There is perhaps nobody more responsible for the widely held belief among right-wing activists that the United States was founded to be an explicitly Christian nation than religious-right pseudo-historian David Barton. Despite the fact that Barton’s misuse and misrepresentation of both American history and the Bible have been well-documented, his work has played a key role in laying the foundation for the Christian nationalist worldview being widely espoused today by Republican leaders and their right-wing political allies.
Recently, Barton delivered a presentation at Radiant Church in Colorado which provided a helpful example of how he misrepresents history and scripture to create false impressions that support his Christian nationalist political agenda.
In his presentation, Barton focused on a speech delivered on June 28, 1787 by Benjamin Franklin during the Constitutional Convention, in which Franklin suggested that those gathered turn to God in prayer for help in drafting the Constitution:
The small progress we have made after 4 or five weeks close attendance & continual reasonings with each other — our different sentiments on almost every question, several of the last producing as many noes as ays, is methinks a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the Human Understanding. We indeed seem to feel our own want of political wisdom, since we have been running about in search of it. We have gone back to ancient history for models of government, and examined the different forms of those Republics which having been formed with the seeds of their own dissolution now no longer exist. And we have viewed Modern States all round Europe, but find none of their Constitutions suitable to our circumstances.
In this situation of this Assembly groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings? In the beginning of the contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the Divine Protection. — Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor. To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? Or do we imagine that we no longer need His assistance.
I have lived, Sir, a long time and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without [H]is notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without [H]is aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings that “except the Lord build they labor in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without [H]is concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall be become a reproach and a bye word down to future age. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human Wisdom, and leave it to chance, war, and conquest.
I therefore beg leave to move — that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of this City be requested to officiate in that service.
In Barton’s telling, “there were 14 Bible verses that [Franklin] quoted” in this one short speech. Barton claims that while Franklin is generally considered to be one of the least religious of the Founding Fathers, he delivered a speech filled with Bible citations, which Barton claims is proof that the Founding Fathers were all deeply religious men who intended to create a Christian nation.
“If that is the least religious, what does the most religious look like?” Barton asked rhetorically, analogously arguing that even in the church audience listening to his presentation, someone is the least religious person there but “maybe that just means you’re 99.6 percent Christian when everyone else is 99.7 [percent].”
Barton’s claim that the Founding Fathers were all so deeply knowledgeable of the Bible that Franklin could simply rise and extemporaneously deliver a speech filled with biblical citations is undercut by fact that “a copy of the speech” exists “among the Franklin Papers in the Library of Congress.” Barton also intentionally fails to mention that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention chose not to heed Franklin’s call to prayer and adjourned without taking any action on his suggestion. As historian Richard Beeman recounts in his book, “Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution“:
At the conclusion of the day’s session in which the delegates rejected his suggestion, [Franklin] scrawled a note on the bottom of the speech he had written expressing his incredulity: “The convention, except three or four persons, thought prayer unnecessary!”
It is also worth taking a closer look at Barton’s claim that there were 14 Bible verses quoted in Franklin’s speech. Helpfully, Barton flashed an image on screen listing all of the verses supposedly quoted by Franklin, making it easy to compare his claims to the actual speech.
Technically only one actual Bible quote appears in Franklin’s speech: “Except the Lord build they labor in vain that build it” is a quote from Psalm 127:1.
Strangely, regarding Franklin’s assertion that “a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice,” Barton credits Franklin as quoting two New Testament passages that basically say the same thing.
Luke 12:6: Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God.
Matthew 10:29: Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.
While it is hard to understand how this one Biblical allusion in Franklin’s speech can count as two quotes from the Bible, it is even harder to understand how Barton justifies crediting Franklin with quoting four Bible verses simply for using the word “byword.”
1 Kings 9:7: I will cut off Israel from the land that I have given them, and the house that I have consecrated for my name I will cast out of my sight, and Israel will become a proverb and a byword among all peoples
Psalm 44:14: You have made us a byword among the nations; the peoples shake their heads at us.
2 Chronicles 7:20: I will pluck you up from my land that I have given you, and this house that I have consecrated for my name, I will cast out of my sight, and I will make it a proverb and a byword among all peoples.
Deuteronomy 28:37: And you shall become a horror, a proverb, and a byword among all the peoples where the Lord will lead you away.
Barton is on somewhat firmer ground with some of his other citations, such as Franklin’s use of the phrases “Father of lights,” which mirrors James 1:17, “groping as it were in the dark,” which mirrors Job 12:25, and the reference to the Tower of Babel from Genesis 11.
As for the other four Bible verses Barton lists, we can only guess at what passages from Franklin’s speech he is citing.
Daniel 4:17 says that “the sentence is by the decree of the watchers, the decision by the word of the holy ones, to the end that the living may know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men,” which perhaps Barton thinks Franklin was referencing by asserting that “God governs in the affairs of men”?
Maybe Barton thinks that Franklin’s statement that God will “illuminate our understandings” is a reference to James 1:5: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him”?
As for “it is God who executes judgment, putting down one and lifting up another” from Psalm 75:7, and “the Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life” from Psalm 121:7, we don’t really know what parts of Franklin’s speech supposedly quotes this passage.
Regardless, there are nowhere near 14 Bible verses quoted in Franklin’s speech; there was one literal quote, a few allusions, and some language that Barton simply unilaterally decided were Bible quotes because of vague similarities between the two.
The most telling thing about Barton’s misrepresentation of Franklin’s speech is that the speech itself was unmistakably religious, as Franklin was overtly urging the delegates at the Constitutional Convention to turn to God in prayer. But that isn’t enough for Barton, who needlessly exaggerates and misrepresents what actually happened and does so because he is not a historian who is concerned about accuracy, but is instead an ardent religious-right activist who is interested primarily in misusing history and scripture to promote his partisan political worldview.
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