David Barton, Glenn Beck’s favorite history “professor,” is the creator and purveyor of a revisionist history of race in America that is rapidly gaining traction in conservative and Tea Party circles. That history, drawn in part from the writings of Christian Reconstructionists, recasts modern-day Republicans as the racially inclusive party, and modern-day Democrats as the racists supportive of slavery and post-Emancipation racist policies.
Barton frames the details for maximum impact on contemporary politics, to an increasingly growing audience. Like Barton’s larger revisionist effort to develop and perpetuate the narrative that America is a “Christian nation,” the “Republicans-are-really-the-party-of-racial-equality” narrative is not entirely fictive. Some historical points Barton makes are true; but he and his star pupil Beck manipulate those points along with false historical claims in order to promote their political agenda.
Barton’s narrative is gaining a hearing. Three months ago, Barton appeared on Beck’s show to talk about “Black Heroes of American History,” carrying with him, as he usually does, what he claims are original documents and artifacts to flash around for credibility. (Barton is regularly on Beck’s show on “Founder’s Fridays,” which this show was a segment of.) And now this Saturday, Beck will hold his “Restoring Honor” rally bringing together Tea Party Patriots, Freedom Works, the 9-12 Project, the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, and others at the Lincoln Memorial. Beck has announced very few details, though Sarah Palin will join Beck and Barton as a special guest, as will Martin Luther King Jr.’s niece and Director of African American Outreach for Priests for Life Alveda King.
While Beck initially promoted the event as a non-political effort to return to the values of “the Founders,” he claims he only realized later that he scheduled it on the anniversary, and in the same location, of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. He suggested that while he did not realize the significance of the date, God might have had a hand in the coincidence. Beck has received much criticism for both the timing and his credit to the Almighty.
Beck fancies himself a contemporary King “reclaiming the civil rights movement,” exemplified by his pledge not to “sit in the back of the bus.” While he has been widely mocked for drawing this parallel, it’s less recognized, however, how he’s doing it on a foundation laid by David Barton and his revisionist history; which relies in part of the work of Reconstructionist R.J. Rushdoony.
More Barton Revisionist History
In his essay “The Founding Fathers and Slavery,” Barton quotes extensively from the writings of the founders and claims that many of them were abolitionists. He maintains that the overwhelming majority of the founders were “sincere Christians” who thought American slavery was “unbiblical,” blamed England for imposing the institution on the colonies, and set in motion the processes to end it.
But as with his “Christian American History,” scholars dispense with these claims. According to historian Diana Butler Bass, the few white Christians in the 18th century who thought slavery was unbiblical were mostly women. She said, “It was nearly universally accepted by white Christian men that the Bible taught, supported, or promoted slavery and it was rare to find a leading American intellectual, Christian or otherwise, who questioned the practice on the basis that it was ‘unbiblical.’ Some intellectuals thought it was counter to the Enlightenment.”
And historian Mark Noll argues that the reverse of Barton’s view with regard to the British is correct: evangelicals in the Church of England, not in America, argued slavery violated the Bible. Again, according to Bass, “the American biblical argument against slavery did not develop in any substantial way until the 1830s and 1840s. Even then, the anti-slavery argument was considered liberal and not quite in line with either scripture or tradition.”
In another essay, Barton compares Republican and Democratic party platforms from 1840 to 1964—the period before Southern Democrats who blocked civil rights legislation began switching to the Republican Party. In his telling, the modern Republican Party is the party more favorable to African-Americans because Republicans led the fight against slavery and for civil rights: from the formation of the Republican Party as the “anti-slavery party” and the “election of Abraham Lincoln as the first Republican President,” to the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, the passage of civil rights laws during Reconstruction, and the election of blacks to office.
Barton writes that while the Democratic Party platform was defending slavery, “the original Republican platform in 1856 had only nine planks—six of which were dedicated to ending slavery and securing equal rights for African-Americans.” Democrats, on the other hand, supported slavery and then sought to ban blacks from holding public office; limit their rights to vote with poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and general harassment and intimidation; and establish legal segregation under Jim Crow laws.
Barton takes issue with framing the history as “Southerners” fighting for racist policies, because “just one type of Southern whites were the cause of the problem, Southern racists whites.” Rather, he argues, we should, lay the responsibility for racism at the feet of Democrats:
Current writers and texts addressing the post-Civil War period often present an incomplete portrayal of that era… To make an accurate portrayal of black history, a distinction must be made between types of whites. Therefore, (it would be) much more historically correct—although more “politically incorrect”—were it to read: Democratic legislatures in the South [instead of just “Southerners”] established whites-only voting in party primaries.
Because he says very little about contemporary Democrats, it’s clear that Barton’s purpose is to connect them with the racist Southern Democrats, while completely ignoring the relationship of contemporary Republicans with the racist South.
Most glaringly, the Republican “Southern strategy” is entirely missing from Barton’s account of the parties’ political strategies with regard to race. From the Johnson administration through the Nixon and Reagan campaigns, Republican strategists effectively used race as the original “wedge issue.” Southern Democrats would not support efforts by the national party to secure civil rights for African Americans. By focusing on specific issues regarding race (like segregation), Republicans split off voters who had traditionally voted for Democrats. The contemporary “states’ rights” battle cry at the core of the conservative movement and tea party rhetoric is rooted in this very tactic.
Barton and Beck want to rewrite American history on race and slavery in order to whitewash (pardon the term) the founders’ implication in it and blame it and subsequent racism on the Democrats. But Barton’s rewriting of the history of the founding era and the civil rights movement alone doesn’t quite accomplish that. He has to lower the bar even more and make slavery itself seem like it wasn’t quite as bad as we might think. And for that, he turns to Stephen McDowell of the Reconstructionist-oriented Providence Foundation.
The Christian Reconstructionist Connection
Barton’s Wallbuilders Web site promotes a collection of “resources on African American History.” Much of the material is written by Barton himself but one of the essays is McDowell’s, drawn almost entirely from Rushdoony’s work in the early 1960s.
McDowell’s discussion of slavery, written in 2003, comes from Rushdoony’s more familiar Institutes of Biblical Law. He attributes his views to Rushdoony and uses precisely the language that Rushdoony used as early as the 1960s. Rushdoony’s writings on slavery are often cited by his critics who have not read his work widely and who are looking for attention-grabbing quotes. The few writers who have looked closely at what Rushdoony did and did not say about slavery have been his supporters trying to downplay the more shocking elements. They often try to argue that Rushdoony is mischaracterized by those who assert that he supported slavery. The reality is that Rushdoony did argue that some forms of slavery are permitted by biblical law. While criticizing American slavery as violating a number of biblical requirements, however, he did not view it as inherently immoral.
By promoting McDowell, and by extension Rushdoony, Barton promotes a “biblical worldview” in which slavery is in some circumstances acceptable. This worldview (like his discussion of the three-fifths rule, which minimizes the rule’s dehumanization of slaves) diminishes the dehumanization of slavery in general by explicitly arguing that God condones it in certain circumstances. Moreover, Rushdoony’s issues with American slavery had to do with its lack of compliance with biblical law, rather than with the morally reprehensible nature of it.
Rather the discussing slavery as a moral issue, McDowell argues it is tightly regulated, though not forbidden in the Bible, and that American Southern slavery was not “biblical” slavery because it was race-based and enforced. However, he also argues that there are two forms of biblically permissible, voluntary slavery: indentured servitude in which “servants were well treated and when released, given generous pay,” and slavery in which, in exchange for being taken care of, one might choose to remain a slave. Moreover, he maintains that the Bible permits two forms of involuntary slavery: “criminals” who could not make restitution for their crimes could be sold into slavery and “pagans,” who can be made permanent slaves. “Pagans,” in this view of the Bible, would be those not in “covenant” with the God of Israel, and by extension today, those who are not Christians (in a narrow, Reconstructionist-defined sense). McDowell is explicit that race-based kidnapping and enforced slavery are unbiblical. In fact, they are punishable by death, again all of this coming directly from the Institutes of Biblical Law.
Still, though, like Rushdoony, McDowell dismisses the role of slavery in the Civil War. The major point of dispute between North and South, they argue, was “centralism,” that is, the increasing centralization of power in the federal government, an argument frequently echoed today by the “states’ rights” agitators and 10th Amendment tea partiers. In one essay, Barton parts company with Rushdoony and McDowell over the significance of slavery as a cause of the Civil War. However, echoing Rushdoony, Barton insists that a continued discussion of slavery is a tool used for political power, with Barton arguing that Democrats use it to foster white guilt and black anger, all while he paints the Republicans as the upright defenders of justice.
The historical revisionism with regard to race in America that is increasingly gaining a hearing in the Tea Party movement (thanks to Glenn Beck and activists such as Frantz Kebreau) is rooted in Barton’s and Wallbuilders’ writings, which, including McDowell’s, have been deeply influenced by Rushdoony.
Wallbuilders’ reliance on Reconstructionist works is an excellent example of Rushdoony’s meandering influence throughout the religious right. Rushdoony outlined an early version of Christian American history, and an argument in favor of “Christian revisionism,” as early as 1964. He argued for the use of the Bible as the only source of authority. He developed a critique of federal “centralism” in favor of states’ rights, he laid the philosophical basis for unraveling the public school system in favor of Christian schools and home schools, and helped insure the legal basis for those alternative forms of education in the courts. He developed “biblical” arguments against government “welfare,” taxation beyond the 10% in the Bible, and against socialism and communism. Many of these positions are embraced by activists in today’s tea party—thanks to Glenn Beck, his “university,” and his upcoming rally in Washington.