Home / News / Controversial activist David Barton appears on "Daily Show" with Jon Stewart
Controversial activist David Barton appears on "Daily Show" with Jon Stewart

Controversial activist David Barton appears on "Daily Show" with Jon Stewart

Arguing that prayer is being suppressed in America and presenting himself as a legal professional, conservative activist self proclaimed "historical reclamationist" David Barton appeared on Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" in order to promote his new book "Jefferson Lies," an attempt to "correct," Barton stated, the myths people have always believed about Thomas Jefferson. Chris Rodda has started to debunk many of the claims of the book, and we have done numerous articles about David Barton here at GodDiscussion.

Very little was actually discussed about the book–while Barton stated that "too many people speak for Jefferson, they don't speak what he said,"  Barton went on to discuss for the rest of the interview what he perceives as the suppression of Christian expression that he and many other religious conservatives believe is taking place in the United States today. Barton cited the example of a 5 year old who was "praying over lunch" and bodily picked up by a teacher and told not to pray.

The author of this article was unable to find anything about this event on the Internet except for a mention of a similar story on the 700 Club in 1992:

On the Dec. 4, 1992 edition of the 700 Club Pat Robertson alleged that a 5 year old child named Shannon was prevented from praying at an elementary school in Kingsville, Texas. Local reporters investigated the allegation and could find no evidence that any such incident occurred (or, indeed, that a child named "Shannon" was enrolled in the Kingsville schools). When the reporters contacted the 700 Club to track down the source of the story they were told that the report was given to Robertson by his American Center for Law and Justice, but the ACLJ denied supplying the information.

In part 2 of the interview, Barton continued to assert that religious language belongs in government because he inferred that the citizens of the United State are overwhelmingly Christian and "are the government."


When Stewart said that benedictions are given at graduations in high schools, Barton contradicted him by saying "we lost the Supreme Court case.  The Supreme Court said you can't do that anymore.  The way we're getting around that is kid are electing kids from among them to give what they call a valedictory address, and the kids'll mention God."   Because Barton did not specify which Supreme Court case forbade benedictions,  this journalist can only make the assumption Barton was referring to either 930 F2d  416 Jones v. Clear Creek Independent School District, or, more likely,  Lee v. Weisman (1992) in which the Supreme Court decided against a Rhode Island school district for inviting a Jewish rabbi to give the benediction at the graduation ceremony.  The school countered that attendance at graduation was "voluntary" and that the prayer was non-sectarian in nature.  The Court ruled the following:

Kennedy wrote an opinion that, while carefully circumscribed, squarely repudiated the school district's main arguments. He found much wrong with Principal Lee's decision to give the rabbi who was planning to offer the graduation invocation a pamphlet on composing prayers for civic occasions:

"Through these means, the principal directed and controlled the content of the prayers. Even if the only sanction for ignoring the instructions were that the rabbi would not be invited back, we think no religious representative who valued his or her continued reputation and effectiveness in the community would incur the State's displeasure in this regard. It is a cornerstone principle of our Establishment Clause jurisprudence that it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government, and that is what the school officials attempted to do." 505 U.S. 577, 588 (citation omitted).

Kennedy also noted that the nonsectarian nature of the prayer was no defense, as the Establishment Clause forbade coerced prayers in public schools, not just those representing a specific religious tradition. Addressing the State's contention that attendance at the graduation exercises was voluntary, Kennedy remarked that

"To say a teenage student has a real choice not to attend her high school graduation is formalistic in the extreme. True, Deborah could elect not to attend commencement without renouncing her diploma; but we shall not allow the case to turn on this point. Everyone knows that, in our society and in our culture, high school graduation is one of life's most significant occasions. A school rule which excuses attendance is beside the point. Attendance may not be required by official decree, yet it is apparent that a student is not free to absent herself from the graduation exercise in any real sense of the term "voluntary," for absence would require forfeiture of those intangible benefits which have motivated the student through youth and all her high school years." 505 U.S. 577, 595.

Finally, in answering the argument that participation in the prayer was itself voluntary, Kennedy formulated what is now known as the coercion test:

"As we have observed before, there are heightened concerns with protecting freedom of conscience from subtle coercive pressure in the elementary and secondary public schools. Our decisions in [Engel] and [Abington] recognize, among other things, that prayer exercises in public schools carry a particular risk of indirect coercion. The concern may not be limited to the context of schools, but it is most pronounced there. What to most believers may seem nothing more than a reasonable request that the nonbeliever respect their religious practices, in a school context may appear to the nonbeliever or dissenter to be an attempt to employ the machinery of the State to enforce a religious orthodoxy." 505 U.S. 577, 592 (citations omitted).

The coercion test is now used, in addition to the Lemon test and Justice O'Connor's "endorsement or disapproval" test, to determine the constitutionality under the Establishment Clause of certain government actions.

Justice Blackmun's concurrence stressed that "our decisions have gone beyond prohibiting coercion, however, because the Court has recognized that 'the fullest possible scope of religious liberty,' entails more than freedom from coercion." 505 U.S. 577, 606 (citation omitted). Blackmun emphasized that even if no one was compelled, directly or indirectly, to participate in a state-sponsored religious exercise, the government was still without power to place its imprimatur on any religious activity.


This case stated that the majority cannot coerce their religious views on anybody–a view Barton disagreed with when it came to Christians, until Stewart brought up the example of Dearborn, MI, which has a large Muslim community. Stewart asked Barton to imagine that Barton was at his high school graduation and there was going to be a Muslim prayer.  While Barton conceded that it would be okay for the Muslims to have a prayer at graduation, it would not be okay if he were asked to pray with them:

If the Islamists asked me to pray an Islamic prayer, it ain't gonna happen.  The majority cannot coerce the minority.

Stewart had a difficult time getting Barton to state the difference between what is free speech when Christians talk and what is free speech when people of any other faith are talking.

In part 3,  Barton claimed that the Supreme Court doesn't allow schools to have a moment of silence because somebody "might be praying." After this surprising (and untrue) declaration,  (the Supreme Court supports students praying on their own–there is only a problem with it when the institution is causing students to pray) Barton let Stewart handle authentic documents from Thomas Jefferson.


In the past, Barton has stated that Jefferson stated in a letter to the Danbury Baptists that the wall of separation between church and state was only one-directional:

The Texas Monthly noted[1] that Barton has denied saying that in his famous letter to Danbury Baptists[51] "Jefferson referred to the wall of separation between church and state as 'one-directional'—that is, it was meant to restrain government from infringing on the church's domain but not the other way around. There is no such language in the letter." The article goes on to note that this denial is contradicted by a 1990 version of Barton's video America's Godly Heritage in which Barton states:

On January 1, 1802, Jefferson wrote to that group of Danbury Baptists, and in this letter, he assured them—he said the First Amendment has erected a wall of separation between church and state, he said, but that wall is a one-directional wall. It keeps the government from running the church, but it makes sure that Christian principles will always stay in government.

About Dakota O'Leary

Dakota O'Leary is a freethinker, and often sassy, scholar of theology and literature. She got her Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Theology from the State University of New York College at Buffalo, and her Master of Arts degree in Theology and Literature from Antioch University-Midwest. She is a contributing writer focusing on eschatology, biblical prophecy, and general religious news. Dakota is a co-host of the God Discussion radio show, offering insight to the news stories of the week. We like to call her "our in-house Biblical prophecy expert" as her articles on eschatology have received over 200,000 views on God Discussion.
  • David Barton and Welton Gaddy seem to disagree.  Gaddy is both a minister and an attorney, who views our government as needing to be secular without favouring any religion.

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  • dougindeap

    Barton again? This zealot's "work" has been so thoroughly, repeatedly,
    and authoritatively debunked by so many who have demonstrated it to be
    riddled with slipshod research, shoddy analysis, and downright
    dishonestly that I can but wonder how anyone can refer to him as an
    "authority" on this subject without turning red from embarrassment.
    Perhaps the handiest debunking is Chris Rodda's book, Liars for Jesus:
    The Religious Right's Alternate Version of American History (2006)
    (available free on line http://www.liarsforjesus.com/), where she
    conveniently collects and directly refutes his many mistakes and lies.
    The irony is that, by knowingly, repeatedly resorting to lies, this
    would-be champion of a religious right version of history reveals his
    fears that the real facts fall short of making his case. His own lying
    is perhaps the best evidence that his overall thesis is wrong.

    • Yeah, it's a never stopping merry-go-round with these guys, isn't it?

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