March 22, 2013

The Bible in the American Founding and Political Culture

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The role of the Bible and the Protestant culture suffused in it was been greatly underestimated in favor of the Enlightenment contribution, according to Dr. Daniel Dreisbach of American University, and Dr. James Hutson, Chief of the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, speaking at a presentation at the Family Research Council on March 20.

Americans have understood at a popular level for generations that religious belief influenced the American founding, but Dr. Dreisbach began by noting that scholarly opinion has tended to correct this by emphasizing the rationalist thought of the Enlightenment as the moving force in the American Revolution and constitutional establishment. He referred to “the Scottish Enlightenment, various republican schools of thought … the shelves of a small library could be filled with all the scholarship that’s been written on how John Locke contributed to the intellectual ideas of the American founding … Largely missing from the scholarly literature on the American founding is a serious discussion of the Bible’s influence on the founders’ political ideas and their discourse.” This is not a mere oversight, according to Dreisbach, but is a result of scholarly opinion that the American founding involved a rejection of Biblical religion. “The Bible’s influence is not merely ignored in the scholarship, rather many scholars contend that the leading founders, influenced by rationalism, the Enlightenment, rejected Biblical ideas,” Dreisbach said.

This view, however, is contradicted by the record of what the founders actually wrote and said. While references to the Bible in the late eighteenth century may be diminished relative to ideas and rhetoric expressed in the earlier Puritan era, public discourse remained “permeated” by the Bible, according to Dreisbach. “The Bible informed public culture, and political culture, more specifically,” he claimed. This included not only orthodox Christians involved with the founding, such as “Sam Adams or a Patrick Henry,” but also rationalists such as “Benjamin Franklin or a Tom Paine.” Many founders were also “serious students of the Bible” who wrote commentaries and were involved in projects (such as the American Bible Society) pertaining to the Bible. Indeed, political scientist Donald Lutz, surveying a period from 1760 to 1805, found that the Bible accounted for a third of the citations the political literature, far in excess of any other source, in particular more than any “Enlightenment or Whig” source in political philosophy. Lutz found that the Book of Deuteronomy “is cited almost twice as often as all of John Locke’s writings put together.” This, Dreisbach said, is a natural result of the Bible’s ubiquitous presence in eighteenth century America, not only pervading public culture, but also “the most common book” to be found in a person’s possession.

The Bible was used to identify “normative standards and transcendent rules” for political life. The founders and the society of which they were a part found in the “early Hebrew commonwealth” prescribed in the Old Testament a model of republican government to be applied to the American nation. In particular, they looked to Ex. 18-21 (recounting Jethro’s counsel to Moses and the Ten Commandments) and Deut. 16-18 (discussing judges and rulers) for both republican government and the separation of powers within government. Exodus 23 was considered the “Decalogue of due process” by the founders. Finally, Dreisbach noted that the Bible was considered a model for republican government because its doctrines of God, law, and society were considered an alternative to “the tyrant’s whip and rod.” Here Dreisbach held that the founders looked to the Bible to provide “an internal moral compass” for a self-disciplined citizenry, but also for “specific ideas and political institutions of the new American constitutional republic.”

James Hutson then discussed the development of the idea of rights from the Judeo-Christian heritage of the American nation. Sometimes called “natural rights,” they were “invented, literally by canon lawyers in the 12th century.” Catholic theologians developed the concept of “the law of nature” from the 14th century on to offset to the concept of rights as simply “individual powers.” This was then adopted by Protestant writers in the 17th century. Thomas Hobbes among them developed the concept of the “state of nature,” (defining rights as simply individual powers). This “wiped away centuries old restraint on subjective individual power … the liberation of the individual from all social bonds” resulted. The result was “a disaster for western civilization,” leading to “the cataclysm of the French Revolution,” Marxism, and the modern preoccupation with self. But other Protestant natural lawyers provided a more benign heritage, however, according to Hutson. They continued to mix the concepts rights (or powers) and right conduct as had the earlier Catholic writers. It was this more benign version of rights that was adopted by the American founders. While the founders “equated right and power,” they also believed that “rights were given to man by God to fulfill duties” God enjoined on men. The worship of God and self-preservation were understood to be human duties, but for others, the founders believed it was necessary to consult the Bible.

The view that rights had their origin in religion was common until the second half of the twentieth century. John Bingham of Ohio, called the “father of the Fourteenth Amendment” claimed that it was “the spirit of Christianity embodied in legislation.” Legal thought in recent decades, however, has rejected the religious basis of rights. Hutson referred to the statement of liberal theorist Ronald Dworkin in the 1970s that God has nothing to do with rights, a view common from the 1980s on. This would seem to return society to the nihilist vision of Hobbes, Hutson said, with rights understood as the unrestrained power of the individuals, who are “sabotaging any hope of the good society.”

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