Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.
Like Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III, who thought he could squirm out of his former life, I thought a few years ago that I was done. That is, so done with the subject of the Texas ideological entrepreneur David Barton. The self-styled historian had developed a one-man heritage industry out of his insistence that the founding fathers had created America as a Christian nation. Long operating in the same kind of alternate intellectual universe in which figures such as the creationist Ken Ham had operated, Barton collected historical documents and research purporting to show America’s divine origins, Christian heritage, and sacred purpose. His endless supply of quotations and impressive personal library of thousands of original documents from the founding era lent him the credibility of being a true scholar, studying the original texts in the way true Christians were to study the Bible. So did his slams at “Deconstructionism, Poststructuralism, Modernism, Minimalism, [and] Academic Collectivism,” terms he uses to mean, basically, “anyone I disagree with.”
To those who followed his organization, WallBuilders, Barton seemed to be to historical original textualism what Antonin Scalia was to legal original textualism. And, as Yoni Applebaum wrote in an incisive piece for the Atlantic, in 2011, Barton proclaimed a “professoriate of all believers,” in the manner of a Reformation-era minister scrutinizing biblical texts. The manner of study, moreover, deified the authors of the original texts, the founding fathers. Who should need the intervention of professional priests—historians, in this case—to provide explanation and context, when the documents clearly spoke for themselves? Hadn’t Washington claimed that “it is impossible to govern the world without God and the Bible?” Well, actually that came from a biographer in the 1830s, who talked to people who remembered Washington saying something, more or less, to that effect. Oh well, whatever, never mind, we just move that to the category of “unattributed quotation.” Within the particular circles that followed Barton, his intellectual eminence was unquestioned.
In short, Barton’s stock-in-trade is to take complicated, messy historical pasts and transform them, John Bunyan-like, into straightforward Christian narratives that meet the needs of the Christian heritage industry. This kind of heritage tourism is to “history” what the Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War was to history—a selective, distorted, but emotionally compelling story of the heroism of the sainted fathers (and mothers) of the past.
Barton emerged more into the public limelight, and became subject to more critical scrutiny, with the rise of the Tea Party, for whom he served in effect as the house historian. And with that scrutiny came the rapid disintegration of his credibility as an historian seeking after truth rather than a partisan looking for a useful past. The list of problems with his historical work is too lengthy to be recounted here, but parts are usefully summarized here. The tipping point seemed to come in the summer of 2012, following the withdrawal by Christian publisher Thomas Nelson of Barton’s book The Jefferson Lies (in which Thomas Jefferson was depicted as a devout Christian who wanted the United States to be a Christian nation).
Responding to the book and to a devastating and thorough demolition of it, I wrote a piece on how David Barton was falling from grace, even among his constituency, explaining that “perhaps the summer of Barton’s discontent suggests a cresting of his influence, and the ability of legitimate writers and scholars of various political persuasions to come together in defense of basic norms of reason and credibility in a way that seems increasingly impossible in the political realm.” I did sense that we had reached peak Barton. It seemed that the well-staffed effort among many scholars, including those who self-identified as Christian and conservative, to warn general readers against the Barton’s propaganda masquerading as scholarship had turned the tide.
Certainly he was not going to go away, but his star seemed to be dimming in the Texas twilight. As it turns out, I was wrong. And so just when I thought I was out, they have pulled me back in.
Last Thursday, Bloomberg Politics reported that David Barton will be heading a super PAC supporting presidential candidate Ted Cruz. Named “Keep the Promise,” the political action committee and its affiliated groups already have a highly successful track record of raising money (reportedly $38 million thus far), second only to Jeb Bush’s super PAC. Keep the Promise issued a statement saying that “Barton’s involvement is an important step signaling that the effort will not be run by a D.C. consultant but by a grassroots activist.”
Given Barton’s close relationship to former Baptist minister Mike Huckabee, some expressed surprise that he had cast his lot so fully with Cruz. But the Texas connection here between Cruz and Barton is strong, and Cruz has made appearances at conferences organized by Barton through his organization WallBuilders. Moreover, in the early primary scrimmaging it appears that Cruz has outmaneuvered Huckabee in securing a place as the frontrunner in the implicit primary of the evangelical right. Cruz is unlikely to move far enough beyond that base to threaten seriously the frontrunners for the nomination, but he is securing a significant stake in the Republican political future.
And Barton has emerged as central to that long game. What might that suggest about the future of the Republican right?
For one thing, it certainly means a doubling down of the Christian Nation rhetoric on which Barton has built has career as an ideological warrior, and on which Cruz (who began his campaign with a much-noted speech at Liberty University in Virginia) is staking his career as a political warrior. That makes perfect sense within the world of securing the activist Republican base, and growing one’s influence within it. Whether it can ever translate much outside of that world remains a question. But the adoption of the rhetoric of religious liberty, in court cases against the Affordable Care Act and elsewhere, seems a promising vehicle to carry this struggle.
But all this may have a more limited valence within that world than the politician Cruz or the ideological entrepreneur Barton may think. For one thing, while Cruz built a reputation earlier in his life as a serious constitutional scholar, Supreme Court clerk for Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and lawyer who made nine appearances before the Supreme Court, his association with Barton threatens to undermine his credibility among serious conservative thinkers and scholars who have dissociated themselves from Barton and urged Christians to do likewise.* The well-connected evangelical scholar John Fea, on his blog, has intimated that he has been receiving messages from veteran Christian conservatives precisely to this effect.
On the other side, Barton will be making an appearance with Huckabee at an event sponsored by “The American Renewal Project” at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth this fall, suggesting his continued networks of influence (not to mention the significant influence of David Lane, one founder of the Project and a Christian right activist within the Republican party). And with his association now with big-time money coming into the super PAC supporting Cruz, the comeback is in full evidence. Barton is making Banquo’s ghost look like a quitter.
Some of that is because of the skill of Barton and WallBuilders at ideological entrepreneurialism. Barton’s intent is not to produce “scholarship,” but to influence public policy. His game is to inundate public policy makers (including local and state education boards as well as Congress) with ideas packaged as products that will move policy. In the past, Barton’s proof-texting, by contrast, supplies ready-made (if sometimes made-up) quotations ready for use in the latest public policy debate, whether they involve school prayer, abortion, supply-side economics, the Defense of Marriage Act, or the capital gains tax. The more recent controversies over religious liberty seem to have provided new issues for the cause. Cruz has an intellectual view ready-made for presenting a position strongly appealing to Christian conservatives on these present-day controversies, and Barton has the historical analogies (some true, many not) to buttress the case.
And so Ted Cruz’s candidacy—along with Hobby Lobby, Kim Davis, and debates over the Affordable Care Act—have given David Barton new life in the public eye, and new political relevance. Cruz brings intellectual credentials and conservative fire to the table, but he also brings a strong faith in original textualism and the desire for his party to nominate a “true conservative.”
The irony, of course, is that Barton’s lack of respect for the contingency and complexity of the past is the opposite of what would be held by any “true conservative.” As long as David Barton has nine (or more) lives, Edmund Burke will be rolling over in his grave. Historians and many thoughtful conservatives want him out, but Barton keeps pulling us back in.
*This sentence has been updated to correct the number of times Ted Cruz has argued before the Supreme Court.