I mentioned this story in today’s Evangelical Roundup, but I thought it deserved its own post. In case you missed it, David Barton, the political activist who uses the American past to promote his Christian Right agenda, is suing the Washington D.C. Metro system. He says that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority for the District of Columbia had no right to reject an ad by Wallbuilders, Barton’s non-profit organization.
Here is a taste of the complaint:
Plaintiff WallBuilder Presentations (“WallBuilders”) brings this Complaint against Defendant Randy Clarke, in his official capacity as the General Manager and Chief Executive Officer of Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (“WMATA”), to declare unlawful and enjoin specific WMATA advertising guidelines (Nos. 9 and 12) and its application of those guidelines to reject certain bus advertisements proposed by WallBuilders. The WMATA advertising guidelines challenged here, both on their face and as applied to WallBuilders’ advertisements, violate the First Amendment. In support of its Complaint, WallBuilders alleges as follows:
Plaintiff WallBuilders sought to advertise on the side of WMATA Metrobuses to promote its religious and educational mission, which is to inform the public about the role that the Founders’ religious faith played in the creation of the nation and the drafting of the Constitution. WMATA rejected the ads because they related to issues on which there are varying public opinions. Though WMATA never identified the specific issue of public controversy that it believed the proposed advertisements addressed, it is apparent that WallBuilders was prohibited from advertising because its proposed ads sought to address issues of public importance from a religious viewpoint. WallBuilders brings this action to remedy WMATA’s violation of its constitutional rights.
In the summer of 2023, WallBuilders sought to launch an advertising campaign in the National Capital region to publicize its organization and its mission and to educate the public on the role of faith in the founding of our nation. In an effort to reach a broad swath of the metropolitan population, WallBuilders sought access to a widely available advertising platform—the exterior of WMATA’s buses—to convey messages in connection with its educational mission. WallBuilders sought to publicize its organization and its mission by inviting viewers to visit its newly updated website, through which viewers may learn more about the role of faith and
Christianity in the founding of the United States.
The proposed advertisements took several forms—including 1) a depiction of the well-known Henry Brueckner image of George Washington kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge with the simple question “CHRISTIAN?” superimposed in large font and an invitation (in smaller font) to visit WallBuilders.com “TO FIND OUT ABOUT THE FAITH OF OUR FOUNDERS,” 2) an alternate version that merely included the website address (without the question or the reference to “Faith of Our Founders”); 3) a similar advertisement that depicted a well-known painting of the signing the U.S. Constitution, with an identical tagline, “CHRISTIAN? TO FIND OUT ABOUT THE FAITH OF OUR FOUNDERS, VISIT WALLBUILDERS.COM,” and finally, 4) the identical image of the signing of the Constitution, this time without the question or the reference to “Faith of Our Founders,” instead merely directing the viewers to WallBuilders’ website.
The advertisements, individually and as a whole, invite viewers to visit WallBuilders’ website to access the organization’s resources about the critical role that religious faith played in our nation’s history. The first set of advertisements explicitly informed viewers that by visiting WallBuilders’ website they could learn whether George Washington and other Founders were Christian. The second set of advertisements removed the explicit reference to Christianity and simply invited viewers to visit WallBuilders’ website without any description of what they might find there.
WMATA rejected each of the proposed advertisements, refusing to allow WallBuilders to purchase advertising space to promote its educational and religious mission. WMATA relied on its “Guidelines Governing Commercial Advertising” (“Advertising Guidelines” or “Guidelines”) for its decisions rejecting the religiously themed ads. Specifically, WMATA cited as the basis for its rejection Guideline 9, which prohibits advertising “intended to influence members of the public regarding an issue on which there are varying opinions.”
WallBuilders is a Christian organization dedicated to restoring the moral, religious, and constitutional foundations upon which America was built. It has declared its primary mission as “educating the nation concerning the Godly foundation of our country.” To that end, WallBuilders develops “materials to educate the public concerning the periods in our country’s history when its laws and policies were firmly rooted in Biblical principles.” See generally About Us, WallBuilders.com/about-us.
The founders of WallBuilders created the organization after prayer and study of the Biblical books of Jeremiah and Nehemiah, as a result of what they believe is a calling from God. WallBuilders’ goal is to educate the public “on the moral, religious, and constitutional foundation on which America was built.” WallBuilders’ Christian faith animates its mission and is the impetus behind its efforts to teach about both history and God’s role in it. This faith compels WallBuilders to share information about the role that religion and, specifically, Biblical values should play in current politics and public policy.
WallBuilders’ website, WallBuilders.com, is the gateway to its religious and educational offerings, providing an online library of resources consistent with its goal, videos discussing America’s religious heritage, podcasts offering unique insights from historians and religious leaders, pages of free articles about America’s religious history, quotations from historical figures demonstrating their religious commitment, links to request speakers, and even a store to purchase its products. WallBuilders.com is critical to WallBuilders’ religious and educational mission as a place where the organization can share its views about the role of the faith of the Founders, the impact of religion on the founding, and especially the role of Christianity in the drafting of the Constitution.
To launch this campaign, WallBuilders created two advertisements for display on the exterior of public buses and on social media. Each advertisement features a famous painting relating to the nation’s founding. The first depicted a famous image of George Washington kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge (from the original painting by Henry Brueckner, a copy of which, as engraved by John C. McRae, is currently housed in the Library of Congress). The second depicted Howard Chandler Christy’s 1940 painting of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, which hangs in the East Stairway of the U.S. Capitol building near the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Each advertisement also prominently stated, “CHRISTIAN? TO FIND OUT ABOUT THE FAITH OF OUR FOUNDERS, GO TO WALLBUILDERS.COM.” Each advertisement included WallBuilders’ logo in the top left corner and a QR code in the bottom right corner that, when scanned, takes the viewer to a specific page of WallBuilders’ newly redesigned website housing the answer to the question posed in the advertisement, supported by dozens of quotations drawn from primary resources.
Read the entire complaint here.
As an American historian, what strikes me most about this case is the fact that the Wallbuilders proposed advertisement depicts George Washington praying in the snow at Valley Forge, an event that never happened and has been widely debunked by historians, including myself in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction. Breuckner’s painting does not represent a real historical event, but Barton appears to be passing it off as American history.
Recently, California Christian Right megachurch pastor Jack Hibbs tried to promote the story about Washington praying at Valley Forge on his podcast. Here is how I responded then:
In the winter of 1777-1778 the Continental Army faced one of its lowest points in the Revolutionary War. British troops under the direction of General William Howe were in control of Philadelphia. George Washington’s soldiers were coming off major defeats at Brandywine and Germantown. Amid public criticism stemming from these military failures, Washington took his army to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, eighteen miles northwest of Philadelphia. Here they would heal their wounds and prepare for the Spring campaign. The conditions at Valley Forge, as any elementary school student knows, were not good. The army lacked some of the basic necessities of life. It was cold. Washington, who managed to keep the army together during these trying times, praised the heroic determination of his soldiers: “To see Men without Cloathes to cover their nakedness, without Blankets to lay on, without Shoes, by which their Marches might be traced by the Blood from their feet…is a mark of Patience and obedience which in my opinion can scarce be parallel’d.
As the army struggled through the Valley Forge winter, a local man named Isaac Potts, the owner of the house where Washington was staying, walked through the woods near the encampment and heard a voice amid a bower of oak trees. He realized quickly that the voice he heard was Washington himself, who was kneeling on the ground praying to God. Potts was moved. As a Quaker he opposed this war, but his sympathies were with the British. Seeing Washington in prayer, however, changed everything. As Potts arrived back home he announced to his wife, Sarah: “I have this day seen what I never expected. Thee knows that I always thought the sword and the gospel utterly inconsistent; and that no man could be a soldier and a Christian at the same time. But George Washington has this day convinced me of my mistake.” Seeing Washington in prayer transformed Potts into a patriot: “If George Washington be not a man of God does not, through him, work out a great salvation for America.”
Versions of Potts’s account of Washington praying at Valley Forge appeared in dozens of nineteenth-century school textbooks, including William Holmes McGuffey’s well-known Eclectic Reader series. In 1866 Henry Brueckner recaptured this event in a painting, The Prayer at Valley Forge. It portrays Washington on his knees in the snow making supplication to God, supposedly on behalf of his army and the American cause. Brueckner’s painting has become a well-known piece of Americana. Visitors to the Washington Memorial Chapel at Valley Forge and the prayer chapel in the U.S. Capitol can find a stained-glass rendering of the image. In 1928 it appeared on a U.S. postage stamp.
There is one major problem with Pott’s story of Washington praying at Valley Forge–it almost certainly did not happen. While it is likely that Washington prayed while he was with his army at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-1778, it is unlikely that the story reported by Potts, memorialized in painting and read to millions of schoolchildren, is anything more than legend. It was first told in the seventeenth edition (1816) of Mason Locke Weems’s Life of Washington. Weems claimed to have heard it directly from Potts, his “good old FRIEND.” Potts may have owned the house where Washington stayed at Valley Forge, but his aunt Deborah Potts Hewes was living there alone at the time. Indeed, Potts was probably not even residing in Valley Forge during the encampment. And he was definitely not married. It would be another twenty-five years before he wed Sarah, making a conversation with her in the wake of the supposed Washington prayer impossible. Another version of the story, which appeared in the diary of Reverend Nathaniel Randolph Snowden, claims that it was John Potts, Isaac’s brother, who heard Washington praying. These discrepancies, coupled with the fact that Weems was known for writing stories about Washington based on scanty evidence, have led historians to discredit it.
Warren Throckmorton is also on the case here. As Warren notes, you can get my full debunking of the Brueckner painting in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.
I am guessing Barton is going to win this case, unless a judge decides that bad history isn’t protected under the First Amendment!