News that Christian publisher Thomas Nelson had decided to pull David Barton’s latest book, the Jefferson Lies, catapulted another major figure of the religious right into the public consciousness. Like Dan Cathy, Barton has been known to evangelical Christians for years. Think of him as the Ken Ham of US history: an apologist for an alternative reality that enshrines American exceptionalism as the manifestation of God’s work on earth. In Barton’s version of history, Thomas Jefferson professed orthodox Christianity, never raped his slaves, and mandated Christian worship services in the US Capitol. It is a version of history so far removed from fact that it has come under attack from other conservative Christian historians. Yet Barton’s influence in the evangelical world clearly dwarfs whatever power these genuine historians wield. He is a prolific writer and the history he tells is exactly the sort of mythology necessary to sustain the existence of America’s religious. For this reason, TIME has named him one of America’s 25 most influential evangelicals, and he enjoys his own personal webpage at the Southern Poverty Law Center, where he is listed as one of the leading figures of the contemporary radical right.
Barton’s credentials as a historian have been repeatedly shredded. It’s common knowledge that he holds only a bachelor’s degree in Christian Education from conservative Oral Roberts University, and therefore possesses no training whatsoever as a professional historian. But this lack of credentials appeals to a right wing movement that associates intellectualism with secularism and leftist bias. That is exactly why universities like Oral Roberts (and my own alma mater exist). They’re ostensibly a sanctuary from secularist brainwashing. It’s also why the homeschool movement is dominated by evangelical families that rely on books published by institutions like Bob Jones University and Pensacola Christian College. The version of history taught in these books mimics Barton’s work: America is a Christian nation, and liberalism has perverted it. The fact that this a minority view, considered discredited by mainstream historians, only bolsters evangelical support for it. Barton is a prophet, crying out in America’s liberal wilderness.
You can consider Barton, and his organization Wallbuilders, directly analogous to Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis. Neither actually possesses any credentials in their fields and both enjoy positions of respect because they act as the public faces of the religious right’s alternative to academia. They legitimize the evangelical movement and promote it in the political sphere: Barton has been active with the Texas GOP, and acted as an “expert consultant” to the Texas School Board. That same school board voted to approve changes to the state social studies curriculum that included the claim that the Founding Fathers were Christians.
Despite the controversy over the Jefferson Lies, the religious right will not abandon David Barton. It needs him to legitimize itself. It does not matter how times his books are debunked, any more than it has ever mattered that Ken Ham’s version of biology can be torn apart by anyone with a high school diploma. These controversies merely reinforce the right’s perception that it is a martyred movement, ordained to struggle because of its adherence to “traditional values.” These are the roots of Chik fil A Appreciation Day and statements like this. It’s why, as a veteran of homeschooling and private Christian education, I had to reteach myself history. It’d how I made it to graduate school without ever sitting through a basic lesson in evolutionary theory. If that disturbs you, I urge you to educate yourself about Barton and his version of America, because education is the best defense against the movement he represents.