Why do millions of people support a discredited writer adamant to prove America is inextricably linked to Christianity?
David Barton wants you to know that America is a Christian nation. He has been making that point for two decades in speeches, books, pamphlets, and videos, in which he claims to unearth the forgotten history of the nation's founding. He has, in the process, amassed a large and loyal following. But it is the praise lately showered upon him by presidential aspirants Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, and Michele Bachmann that has brought him into the public eye.
In the last week, he has been featured on the front page of the New York Times and on the Daily Show. The week before, Mother Jones and Religion Dispatches took their shots, and People for the American Way updated its indictment.
Barton's errors, exaggerations, and elisions have been exhaustively cataloged; no credible historian defends his work or his conclusions. And yet millions continue to find his message compelling. Why do they trust him?
Barton himself provides an answer on his organization's website:
The heart of our educational work, and that which makes WallBuilders so unique, is our library of rare books. We have collected thousands of first-edition works of our Founding Fathers -- including their own handwritten documents -- and it is primarily in these original sources that we conduct our research.
This emphasis on primary sources is the cornerstone of Barton's pitch. He explained to Jon Stewart that he is in the business of "historical reclamation," adding that he has "about a hundred thousand documents from before 1812." He took the Times reporter on a tour of his library, showing off his volumes and their yellowed pages. And he uses these documents to brush aside complaints that he lacks any formal academic training in history. "I don't have a doctorate in that, no," he told Stewart. "I've got a lot of documents ... and what I got taught and what I've seen in the actual documents aren't the same thing."