Wednesday, September 16, 2015

David Barton Is "Pulling Us All Back In"

Paul Harvey, one of the deans of the ever-growing field of American religious history, wondered back in 2012 if David Barton's influence among evangelicals and the Republican Party was on the wane due to the failure of his book The Jefferson Lies. 

Here is a taste of what he wrote at Religious Dispatches:

And yet, perhaps the summer of Barton’s discontent suggests a cresting of his influence, and the ability of legitimate writers and scholars of various political persuasions to come together in defense of basic norms of reason and credibility in a way that seems increasingly impossible in the political realm.

Now, about three years later, Harvey laments how Barton still appears to be going strong.

Here is a taste of his recent piece at Religion & Politics:

Last Thursday, Bloomberg Politics reported that David Barton will be heading a super PAC supporting presidential candidate Ted Cruz. Named “Keep the Promise,” the political action committee and its affiliated groups already have a highly successful track record of raising money (reportedly $38 million thus far)...Keep the Promise issued a statement saying that “Barton’s involvement is an important step signaling that the effort will not be run by a D.C. consultant but by a grassroots activist.” 

Given Barton’s close relationship to former Baptist minister Mike Huckabee, some expressed surprise that he had cast his lot so fully with Cruz. But the Texas connection here between Cruz and Barton is strong, and Cruz has made appearances at conferences organized by Barton through his organization WallBuilders. Moreover, in the early primary scrimmaging it appears that Cruz has outmaneuvered Huckabee in securing a place as the frontrunner in the implicit primary of the evangelical right. Cruz is unlikely to move far enough beyond that base to threaten seriously the frontrunners for the nomination, but he is securing a significant stake in the Republican political future. 

And Barton has emerged as central to that long game. What might that suggest about the future of the Republican right? 

For one thing, it certainly means a doubling down of the Christian Nation rhetoric on which Barton has built has career as an ideological warrior, and on which Cruz... is staking his career as a political warrior...Whether it can ever translate much outside of that world remains a question. But the adoption of the rhetoric of religious liberty, in court cases against the Affordable Care Act and elsewhere, seems a promising vehicle to carry this struggle. 

But all this may have a more limited valence within that world than the politician Cruz or the ideological entrepreneur Barton may think. For one thing, while Cruz built a reputation earlier in his life as a serious constitutional scholar, Supreme Court clerk for Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and lawyer who made nine appearances before the Supreme Court, his association with Barton threatens to undermine his credibility among serious conservative thinkers and scholars who have dissociated themselves from Barton and urged Christians to do likewise.* The well-connected evangelical scholar John Fea, on his blog, has intimated that he has been receiving messages from veteran Christian conservatives precisely to this effect. 

On the other side, Barton will be making an appearance with Huckabee at an event sponsored by “The American Renewal Project” at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth this fall, suggesting his continued networks of influence (not to mention the significant influence of David Lane, one founder of the Project and a Christian right activist within the Republican party). And with his association now with big-time money coming into the super PAC supporting Cruz, the comeback is in full evidence. Barton is making Banquo’s ghost look like a quitter. 

Some of that is because of the skill of Barton and WallBuilders at ideological entrepreneurialism. Barton’s intent is not to produce “scholarship,” but to influence public policy. His game is to inundate public policy makers (including local and state education boards as well as Congress) with ideas packaged as products that will move policy. In the past, Barton’s proof-texting, by contrast, supplies ready-made (if sometimes made-up) quotations ready for use in the latest public policy debate, whether they involve school prayer, abortion, supply-side economics, the Defense of Marriage Act, or the capital gains tax. The more recent controversies over religious liberty seem to have provided new issues for the cause. Cruz has an intellectual view ready-made for presenting a position strongly appealing to Christian conservatives on these present-day controversies, and Barton has the historical analogies (some true, many not) to buttress the case. 

And so Ted Cruz’s candidacy—along with Hobby Lobby, Kim Davis, and debates over the Affordable Care Act—have given David Barton new life in the public eye, and new political relevance. Cruz brings intellectual credentials and conservative fire to the table, but he also brings a strong faith in original textualism and the desire for his party to nominate a “true conservative.” 

The irony, of course, is that Barton’s lack of respect for the contingency and complexity of the past is the opposite of what would be held by any “true conservative.” As long as David Barton has nine (or more) lives, Edmund Burke will be rolling over in his grave. Historians and many thoughtful conservatives want him out, but Barton keeps pulling us back in.