David Barton

The Perils of Religious Politicking

Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, a centrist Democrat facing a tough re-election campaign, launched a new political ad this month, and both the ad and the responses to it have highlighted the challenges of mixing religion and politics in ways that respect religious freedom, pluralism, and the spirit of the Constitution.

In Pryor’s new ad, he doesn’t talk about political issues or his opponent; he just talks about the Bible.

“I’m not ashamed to say that I believe in God and I believe in His word. The Bible teaches us no one has all the answers. Only God does. And neither political party is always right. This is my compass, my north star. It gives me comfort and guidance to do what's best for Arkansas. I’m Mark Pryor, and I approve this message because this is who I am and what I believe.”

The centrality of faith in Pryor’s life is well-known. But the ad was slammed by Brad Dayspring at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who mockingly suggested the ad contradicted comments Pryor had made last year: “The Bible is really not a rule book for political issues. Everybody can see it differently.”  But I don’t see the contradiction. In both, Pryor seems to be acknowledging that even people who look to the Bible for guidance can disagree on particular policy positions. Dayspring’s attack drew a surprising rebuke from Pryor’s Republican opponent, Rep. Tom Cotton, who called the NRSC response “bizarre and offensive.”

The ad has drawn a mixed response from progressive commentators. Ed Kilgore at the Washington Monthly praises Pryor for “basically saying the Bible teaches some humility and reserves wisdom and final judgment to Gold Almighty, not to his self-appointed representatives on earth.” But Paul Waldman at the American Prospect takes issue with Pryor’s “I’m not ashamed” line, suggesting it is a dog-whistle for those who believe the Religious Right’s charge that Christianity is under attack in America.

Waldman notes, however, that the ad could have been a lot worse, reminding us of this notorious Rick Perry ad from 2012 which starts with very similar “I’m not ashamed” language but then gets “much more vulgar.”

A more recent example of the “a lot worse” school of religion and politics came from Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia, who is currently running for the Senate. In a six-minute speech from the floor of the House of Representatives in September, he mixed personal religious testimony with Christian-nation claims that the government should be run according to his interpretation of the Bible.

Broun’s remarks start with a core Christian Reconstructionist principle: that God ordained family, church and government and gave each a specific area of authority. But, he says, because of “this mistaken idea that we’re supposed to have a separation of church and state, the family and the church have abdicated a lot of its duties over to government.” (Reconstructionists believe that God did not authorize government to be involved, for example, in education or the reduction of poverty; that role is meant for family and church.)

Broun calls the Bible “the basis of our nation,” and says the fact that we aren’t running society accordingly will mean the death of our Republic.  The founding fathers, he says, were “Bible-believing Christians” who believed that “every aspect of life should follow the dictates of God’s inerrant word. That’s what I believe in. That’s what we should all believe in.”

This message is not new for Broun. Last year Kilgore wrote about a Broun speech in which he said that evolutionary science is “from the pit of hell” and that the Bible is a “manufacturer’s handbook” that “teaches us how to run all of public policy and everything in society,” as well as our lives as individuals. “That’s the reason as your Congressman I hold the Holy Bible as being the major directions to me of how I vote in Washington, D.C.”

There are important distinctions between Pryor’s ad and Broun’s speeches.  It is helpful to look at them through the prism of People For the American Way Foundation’s 12 Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics. These “rules of the road” are meant to generate a broader conversation about how we can create and sustain a civic space that reflects the principles of the Constitution and the values of respectful civic discourse, one that welcomes the participation of people of all faiths and people of none. Consider this passage from the 12 Rules:

Public officials are free to talk about their faith, the role it plays in their lives, and how it influences their approach to issues, but must not use the power of their office to proselytize or impose particular religious beliefs or practices on others.

Pryor’s ad seems to be intended to keep to the appropriate side of this rule, where Broun clearly violates the rule by proselytizing from the floor of the House.

In addition, Broun, like David Barton and other Religious Right leaders, claims that the right-wing position on every political issue finds some grounding or justification in the Bible, which should be the final word on every policy matter.  Broun’s insistence that every aspect of law and society should fit his interpretation of the Bible also violates another rule, “It is appropriate to discuss the moral and religious dimensions of policy issues, but religious doctrine alone is not an acceptable basis for public policy.” In contrast, Pryor’s ad explicitly says that he doesn’t claim to have all the answers, even though he uses the Bible as his moral compass.

A Religious Right critic of Pryor’s ad broke another of PFAW Foundation’s rules: “Religion should not be used as a political club.” As blogger Jeremy Hooper noted, Andrea Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition was “outraged” by Pryor’s ad. She said his claim to be guided by the Bible “the furthest thing from the truth” because he had voted for the Employment Non Discrimination Act, which protects people from being discriminated at work based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Lafferty is of course free to believe that fairness is not a biblical value; but she shouldn’t denigrate the sincerity of Pryor’s faith because he disagrees.

Still, Pryor’s ad is a cautionary tale about the fact that, as he himself has said, the intersection of faith and politics can be difficult to navigate.  It can come across as saying, “vote for me because I’m a Christian,” a message that fails to respect America’s constitutional ideals and growing religious pluralism. And it could be seen as uncomfortably close to the message of Mike Huckabee’s 2008 primary campaign against Mitt Romney in Iowa, which essentially boiled down to, “vote for me because I’m the right kind of Christian.” Candidates or campaigns that suggest only Christians, or certain kinds of Christians, are worthy of public office violate the spirit if not the letter of the Constitution’s prohibition on a religious test for public office. 

With Christian-nation advocates like David Lane organizing all over the country for the 2014 and 2016 elections, there’s little doubt that the months ahead will bring some downright toxic mixing of religion and politics.

PFAW

Right Wing Watch Research Exposes Extremism of Capitol Event

Last week, PFAW’s Right Wing Watch reported that a who’s who of Religious Right activists had recently gathered in the Capitol, with the endorsement of Speaker John Boehner, for a George Washington-themed prayer event.

Last night, Rachel Maddow did a segment on the event, drawing heavily from Right Wing Watch research to expose the extremism of its participants:

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 Right Wing Watch  uncovered video of Lou Engle claiming that marriage equality would “unleash” a “sexual insanity”; Engle praying against health care reform with Sen. DeMint and then-Sen. Brownback; Jim Garlow saying that Satan is attacking the U.S. with marriage equality; David Barton claiming that AIDS can’t be cured because it’s God’s punishment for being gay; and the head of Alveda King’s group saying that supporting abortion rights is akin to supporting terrorism.

Here at People For the American Way, we spend a lot of time monitoring right-wing figures who seem far out of the mainstream. And then the Speaker of the House invites them to the Capitol.
 

PFAW

Barton Hits the Big Time, Brings His Made-Up History Lessons With Him

It’s been a big couple of days for the Right’s favorite self-declared historian, David Barton. Last night, he went on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart to try to defend his shoddy scholarship to a national audience – which he did, mostly, by flatly denying things that are demonstrably true.

And this morning, Barton was the subject of a profile in the New York Times, mildly titled “Using History to Mold Ideas on the Right.” The problem, of course, is that Barton’s version of history is not one that most Americans, and most historians, would recognize:

“The problem with David Barton is that there’s a lot of truth in what he says,” said Derek H. Davis, director of church-state studies at Baylor University, a Baptist institution in Waco, Tex. “But the end product is a lot of distortions, half-truths and twisted history.”

Mr. Barton says it is his critics who cherry-pick history by underplaying the religious dimension. Over the years, he has only dug more deeply into his documents, filling out books like “Original Intent” (published by WallBuilders, his organization here).

One of his most contested assertions is that the Supreme Court has misconstrued Thomas Jefferson’s statement that the First Amendment erected a “wall of separation between church and state.” According to Mr. Barton, Jefferson meant that government should not interfere with the public exercise of religion — not that public spaces should be purged of prayer. He also cites biblical passages that, he says, argue against deficit spending, graduated income taxes, the minimum wage and costly measures to fight global warming.

People For explored Barton’s history of twisting the bible and historical documents for political purposes in the recent report, “Barton’s Bunk.”

We’ll also be posting fact-checks of Barton’s interview with Jon Stewart throughout the day at Right Wing Watch.

In case you missed it, here’s People For’s Peter Montgomery giving a Barton primer on the Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell:

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PFAW

Stewart Grills Huckabee On His Praise For David Barton

Cross-posted from Right Wing Watch

A few weeks back, we captured video of Mike Huckabee being introduced by David Barton at the Rediscover God in America conference in Iowa, during which asserted that he wished every American would be forced - at gunpoint - to listen to Barton's teachings.

Last night, Huckabee appeared on "The Daily Show" and Jon Stewart ended up dedicating nearly the entire interview to questioning Huckabee about his support for and praise of Barton and his pseudo-history:

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During the discussion, Stewart mentioned a few of Barton's more outrageous claims by name, which we first reported here - specifically Barton's claims that Jesus opposed the minimum wage and the Estate Tax and that God set the boundaries of nations.

For more examples of Barton's absurd statements and intentional misuse of history, take a look through our archive of posts about him.

PFAW

National Bullies

Today, Kyle at Right Wing Watch reported on the unsurprisingly hate-filled reaction of the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer to a rash of suicides by young people have been bullied for being gay. Fischer puts the blame for these deaths not on hate-mongers like himself who spend their lives stirring up anti-gay sentiments, but on support groups like GLSEN that try to make life easier for gay teens:

If we want to see fewer students commit suicide, we want fewer homosexual students. What all truly caring adults will want to do for a student struggling with his sexual identity is to help him resist dangerous sexual impulses, accept his biological identity as either male or female, and help him learn to adjust his psychological identity to his God-given biological one.

Along that path lies psychological, spiritual, mental and emotional wholeness. Along the path of sexual depravity lies loneliness, self-torment, disease, and even death. It is a cruel thing to help a sexually confused student walk down a path that leads to darkness rather than urge him to choose a path that leads to light.

Fischer, as we’ve noted, is an unapologetic extremist on issues from gay rights to whale-stoning, but his response to this issue is essentially the same as that of much more prominent right-wing leaders. Fischer boils their “solution” to anti-gay bullying down to its head-in-the-sand conclusion: gay kids wouldn’t be bullied if there weren’t any gay kids. This is essentially what Family Research Council president and occassional Fischer buddy Tony Perkins said in a largely fact-free (not to mention compassion-free) op-ed in the Washington Post’s On Faith section yesterday:

However, homosexual activist groups like GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) are exploiting these tragedies to push their agenda of demanding not only tolerance of homosexual individuals, but active affirmation of homosexual conduct and their efforts to redefine the family.

There is an abundance of evidence that homosexuals experience higher rates of mental health problems in general, including depression. However, there is no empirical evidence to link this with society's general disapproval of homosexual conduct. In fact, evidence from the Netherlands would seem to suggest the opposite, because even in that most "gay-friendly" country on earth, research has shown homosexuals to have much higher mental health problems.

Within the homosexual population, such mental health problems are higher among those who "come out of the closet" at an earlier age. Yet GLSEN's approach is to encourage teens to "come out" when younger and younger--thus likely exacerbating the very problem they claim they want to solve.

Some homosexuals may recognize intuitively that their same-sex attractions are abnormal--yet they have been told by the homosexual movement, and their allies in the media and the educational establishment, that they are "born gay" and can never change. This--and not society's disapproval--may create a sense of despair that can lead to suicide.

Glenn Beck University “professor” David Barton also embraced this causality-reversed view of these tragic suicides when he offered up the higher rate of suicides among gays and lesbians as proof that homosexuality is inherently unhealthy—and should therefore be eliminated.

These illogical public health pronouncements would be laughable if they weren’t contributing to a very real tragedies. The mother of a boy who committed suicide after falling victim to anti-gay bullying, wrote a response to Perkins in the Washington Post today:

If schools perceive addressing anti-gay bullying as a controversial issue, then they'll continue the status quo of putting their heads in the sand and hoping the issue takes care of itself.

It won't. And we need to be clear on one thing - addressing anti-gay bullying is not a controversial issue. If you move through the smoke screen organizations like Family Research Council try to create, you realize addressing anti-gay bullying is simply the right thing to do if we care about all of our young people.

Fischer may be an extremist’s extremist, but right-wing leaders echoing his harmful message are no less dangerous. And when future presidential candidates gather with people like Fischer and Perkins, they ensure that their messages of hate will keep on trickling down to vulnerable, ostracized kids. If what Fischer, Perkins, and Barton are doing isn’t bullying, I don’t know what is.
 

PFAW