John has been an active public historian during his tenure at Messiah. He has confronted the historian misadventures of David Barton and Eric Metaxas. I became acquainted with John in 2011 when I first started to fact check David Barton’s historical claims. Not long after that, he endorsed Getting Jefferson Right, my book with Michael Coulter that addressed many claims in David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies. Along with my history professor colleagues at Grove City College, John is one of several historians who have helped me along the way.
I believe historians doing history properly can provide our nation an extraordinary service. We need to know our rights and the heritage of free speech and protest. What does the Consitution say and what took place when the framers debated that document? Without full context, people are vulnerable to ideologues who selectively use historical events and quotes to create what John calls a “usable past,” a past which supports their current political aims.
As an evangelical, John has special focus on evangelicals in public life. He coined the term “court evangelical” to refer to evangelical leaders who fawn over Donald Trump and never hold him accountable. John provides a valuable overview of this concept in the interview. I hope you benefit from it.
JohnFea is Distinguished Professor of American History at Messiah University in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, where he has taught since 2002.
John’s essays and reviews on the history of American culture have appeared in The Journal of American History, The Atlantic, Inside Higher Ed, The William and Mary Quarterly, The Journal of the Early Republic, Sojourners, Christianity Today, Christian Century,The Washington Post, USA Today, He blogs daily at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, a blog devoted to American history, religion, politics, and academic life.
John has lectured widely and speaks regularly to churches, school and teacher groups, civic groups, and historical societies. He appeared on NBC News, CNN, C-SPAN, MSNBC, National Public Radio, and dozens of radio programs across the country.
To watch all interviews reflecting on 15 years of blogging, click here.
A feature of the evangelical world since Trump was nominated and elected has been the inability of many of Trump’s evangelical supporters to see Trump’s flaws. John Fea (who will be one of my guests in a future interview) coined the term “court evangelical” to describe these evangelical leaders. Robert Jeffress, Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell are often named among these court evangelicals. Another evangelical figure which has puzzled many observers due to the strength of his dedication to Trump is Eric Metaxas.
Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.
Metaxas once attributed the quote to Dietrich Bonhoeffer but it doesn’t appear in any of his works or speeches. Instead of acknowledging this and making a public correction, Metaxas has just stopped attributing the quote to Bonhoeffer. Consequently, hundreds, if not thousands of people continue to cite Metaxas as the source of a bogus Bonhoeffer quote.
In our interview, Thornbury analyzes Metaxas, but that is not the most riveting part to me. When Greg describes his journey from evangelical college president to where he is now, I believe many evangelicals will relate. There has been pressure to adopt Trumpism as an evangelical and those who don’t go along lose social capital in that world. Students of American religious and political history will be interested in hearing about Greg’s experience. Greg was in the inner circle and describes what it was like to see conservative Christians first tolerate then venerate an unworthy President.
Trumpism is the newest theme in my 15 years of blogging but in a way it is an extension of many themes I am familiar with. The narcissism of celebrity pastors, the false history of Christian nationalism, the anti-science dogmatism of many evangelical leaders, and the single-mindedness and bias of culture warring all come together in Trumpism.
So as a new friend in this struggle, I thank Greg for his time and talents.
Gregory Alan Thornbury, Ph.D., has been a college philosophy and theology professor, dean, and president of The King’s College in New York City. In addition to several books on theology and culture, he is the author of Why Should The Devil Have All the Good Music: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock (Random House, 2018) – a critically acclaimed biography that has been reviewed by The New York Times, The New Yorker, National Public Radio, and was awarded as the most influential book in arts and culture by Christianity Today for 2019. A popular writer and speaker on philosophy, religion, and the arts, he currently serves as Senior Vice President at the New York Academy of Art in Tribeca, founded by Andy Warhol. He is also a consultant for Good Country Pictures, who is currently working on film adaptations of the short stories and novels of Willa Cather, Walker Percy, and Flannery O’Connor for film and television.
Fact checking David Barton was not my first history rodeo. With the help of then Grove City College history professor J.D. Wyneken, I fact checked anti-gay crusader Scott Lively’s book The Pink Swastika in June of 2009. Lively made an outrageous case that Hitler’s Nazi project was animated by homosexuals and that the Holocaust was carried out by gay thugs. His opposition to gay rights, he preached, was to keep gays from doing the same things to other nations.
I learned a lot by deeply researching Lively’s claims. I saw how primary sources could be used selectively to distort a narrative and how speculation could be mixed with fact to create a plausible sounding but false picture. This awareness came in handy when, in 2011, I started to look into Barton’s claims about the American founding.
It seems right that I fact checked both Lively and Barton. Lively had gone to Uganda with his historical fiction to agitate the Uganda Parliament into crafting law which made homosexuality a capital offense. An interpretation of the Bible was used as a justification. A religious view was used as a basis for civil law. On that issue, one church teaching was about to become the state policy.
Confronted with the reality that evangelical Christians were behind the bill in Uganda, I searched for the influences on them. There were many and we will hear from Jeff Sharlet next week who will help us remember the influence of the Fellowship Foundation. Extending beyond the Fellowship was the notion that civil policy should reflect Christianity because that is the proper basis for law in a Christian nation. Ugandan legislators saw themselves as lawmakers in a Christian nation.
But who in the U.S. was behind the idea that church and state is not separate? All roads led me back to David Barton. At that point, I started to check out the fact claims that Barton said led him to question church-state separation. The rest, as they say, is history.
Part of that history involved writing the book Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Check Claim about Our Third President. My co-author on that project is Michael Coulter. Michael is a professor of political science and humanities at Grove City College and a good friend. As we discuss in the interview below, I requested a pre-publication copy of The Jefferson Lies in February 2012. Somewhere in our McDonalds discussions, I asked Michael to join me as co-author and we had the ebook ready to go by May 1. A paperback followed in July and by August, The Jefferson Lies had been pulled from publication by Thomas Nelson.
In this interview, we discuss more about Getting Jefferson Right, but also get into why people would rather believe fiction over truth, the requirement of honesty from scholars, and how Christian nationalism influences attitudes towards political matters today. I hope you profit from it.
This is a test, nothing but a test. A test of your routine blogcasting network.
I didn’t know what I was doing, but with the encouragement of a former pastor Byron Harvey, I launched into the wild world of blogging. I started out on the old Blogspot platform and then moved to WordPress in 2006. I moved from there to Patheos in 2013, just in time to cover the demise of Mars Hill Church and Gospel for Asia. When Patheos decided I was too hot to handle, I moved really quickly back to this independent format on WordPress. Since 2005, I have written 5,010 posts according to WordPress backroom counter.
To celebrate, tomorrow I start a series of blogcast video interviews with people who are associated with topics I have covered over 15 years. I started out writing about sexual orientation therapy and research. Then the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill became a cause and international story in 2009. I started writing about and debunking David Barton’s and other historical claims in 2011. In late 2013, I took up the demise of Mars Hill Church and followed that until it closed in 2014. In 2015, I started writing about Gospel for Asia. Now I write about evangelical misadventures, debunk fake quotes, and examine a little bit of anything touching on the topics I have covered from the beginning.
I think some readers will be surprised at some of the people I interview, but they all will be worth tuning in to hear. These will be taped, last about an hour and posted about once a week over the next couple of months. Tomorrow I start with an interview of Michael Coulter, my co-author of Getting Jefferson Right.
I am pretty sure there are some readers who have been here since the beginning. In any case, let me know when you started reading and what topic(s) brought/keep you here.
Deisher has a PhD in microbiology from Stanford and was, at one time, a mainstream scientist. However, she converted to anti-vax ideology several years ago and has promoted the theory that vaccines cause autism via the introduction of fetal DNA. Her theories have been thoroughly examined and lack support.
One of the more recent empirical tests comes from friend of the blog Morten Frisch. Frisch and colleagues examined the population of children in Denmark and found no relationship between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and autism. Deisher asserts autism cases are related to use of this vaccine. Here is the summary:
Participants: 657,461 children born in Denmark from 1999 through 31 December 2010, with follow-up from 1 year of age and through 31 August 2013.
Results: During 5,025,754 person-years of follow-up, 6517 children were diagnosed with autism (incidence rate, 129.7 per 100 000 person-years). Comparing MMR-vaccinated with MMR-unvaccinated children yielded a fully adjusted autism hazard ratio of 0.93 (95% CI, 0.85 to 1.02). Similarly, no increased risk for autism after MMR vaccination was consistently observed in subgroups of children defined according to sibling history of autism, autism risk factors (based on a disease risk score) or other childhood vaccinations, or during specified time periods after vaccination.
David Barton’s Project Blitz has caught on with religious right lawmakers. I would really hate to see anti-vax ideology become a part of the religious right dogma. Putting Deisher in front of legislators as an expert is troubling even if she didn’t talk about vaccines.
This is getting more serious as time goes on. Misguided parents listening to anti-vax crusaders put their children at risk. See below:
Here’s your lead story this week: Pediatric flu deaths among unvaccinated kids in red states where flu is widespread (6 in Texas). Now flu spreading across #USA, and still many unvaccinated kids. Right now we can still vaccinate every child in America against flu and save lives pic.twitter.com/AzcoiTKyJx
David Barton regularly hosts a strategy conference for state and federal legislators. For the version held this year in November, Barton posted photos which revealed some interesting details of the far right battle plan. I am surprised he posted this one:
Take note of the slide being used by George Barna. I assume this is from a talk on election strategy, Barna’s slide encourages selective voter registration. The audience is encouraged not to register young, uneducated, lower income, and irreligious people. Barna told the audience that those groups gravitate toward socialism.
In addition to the rather undemocratic tone of this advice, I don’t think he is correct. While it was true at one time that college-educated voters on average went for the GOP, now the trend has reversed. College-educated voters now are more likely to vote for a Democratic candidate.
Wallnau Climbs His 7 Mountains
Another revealing photo from the conference gallery is this one of Lance Wallnau teaching lawmakers about 7 mountains dominionism. Simply put, this view of Christian involvement in culture mandates a takeover of seven aspects of society: Religion, Family,Education, Government, Media, Arts & Entertainment and Business.
Wallnau is clearly teaching the legislators about the seven mountains mandate. Since these Christian legislators are considered government level apostles, their job is to take dominion in the mountain of government. This is the objective of Project Blitz which is supported by Barton via financing by his Wallbuilders organization. Project Blitz seeks to pass legislation which privileges Christianity in Congress and in state legislatures.
Barton and his group of Christian nationalist lawmakers aren’t interested in pluralism. They want to empower Christian Republican voters to enact a legal structure that privileges conservative Christians. Even though this is their right to pursue, in my view their aims are contrary to the vision of the framers who crafted a framework for pluralism and freedom of conscience for all.
Last week, I wrote about Mercury One’s place in a scandal involving the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Illinois. In 2018, Glenn Beck and David Barton borrowed a copy of the Gettysburg Address from the Lincoln Museum for a Mercury One exhibit in Dallas. A anonymous complaint triggered an investigation by the IL Inspector General into allegations that the Gettysburg Address was improperly loaned out to Beck and Barton. The IG report confirmed those allegations. The report asserted that the former museum executive director should not have loaned the document given the slipshod logistical arrangements for the transfer and exhibit and the poor reputation of David Barton as a historian. The executive director was fired and the chief operating officer was allowed to resign.
After writing about the IG report, I noticed that Mercury One still lists the Lincoln Museum as a partner on a website devoted to one of the organization’s exhibits — 12 Score and 3 Years Ago. On that page, Mercury One claims: “For the first time, the exhibit is partnering with five world-class organizations including: The African American Museum of Dallas, The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Frontiers of Flight Museum, and Dallas Historical Society.”
I asked Dave Kelm, general counsel for the museum, if the Lincoln museum had any kind of partnership. After some research, he responded as follows:
So there was no partnership. Mercury One bought some pictures of the 13th Amendment and the Emancipation Proclamation. Mercury One tried to borrow the Emancipation Proclamation from the Lincoln Museum and the museum staff turned them down because of David Barton’s reputation and the faulty processes used in the transfer of the Gettysburg address.
I think this is called spin or reputation management. Certainly the truth is different than the hype. In fact, the Lincoln museum declined to lend Mercury One an article because “under no circumstances” should the museum “be associated with him [David Barton].” Here is the expanded quote from Dr. Samuel Wheeler, Illinois state historian and Carla Smith, museum registrar:
Dr. Wheeler said that based on what he later learned about Mr. Barton, he believed that “under no circumstances” should the ALPLM be associated with him. Ms. Smith said that if she had known what she later learned about Mr. Barton’s reputation, the 2018 loan would have been an “instant no.”
In June 2018, Glenn Beck borrowed the Gettysburg Address from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. One of only five handwritten copies of the address from the time period, the document is valued at $20-million. In hindsight, the transaction, for which Beck paid $50,000, has become a political scandal in Illinois and triggered the firing of the executive director of the Lincoln museum. The Chief Operating Officer of the Lincoln museum was allowed to resign and eventually ended up working for Beck’s charity Mercury One. The IG report also contains an unflattering assessment of David Barton as a historian.
The incident, which Beck celebrated live in 2018, was investigated by the Illinois Office of Executive Inspector General due to a tip from an anonymous consumer. The report found that allegations of wrongdoing were sound and based in fact. The report states that the museum should never have let Mercury One have the Gettysburg Address given the slipshod arrangements and David Barton’s reputation as a historian.
In the quotes below, the players are Alan Lowe, former executive director of the Lincoln museum, Carla Smith, registrar of the Lincoln museum, Samuel Wheeler, historian with the state of Illinois, Nadine O’Leary, museum chief of staff, and Michael Little, Chief Operating Officer of the Lincoln museum (and now Mercury One). Other than Beck and David Barton, Courtney Mayden is also mentioned. She is an employee of Mercury One with some unspecified training in handling historical documents.
The Hasty Gettysburg Address Loan
On June 8, Beck’s charity Mercury One and the Executive Director of the Lincoln museum Alan Lowe initiated negotiations to bring the Gettysburg Address to Beck’s Right and Responsibilities exhibit in Dallas. After only 8 days, the document was shipped to Texas. Beck displayed the document to just over 2300 people who attended the exhibit.
The complaint alleged that Lowe mismanaged the loan process. According to the IG report, that allegation was accurate. From the IG report:
Mr. Lowe made the decision to loan the Gettysburg Address and other artifacts to Mercury One in violation of the HPA Board’s 2013 Resolution, contrary to HPA loan policies, and without following standard museum practices, much less providing the heightened level of care that would seem prudent for the rare and extremely valuable artifact Mr. Lowe described as a linchpin of the ALPLM’s collection. The allegation that Mr. Lowe mismanaged the ALPLM by loaning the Gettysburg Address and other artifacts to Mercury One, without following the HPA Board’s 2013 Resolution, HPA policies, or standard museum loan practices, is FOUNDED.
Earlier this year, Lowe was fired from his position by Governor J.B. Pritzker, although he did not say why. Two other players in the drama continue to have a connection to Mercury One.
The first one I will mention is Michael Little. The IG report documents over 50 contacts with Mercury One he had prior to being permitted to resign over this snafu. As a part of leaving state employment, employees are required to divulge contacts with new employers. Little said he didn’t have any with Mercury One other than his interview. However, the IG found over 50 emails between Little and staff at Mercury One. Little was subsequently hired as the Chief Operating Officer at Mercury One. So the current COO at Mercury One misled the state of Illinois just prior to taking his job.
An Instant No
That brings me to David Barton. For fun, I will quote what the IG report has to say about Barton.
According to an online Texas arts calendar, visitors to Mercury One’s Rights & Responsibilities exhibition in June 2018 could expect to see items Mercury One was sharing from its own collection, including an exploding rat from World War II, whose designer inspired the James Bond character Q; as well as a facsimile engraving of a draft Declaration of Independence; Mary Todd Lincoln’s dress; and Lincoln’s collar. The calendar indicated that Mercury One charged $20 for adult general admission, $750 for private VIP tours with Mr. Beck, $350 for private tours with David Barton, and $250 for private tours with other Mercury One staff. According to the calendar, during the private tours Mr. Beck, Mr. Barton, and the other staff were to provide their “own unique perspective on our rights and responsibilities.”
The Lincoln museum staff didn’t know anything about Barton until after the fact. However, as the passage below shows, they did a little late homework.
Ms. Smith and Dr. Wheeler told investigators that at the time of the loan, they did not know what else was going to be displayed at Mercury One’s exhibition. Ms. Smith said that information is relevant to the consideration of whether it is appropriate for the ALPLM’s artifacts to be displayed or interpreted alongside the other items in the exhibit. Dr. Wheeler said that it is a “betrayal of public trust” to not have known what the Mercury One exhibit was about, what other pieces would be displayed alongside the ALPLM and Foundation artifacts, or how the exhibit would be presented.
The museum registrar (Smith) and Illinois state historian (Wheeler) were bothered after the fact that Executive Director Lowe had let the Gettysburg Address be displayed along with artifacts of questionable reputation. But then they got to Barton’s reputation and they were really troubled.
In addition, Ms. Smith and Dr. Wheeler said they later learned concerning information about David Barton’s reputation. In 2012, Christian publisher Thomas Nelson recalled all copies and ceased publication of Mr. Barton’s book, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson, after it learned that “there were some historical details included in the book that were not adequately supported.” The book was voted the “least credible history book in print” in a 2012 reader poll by the History News Network, a George Washington University online publication “created to give historians the opportunity to reach a national audience on issues of public concern.” Dr. Wheeler said that based on what he later learned about Mr. Barton, he believed that “under no circumstances” should the ALPLM be associated with him. Ms. Smith said that if she had known what she later learned about Mr. Barton’s reputation, the 2018 loan would have been an “instant no.”
No to the Emancipation Proclamation
Earlier this year, Beck wanted to borrow the Emancipation Proclamation with Barton listed as Curator of the exhibit. The museum, partly for that reason, turned Mercury One down.
Ms. Smith told investigators that after she received the letter of request and facility report, she convened the ALPLM collections staff, and the staff unanimously recommended to deny the loan request. She stated that she sent Mr. Lowe and Ms. O’Leary a detailed list of reasons why staff recommended not doing the loan. The listed reasons included that some of the information provided in the Standard Facility Report was incomplete or required clarification; concerns about Mr. Barton being listed as a Curator who would be interpreting ALPLM artifacts, given his reputation as a historian; and concerns about Mr. Little being listed as the Registrar or Collections Manager, given his lack of qualifications for handling artifacts. Ms. Smith said that Mr. Little’s history of mishandling artifacts at the ALPLM was also of concern.
In the end, the museum did not loan the Emancipation Proclamation to Beck’s project, 12 Score and 3 Years Ago. That didn’t stop Barton and Beck from promoting the event as if the Emancipation Proclamation was going to be there. Here is Barton claiming those in attendance would see it.
On Beck’s Mercury One website, the nonprofit still lists the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum as a partner. However, this does not appear to be accurate. Not only was Lowe fired, current Mercury One COO Michael Little is not allowed to ever work for the state of Illinois. Given the results of this report, it is hard to see the two organizations ever working together again. It is deceptive for Barton and Mercury One to tout a relationship that not only isn’t true but is the subject of a scathing report by the Illinois Inspector General.
Now self-appointed prophet Rick Joyner has taken up this message. Watch:
He says everything in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights is linked to a Scripture verse. Joyner adds to this falsehood by saying the Federalist papers further explains the links.
I have examined this claim on several occasions when made by David Barton (see the links in the first paragraph above). As noted, I read through the notes on the entire Constitutional Convention looking for the biblical influences on the Constitution. Surely, if the framers meant for the Bible to be the foundation of the Constitution, they would have cited it in their debates. Even if they didn’t use chapter and verse, there would have to be some reference to phrases from the Bible for these claims to be true. In fact, there were few references to the Bible or Christianity. There were far more references to Greek and Roman democracies, prior governments, British law and common sense. For the hearty souls who wish to take that same journey, I humbly recommend the series and the endeavor to read Madison’s notes on the 1787 convention.
Regarding Joyner’s remarks about the Federalist papers, he must be thinking about the Antifederalists. In a study of citations by Donald Lutz frequently misused by David Barton and Christian nationalists, Lutz found that Federalists cited many influences but didn’t cite the Bible. See Lutz’s assessment of the writings of the Federalists and Antifederalists below: By the way, the Smithsonian has 156 million items, 145 million of which are scientific artifacts.
I watched the whole thing because I study this stuff, but John Fea did his readers a favor by summarizing a truly bizarre segment of the Jim Bakker Show (and that is saying something) with David Barton and Brad Cummings as guests. You should go read it.
I really can’t improve on Fea’s piece, but I want to highlight a few things. It is being reported around social media that David Barton predicted that a second civil war might happen if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. Barton believes “liberal states” like California will secede. He believes that might trigger a war.
First, I seriously doubt this prophecy. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, abortion regulation will return to the states and California will keep it legal while Alabama will outlaw it — at least for now. I believe there will be strong feelings and some might call for drastic actions, but I believe a return of regulation to the states has been anticipated for many years by both sides of the issue.
The second thing I want to notice here is the crew which cooked up this religious stew. According to Barton and Cummings (co-publisher of The Shack), they got together with Mormon Glenn Beck, seven mountain dominionist Lance Wallnau, and Rick Joyner to discuss where America is heading. I wonder which person’s god gave Joyner “the dream.”
Cummings then said that Joyner had a dream of America’s timeline from heaven’s perspective (because of course America is central in God’s mind). The bottom line is that Joyner said the time line ended with a second American civil war which this time will be “successful” in achieving equality. Let me quote what Fea had to say about this segment of the video:
Barton then affirms Joyner’s vision, and in doing so he says some accurate things about the failure of the founders to deliver on matters of racial equality. This is a huge step for Barton. It led me to wonder where he was going this. Where was the culture-war hook?
And then it happened. At about the 4:50 mark Barton adds an additional layer to his interpretation of Joyner’s dream. Rather than continuing with his mini-lecture on America’s failure in matters of race, he suggests that Joyner’s vision about a “Second American Revolution and Civil War” was actually about Roe v. Wade. Barton says that we should expect a Civil War “over the abortion issue.” If Roe v. Wade is overturned, California and other pro-choice states will secede from the Union and it will end in violence.
Eating this gnostic stew could be dangerous. Barton said he had to be careful how he said it, but there is no careful way to say that it may be God’s will to go to war over abortion. This is lunacy and every sane person should reject it publicly.
As I noted above, the issue will be decided by the states if Roe is overturned. However, even if states do attempt to secede, it is unthinkable to have a war where people die for a pro-life cause.
These people are so far removed from war that they don’t know what they are doing or who they are radicalizing. To them (especially Bakker and his end time food buckets), these sensationalized shows are ways to move products. Cummings and Barton are making the rounds right now to sell The Founders Bible as if it is a new thing. Rather, Barton and Cummings brought that out in 2012 after the failure of The Jefferson Lies.
About That Founders Bible
Barton and Cummings should do some soul searching on their messaging regarding slavery. In the first edition of The Founders Bible, they called slave holder and slavery advocate James Hammond of SC an American leader because he was an advocate of America as a Christian nation (see also here and here). Hammond was just alright then.
For more on historical errors in The Founders Bible, click here.