Pseudo-historian and evangelical leader David Barton went on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” this week and trotted out a factually dubious story ( and one that is almost two decades old) about a St. Louis elementary school student named Raymond Raines who was, the story goes, reprimanded by both his teacher and a principal for praying over his lunch in the cafeteria. Jon Stewart was skeptical, but Barton, an author, a self-styled historian and, of course, a man of God, insisted that the tale was true, and indicative of the persecution Christians are subjected to in Obama’s America. The story is not “true;” at best it is disputed; I think, as Stewart suggested, that it is highly unlikley. It is dishonest to state that it is fact, because Barton doesn’t know that.
There is no excuse for this, but plenty of possible reasons. One is that Barton was intentionally lying to bolster his claim of culture-wide persecution. Another is that he was in the throes of confirmation bias, and assumed that a horror story that seemed to support his already-formed beliefs must be true. A third is that he related a popularly-repeated myth on national television without bothering to check whether it was true or not. None of them are acceptable.
From an ethics standpoint, it doesn’t matter much which of the reasons were responsible. Obviously the outright lie is worse, but insisting that an inflammatory story is true without determining whether it is true or not is dishonest as well, while also being irresponsible. Barton abused his position of influence and respect among Evangelicals by exploiting their trust to misinform them, and, in turn, to encourage them to mislead countless others as they perpetuate what is no more than an urban legend.
That isn’t all. He also betrayed his own cause, religion and movement. For Barton to agree to appear on a popular cable program, cite his credentials, plug his book (a work supposedly based on his own historical research) and then vouch for a likely falsehood, no matter how he came to do it, writes a message in neon to anyone who isn’t so enamored of him and his message that logic and reason have taken a permanent holiday. The message is, “We can’t trust these people. They base their conclusions on fiction, and they lie.” After all, one of the most prominent leaders just lied to millions of people, or at least recklessly misled them. A movement that chooses liars as its leaders can’t be trusted any more than its leaders can
That is a fair and logical conclusion, based on what Barton said to Jon Stewart. If Evangelicals don’t elevate dissemblers to positions of influence and prominence, one of two things must happen. Either David Barton has to correct his statement and apologize for making it, or he should forfeit the respect and trust of his followers. There isn’t another alternative.
Facts: Right Wing Watch
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