It's been quite a dramatic few days in the Ben Carson campaign, what with him comparing women who have abortions to slave owners and suggesting that the government monitor the speech of college professors among about a dozen other inflammatory comments, all delivered in his trademark somnambulant style. People seem to be surprised that someone so pious and so intelligent could be so misinformed, if not outright ignorant of basic concepts of our democratic system. But they really shouldn't be. This sort of misunderstanding is common among the evangelical set Carson travels in. And there is one particular "mentor" among them who bears much of the responsibility.
David Barton is a self-styled historical revisionist who has made it his life's work to instill in doctrinaire conservative Evangelicals and fundamentalists that America was founded as an explicitly Christian nation -- that, in fact, it was designed to be a theocracy. (The formal term for his belief system is Christian reconstructionist.) He has written books, given speeches, traveled around the world giving advice on history and government, and he is close to many prominent conservative politicians, preachers, pundits and thought leaders. He runs an organization called Wallbuilders which is "dedicated to presenting America's forgotten history and heroes, with an emphasis on the moral, religious, and constitutional foundation on which America was built." He is one of the most influential "thinkers" in the conservative movement.
Julie Ingersol wrote a full exposé of Barton here at Salon recently, which shows exactly how widely his very strange belief system is shared among right wingers in both religious and political circles. I first became of aware of Barton during the weird Tea Party moment back in 2010 when Glenn Beck was holding rallies on the Washington Mall and talking to puppets on his TV show every night. Beck styles himself as something of a history buff and was very taken with Barton's revisionist Christian nationalism. He particularly enjoyed the tale Barton tells about the "black-robed regiment" of preachers who fought in the Revolutionary War. Barton described them this way on Becks show:
The Black Brigade or Black Regiment were the preachers, because they wore black robes. Black preachers, white preachers — they all wore black robes. And the British specifically blamed the preachers for the American Revolution. That's where the title "Black Regiment" came from. One of the British officials talked about that.
It's interesting that the British so hated what the preachers — they claim if it hadn't been for the preachers, America would still be a happy British colony. So they blamed it on the preachers.
When they come to America, they start to decimating churches. They went to New York City. Nineteen churches — they burned 10 to the ground. They went across Virginia burning churches. They went across New Jersey burning churches. Because they blamed these preachers.
Actually, the British did not blame preachers for the American revolution. They did hold the preachers in contempt for preaching revolution from the pulpit and they did call them the "black robed regiment" as an epithet along the lines of "5th column." The idea that the revolution was a religious war is daft. But it serves as the foundation for Barton's ahistorical view that the country was founded as an explicitly Christian nation.
There are no lengths to which Barton will not go to "prove" that the founders were divinely inspired Christians:
"Did you know the Founding Fathers had extensive writings on the problems with evolution and why creationism was right?" Barton asked. "You think evolution came in with Darwin? No, no, no. Everything Darwin argued had been established 500 years B.C. All Darwin did was take all the evolutionary thought that was out there and put it in one book to make it really easy to read. That wasn't original thinking by Darwin. It was there by 500 B.C. That's why the Founding Fathers had huge writings on evolution and creation"
The man who said that is considered to be among the most influential Evangelical teachers and writers in America. Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said about him:
“I almost wish that there would be, like, a simultaneous telecast, and all Americans would be forced–forced at gunpoint no less–to listen to every David Barton message, and I think our country would be better for it. I wish it’d happen.”
The "forced at gunpoint" was a nice touch. Apparently, it's much more satisfying to impose religion on people rather than have them take it voluntarily.
Ok, so David Barton is something of a crank and he's a pernicious influence on the evangelical right. But what to make of the of the fact that he is now running a very fat presidential Super PAC? And it's not Huckabee, Santorum or Carson's. It's Ted Cruz's Keep the Faith super PAC which has been very richly funded by Texas fracking billionaires and a wealthy energy magnate who lives in Puerto Rico. The frackers are also followers of David Barton:
The Wilks brothers’ worldview, hinted at in their statements above, is grounded at least in part in the theology taught in the church founded by their father, at which Farris is now a pastor. In his sermons, Farris Wilks quotes Christian-nation “historian” David Barton, denounced government social spending as socialism, warned that tolerance of “sexual perversion” and abortion “could bring about the end of our nation,” and declared in response to Barack Obama’s re-election as president, “I do believe that our country died that Tuesday night, to all that’s honorable, that’s good, that’s ambitious, and that has justice.”
They certainly seem like level headed fellows. And then there's Cruz's dear old dad Pastor Rafael, a Barton true believer, and major headliner on the evangelical speaking circuit. He believes, as Barton does, that the Declaration and the Constitution were handed down directly from God. He says, "They were written on the knees of the Framers. These were men of God seeking revelation from God, and that’s what they got.”
(In reality, some of them were atheists, others were Deists, and all were inspired by the Enlightenment. If there was any Divine inspiration it was undocumented, except in Barton's fertile imagination.)
Barton's "history" has been repeatedly rebutted by academics and even conservative Christian scholars. His publisher withdrew his book on Jefferson when it was revealed to be made up from whole cloth. But none of that matters to the right wing true believers. His founding myth is much more comfortable for them than all that crazy Enlightenment stuff about reason and progress and rational inquisition that informed the real American revolution.
But Barton is useful to politicians for more than just his appeal to the pious poor and saintly middle class. He provides a very convenient rationale for allegedly devout Christian millionaires to justify their greed as well. He doesn't just rewrite the Constitution for them. He rewrites the Bible too:
Barton argues that the Bible, indeed God Himself, opposes minimum wage laws, capital gains taxes and progressive income taxes. He defines the free enterprise system—which he believes is “the economic system set forth in numerous passages in the Bible”—as “one in which ‘prices and wages are determined by unrestricted competition between businesses, without government regulation,’” and sees any policies that penalize productivity and profits as “a completely unBiblical system.”
Hiring Barton to run a Super PAC makes a little more sense now, doesn't it?
There is no doubt that Mike Huckabee admires him greatly, that Glenn Beck promotes him constantly, that he is the source of much of Ben Carson's wild misinformation (whether directly or though Beck and other sources), and that he is very intimately involved with Ted Cruz's campaign. If you wonder where these presidential candidates, and a good number of GOP politicians at all levels, have come up with this surreal alternative history that bears no relationship to reality, look no further than David Barton. He is the most influential right wing crackpot in American politics today. And that's saying something.