David Barton, Jon Stewart, and the Myth of Raymond Raines

Last night, David Barton was the guest on "The Daily Show," ostensibly to discuss his new book "The Jefferson Lies." And while Barton did discuss his book a bit at the beginning of the interview, most of the extended discussion revolved around the intersection of faith and public policy and on issues like public prayer and the Obama administration's contraception mandate.

During the first part of the interview (starting around the 5:00 mark,) Jon Stewart made the point that, looking at things from a non-Christian or non-religious perspective, Christianity seems pretty safe in America and rather ubiquitous, contrary to Barton's claims that it is constantly under attack.

Barton responded that that was not necessarily the case, especially when it comes to public policy issues, where he cited an incident in St. Louis where a five year old student was supposedly yanked out of his chair and yelled at by a teacher merely for praying before eating his lunch in the school cafeteria:

Stewart was justifiably skeptical of this story, but Barton insisted that it had happened and that the school principal also yelled at the student for praying, which prompted Stewart to declare that, if that was the case, then those school officials are "idiots" and the discussion moved on. 

But Stewart's initial skepticism was correct, though it helps to be rather well-versed in Religious Right mythology in order to recognize the incident that Barton was citing.

This myth involved a student named Raymond Raines and it has been around since 1994 when Newt Gingrich and various Religious Right leaders frist started making Raymond's sorry tale the centerpiece of their campaign to pass a constitutional amendment protecting the right to expressions of faith ... despite the fact that it wasn't true:

The St. Louis case concerned 10-year-old Raymond Raines who, his mother said, was given detention because he sought to pray over his lunch. When lawyers for the Rutherford Institute heard about the case, they filed a lawsuit against the principal and issued a press release denouncing the school system.

"I know it sounds bizarre, but we have substantial evidence to believe it happened," said Timothy Belz, the St. Louis lawyer working with the Rutherford Institute.

On NBC-TV's "Meet the Press," Gingrich described the situation as "a real case about a real child. Should it be possible for the government to punish you if you say grace over your lunch? That's what we used to think of Russian behavior when they were the Soviet Union."

But school officials said the incident never happened. Rather, they said, Raymond was disciplined for fighting in the cafeteria.

"I can tell you he was not reprimanded for praying," said Kenneth Brostron, the school's lawyer. "Do you think it makes sense that the teachers would look around the cafeteria and target the one student who was praying quietly at his seat?"

So despite the fact that this incident took place nearly twenty years ago - and never actually happened - David Barton is still citing it today as proof that Christianity is under attack in America.

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