How Americans Learned To Ignore Their Own History
by David Barton
Named by Time magazine as one of the nation’s 25 most influential evangelicals, nationally acclaimed author and speaker David Barton is founder and president of WallBuilders, a pro-family organization committed to restoring America’s knowledge and understanding of its history — and particularly the faith heritage that shaped that history.
How did Americans come to forget or misunderstand so much of their own history?
Part of it is through a process termed "deconstruction" that has dominated American teaching for the last 50 years — a process whereby you point out the negatives and not the positives. So that if you ask Americans to list 10 things about America we should be ashamed of and 10 things we can be proud of, they will fill the list of negatives before they fill the positives.
We also teach the exception and not the rule. At Duke Law School, I put a picture of the signers of the Declaration of Independence in front of the students, and said, "Who do you recognize?" Everybody said, "Well, there’s Jefferson, and Franklin" — and nobody gave me a third name. I said, "There are 56 guys up there — give me the others." Nobody gave me a third name.
"When you want to change public policy, you change your perception of history."
The point being they can all recognize the least religious Founding Fathers, but they had no idea who the others were, nor that 29 of the 56 had seminary or Bible school degrees. We’ve been trained that they’re all just like Jefferson and Franklin, when Jefferson and Franklin really are the exceptions, not the rule, when it came to their spiritual condition.
What are the implications of that misinformation for our culture?
When you want to change public policy, you change your perception of history. Most people appreciate the fact that America is Number One in the world in prosperity and stability. But we’re also taught that this is the result of a secular founding, secular documents — we have a "godless" Constitution, and that’s why we’ve lasted for this long.
And if you’re taught that, and you like what we are and you want to keep it that way, that implies that we’ve got to keep this thing secular. We’ve got to make sure that we don’t get all these religious folks involved. We’ve got to make sure that there’s this rigorous "separation of church and state" . . . because that’s what you think history was based on. And the way you present yourself in the past is what you try to become in the future.
"Once we’ve separated ourselves for 50 years from teaching the past, we can now rewrite the past to be what we want it to be."
What makes the separation of church and state issue so critical in today’s political climate?
Separation of church and state was actually a Christian idea — it comes right out of the Bible. The phrase had been used by preachers for 200 years before Jefferson picked it up. When he wrote that, everybody knew what he was talking about. He very specifically attached that phrase to the Free Exercise Clause [of the First Amendment] — which made it very, very clear that because of separation, the government would never [interfere with] public religious activities. For the next 150 years, every case that used the phrase "separation of church and state" used it to keep religious expressions in public, and to keep government from secularizing the public.
Then, in 1947, in Everson vs. Board of Education, the court said, "We think Jefferson messed it up. He should have attached the separation metaphor to the Establishment Clause, not the Free Exercise Clause." Separation now means the government can interfere with religious activity. That is the means by which secularists can go against the overwhelming majority of the nation.
How did our classrooms come to be so hostile to American history and its religious heritage?
For 300 years, we taught students how to think. We shifted that paradigm in the 1920s: instead of how to think, the object is now knowledge. "We the teachers will tell you what you need to know, and you’re going to spit it back to us." We came out with new forms of testing: multiple choice, fill in the blank, true/false. And, we shifted into teaching culture, not history. We don’t care who we were — only who we are. The emphasis becomes "right now," not the past. And once we’ve separated ourselves for 50 years from teaching the past, we can now rewrite the past to be what we want it to be. That gives us justification for wherever we want to head right now.
What, to you, equips ADF to effectively defend America’s religious heritage in the courtroom?
Number One, ADF is offensive-minded. They’re not out there defending the legal turf; they’re retaking the turf. For 40 years we’ve been giving up turf, and we’ve had this mentality that says, "Well, we’re going to defend what’s left." No — we need to go retake what we’ve given up.
Number Two, they have a worldview consistent with the worldview under which the Constitution was written. You’re not going to understand the Constitution if you don’t understand the thinking of those behind it . . . and there is a biblical, moral approach that is part of that Constitution. George Washington said, "The two indispensable supports for political prosperity are religion and morality." That’s where ADF stands — squarely in the middle of that critical founding philosophy.