Quite a few articles were written last week about speculative McCain VP pick, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, many focusing on Jindal's signing into law a bill that will allow the teaching of creationism, through "supplemental materials," in Louisiana's public schools. Some of last week's articles mentioned Jindal's association with former Texas Republican Party co-chair and pseudo-historian David Barton, a name all too familiar to those of us who closely follow the religious right, but largely unrecognized by just about everyone else on the left, in spite of the impact he managed to have on evangelical voters in the last two presidential elections.
The GOP has certainly recognized Barton's value to their party, however, hiring him to tour the country spewing his Christian nation ideology in support of Republican candidates. In 2005, Time Magazine named Barton one of the country's 25 most influential evangelicals. Barton has long been pegged as a fraud and an historical revisionist by legitimate scholars, but this hasn't halted the spread of his lies. Nor has it had any effect on the widespread use of his discredited materials by homeschoolers, Christian high schools and colleges, and, most recently, in hundreds of public schools, via the National Council On Bible Curriculum In Public Schools course. In his Time Magazine profile, Barton is dubbed "The Lesson Planner," and described as a "hero to millions -- including some powerful politicians." This is no exaggeration. Since Barton came on the scene in the late 1980s, his mythical version of American history has been employed by members of Congress with disturbing frequency, often finding its way into legislation such as H. Res. 888, Congressman Randy Forbes's proposed resolution for an American religious history week.
One candidate helped by Barton in 2006 was Bobby Jindal. During Jindal's gubernatorial campaign, Barton appeared with him at churches in Louisiana, and, on October 18 and 19, 2006, had Jindal on his WallBuildersLIVE! radio show for a two part interview. Referring in the opening comments of the program to Jindal's election to Congress two years earlier, Barton remarked, "That is the election in which we saw a huge increase in Christian voter turnout, and he is part of that product of what we were able to put in office in 2004."
Jindal said of his church campaign appearances with Barton the weekend before the interview, "Let me tell you, Dave did a fantastic job -- went to three churches with us, just reminding us of our nation's history, our nation's heritage. You know, I listen to him. I learn something new on every Capitol tour, at every presentation. The response was tremendous -- people just telling me that every single stop, every single church -- they said they learned so much..."
The primary topic of Jindal's 2006 WallBuildersLIVE! interview was going to be faith-based initiatives, so Barton primed his audience by giving them a dose of made up history on the subject:
"Well, faith-based initiatives go way back to the founding fathers. They're the ones that first started that partnered with the faith community and they cooperated hand in hand. They understood the distinctions of separation of church and state as far as the institutions -- the church doesn't run the state and the state doesn't run the church, but they did not separate the influence that the church brought into the civil arena, and so you'll find early on that we were, in the federal government, funding programs that did mission work, and today a lot of us would have trouble with that, but they funded missionaries because of the education they were doing, because of the social work they were doing, so you'll find early on that under George Washington -- he funded a number of those programs -- as did John Adams, as did Thomas Jefferson, as did James Madison. Virtually every president did that."
Well, pardon my language, but this is pure, unadulterated BULLSHIT!
There were no missionary programs funded by the early federal government. What Christian nationalist historical revisionists like Barton do to make lies like this seem plausible is to cite Indian treaties in their footnotes to make it look like they have actual sources for such claims. There were a handful of Indian treaties providing for things like compensation to missionaries for buildings they would lose when the land these buildings were on was ceded to the federal government by the Indians. Barton also uses a land grant, that for completely unreligious reasons, was put in trust in the name of a religious corporation by the Continental Congress. Because this land grant was mentioned in acts signed by Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, Barton and others have been able to turn it into a tale of these three presidents funding missionaries. Even Barton doesn't usually include Madison when telling this lie, so I have no idea what he's basing that on. Madison actually vetoed a bill to incorporate a church in the District of Columbia because, as he wrote in his veto message to Congress, this "would be a precedent for giving to religious Societies, as such, a legal agency in carrying into effect a public and civil duty." If Madison was dead set against the government giving a religious organization "an authority to provide for the support of the poor" when this didn't even involve government funding, he must be rolling in his grave over faith-based initiatives.
I don't want to digress into a long American history lesson here, so, for those who are interested in all the gory details, I've made several chapters of my book, Liars For Jesus: The Religious Right's Alternate Version of American History, available for free as PDFs. Two of these chapters explain in detail all of the treaties and documents misquoted and misrepresented to concoct lies like the one from Barton above. Chapter 3: Indian Treaties and Indian Schools covers most of this. The story of the land grant, which spans four decades, from the Continental Congress through the 1820s, has generated so many lies that it needed its own chapter, Chapter 4: Propagating the Gospel Among the Heathen?
While most proponents of faith-based initiatives will at least make some attempt to deny that the goal of these programs is to spread religion, and insist that they merely "level the playing field" by allowing religious organizations to provide purely secular services, Bobby Jindal doesn't even try to mask the real goal, saying in his WallbuildersLIVE! interview that the idea of faith-based initiatives
"makes sense because so many of these problems involve not only a material need, but also a spiritual need. So many times, when people are broken they truly need help not only with being fed, or being clothed and housed, all of which are important, but they also need that spiritual guidance. It doesn't do a lot of good to fill a man's stomach if you're not also there to help them spiritually as well."
Barton's co-host, Rick Green, introduced Jindal as: "one of our favorites here around WallBuilders -- our favorite congressmen in Washington D.C. -- he's with us on our Capitol tours there. He does a lot with us, and, in fact, David Barton spent the weekend with him just last weekend, all around Louisiana -- spreading the news about the truth of our founding fathers."
And Jindal is obviously just as enamored with WallBuilders as they are with him, gushing about Barton's presentations:
"I think that makes him so powerful, and so effective, is that he has studied the original documents, the founding fathers, the history of our country, and he is able to point out in such detail their faith, their intention that this should be a country that's unafraid to embrace faith -- his ability to show you through fact after fact, and...it is so overwhelming, it is so powerful -- I mean, he's got more than enough data to prove his argument, and I think that is so important because in today's history classes, so often our students -- our children -- are not learning the real history of our country..."
During Jindal's interview, a number of references were made to David Barton's "Capitol tours." These are "Spiritual Heritage Tours" of the Capitol Building, loaded with the same distorted history as everything else Barton does, and are often held in conjunction with one of Barton's Pastors' Briefings. (The Pastors' Briefing promo video on this page is no longer active, but can still be viewed on YouTube.)
Each of Barton's Capitol tours has to be hosted by a member of Congress, and Barton seems to have no problem finding representatives and senators who are eager to do this. Back in 2005, then Senate majority leader Bill Frist not only scheduled one of these tours, but sent out the following letter, inviting other senators to attend.
Washington, DC, March 31, 2005.
GET A FRESH PERSPECTIVE ON OUR NATION'S RELIGIOUS HERITAGE WITH A SPECIAL TOUR OF THE U.S. CAPITOL
DEAR COLLEAGUE: I am writing to invite you and your family to a private tour of the U.S. Capitol Building with WallBuilders' President, David Barton on Monday, April 11, 2005. The walking tour will commence at my office, S-230 of the U.S. Capitol at 6:00 p.m. and conclude at 7:00 p.m.
David Barton is the founder and President of WallBuilders, a national pro-family organization which distributes historical, legal, and statistical information, and helps citizens become active in their local schools and communities. He is an historian noted for his detailed research into the religious heritage
of our nation. Among some of the interesting facts covered by Mr. Barton:
The U.S. Capitol Building served as a church building for decades.
The first English-language Bible in America was printed and endorsed by the United States Congress.
The original Supreme Court -- composed of numerous signers of the Constitution -- began their sessions with ministers coming in and praying over the Court, the jury, and their deliberations.
You will also learn inspiring stories behind the faces, paintings, and statues in the U.S. Capitol Building and view original documents from George Washington and others (some that are over 400 years old) which are depicted in artwork throughout the Capitol.
If you and your family would like to participate, contact Brook Whitfield in my office at 202-224-0948 or
firstname.lastname@example.org to RSVP.
I look forward to seeing you then.
WILLIAM H. FRIST M.D.,
Majority Leader, U.S. Senate.
Once again, I don't want to digress into particular historical inaccuracies here, but I'm really obsessive about this and just can't bring myself to omit pointing out that Frist's letter, inviting other senators to attend a David Barton tour, actually contained two of Barton's most popular stories. So, again, I'm just going to direct those who want to read more about these distortions to other places where I've written about them. Frist's claim that the first English-language Bible in America was printed by Congress is a lie, debunked in a piece I wrote on Talk2Action. An even more detailed version of this can be found in another free chapter of my book, Chapter 1: Congress and the Bible. Frist's statement that the Capitol Building served as a church building is technically true, but these church services were more social events, and the place where the young men of Washington went to meet girls, than serious religious services, a part of the story left out by David Barton. Accounts of these services, written by people who were there at the time, can be found in one of my Talk2Action posts about Randy Forbes's H. Res. 888, a resolution that also contains a misleading statement about this.
While there are are certainly a disturbing number of members of Congress who either know so little about our country's history that they actually believe David Barton's lies, or, worse yet, know they are lies but are willing to be complicit in perpetuating them to further the far right agenda, at least one senator sees Barton for what he is and has been willing to speak out about him. On April 6, 2005, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) asked Bill Frist to withdraw his invitation to his Barton Capitol tour.
To set the scene of Sen. Lautenberg's remarks below, this was not long after Tom DeLay, referring to the decision of the courts in the Terry Schiavo case, made the statement: "The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior." Not long after this, there had been two incidents -- an Atlanta judge murdered in his courtroom, and the murders of a federal judge's mother and husband in Chicago. These incidents prompted Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) to pose the incredible theory that this violence might be explained by frustration over judges who "are making political decisions yet are unaccountable to the public" and ''make raw political or ideological decisions," and that this "builds up and builds up and builds up to the point where some people engage in violence." The incidents in Atlanta and Chicago, of course, had nothing to do with politics, but this was also around the time that the threat of the "nuclear option" was being used to force the confirmation of Bush's judicial nominees, so no opportunity to spew something about "activist judges" could be passed up, no matter how out of line.
So, what does all of this have to do with Bobby Jindal's buddy David Barton and his tours of the Capitol? Well, it's all about the undermining of the independence of the judiciary, the ultimate goal of people like Barton and his friends in Congress. This isn't about "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance or ten commandments monuments on public property. Those are just issues that can be used to rile people up to gain support for a far more insidious agenda. Revising history to convince the masses that we are a "Christian nation," and that there is a legitimate historical justification for the little things, like the Pledge and commandments monuments, is a necessary tool to get people riled up about them. That Sen. Lautenberg connected the issue of the independence of the judiciary to Bill Frist's invitation to his David Barton Capitol tour is extremely noteworthy.
Sen. Lautenberg began:
"Mr. President, I want to discuss the situation that is developing, questioning the value of the separation of powers, about whether one of the powers has rights that succeed the powers of the other. Particularly, my subject now regards the judiciary and whether it is a free, unencumbered judiciary, as it ought to be."
At this point, Sen. Ted Kennedy remarked, "the Senator from New Jersey is addressing the Senate on a very important issue, the independence of the judiciary," and requested that an editorial from that day's New York Times regarding the statements of DeLay and Cornyn, titled "The Judges Made Them Do It," be entered into the congressional record.
After some additional comments from Sen. Kennedy regarding the physical protection of federal judges, Sen. Lautenberg continued:
"What we see is, I think, the beginning of a firestorm, and the problem is that the fuel is being provided by comments made here and in the other body.
"I start off by reading from article III, section 1 of the U.S. Constitution. It says:
"'The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.'
"It is pretty clear to me. It says judicial power is vested in our courts, not in the Congress. The Constitution gives the Senate a role in the appointment of judges, and we are supposed to provide advice and consent, not direction. But
once a judge is seated on the bench, his or her decisions are not subject to our approval.
"The Founding Fathers, in their brilliance, set it up that way on purpose. They wanted to make sure that court decisions would be based on legal grounds, not political grounds. But today there is an orchestrated effort to smear the reputation of the judiciary, especially Federal judges. And the effort is being waged by Republicans in Congress as a prelude to an attempt to change the rules for confirming judicial nominations.
"In order to justify this nuclear option, they are trying to paint judges as 'activists' and 'out of control.'"
After a few more remarks about the intimidation of judges and the threat of the "nuclear option," Sen. Lautenberg jumped to Bill Frist's invitation:
"I note that a letter was sent out most recently by the distinguished majority leader. It is dated March 31, 2005. He invites colleagues -- it says: ''Get a Fresh Perspective on Our Nation's' -- this is on the majority leader's stationery -- 'Get a Fresh Perspective on Our Nation's Religious Heritage with a Special Tour of the U.S. Capitol.'"
Sen. Lautenberg quoted a few statements about David Barton from other sources, the last of which ended, "Barton's not-so-subtle message is that America's Christian heritage is at risk -- and only voting Republican can save it," then continued, beginning somewhat sarcastically:
"I want those who hear me across America to pay attention: 'Christian heritage is at risk.' That means that all the outsiders, all of those who approach God differently but are people who believe in a supreme being; people who behave and live peacefully with their neighbors and their friends. No, this is being put forward as an attempt -- a not too subtle attempt -- to make sure people understand that America is a Christian country. Therefore, we ought to take the time the majority leader offers us, as Members of the Senate, for a chance to learn more about how invalid the principle of separation between church and state is.
"I hope the American public sees this plan as the spurious attempt it is.
"I ask my colleagues if they want to go to a Christian-only spokesman who will tell us about how insignificant the separation between church and state is.
"The question is fundamental to the Constitution. Are we a country of laws? If we are, then we must respect the law and we must hold the law free from threats.
"How does it feel when one looks at the Federal judge in Chicago who had her husband and her mother murdered because someone disagreed with her legal decision? How do we feel about seeing this guy break loose in Atlanta and kill the judge and a deputy? ... This is not some lawless country where if a judge makes a decision he better run for his life; nor is it Iraq, where those who are upholding the law are getting killed because other people disagree with them. We should not stand for this.
"I ask the majority leader to withdraw that invitation to tour the U.S. Capitol with this man who says that this should be a Christian-only country. How can he dare undermine the principles that are in our brilliant Constitution that was written so many years ago? We are entering a dangerous period, in my view."
So, what could possibly result from a few lies about history and comments about "activist judges" that might conceivably pose any real danger of destroying the constitutional separation of powers, the very bedrock of our system of government?
Well, on May 17, 2005, a little over a month after Sen. Lautenberg tried to stop Bill Frist's David Barton tour, Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) introduced the "Pledge Protection Act," an act that would have removed all cases involving the Pledge of Allegiance from the jurisdiction of any court created by an act of Congress (meaning all federal courts except the Supreme Court), and removed the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court "to hear or decide any question pertaining to the interpretation of, or the validity under the Constitution of, the Pledge of Allegiance...or its recitation."
This act, so clearly an attempt by Congress to usurp the authority of the courts, passed in the House on July 19, 2006, by a vote of 260-167. It's not hard to see how this happened. The emotions evoked by the Pledge of Allegiance clouded the fact that this was an Article III issue, not a First Amendment issue. In fact, Article III was barely mentioned in all the many hours of debate on this bill. It was all about religion and religious freedom.
Not a single representative, including those who opposed the bill, questioned the authority of Congress to remove a constitutional issue from the jurisdiction of the courts. The meaning of the clause of Article III that states that "the Supreme Court shall have appellate jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make" was never even discussed. The assertion that words "exceptions" and "regulations" gave Congress the authority to limit the constitutionally granted appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court was just universally accepted. It didn't dawn on a single representative that if this was really what the framers of the Constitution intended this clause to mean, they wouldn't have had any reason to pass the Eleventh Amendment. That amendment, adopted in 1798, removed from the jurisdiction of the federal courts two of the things that Article III gave the courts jurisdiction over -- suits against a state by citizens of a different state, and suits against a state by citizens of a foreign state. Why, if the words "exceptions" and "regulations" in Article III were meant to give Congress the authority to alter the jurisdiction of the courts by a simple act of Congress, did the founders find it necessary to amend the Constitution when they wanted to do this.
Maybe, if the members of the House hadn't been consumed by the issue being the all-important Pledge of Allegiance, this might have occurred to one of them. Maybe this would have led a few of them to look to the writings of the founders to find out just what was meant by "exceptions" and "regulations." They might have stumbled across Federalist 81, where Alexander Hamilton explained that "regulations" and "exceptions" referred to the authority of Congress to make rules for things such as jury trials in the event that a situation arose in which the Supreme Court had to reexamine the facts of a case. They might have found a very similar explanation in James Madison's speech on the judiciary at the Virginia ratifying convention. And, if they looked really hard, they might even have found James Wilson's example of how Congress's authority to make "exceptions" could prevent an unscrupulous person from turning a state case into a federal case by involving someone in another state for the purpose of causing a hardship to the other party, who might be so inconvenienced by the long journey by horse-drawn carriage to appear before the Supreme Court that they would drop the case. Nowhere, however, would they have found anything even remotely construing these words to mean that Congress could remove the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court over any case arising under the Constitution. But, of course, the House never got around to considering any of this. After all, the Pledge of Allegiance was at risk.
As Sen. Lautenberg said back in 2005, "We are entering a dangerous period," and it will only become more dangerous with the rise of leaders like Bobby Jindal, and a Congress and public so susceptible to the agenda of Christian nationalist masterminds like David Barton.
Disclaimer: As part of my job with the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), I often write as a spokesperson for the foundation. Anything written by me about current or prospective political candidates, however, is my opinion alone, and should not be construed as the opinion of MRFF. As a 501(c)3 organization, MRFF neither endorses nor opposes any political candidate.