By Robert Downen
The Texas Tribune
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For nearly four decades, Texas activist David Barton has barnstormed statehouses and pulpits across the nation, arguing that the separation between church and state is a myth and that America should be run as a Christian nation.
Now, he’s closer to power than perhaps ever before.
One day after little-known Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana was elected as the new House speaker last week, Barton said on a podcast that he was already discussing staffing with Johnson, his longtime ally in deeply conservative, Christian causes.
"We have some tools at our disposal now (that) we haven't had in a long time," Barton added.
Johnson recently spoke at an event hosted by Barton’s nonprofit, WallBuilders; he’s praised Barton and his “profound influence on me, and my work, and my life and everything I do”; and, before his career as a lawmaker, Johnson worked for Alliance Defending Freedom — a legal advocacy group that has helped infuse more Christianity into public schools and government, a key goal of Barton’s movement.
Barton, who lives in Aledo, has been a staple of Texas’ own Christian conservative movement, offering crucial public support to politicians and frequently being cited or called on to testify in favor of bills that critics say would erode church-state separations — including in front of the Texas Legislature this year.
Johnson’s election — and his proximity to Barton — is a massive victory for a growing Christian nationalist movement that claims the United States’ foundation was ordained by God, and therefore its laws and institutions should favor their brand of Christianity.
“Johnson's rise means that Barton and his fellow Christian nationalists now have unprecedented access to the levers of power on the national stage, paralleling the access they already have here in Texas and some other states,” said David Brockman, a non-resident scholar in religion and public policy at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy.
Barton has spent nearly all of his life in North Texas, save for the few years he spent at Oral Roberts University, an evangelical school in Tulsa, Oklahoma. After graduating with a degree in religious education, he returned to Aledo and worked as a math and science teacher, basketball coach and, later, principal at a K-12 school that grew out of his parent’s Bible study group, according to a 2006 Texas Monthly profile of him.
In 1988, Barton founded his group, WallBuilders, to “exert a direct and positive influence in government, education, and the family by educating the nation concerning the Godly foundation of our country” and “providing information to federal, state, and local officials as they develop public policies which reflect Biblical values,” according to the group’s website.
Since then, Barton has been arguably the most influential figure in a growing movement to undermine the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
Barton claims the clause has been misunderstood. He argues that most of the Founding Fathers were “orthodox, evangelical” Christians, and that it would thus be more accurate to read the establishment clause’s use of the word “religion” as a stand-in for “Christian denomination.”
“We would best understand the actual context of the First Amendment by saying, ‘Congress shall make no law establishing one Christian denomination as the national denomination,’” he has said.
Barton also argues that the country's founders "never intended the First Amendment to become a vehicle to promote a pluralism of other religions.”
In his mind, the wall separating church and state was only meant to extend one way, protecting religion — specifically, Christianity — from the government, but not vice versa.
“‘Separation of church and state’ currently means almost exactly the opposite of what it originally meant,” his group’s website claims.
And he argues that most of what he considers society’s ills — from school shootings, low standardized test scores and drug use to divorce, crime and LGBTQ+ people — are the natural consequences of abandoning the Judeo-Christian virtues, as articulated in his form of Christianity, that he says are the bedrock of the nation’s founding. Sometimes, he’s drawn fire for those views — such as when he said the lack of cure for AIDS was God’s vengeance for homosexuality or when he compared the Third Reich’s “evils'' to the “homosexual lifestyle” in 2017.
Barton, a self-styled “amateur historian,” has for years been debunked and ridiculed by actual historians and scholars, who note that he has no formal training and that his work is filled with selective quotes, mischaracterizations and inaccuracies — critiques that Barton has claimed are mere attacks on his faith. He has been accused of whitewashing the Founding Fathers — particularly, their slave owning — to fit his narrative of a God-ordained nation. He has acknowledged using unconfirmed quotes from historical figures. And Barton’s 2012 book, “The Jefferson Lies,” was so widely panned by Christian academics that it prompted a separate book to debunk all of his inaccuracies, and was later pulled by its Christian publisher because “the basic truths just were not there.”
Despite that, Barton has remained a fixture in conservative Christian circles and Republican Party politics. He served as vice chair of the Republican Party of Texas from 1997 to 2006 and, in 2004, was tapped for clergy outreach by President George W. Bush’s reelection campaign. In 2010, his fellow Texan and prominent conservative personality Glenn Beck praised him as “the most important man in America right now.” Barton was an early and important endorser of Sen. Ted Cruz’s unexpected first win in 2012. And in 2016, Barton ran one of multiple super PACs that were crucial to Cruz’s reelection.
“Having David Barton running the super PAC gives it a lot of validity for evangelicals and pastors,” Mike Gonzalez, the South Carolina evangelical chair for the Cruz for President campaign, told the Daily Beast at the time.
In Texas, Barton has become increasingly instrumental among GOP politicians. He and WallBuilders currently work closely with Rick Green, a former state representative and current leader of Patriot Academy, a Dripping Springs-based group that trains young adults, churches and others how to “influence government policy with a Biblical worldview” and borrows heavily from Barton’s teachings.
Barton has also railed against the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits tax-exempt groups, including churches, from direct political advocacy. And he is frequently called on to support laws that would infuse more Christianity into public life — including in public schools. In May, he and his son, Timothy Barton, testified in favor of a bill — which later failed — that would have required all Texas public school classrooms to display the Ten Commandments.
During the hearing, Barton’s work was praised as “great” by Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels. His theories were echoed by Sen. Mayes Middleton, R-Galveston, who said that church-state separation is “not a real doctrine.” And the bill's sponsor, Sen. Phil King, R-Weatherford, extolled Barton and his son as "esteemed witnesses."
Other prominent Texas Republicans have similarly echoed Barton's views, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has called the United States “a Christian nation” and said “there is no separation of church and state. It was not in the Constitution.”
“We were a nation founded upon not the words of our founders, but the words of God because he wrote the Constitution,” Patrick said last year.
The mainstreaming of Barton’s views has corresponded with a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have allowed for a greater infusion of Christianity into the public sphere, and a burgeoning Christian nationalist movement on the right that was turbocharged by former President Donald Trump and his promise to white evangelicals that “Christianity will have power” should they support him.
February polling from the Public Religion Research Institute found that more than half of Republicans adhere to or sympathize with foundational aspects of Christian nationalism, including beliefs that the U.S. should be a strictly Christian nation. Of those respondents, PRRI found, roughly half supported having an authoritarian leader who maintains Christian dominance in society. Experts have also found strong correlations between Christian nationalist beliefs and opposition to immigration, racial justice and religious diversity.
Johnson’s election to House Speaker shows how normalized such beliefs have become, said Amanda Tyler, the executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for a strong wall between government and religion. She noted that some Republicans — including U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, have embraced the title of Christian nationalist in recent years.
Tyler said that Johnson’s views are particularly concerning because of his background as both a Southern Baptist and as a constitutional lawyer. Baptists, she noted, have a long history of advocacy for strong church-state separations because of the persecution they faced during the country’s founding — a stance that she said Johnson has betrayed throughout his legal and political career.
“He has worked actively for these principles that further Christian nationalism,” Tyler said. “I am also a Baptist, and to see someone who is a Baptist really reject foundational concepts of religious freedom for all — concepts which are really core to what it means to be a Baptist — is also very disheartening.”
Johnson played a central role in attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election by crafting a legal brief that was signed by more than 100 U.S. House Republicans in support of a lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton that sought to have election results thrown out in four swing states by President Joe Biden.
At the same time that he was aiding the legal charge to overturn the 2020 election, Johnson was also cultivating closer ties to figures in the New Apolostolic Reformation, a fast-growing movement of ultraconservative preachers, televangelists, self-described prophets and faith healers who abide by the “Seven Mountains Mandate” — a Christian nationalist-adjacent theology that says Christians must fulfill a divine mandate to rule over all seven aspects of society (family, religion, education, media, entertainment, business, and government) in order to usher in the "end times."
Driven by that theology, New Apolostic Reformation figures played major roles in the lead up to the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, combining Trump’s lies about a stolen election with claims that they were engaged in “spiritual warfare” with their political enemies and, thus, extreme and anti-democratic measures were not only necessary, but God-ordained.
Disclosure: Rice University, Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy and Texas Monthly have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.
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