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Meet the evangelical activist who’s had a 'profound influence' on Speaker Mike Johnson

David Barton has spent decades working to overturn church-state separation. He celebrated Johnson’s election as a turning point for the Christian right.
A side by side of  David Barton and Mike Johnson
House Speaker Mike Johnson, right, has embraced David Barton's argument that America was founded as an explicitly Christian nation.NBC News / AP; Getty Images

Two years before going from a relatively unknown congressman to speaker of the House, Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana spoke at a national gathering of Christian lawmakers in North Texas and shared his deep admiration for the man behind the conference: the evangelical activist and self-styled historian David Barton.

“I was introduced to David and his ministry a quarter-century ago,” Johnson said at the ProFamily Legislators Conference, which was being hosted by Barton’s nonprofit WallBuilders, a Texas group dedicated to promoting the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation whose laws should be based on a conservative reading of the Bible.

Johnson told the audience at the December 2021 gathering that Barton’s teachings — which are disputed by many historians — have had “a profound influence on me, and my work, and my life and everything I do.”

Johnson’s effusive praise for Barton, an influential background figure in the conservative evangelical political movement, sends an unmistakable signal about how the devout Christian Republican lawmaker — now second in the line to the presidency — views the role of religion in government and public life, said John Fea, a professor of American history at Messiah University in Pennsylvania.

“David Barton is a political propagandist, he’s a Christian-right activist who cherry picks from the past to promote political agendas in the present, to paint a picture of America’s history as evangelicals would like it to be,” said Fea, who’s also an evangelical. “Mike Johnson comes straight out of that Christian-right world, where Barton’s ideas are highly influential. It’s the air they breathe.”

To learn more about David Barton's political influence, listen to NBC News’ new podcast "Grapevine."

Johnson and Barton didn’t respond to messages requesting comment, but in an episode of his WallBuilders Live! podcast published overnight, Barton and the show’s host, former Texas state Rep. Rick Green, celebrated Johnson’s ascent to the speakership as a uniquely triumphant day for Christian conservatives.

“I’m trying not to be giddy, I’m trying to be rational about this,” said Green, who referred to Johnson as a close friend of the WallBuilders program. “I would never have dreamed we would end up with Mike Johnson of Louisiana as speaker of the House.”

Barton agreed and said this was the first time “in our lifetime” that Congress has appointed “a guy of this character, this commitment, this knowledge, this experience and this devout faith” as House speaker.

Speaking only hours after Johnson’s election, Barton said on the podcast that he’d already been in touch with Johnson’s team, “talking with them about staff” and offering advice on who the speaker should hire.

“They need to be the people with his worldview,” said Barton.

Fea said that level of involvement is a milestone for a figure who has typically influenced conservative politics from the sidelines. 

“David Barton has never had this level of access to power, if what he’s saying is correct,” Fea said. “This is a turning point in terms of that level of influence.”

For more than three decades, Barton — who said he considered Donald Trump one of the five greatest presidents in U.S. history — has traveled the country, speaking at churches, in front of legislatures and on Christian television programs, spreading a revisionist and disputed version of United States history.

In Barton’s telling, America was founded, not as the world’s first secular republic, but as an explicitly Christian nation. 

According to Barton, the separation of church and state is a myth, invented by progressives based on a misreading of Thomas Jefferson’s famous 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists. And any laws or court rulings limiting the influence of religion in schools and government — especially the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1962 and 1963 decisions banning mandatory public school prayer and Bible readings — are an affront to America’s true founding.

“The first purpose of public schools is to teach students to love and serve God,” Barton said at the same 2021 WallBuilders conference where Johnson spoke. “The second purpose of public schools is to teach students to love and serve their country.”

Speaking at a theater in Grapevine, Texas, in March, Barton urged members of area school boards to unilaterally restore classroom prayer and go back to teaching the biblical creation narrative, in the hopes of drawing a legal challenge that could serve as a test case to overturn the separation of church and state.

“Hopefully somebody will sue you if you do this, because that’s what we need,” he said. “We can win at that, and the whole nation wins as a result.” 

Barton has at other times expressed disdain for LGBTQ people. After touring the site of Nazi atrocities in Poland in 2017, he remarked that the same evil spirit that was responsible for the Holocaust was now at work advancing the “homosexual lifestyle.”

Historians have repeatedly challenged Barton’s assertions. The History News Network called Barton’s 2012 book, “The Jefferson Lies,” “the least credible history book in print,” and its original publisher took the rare step of pulling it from circulation after losing confidence in its accuracy.

Despite the criticisms, Fea and other religious scholars say Barton’s pseudo-history has provided the philosophical underpinnings for the Christian right’s decades-long campaign to place Jesus at the center of public life and to impose conservative Christian values in public policy.

Throughout his career, Johnson has repeated Barton’s arguments about church-state separation, including in a 2022 episode of a podcast he hosts with his wife, in which he said that “the founders wanted to protect the church from an encroaching state, not the other way around.”

Before getting into politics, Johnson spent years working as a staff lawyer for the Alliance Defense Fund, the influential Christian legal advocacy group known today as Alliance Defending Freedom. Throughout the early 2000s, Johnson worked on cases that sought to limit the rights of same-sex couples on religious grounds, while defending public school officials who wished to lead students in voluntary Christian prayers.

“The founders of this country believed that religion and morality were indispensable,” Johnson told a reporter in 2004, while defending a Louisiana elementary school that had been allowing staff to lead children in voluntary prayers at recess. 

Barton’s words also echoed in Johnson’s remarks Wednesday after being elected speaker. In his speech before the House, Johnson declared that the Bible teaches that God “raises up those in authority.”

Looking around at his fellow lawmakers, Johnson said that God has “allowed and ordained each and every one of us to be here at this specific moment.”

Hearing those words from the speaker of the House was a landmark moment for evangelicals, Fea said.

“This is not just Ronald Reagan or Donald Trump saying, “I’m on your side,’” he said. “Mike Johnson is one of them.”