Thursday night, author and speaker David Barton came to Rapid City to give a presentation at the South Dakota Family Policy Council’s “Fire Up” event.
Barton is Founder and President of WallBuilders, an organization that presents America’s forgotten history and heroes, with an emphasis on our moral, religious and constitutional heritage.
In an exclusive interview before the event, I asked Barton a few questions about the Christian heritage of our nation, how it has come to be covered up and forgotten, and where we are today.
We hear the common claim that most of America’s founders were not really Christians but were in fact deists. How many of the founders were actually deists?
You have to define the term. The dictionary definition of the term “deist” in America’s first dictionary is radically different from what it is today. Really, none of them fit the term “deist” today. When you look it up today you’ll find that “agnostic” and “atheist” are synonyms for deist. At best, today’s definition of “deist” would be one who believed in the great clock-maker, and that he winded up that clock and took off, don’t pray because he’s not going to answer. Maybe Thomas Paine would fit that. Franklin would not; Franklin’s autobiography actually has hymns of praise to God for answering his prayers. Jefferson was very regular in prayer, but a deist is not going to pray because no one is going to hear them. In that sense you could probably put Thomas Paine, Charles Lee, Henry Dearborn, and maybe Ethan Allen.
So take 250 founding fathers, the 56 signers of the Declaration, the 55 that did the Constitution, take Washington’s 17 major generals, his 84 generals, take 13 states and their governors, and out of maybe 400 guys you could find maybe four or five.
Among all the people today pushing the revisionist picture of our history that most of the founders were deists, that America was not founded on Christian principles, how many of those do you believe are merely ignorant of the facts and are only parroting other misinformation they’ve heard, and how many actually know better and are intentionally trying to distort history?
I think there’s a lot of both. I was involved in writing an academic book with three other professors. They said there is no question that America’s founders weren’t religious, because Thomas Jefferson started the first secular university, wouldn’t allow chaplains and such. But I said that’s interesting because I have here the original ads for the University of Virginia that ran in the newspaper. The ads were signed by the chaplain and there were about nine or ten specific things Thomas Jefferson did to make sure every student had a religious activity. These professors were shocked and said, “That’s not what we were taught.”
What’s happened is that today’s professors are so much into peer review that they quote each other but nobody goes back and looks at the original documents. So it was really embarrassing to these three professors that I pulled out a single document, just a newspaper ad from 1838 or thereabouts and they were just floored. So I find that a lot are just ignorant, they don’t know any better.
On the other side you have professors like [Isaac] Kramnick and [R. Laurence] Moore out of Cornell who did the book called “The Godless Constitution.” Their position is that all the guys were atheists, agnostics and deists. In the back of the book I love what they say because in the back section where the footnotes are supposed to be, they have a single line that says,”We have dispensed with the usual scholarly apparatus of footnotes.” So you have two PhD’s who say, we’re not going to document anything we say. That’s pure, hard-core revisionism.
A current book that’s out called “The Maxims of George Washington” was originally done in 1854 and reprinted in 1987. In the original version, [Fredrick] Schroeder had all the people who knew Washington introduce each section so his political maxims, his military maxims, his government maxims, his moral maxims, and when it gets to religion he had all these guys like his pastor who said Washington was a strong Christian, had John Marshall, Justice of the Supreme Court, who said Washington was a big Christian. But when they did the 1987 reprint, they took that page out of the book and they replaced it with a page written by a professor who said that Washington was like all the other deists among the founding fathers.
Now you had all these eyewitnesses that said he was a Christian and now you have a professor who says, “No, he was a deist”? That’s deliberate. I mean there’s no way that as an editor you can see that done and not know something’s wrong.
I would say probably 90% is ignorance. I mean that not in a disrespectful sense, but that they just don’t know. It’s innocent ignorance.
Given how immersed the founders were in the Christian worldview and the Christian belief system, do you think they could have envisioned our modern culture where those foundations are largely forgotten?
I think they could have envisioned it, but I don’t think they could imagine it. I make the distinction because Washington, John Jay made similar statements that God has put in our hands to have the right direction, and they couldn’t ever believe we’d depart from it; stewardship is too easy.
I think we really goofed it up starting in the 1920s, and it was the church that did it.
That brings me to my next question: how do you think we got to the point where we currently find ourselves?
I’ll point to several things. In 1859 you had the Origin of Species, and I don’t know why people think Darwin was the father of evolution because all he did was take 2,300 years of evolutionary thought and simplify it. But for the next 20 years the church had real trouble with that. In about 1879 you’ll find major splits in most denominations, and the splits started saying, “Well, we’re not sure about the Bible and science and the culture, but we do know God wants people saved so we’re going to go preach the Gospel.” The other side said, “No, the Bible is right; science will come around.” This side said the Bible is fundamental to everything in life: media, culture, science.
Following that you had three major political setbacks in the 1920s. Those setbacks start with the repeal of prohibition, which was a direct slap at the church. You have the Scopes “Monkey” Trial, which was the trial that essentially lost the war, the media beat the dickens out of us and made Christians look like dummies. And the third one was actually the election of Herbert Hoover. Christians like Billy Sunday campaigned all across America in whistle stop tours. Hoover gets elected, the depression comes, and the critics said, “Look what you Christians did; you caused the depression. You Christians need to stay out of politics.”
About that time we stared pulling our kids out of the pulpit, “Kids, you want to do something good for God? Be a pastor, be a missionary, but don’t be anything in education, law or politics. So we bailed out. So in bailing out, somebody has to fill those arenas, and they got filled.
There are really five p0wer centers in any culture, and we gave up for and a half of them. We gave up media and entertainment, we gave up government which is the judiciary and law, we gave up education, and we gave up business. What we still had left was pulpit, and we essentially gave up half of that. We’ve taken the Great Commission to be a mandate for salvation, when the Great Commission says to teach them everything I taught you. Jesus has economic teachings, he has social teachings, government teachings, but we don’t do that.
But getting any institution back takes 30 or 40 years, and that’s where we are now.
That leads into my last question: what can be done to bring our society back to a recognition and understanding of those values?
It happens through long-term solutions. There are no quick fixes. It’s always trans-generational when it’s lasting, and that’s where we lost it. How do we get it back? That’s literally what I’m going to talk about tonight.