Christian nationalist pseudo-historian David Barton delivered a presentation last week in which he misrepresented a lecture delivered by 19th century evangelist Charles Finney to argue that the only way to bring about spiritual revival in this nation is for conservative Christians to get more involved in politics.
Speaking to the religious-right organization City Elders last Thursday, Barton repeated his baseless claim that the Bible instructs religious leaders to take responsibility for recruiting candidates to run for office and then deceptively edited and misrepresented Finney’s “Lecture 15: Hindrances To Revivals” by claiming that Finney believed that political involvement was central to bringing about national spiritual revival.
“Charles Finney, of course, was in the Second Great Awakening. Great minister. Great rival,” Barton said. “It’s estimated in one year alone he led more than 100,000 people to Christ. In just one year. But in 1835, he did a book on revivals. It’s called ‘Lectures on Revival.’”
“He looked at all the if/then verses in the Bible,” Barton continued. “He said, ‘If you want this, then you got to be doing this stuff up here.’ And that’s what his lectures are about. If you want revival, here’s what the Bible says you have to do if God’s going to respond. And it was based on that. Lecture number 15 is an interesting lecture. In that lecture he said, ‘The church must take right ground in regard to politics. Politics are part of a religion in such a country as this, and Christians must do their duty to the country as part of their duty to God.’”
“In other words, if God’s gonna send us a revival, we’re gonna have to have Christian folks get involved [in politics] because when righteousness exalts a nation, God will bless it,” Barton added. “But you don’t have righteousness if you don’t have righteous rulers to create that righteousness in policy. So it takes righteous people to elect righteous people. It takes righteous voters to elect righteous officials to get righteous policy that God can bless. And that’s what he understood. That’s Revival Lecture 15. He said, ‘God will bless or curse this nation according to the course that Christians take in politics.’”
“If you don’t get involved in politics, you won’t have [a revival],” Barton declared. “What a different mentality it was back then than what it is now. We think, ‘Oh, we got to stay out of that stuff. That’s secular stuff.’ No, that’s what you need to get involved with if you want to see a cultural change.”
Predictably, Barton misrepresented what Finney actually said in that lecture and did so by deceptively editing together individual sentences without in any way indicating that he had done so.
Here is what Finney actually said:
The church must take right ground in regard to politics. Do not suppose, now, that I am going to preach a political sermon, or that I wish to have you join and get up a Christian party in politics. No, I do not believe in that. But the time has come that Christians must vote for honest men, and take consistent ground in politics, or the Lord will curse them. They must be honest men themselves, and instead of voting for a man because he belongs to their party, Bank or Anti-Bank, Jackson, or Anti-Jackson, they must find out whether he is honest and upright, and fit to be trusted. They must let the world see that the church will uphold no man in office, who is known to be a knave, or an adulterer, or a Sabbath-breaker, or a gambler, or a drunkard. Such is the spread of intelligence and the facility of communication in our country, that every man can know for whom he gives his vote. And if he will give his vote only for honest men, the country will be obliged to have upright rulers. All parties will be compelled to put up honest men as candidates. Christians have been exceedingly guilty in this matter. But the time has come when they must act differently, or God will curse the nation, and withdraw his spirit. As on the subject of slavery and temperance, so on this subject, the church must act right or the country will be ruined. God cannot sustain this free and blessed country, which we love and pray for, unless the church will take right ground. Politics are a part of religion in such a country as this, and Christians must do their duty to the country as a part of their duty to God. It seems sometimes as if the foundations of the nation were becoming rotten, and Christians seem to act as if they thought God did not see what they do in politics. But I tell you, he does see it, and he will bless or curse this nation, according to the course they take.
Finney explicitly said that he was not advocating that Christians “join and get up a Christian party in politics,” but rather that “Christians must vote for honest men, and take consistent ground in politics.” Christians, Finney said, cannot vote for a candidate “known to be a knave, or an adulterer, or a Sabbath-breaker, or a gambler, or a drunkard” simply because that candidate represents the political party they prefer. Finney said that “Christians have been exceedingly guilty” of doing precisely that, warning that if they continued to do so, “God will curse the nation and withdraw his spirit.”
It is not surprising that Barton would misrepresent Finney’s message, as it directly contradicts the political message that he promotes. After all, Barton worked tirelessly in 2016 to convince Christians to support Donald Trump by assuring them that they bore no responsibility for what Trump had done in the past or would do in the future when voting for him because “God will use flawed people to do the right things, and what you want to look at is policy and not character.”
Barton’s insistence that Christians must look at policy and not character when voting is precisely the opposite of the message that Finney delivered.
It is just this kind of dishonest and inaccurate use of history that has led to Barton’s work being slammed by historians and even prompted his publisher to withdraw one of his books. Of course, none of this ever seems to diminish his following among GOP activists and Christian nationalists.