Controversial Texan behind decades of attacks on church-state wall

Opposition to the principle of separation of church and state appears to be a “retread” of a decades-old argument promoted by controversial Texas activist David Barton. according to the Religion News Service.

In 1988, Barton founded WallBuilders, a group committed to “presenting America’s forgotten history and heroes, emphasizing the moral, religious and constitutional foundations on which America was built – a foundation which in recent years has been seriously attacked and undermined.”

The wall builders website further states that, “In agreement with what has been so accurately stated by George Washington, we believe that ‘the [favorable] one can never expect smiles from heaven on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and law that heaven itself has ordained.

In the early 1990s, the Reverend Jerry Falwell, founder of Liberty University and co-founder of the Moral Majority, touted a book by Barton called “The Myth of Separation.” Shortly after, Falwell said on his TV show, “Let everyone know that this separation of church and state affairs is wrong.

Although the idea may not have come from Barton, Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a historian and professor of history at Calvin University, said he was “hugely influential in evangelical spaces, and has been for ages. decades”.

Barton served as Vice Chairman of the Republican Party of Texas from 1997 to 2006. He served as an adviser to the Republican National Committee in the 2004 presidential election to woo evangelicals. He was quoted and praised by conservative lawmakers and politicians, including Ted Cruz. In 2016, Barton’s PAC endorsed Cruz for president before ultimately backing Asset.

Barton continued to exert influence in Republican circles during the Trump administration. One of Trump’s religious advisers, Texas pastor Robert Jeffress, delivered a sermon on “Freedom Sunday” titled “America is a Christian nation” that rejected the notion of separation of church and religion. ‘State. When the church celebrated Freedom Sunday again three years later, Jeffress enlisted David Barton to deliver the sermon directly, and presented him as a “patriot and a prophet of God”.

According to the Religious News Service, Barton bases his justification on a letter of 1802 written by Thomas Jefferson, then president, at the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut.

Jefferson’s letter assures Baptists that the “Establishment Clause” in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution creates a “wall of separation between church and state,” when it asserts that Congress shall “do no law respecting the establishment of a religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. »

Barton argues that the “wall of protection” envisioned by Jefferson and the Founding Fathers was intended to work in one direction only: to prevent government intrusion into religious affairs, and that it applied primarily to the federal government, not to the states. The WallBuilders website argues that “’separation of church and state’ currently means almost the exact opposite of what it originally meant.”

Historians to disagree, noting that Jefferson was an avid reader of Baron Montesquieu and Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke. In the The Spirit of Laws (1748), Montesquieu advocates tolerance of religious beliefs and freedom of worship. Bolingbroke discarded the divinity of scripture and a religious basis for the law in his writings.

Whig writer James Burgh, author of Political unrest and Crito, spoke out against religious establishments, warning against “a church taking too much power into its own hands and turning religion into a mere engine of the state.” In Crito, Burgh argued for the construction of “an impenetrable wall of separation between sacred and civil things”. Scholars believe so was probably the source for Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists, in which he uses the same metaphor.

Barton’s writings have drawn much criticism. After Falwell delivered his anti-separationist rant, Americans United for Separation of Church and State rebutted his arguments. “David Barton is the source of a lot of Christian nationalist misinformation,” said Andrew Seidel, current vice president of Americans United.

Jefferson’s letter to Danbury Baptist Association appeared in 1947 Supreme Court case Everson v. Board of Education, where judges ruled that the Establishment Clause of the US Constitution applied to the states. “The First Amendment erected a wall between church and state,” the court said. “This wall must be kept high and impregnable. We couldn’t approve of any infraction.

The court’s interpretation has been the prevailing opinion among jurists and has been supported by public opinion. According to a Pew Research Survey October 202155% of Americans are “Church-State Separatists,” and another 18% hold “mixed” views on the subject. Barton has been brand as a “false historian”, and one of his books, “The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson”, was so widely criticized by reputable historians that its Christian publisher halted publication in 2012 because “the basic truths just weren’t there.”

Jerry B. Hatch