Constitutional scholar Daniel Dreisbach discussed the influence of the Bible on the American founding at a presentation sponsored by the C.S. Lewis Institute at McLean Presbyterian Church on May 19. He referred to his new book, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers.
Dreisbach said that the Bible had a strong role in the last third of the eighteenth century. Many people “knew the Bible from cover to cover.” Phrases and cadences from the King James Bible affected their language. It “shaped their habits of mind.” The Bible was “the most authoritative and accessible book” of eighteenth century America. Christian and skeptic alike appealed to the Bible in support of their arguments. The founders who drafted the Constitution appealed to Scripture more frequently than any other source. Dreisbach noted that scholar Donald Lutz has identified one third of the citations in the literature of the founders as being from the Bible. Deuteronomy was the most frequently cited book, cited more often than the most quoted secular source, Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws. Dreisbach said Deuteronomy was frequently cited because it is “a digest of the books of Moses.” He said that the Pentateuch exerted an enormous influence on the colonists. It was used to develop political and legal institutions. Americans believed that Deuteronomy was a guide for them as it had been for Moses. It told the way God dealt with his chosen people. Like the Israelites, the colonists had crossed a body of water and settled in an inhospitable environment. They were drawn to New Testament texts such as I Peter 2:13-14:
“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.”
The colonists were drawn to the Exodus narrative and the idea of liberation. They loved the Epistle to the Galatians and its emphasis on liberty. They were drawn to Bible verses talking of righteous rulers. An example of such a Biblical exposition of the characteristics of a righteous ruler is the account of King David’s passing in II Samuel. Dreisbach asked if Biblical citations were merely rhetoric, or a substantive influence on the founding. Did the founders use the Bible to influence the founding? He replied that the Bible was used to “enrich a common language,” and to enhance “the power and weight of rhetoric.” It was used to identify transcendent rules for a society. It was used to gain insights into the character of God and his dealings with men and nations.
Dreisbach said that contemporary scholars routinely discount or dismiss the Bible. The American Revolution was “sandwiched between the first and second great awakenings.” Was Enlightenment rationalism in the ascendancy in this interim, as scholars not uncommonly suggest? Actually, he said, the Bible played a significant part in the revolution. Other influences on the revolution were English common law, the Magna Carta, the Enlightenment , Locke, Montesquieu, classic and civic republicanism (Cicero and the ancients, but also Machiavelli). George Washington identified the Bible as a major influence on the republic. Washington said that “the foundation of the American Empire was not laid in a gloomy age of dogma and superstition, but in the pure and benign light of Revelation that has had a meliorating influence on mankind.” The founders looked to the Bible for insights into “civic order and civic virtue.” They believed that the Bible offered ways to resist tyrannical government and choose righteous rulers.
The Judeo-Christian idea of covenant influenced the idea of constitutionalism, Dreisbach maintained. The doctrine of original sin prompted such political doctrines as the idea of checks and balances and limited government. The rule of law, due process of law, and representative government were all influenced by the belief in the Biblical doctrine of original sin, and the resulting distrust of power in the hands of rulers. State constitutions referred to future rewards and punishments. The colonists saw a model of republicanism and due process of law in the Bible (especially in Exodus 23, which offers rules and examples of impartial justice). Separation of powers the colonists found in Deuteronomy 16, 17, and 18. Dreisbach said that it may be, although he does not endorse the view, that the Biblical offices of prophet, priest, and king influenced the doctrine of separation of powers. The Bible almost certainly influenced specific parts of the Constitution (Sabbath keeping resulted in excepting Sundays from the days counted in which the President has to veto bills, while the Constitution’s treatment of treason and witnesses are influenced by the Biblical mandate that only one witness is insufficient to sentence someone to death).
Dreisbach said that the founders were interested in “small ‘r’ republicanism” (popular government from the consent of the governed, and freely elected representatives). John Adams said that the Bible was “the most republican book in the world.” One might wonder what is republican about the Bible, which has stories of numerous kings and kingdoms. Dreisbach said that the founding generation thought that the Bible was republican. The rule of the judges in the Bible preceding monarchical Israel was seen as a republican government. An election sermon of the period said that in “Jewish government, the original constitution was a perfect Republic, divinely inspired.’ For John Adams, the Bible was an indispensable handbook for republican citizenship. Dreisbach pointed out that the founding generation’s syllogism was that virtue and morality are necessary for republican government, religion is necessary for virtue and morality, and that therefore religion is necessary for republican government. The people must be controlled by virtue within rather than the “whip and the rod.” Adams said that without a national morality, the republic cannot be maintained, and the Bible nurtures civic virtues.
Our own era sees efforts to “dismiss history and diminish faith and faith based ideas” from the American founding. It is claimed, for instance, that the founders were all deists, or that the Constitution was “godless.” These assertions, Dreisbach said, will not stand up to scrutiny. Public ignorance about the Bible makes people unable to relate to American culture and history. He quoted Newsweek in 1982 that “now historians are finding the Bible is more important to American history than the Constitution.” Both the content and the design of the Constitution were informed by the Bible. He said that to better understand the Constitution, “read your Bible.”
In response to questions, Dreisbach said that the separation of church and state has meant many different things to different people, but the specific doctrine of separation of church and state annunciated by the Supreme Court in the Everson decision of 1947, which began an era of secularizing of the state and public square, would have been unfamiliar to the founders. He said that in using the expression “separation of church and state,” Jefferson was only making a point about federalism, saying that the federal government would not become involved in religious affairs. Dreisbach maintained that one would be “hard pressed to find a single founder who did not think that religion was vital to republican government.” All founders, both orthodox Christians and deists, would have agreed that Jesus was a great moral teacher, including such critics of Christianity as Thomas Paine.
Dreisbach did say that the founders’ citations of Biblical references to liberty were dubious in the context in which they were used. The liberty referred to in the Bible is really Christian liberty. Asked what he thinks of popular author and filmmaker David Barton, Dreisbach said that Barton sometimes gets things right and sometimes gets things wrong, as he does himself.
Another questioner asked if the founders really meant Christianity when they referred to “religion.” Dreisbach said that the founding generation was 98% Protestant, and so reasonably they may have meant to speak of Christianity in many instances, but in a particular case, a broader meaning may have been intended. Thus in any particular case, it is hard to say.
It was asked how the founders justified revolution in light of the admonition in Romans 13 to obey the government. Dreisbach said that they would have pointed to Paul’s statement that the government should bear the sword for good. Protestants early on asked if there was a right of revolution, and concluded that there was against oppressive governments.
It was asked if George Washington was a Christian. Dreisbach responded that Washington was cautious because he saw himself as a leader of everyone. He did not want to take a firm religious position in public. He was “deliberately vague.” Washington was very respectful of religious people. He believed with his contemporaries that religion was essential to republican government. He believed that the public role of religion was vital to republican society. He believed that one cannot call oneself a patriot without a religious commitment. But it is difficult to know Washington’s private religious views, Dreisbach said.
Thus the American founders saw religion and virtue as vital both in a people and in their leaders. Samuel Adams said that security is not in arms but in the virtue of the people. He referred to Benjamin Church, who passed secrets to the British commander through his mistress, as a known traitor to his wife before he was a traitor to the revolutionary cause. The founders likewise emphasized the character of virtuous leaders, seeing them as “able men who fear God, who tell the truth, and hate covetousness.” The Bible was the text that the founders turned to learn the characteristics of a good ruler.
The founders, whether Christian or not, believed that the Bible provided an important source of morality for the country. The enormous success of the American nation since the founding must thus be attributed in fair measure to its Biblical basis, in contrast to the failures of the totalitarian experiments of the twentieth century, which sought to radically alter human nature and the human condition. The American success and the failures of those rationalistic projects serve both as a warning against the contemporary liberal/left effort to change the human condition by expanding individual “rights” and using rapidly developing technology, and also to justify Biblically based ideas for the nation at large.