US Constitution is a newer document, and it is therefore somewhat less difficult to discern its meaning(s), the fact remains that it is the product of hard-fought compromise among leaders, bound in time and culture, who profoundly disagreed with each other. There is no reason to believe they thought they were writing a sacred text to which all subsequent generations of Americans were bound by a process that amounts to divining a singular “intent.”
The argument Barton made in the brief, moreover, illustrates a second important point. He is being disingenuous when he insists he just wants everyone to have the opportunity to practice his religion freely. In his appearance on the Daily Show, he defended the practice of Christian religious observance in otherwise secular contexts when the majority wants it by saying that a Muslim-majority community should be able to make “Sharia law” the law of the land. There was a significant outcry from his anti-Muslim supporters, and he backtracked on the point in a subsequent episode of Wallbuilders Live.
In this brief, however, he argued that only those religions that fit with what he thinks the founders meant by “religion” should be protected. Protected religion is either Christianity alone or perhaps the larger category of monotheism—Barton asserts that rights of conscience don’t extend to atheists either (and by implication also not to Buddhists and Hindus): “whether this Court agrees that ‘religion’ meant monotheism or believes that it meant Christianity . . . it is clear that atheism, heathenism, and paganism were not part of the definition of ‘religion.’” Barton has argued against the free exercise of rights of Muslims, as have other religious right promoters of Islamophobia, claiming Islam is “not a religion.” Indeed, the term “religion” does have a complicated history, and it has often been used (or denied) to legitimize dominance of one group over another. Initially Africans were said to be “without religion,” legitimizing their enslavement, and, in another example, Native Americans were considered “without religion” to justify taking their land. Barton’s brief is important because it made explicit that which he often tries to deny: that only Christianity (and maybe Judaism) is protected under his reading of the Constitution.
Barton on the Free Market and Socialism
On another segment of Wallbuilders Live, Barton and co-host Rick Green discussed the effort by the Obama administration to prohibit Internet service providers from charging for service based on usage (known as Net Neutrality) because it violates biblical economics and is “socialist.” It’s easy to dismiss that charge as nothing more than demagoguery, but, in fact, the discussion illustrates what they mean by socialism and, ultimately, how they understand freedom. Both points trace directly back to Rushdoony. Most of us understand socialism as a system that limits private ownership of property and in which power (political and economic) is centralized in the state; Tea Party accusations that any policy they oppose is “socialist” seem, at best, like hyperbole. But in Barton’s view, any move away from what he sees as an unfettered free market, any regulation or involvement on the part of government, is a move toward socialism—and of course he thinks that private ownership and free markets are biblically sanctioned. Net Neutrality prohibits ISPs from charging for Internet service based on usage. This seems straightforward to Barton and Green: “what they mean is we’re not going to let you choose who you need to charge more to.” Maybe more interesting, though, is the subsequent exchange between Rick Green and his “good friend” Texas congressman Joe Barton, who was sponsoring legislation to overturn the Obama administration’s Net Neutrality regulation. Joe Barton tried to explain Net Neutrality and, in the process, revealed important aspects of how such people understand freedom in entirely economic terms. Joe Barton says that we cannot regulate the Internet, it should be open and free. Democrats’ definition of Net Neutrality is we want to give FCC the authority to tell people who actually provide the Internet what they can and can’t do with it. Now, what people like yourself and myself mean [by freedom] is no government interference; it’s pretty straightforward. Republicans and conservatives have always tried to keep the Internet totally free.
At the height of the debate over the federal budget and the Tea Party demands that Congress not raise the debt ceiling during the summer of 2011, David Barton and company tackled the question posed by the “religious left” in the budget debate: What would Jesus cut? They devoted an entire episode of Wallbuilders Live to the question: “Why Do People Think Government’s Role Is to Take Care of the Poor?” The episode is promoted with the assertion that “The role of the government is not to exercise mercy, but to exercise justice. It is improper for government to take care of the poor. That is up to us, as individuals.” With guest Michael Youseff, who had recently written on his blog about the application of the Bible to government spending and the poor, David Barton and Rick Green invoked the framework for limited biblical jurisdiction developed and promoted by Rushdoony. They claimed that the Bible has “205 verses about taking care of the poor” and asserted that “only one is directed to government,” which simply requires no more than the poor be “treated fairly in court.” Barton and Green employ Rushdoony’s framework of three God-ordained spheres of authority and the view that any action on issues outside those responsibilities is tyrannical and socialist. The responsibility to take care of the poor is limited to families and churches.
As we have seen, Rushdoony, Gary North, David Chilton, George Grant, and others have written on this topic. One of the more accessible places to find their view is in George Grant’s volume in Gary North’s Biblical Blueprints Series. Barton and Green borrow from them to assert that taking care of the poor is not the job of the government. Charity is up to individuals, families, and churches. Moreover, it should not be extended to everyone. The architects of the framework on which Barton bases his view are quite clear: biblical charity may extend to the four corners of the earth, but only to those who are in submission to biblical law as it is articulated by the Reconstructionists.
Barton on Race
David Barton is also the popularizer of a revisionist history of race in America that has become part of the Tea Party narrative. Drawn in part from the writings of Christian Reconstructionists, that narrative recasts modern-day Republicans as the racially inclusive party, and modern-day Democrats as the racists supportive of slavery and postemancipation racist policies. Barton’s website has included a “Black History” section for some time. Like Barton’s larger revisionist effort to develop and perpetuate the narrative that America is a Christian nation, the “Republicans-are-really-the-party-of-racial-equality” narrative is not entirely fictive. Some historical points Barton makes are true; but he and his biggest promoter, Glenn Beck, manipulate those points, remove all historical context, and add patently false historical claims in order to promote their political agenda. Barton appeared regularly on Beck’s show to disseminate his alternative reading of African American history, carrying with him, as he does, what he claims are original documents and artifacts that he flashes around for credibility.
In June of 2010 I traveled to central Florida to attend a Tea Party event sponsored by the Florida chapter of Beck’s “9–12 Project” held at a Baptist church (with a Christian school that was established in the late 1970s). The church sanctuary was decked in patriotic trimmings, including eight big flags on the wall, bunting all over the altar area, and a collection of small flags on the altar itself. As I waited for the event to begin, I overheard people talking about homeschooling and David Barton’s work on “America’s Christian Heritage,” all while Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” played over the sound system. For those unconvinced of the religious dimensions of at the Tea Party movement, the strain of it exhibited here was indistinguishable from the church-based political organizing efforts of the religious right dating back at least to the 1980s. As each local candidate spoke, it was clear how profoundly conservative, Republican, and Christian (in the religious right sense of Christian) this gathering was.
The event was promoted as a response to charges of racism in the Tea Party movement. The banner at the entrance to the event read: “9–12 Project: not racist, not violent, just not silent anymore.” The pastor of the church introduced the meeting, the Tea Party–supported candidates for local office spoke, and all invoked “Christian American history” and the “religion of the founders.” The “9–12 Project” refers both to post-9/11 America (when “divisions didn’t matter”) and to the “nine principles and twelve values” of the group, initiated and promoted by Beck. The “principles” are a distillation of those in The Five Thousand Year Leap, a 1981 book by Cleon Skousen, which was referenced repeatedly by speakers at the event. The book has long been a favorite for Christian schools and homeschoolers and among Reconstructionists despite the fact that Skousen is a Mormon (perhaps because he is also a strong advocate of the free-market Austrian School of economics). I was surprised to learn that Skousen’s book was enjoying a resurgence in popularity as a result of Beck’s promotion and is available in a new edition with a preface by Beck. The fight over the degree to which America was “founded as a Christian nation” is important in that it is a fight over our mythic understanding of ourselves. That is, it is a fight over the narratives through which Americans construct a sense of what it means to be American and perpetuate that sense through the culture and in successive generations.
Intended to counter the charges of racism made against the Tea Party movement, the main speaker was an African American, Franz Kebreau, from the National Association for the Advancement of Conservative People of all Colors (NAACPC). The event was in a more rural part of Florida than where I live, and I passed a number of Confederate flags on my way there. I expected an all-white crowd making arguments about “reverse discrimination,” libertarian arguments against violations of state sovereignty (especially with the Civil Rights Act), and maybe even some of the “slavery wasn’t as bad as people say” arguments. What I found surprised me. Kebreau gave a detailed lecture on the history of slavery and racism in America: a profoundly revisionist history. In Kebreau’s narrative, racism is a legacy of slavery, but it was a socially constructed mechanism by which people in power divided, threatened, and manipulated both blacks and whites. Many of the pieces of historical data he marshals in favor of this thesis are not unfamiliar to those who have studied this aspect of American history, but they are probably not as well known among Americans in general: some slave owners were black, not all slaves were black, black Africans played a huge role in the slave trade, and very few Southerners actually owned slaves. While at least most of these points are undeniably true, they were presented with a specific subtext: with the goal of lending credence to the view that contemporary critics of racism make too much of America’s history of slavery. In this view, it is Democrats who are primarily responsible for fostering racism to solidify power. Southern Democrats opposed civil rights laws, voting rights, integration, and so on. Northern Democrats fanned racial tensions by promoting social programs that made African Americans dependent on government. Race-baiting demagogues like Jesse Jackson and the Reverend Al Sharpton perpetuate the divisions today.
In August of 2010, Beck held his Restoring Honor Rally, bringing many Tea Party groups—Tea Party Patriots, Freedom Works, 9–12 Project, Special Operations Warrior Foundation, and others—together at the Lincoln Memorial. While Beck initially promoted the event as a nonpolitical effort to return to the values of the founders, he claims he only realized later that he scheduled it on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. He suggested that while he did not realize the significance of the date, “God might have had a hand” in the coincidence. Beck was criticized for both his timing and his crediting the Almighty. Beck fancies himself a contemporary King, “reclaiming the civil rights movement,” and while he was widely mocked for drawing this parallel, it was less recognized that he did it on a foundation laid by David Barton and his revisionist history, which relies in no small part on the work of Rushdoony.
In his essay “The Founding Fathers and Slavery,” Barton quotes extensively from the writings of the founders and claims that many of them were abolitionists. He maintains that the overwhelming majority of the founders were “sincere Christians” who thought American slavery was “unbiblical,” blamed England for imposing the institution on the colonies, and set in motion processes to end it. Scholars dispense with these claims. According to Diana Butler Bass, “It was nearly universally accepted by white Christian men that the Bible taught, supported, or promoted slavery and it was rare to find a leading American intellectual, Christian or otherwise, who questioned the practice on the basis that it was ‘unbiblical.’ Some intellectuals thought it was counter to the Enlightenment.” Historian Mark Noll argues that the reverse of Barton’s view with regard to the British is correct: evangelicals in the Church of England, not in America, argued that slavery violated the Bible. Again, according to Bass, “the American biblical argument against slavery did not develop in any substantial way until the 1830s and 1840s. Even then, the anti-slavery argument was considered liberal and not quite in line with either scripture or tradition.”
Another essay on Barton’s website, “Democrats and Republicans in Their Own Words: National Party Platforms on Specific Biblical Issues,” compares party platforms from 1840 to 1964—the period before Southern Democrats who blocked civil rights legislation began switching to the Republican Party. In Barton’s narrative, the modern Republican Party is the party more favorable to African Americans because the Republicans led the fight against slavery and for civil rights from the formation of the Republican Party as the “anti-slavery party” and the “election of Abraham Lincoln as the first Republican President,” to the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, the passage of civil rights laws during Reconstruction, and the election of blacks to office. Barton writes that while the Democratic Party platform was defending slavery, “the original Republican platform in 1856 had only nine planks— six of which were dedicated to ending slavery and securing equal rights for African-Americans.” Democrats, on the other hand, supported slavery, and they then sought to ban blacks from holding public office and to limit their right to vote via poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and general harassment and intimidation, and they established legal segregation under Jim Crow laws.
Barton takes issue with the claim that “Southerners” fought for racist policies, because “just one type of Southern whites were the cause of the problem: Southern racist whites.” Rather, he argues (missing the logical inconsistency), we should lay the responsibility for racism at the feet of Democrats:
Current writers and texts addressing the post-Civil War period often present an incomplete portrayal of that era . . . To make an accurate portrayal of black history, a distinction must be made between types of whites. Therefore, [it would be] much more historically correct— although more “politically incorrect”—were it to read: “Democratic legislatures in the South established whites-only voting in party primaries.”
Because he says very little about contemporary Democrats, it’s clear that Barton’s purpose is to connect them with racist Southern Democrats, while completely ignoring the relationship of modern-day Republicans with racism. Most glaringly, the Republican “Southern strategy” is entirely missing from Barton’s account of the parties’ political strategies with regard to race. From the Johnson administration through the Nixon and Reagan campaigns, Republican strategists effectively used race as a “wedge issue.” Southern Democrats would not support efforts by the national party to secure civil rights for African Americans. By focusing on specific racial issues (like segregation), Republicans split off voters who had traditionally voted for Democrats. The contemporary “states’ rights” battle cry at the core of the conservative movement and Tea Party rhetoric is rooted in this very tactic. Barton and Beck want to rewrite American history on race and slavery in order to cleanse the founding fathers of responsibility for slavery and, more importantly, blame it and subsequent racism on Democrats.
But Barton’s rewriting of the history of the founding era and the civil rights movement alone doesn’t quite accomplish that. He has to lower the bar even more and make slavery itself seem like it wasn’t quite as bad as we might think. And for that, he turns to Stephen McDowell of the Reconstructionist-oriented Providence Foundation. Wallbuilders’ website promotes a collection of “resources on African American History.” Much of the material is written by Barton himself, but one of the essays is McDowell’s, drawn almost entirely from Rushdoony’s work in the early 1960s. McDowell’s discussion of slavery, written in 2003, comes directly from Rushdoony’s The Institutes of Biblical Law. McDowell attributes his views to Rushdoony and uses precisely the language that Rushdoony used as early as the 1960s. Rushdoony’s writings on slavery are often cited by his critics. Rushdoony did argue that slavery is biblically permitted. While criticizing American slavery as violating a number of biblical requirements, he also defended it in his writings. By promoting McDowell, and by extension Rushdoony, Barton promotes a biblical worldview in which slavery is in some circumstances acceptable. This worldview downplays the dehumanization of slavery by explicitly arguing that God condones it in certain circumstances.
McDowell writes that, while it was not part of “God’s plan” from the beginning, “slavery, in one form or another (including spiritual, mental, and physical), is always the fruit of disobedience to God and His law/ word,” meaning that the slave is justifiably being punished for his or her disobedience. McDowell argues that slavery is tightly regulated, though not forbidden, in the Bible, and that American Southern slavery was not “biblical” slavery because it was race-based. Following Rushdoony, he argues that there are two forms of biblically permissible slavery: indentured servitude, in which “servants were well treated and when released, given generous pay,” and slavery, in which, in exchange for being taken care of, one might choose to remain a slave. Moreover, he maintains that the Bible permits two forms of involuntary slavery: criminals who could not make restitution for their crimes could be sold into slavery and “pagans, [who] could be made permanent slaves.” Of course, Rushdoony defines “pagans” as simply non-Christians. This means that slavery was/is voluntary only for Christians; non-Christians can be held in nonvoluntary perpetual slavery. Barton shares this understanding of the legal status of “pagans,” at least in terms of their rights under the First Amendment. McDowell is explicit that race-based kidnapping and enforced slavery are unbiblical. In fact, they are punishable by death. All this comes directly from The Institutes of Biblical Law. McDowell argues, as did Rushdoony in the early 1960s, that while American slavery was not biblical slavery, neither was it the cause of the Civil War. The major point of dispute between North and South, they argue, was, not slavery but “centralism,”—that is, the increasing centralization of power in the federal government, an argument frequently echoed today by the states’ rights agitators and Tenth Amendment Tea Partiers. Although in one essay Barton parts company with Rushdoony and McDowell over the significance of slavery as a cause of the Civil War (Barton argues instead that slavery was a cause, in service of his argument that the present-day Republican Party is more racially inclusive than the Democrats), he nonetheless continues to promote, on his website, their view that slavery is biblical.
The historical revisionism with regard to race in America that gained a hearing in the Tea Party (thanks to Glenn Beck and activists such as Franz Kebreau) is rooted in Barton’s and Wallbuilders’ writings, which have been deeply influenced by Rushdoony.
Excerpted from “Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction” by Julie Ingersoll. Published by Oxford University Press. Copyright 2015 by Julie Ingersoll. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.