Just after 6 o’clock Monday evening, David Barton, a pleasant, soft-spoken man with salt-and-pepper hair, stood outside the doors of the Old Senate Chamber, not far from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s (R-Tenn.) second-floor leadership office. Why, Barton wondered, did his presence that night cause so many people so much fuss?
“The controversy has been raised by people who have never been on the tour,” said the boyish-looking 51-year-old as he stood alongside his wife, Cheryl, who was sporting a rhinestone American flag pin and carrying a large black portfolio.
Barton — a Republican religious activist and founder of WallBuilders, an organization that emphasizes “the moral, religious, and constitutional foundation on which America was built” — came to Capitol Hill at Frist’s request to give a private tour of the historic building for all Senators and their families.
But Barton’s tour had been under fire since the previous week, when word of Frist’s invitation leaked to the media, including Roll Call. Critics, most of them liberal, focused on Barton’s writings advocating impeachment of “activist” judges — a sensitive topic coming on the heels of the bitter legal fight over Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube removal and on the eve of a divisive fight over President Bush’s judicial nominees. The controversy immediately zeroed in on Frist, who has played a central role on both matters.
Some leading Senate Democrats questioned Frist’s decision, and both the Interfaith Alliance and People For the American Way sent letters to Frist asking him to cancel it. In his letter to Frist, Ralph Neas, PFAW president, dubbed Barton “a judicial intimidation activist” and described the Majority Leader’s invitation as “a profound mistake.”
But in the Capitol, Barton shook off his critics. “I’m just teaching history, and the history disagrees with what they’ve got,” said Barton, who estimated that he gives 15 to 20 tours of the Capitol per year, mainly at the request of House Members. “It’s their problem, not mine.”
Barton said he found it amusing that some groups have attempted to paint him as “really radical right” when he’s helped write the history and government standards for public schools in a variety of states, including California.
“It’s really hard to say they’re a radical right state,” he said.
As for Frist, he brushed off the criticisms that had been raised by the tour. “Frankly,” he said, “I haven’t paid much attention to it.”
In the end, though, the controversy did appear to have an impact on his colleagues: Frist’s tour drew not one of the other invited 99 Senators, nor their families.
So, shortly after 6 p.m., Frist and his wife, Karyn, impeccably dressed in a long, tailored cream Chanel jacket and sunflower pin, led a gaggle of aides into the Rotunda for what had been billed as “a Fresh Perspective on Our Nation’s Religious Heritage.”
There, Barton regaled them with stories of the faith of many of the figures depicted in the huge historical paintings that line the Rotunda walls.
“These guys are the source for all the rhetoric on secular America,” he said, gesturing toward John Trumbull’s painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
“What they don’t point out is that of the 56 signers, 24 of those guys had seminary degrees,” he said.
Red laser pointer in hand, Barton directed the group’s attention to John Witherspoon, who, they were told, was not only a university president but the “Billy Graham of his age.”
The mention of Witherspoon provided Frist with the perfect opening. “What university?” he asked, with an impish smile.
Princeton, Barton replied, eliciting a hearty round of chuckles from the assembled, including the honorable member of the Class of 1974. (Frist’s family also funded the Frist Campus Center, which opened in 2000.)
Then there’s Thomas Jefferson, often considered the patron saint of the secular democracy. He is, after all, responsible for the famous 1802 letter in which he called for a “wall of separation between church and state.”
But think again, said Barton. Jefferson strikes Barton as being “not very secular at all.” Jefferson attended a church service at the Capitol two days after writing that missive, and unlike his presidential predecessors, Barton noted, he always insisted on tacking “Christ” onto the end of the phrase “in the year of our Lord.”
To prove his point, Barton whipped out an 1804 document in Jefferson’s hand emblazoned with those words. Then, to bolster his case of the third president’s piety, Barton pulled out an edition of Jefferson’s “Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” distributed to every House and Senate Member after its publication by Congress in 1904, Barton said. Both items are from Barton’s collection of some 70,000 original historic documents and books with which he said he’s been “blessed.”
Not everyone draws the same conclusion from the book, which is more commonly known today as Jefferson’s Bible. Jefferson’s rewriting of the New Testament specifically left out miracles, including the resurrection, and ignored key tenets of the Holy Trinity, among other theological matters. In fact, some devout Christians believe the volume offers clear evidence that Jefferson was a heretic. (See “Jefferson’s Bible Returns, Controversial As Ever,” Roll Call, Jan. 24, 2005.)
In front of a painting, also by Trumbull, depicting the surrender of Lord Cornwallis’ troops at Yorktown, Barton elucidated how that American military triumph, which ended the Revolutionary War, precipitated the publication, by the Continental Congress, of the first English language Bible in the United States in 1782. Barton has an original on hand — one of just 26 still in existence.
Likewise, Barton produced a copy of George Washington’s 1783 letter of resignation from his military commission — one of only 13 to be printed of the original handwritten copy Washington is seen delivering in another large Trumbull canvas on the Rotunda wall. In that document, Barton told Frist, he would find Washington’s prayer for the country as well as the first call for veterans’ benefits.
Back at the Old Senate Chamber doors, the conversation turned to the Grand Old Party.
“It’s … in that room that the Republican Party was born,” said Barton, who is also vice chairman of the Texas Republican Party. Barton then proceeded to take out a thin, original 1856 Republican Party platform pamphlet which, he noted, had “only nine points.”
Frist put on his glasses, and after selecting a random passage began to read aloud: “A railroad to the Pacific Ocean … is an imperative demanded by the interests of the whole country.”
“That sounds like the highway bill,” he laughed, before flipping to the final page, which riffed on the importance of engaging “men of all parties.”
An aide brought Frist the 2004 GOP platform — significantly longer, at 98 pages. But Frist proudly noted, after a quick scan, that the document still ended on a similar note of inclusion.
For all the headlines his tour has generated, Barton said what “shocks” most people who actually take the tour is the extent to which the Capitol was used as a church building in its early days. At various times, several denominations, he said, ranging from Presbyterian to Unitarian, regularly held services in the Capitol. And until at least 1875, there was a weekly interdenominational service there.
Barton produced a 1795 document, which relayed that as the Capitol was being built, worship services were being convened at the construction site.
“Even as they were building the church, they started having services here,” Barton said, in an apparent slip of the tongue. He meant the Capitol, not a church.
Sometime after 7 p.m., Frist left to close down the Senate for the night, while Barton led the rest of the group downstairs to the Old Supreme Court Chamber.
When Frist reappeared a few minutes later, Barton, after noting that “three-hour communion services” were once held in the room, embarked on an explanation of some of the busts of the early chief justices. For instance, he said, the first chief justice, John Jay, was a president of the American Bible Society.
And that relief of “Justice” hanging over the clock on the room’s west wall? That’s “an angel coming from heaven with the Bill of Rights,” he said. This, Barton posited, indicated that the Constitution is a “God-given blessing.” The Senate Web site had a slightly drier description of the figure as a “winged youth” carrying a stone tablet symbolizing the Constitution. (“Earlier documents call it an angel,” Barton later clarified.)
Frist didn’t have much time to spare before a meeting and dinner appointment, so the tour was cut short. The standard version, Barton said, usually includes “more stories” and swings through Statuary Hall and sometimes even the Senate floor.
After thanking Barton for relaying the information, Frist departed, his wife in tow.
With that, Barton’s “controversial” tour was over for the moment. He wasn’t disappointed that more Senators didn’t show. “Getting an hour from a Senator is nearly impossible,” he later said.
And there’s always tomorrow. On Tuesday night, he was scheduled to lead another tour for a group of ministers, their wives and Hispanic college students. This one, requested by Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R-Va.), should be a bit larger: 130 people were expected to attend.