Monday, August 24, 2015

David Barton: Christian Reconstructionist

Slate is running an excerpt from Julie Ingersoll's forthcoming book, Building God's Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction.  Ingersoll teaches religious studies at the University of North Florida.  She portrays David Barton, the Christian activist who uses the American past to promote his conservative political agenda, as a follower of the teachings of Rousas John Rushdoony and his Christian Reconstructionist movement.  Here is a taste:

David Barton is also the popularizer of a revisionist history of race in America that has become part of the Tea Party narrative. Drawn in part from the writings of Christian Reconstructionists, that narrative recasts modern-day Republicans as the racially inclusive party, and modern-day Democrats as the racists supportive of slavery and postemancipation racist policies. Barton’s website has included a “Black History” section for some time. 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 biggest promoter, Glenn Beck, manipulate those points, remove all historical context, and add patently false historical claims in order to promote their political agenda. Barton appeared regularly on Beck’s show to disseminate his alternative reading of African American history, carrying with him, as he does, what he claims are original documents and artifacts that he flashes around for credibility.

In June of 2010 I traveled to central Florida to attend a Tea Party event sponsored by the Florida chapter of Beck’s “9–12 Project” held at a Baptist church (with a Christian school that was established in the late 1970s). The church sanctuary was decked in patriotic trimmings, including eight big flags on the wall, bunting all over the altar area, and a collection of small flags on the altar itself. As I waited for the event to begin, I overheard people talking about homeschooling and David Barton’s work on “America’s Christian Heritage,” all while Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” played over the sound system. For those unconvinced of the religious dimensions of at the Tea Party movement, the strain of it exhibited here was indistinguishable from the church-based political organizing efforts of the religious right dating back at least to the 1980s. As each local candidate spoke, it was clear how profoundly conservative, Republican, and Christian (in the religious right sense of Christian) this gathering was.

The event was promoted as a response to charges of racism in the Tea Party movement. The banner at the entrance to the event read: “9–12 Project: not racist, not violent, just not silent anymore.” The pastor of the church introduced the meeting, the Tea Party–supported candidates for local office spoke, and all invoked “Christian American history” and the “religion of the founders.” The “9–12 Project” refers both to post-9/11 America (when “divisions didn’t matter”) and to the “nine principles and twelve values” of the group, initiated and promoted by Beck. The “principles” are a distillation of those in The Five Thousand Year Leap, a 1981 book by Cleon Skousen, which was referenced repeatedly by speakers at the event. The book has long been a favorite for Christian schools and homeschoolers and among Reconstructionists despite the fact that Skousen is a Mormon (perhaps because he is also a strong advocate of the free-market Austrian School of economics). I was surprised to learn that Skousen’s book was enjoying a resurgence in popularity as a result of Beck’s promotion and is available in a new edition with a preface by Beck. The fight over the degree to which America was “founded as a Christian nation” is important in that it is a fight over our mythic understanding of ourselves. That is, it is a fight over the narratives through which Americans construct a sense of what it means to be American and perpetuate that sense through the culture and in successive generations.

Intended to counter the charges of racism made against the Tea Party movement, the main speaker was an African American, Franz Kebreau, from the National Association for the Advancement of Conservative People of all Colors (NAACPC). The event was in a more rural part of Florida than where I live, and I passed a number of Confederate flags on my way there. I expected an all-white crowd making arguments about “reverse discrimination,” libertarian arguments against violations of state sovereignty (especially with the Civil Rights Act), and maybe even some of the “slavery wasn’t as bad as people say” arguments. What I found surprised me. Kebreau gave a detailed lecture on the history of slavery and racism in America: a profoundly revisionist history. In Kebreau’s narrative, racism is a legacy of slavery, but it was a socially constructed mechanism by which people in power divided, threatened, and manipulated both blacks and whites. Many of the pieces of historical data he marshals in favor of this thesis are not unfamiliar to those who have studied this aspect of American history, but they are probably not as well known among Americans in general: some slave owners were black, not all slaves were black, black Africans played a huge role in the slave trade, and very few Southerners actually owned slaves. While at least most of these points are undeniably true, they were presented with a specific subtext: with the goal of lending credence to the view that contemporary critics of racism make too much of America’s history of slavery. In this view, it is Democrats who are primarily responsible for fostering racism to solidify power. Southern Democrats opposed civil rights laws, voting rights, integration, and so on. Northern Democrats fanned racial tensions by promoting social programs that made African Americans dependent on government. Race-baiting demagogues like Jesse Jackson and the Reverend Al Sharpton perpetuate the divisions today.