Ethics Dunce: David Barton

David Barton, telling fairy tales to Jon Stewart

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.


Pointer: Fark

Facts: Right Wing Watch


Graphic: Moviespad

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at

14 thoughts on “Ethics Dunce: David Barton

  1. 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.

    Or he can just keep on lying and keep his followers. David Barton is notorious for this kind of behavior. His lies get debunked over and over and he keeps on repeating them.

    You’re right on the unethical behavior or Barton, but I found the lapse by Stewart also newsworthy. It’s no secret what Barton does, but Stewart was not prepared to push back and allowed Barton his untruths. Stewart (and his producers) had the ethical duty to countermand the misinformation that any competent host should have known Barton would push.

  2. “Thoroughly Debunked” using a comment from People for the American Way??? It’ll take me more time to research this but I did find the following on more than one site:
    Not in Our Cafeteria
    The parents of Raymond Raines, a fourth grader at Waring Elementary School in St. Louis, Missouri, taught Raymond to pray before eating, which he did faithfully each day. By all accounts Raymond was a well-behaved, respectful, and studious young man. When a teacher saw Raymond in the school cafeteria at lunchtime bowing his head to thank God for providing his food, the teacher allegedly ordered him out of his seat and sent him to the principal’s office. The teacher, according to reports, apparently made no effort to downplay this scene, as Raymond was singled out in full view of the other students present.
    Raymond says the principal told him that it was against the rules to pray in school and ordered him not to do it again. But since Raymond’s parents had instilled in him the importance of praying at mealtime he continued to do so. On two further instances-three in all-he was allegedly taken from the cafeteria and disciplined. The school administration segregated him from his classmates, subjected him to ridicule for his religious beliefs, and eventually gave him a weeklong detention. This incident gained national notoriety when U.S. Representative Newt Gingrich, then House Speaker-elect, discussed the case on NBC’s Meet the Press. Raymond and his mother filed suit in 1994 against the city schools and the principal for violating his constitutional right to freely exercise his religion. School district officials continually maintained that Raymond had been disciplined for reasons other than school prayer.
    But a representative of the Rutherford Institute, a public interest law firm specializing in religious freedom cases, which was defending Raymond, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Rutherford had obtained “at least four sworn statements from witnesses who were in the cafeteria when Raymond was disciplined, as well as other pieces of information to substantiate Raymond’s claims. The parties settled the lawsuit when the school board agreed to adopt a policy permits students to pray at school in a nondisruptive manner when not involved in a school activity.
    Case: “Raines v. Cleveland Young (1994)

    • I can find no sufficiently neutral source that definitively supports OR disproves this story. Right Wing Watch is no more (or less) ideologically suspect than the Rutherford Foundation, and since the matter was settled, and the settlement apparently confidential, there is no way to say that it is true, as Barton did. You are right, however…”thoroughly debunked” is over-stated, and I changed that in the post. The tale is also 20 years old, and thus fairly meaningless even if true. I recount outrageous school official conduct every week—all it proves is that there are a lot of incompetents running school.

      A week of detention for praying seems so outlandish that advocates of the story have the higher burden of proof. Fighting gets you that kind of detention, and that’s what the school said he was suspended for. This seems like a dispute only—Barton would have been honest to say “a student claimed” this had happened. It is dishonest to say “it happened.”

  3. The minute someone opens their mouth and says “I’m a Christian and this what God wants you to do”. I immediately discount their opinion and their intelligence. The ONLY Christians I trust are the ones who don’t talk about being Christians but show me by living a Christ like life. The rest I have no time or patience for.

    • The ONLY Christians I trust are the ones who don’t talk about being Christians but show me by living a Christ like life.

      What would you describe as a Christ-like life?

      How is it different from a Mohammed-like life?

  4. I happen to know for a fact that the case of Raymond Raines was true. There were numerous witnesses both students and staff to the incidents. The School district offered the Raines over a million dollars to drop their suit. They refused to be bought out. They held their ground until the school district changed their stance and agreed to allow voluntary school prayer (and not just for Christians but children of any religion). The Raines’ did not make any money out of the case eve though they could have. They said that their values were not for sale.

    • I happen to know for a fact that Ellen once shot a man in Reno just to let him die. There were numerous witnesses, both drunk and sober, to the incidents. Ellen offered the man’s family over a million dollars to drop their suit. They refused to be bought out. They held their ground until Ellen changed her stance and allowed to let people live (and not just men, but women too). Elen’s victim’s family did not make any money out of the case, even though they could have. They said said that their values were not for sale.

      Now, why should anyone believe you more than they believe me?

        • Can you point to that public record? I’ve heard this claim before, but nobody actually backs it up.

          Do you know what is actually in the public record? There was an incident during lunchtime. The witnesses were in conflict over what occurred. There was a claim of a million dollar offer. It was disputed. The policy was always to allow individual prayer, but the family claimed success when this policy was reiterated.

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