2016-07-27
The Republican National Committee is employing the services of a Texas-based activist who believes the United States is a "Christian nation" and the separation of church and state is "a myth."

David Barton, the founder of an organization called Wallbuilders, was hired by the RNC as a political consultant and has been traveling the country for a year--speaking at about 300 RNC-sponsored lunches for local evangelical pastors. During the lunches, he presents a slide show of American monuments, discusses his view of America's Christian heritage -- and tells pastors that they are allowed to endorse political candidates from the pulpit.

Barton, who is also the vice-chairman of the Texas GOP, told Beliefnet this week that the pastors' meetings have been kept "below the radar.... We work our tails off to stay out of the news." But at this point, he says, with voter registration ended in most states and early voting already under way, staying quiet about the activity "doesn't matter."

Barton's main contention is that the separation of church and state was never intended by the nation's founders; he says it was created by the Supreme Court in the 20th Century. The back cover of his 1989 book, "The Myth of Separation," proclaims: "This book proves that separation of church and state is a myth." Barton is also on the board of advisers of the Providence Foundation, a Christian Reconstructionist group that advocates America as a Christian nation. (Click here for an explanation of Reconstructionism.)

In an appearance on D. James Kennedy's radio show, "Truths That Transform," Barton says: "Was America ever a Christian nation? Well, according to the eyewitnesses--yes." And he adds: "I would say if 88% call themselves Christians, I would say, yeah, you probably have a fairly good basis to call it a Christian nation."

In a July 2002 interview on Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network, Barton had the following exchange:

Robertson: "The question is asked, was America founded as a Christian nation? We have said yes, yes, yes. But you have the proof."

Barton: "There is a lot of proof. Not the least of which is a great Fourth of July speech that was given in 1837 by one of the guys who fought in the revolution, who became a president, John Quincy Adams. His question was why is it in America that the Fourth of July and Christmas are the most celebrated holidays? His answer was that at Christmas we celebrate what Jesus Christ did for the world [with] his birth, and on the Fourth of July we celebrate what Jesus Christ did for America, since we founded it as a Christian nation."

The lunches are coordinated by the RNC's evangelical outreach director, Drew Ryun. "He and I make it very clear we are not partisan per se, we're biblical," says Barton. But according to Federal Election Commission filings, Barton has earned $12,000 this year from the RNC for "political consulting." A spokesman for the RNC, Scott Hoganson, did not respond to questions about Barton.

Barton contends that the IRS allows pastors to endorse candidates from the pulpit as long as they make it clear it's their own personal opinion and not an official church endorsement.

In an interview with Beliefnet this week, Barton said, "I show them the historical role of pastors being involved in civil government. I show them the Biblical basis for pastors being involved in civil government, and then I show them the issues that are at stake from a biblical point of view and the voting records that pertain to those [issues]." At that point in his presentation, he passes out a June 10 letter from the Internal Revenue Service explaining what ministers are able to say and do, legally, in their churches.

"They're shocked by what they can do," says Barton.

Barton said prominent evangelical pastors and leaders met with House and Senate leadership in February to complain about a letter the IRS had put out in January. The letter cautioned ministers against talking about anything that someday might become a political issue. According to Barton, the pastors read the letter and said, "My God, what am I, a prophet? How do I know what's going to become a political issue?" As a result, the ministers pressured the Congressional leadership, which, Barton said, in turn "pressured" the IRS to reissue a letter clarifying the rules.

According to Barton's reading of the law, it is legal for a pastor to stand up in the pulpit and say, "'Now look, I'm going to tell you something--and the church didn't vote on this and the elder board hasn't gotten together on it--but I'm telling you, John Kerry is not fit to be president.' He can do that, that's fine. The pastor has the right of free speech, but he cannot bring the corporate machinery to bear."

Meanwhile, says Barton, a pastor can talk about any issue he wants to. If he wants to preach against same-sex marriage or abortion, he can. And he can talk about the voting records of individuals or groups on those matters.

Of course, how a minister describes the issues is what makes the situation tricky. "It's very clear in the party platforms that one party does support traditional marriage and opposes abortion and supports school prayer--and the other opposes that," Barton says. And that makes Republican candidates the obvious choices. "This is your logical home if you're concerned about Biblical issues," Barton says.

In a 1996 critique of Barton's documentary, "America's Godly Heritage," the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs said of Barton: "His presentation has just enough ring of truth to make him credible to many people. It is, however, laced with exaggerations, half-truths, and misstatements of fact."

Barton has said that God influenced his sense of mission. In America: To Pray Or Not To Pray? Barton writes: "In July 1987, God impressed me to do two things. First, I was to search the library and find the date that prayer had been prohibited in public schools. Second, I was to obtain a record of national SAT scores (the academic test given to prospective college-bound high school students) spanning several decades. I didn't know why, but I somehow knew that these two pieces of information would be very important."

As a result, Barton writes that he learned America has declined because of the 1962 and '63 Supreme Court rulings banning school-sponsored prayer. He believes God is angry at the country and has retaliated.

Barton expounds on these views--in somewhat more opaque terms--on the Wallbuilders website. He doesn't specifically call the United States a "Christian nation," but he also doesn't say that it isn't. A typical explanation: "We have received numerous questions from people who have been misled by the claims that are being made, namely, that America was not founded as a Christian nation."

Rob Boston, an official from Americans United for Separation of Church and State called Barton's advice to pastors that they can endorse from the pulpit "inaccurate, misguided, and dangerous. The IRS has never said that. It's also important for religious leaders to remember that Barton is a partisan operative. He doesn't care if a few churches fall prey to the IRS along the way."

In the Beliefnet interview, Barton was heavily critical of Americans United for trying to "intimidate" conservative Christian ministers. But Boston said his organization has also reported three black churches to the IRS since August for endorsing Sen. John Kerry from the pulpit.

"A pox on both their houses," Boston said. "Both parties are trying to politicize houses of worship."