Over the years I have been as pleased as annoyed when politicians — from Kennedy (my earliest memory of a president) to Trump (harumph) — quote the Bible or allude to the Bible or make use of the Bible when they are speaking. Daniel Dreisbach, in his new and very well researched book, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers, examines both the common use of the Bible by our politicians and how they did what they did.
Let’s make it clear what Dreisbach is not doing:
This book does not make claims about the interior faith commitments of the founding fathers, although it is certainly true that many were devout Christians; it is also true that some influential founders were skeptical of the central claims of Christianity. Nor do I argue that all the founders embraced the Bible as the revealed word of God. Clearly, some did not. The central claim or thesis of this book is not that America is a Christian nation. Whether America is or ever was a “Christian nation” is an important, complex question that merits scrutiny, but it is not the subject of this study. The book, however, offers insights into the questions whether individual founders were orthodox Christians or whether America was, in some sense, a Christian nation (18).
Frankly, many today would miss allusions to the Bible and many politicians would miss even more allusions. We have become a biblically illiterate nation (some think the Bible sounds like Shakespeare!) with biblically illiterate leaders and in so becoming we have become tone deaf to the biblically-shaped rhetoric of our past. Hence,
A biblical literacy and an awareness of the Bible’s place in the culture of the American founding not only enriches one’s understanding of the nation’s history but also provides insight into the identity of the American people and the values reflected in their systems of civil government and laws. Knowledge of the Bible and its place in the American experience, in short, helps Americans better understand themselves and their history. Conversely, the increasing biblical illiteracy of the modern age almost inevitably distorts the conception Americans have of themselves as a people, the nation, and their political experiment in self-government (19).
Dreisbach covers so many interesting themes: important texts like Micah 6:8, the creation of the American seal, resisting (perceived) tyrants, Benjamin Franklin’s historic call for prayer in the Constitutional Convention, the first prayer in Congress, the marks of a godly magistrate, the idea of liberty, George Washington’s history-forming taking of the oath of the president, and the importance of American metaphors for liberty.
Here is Ben Franklin’s address and request from pp. 137-138, and it is worth your while to read every word:
The small Progress we have made, after 4 or 5 weeks’ close Attendance and continual Reasonings with each other, our different Sentiments on almost every Question, several of the last producing as many Noes as Ayes, is, methinks, a melancholy Proof of the Imperfection of the Human Understanding. We indeed seem to feel our own want of political Wisdom, since we have been running all about in Search of it. We have gone back to ancient History for Models of Government, and examin’d the different Forms of those Republics, which, having been originally form’d with the Seeds of their own Dissolution, now no longer exist; and we have view’d modern States all round Europe, but find none of their Constitutions suitable to our circumstances.
In this Situation of this Assembly, groping, as it were, in the dark [Job 12:25] to find Political Truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of Lights [James 1:17] to illuminate our Understandings? In the Beginning of the Contest with Britain, when we were sensible of Danger, we had daily Prayers in this Room for the Divine Protection. Our Prayers, Sir, were heard;—and they were graciously answered. All of us, who were engag’d in the Struggle, must have observed frequent Instances of a superintending Providence in our Favour. To that kind Providence we owe this happy Opportunity of Consulting in Peace on the Means of establishing our future national Felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful Friend? or do we imagine we no longer need its assistance? I have lived, Sir, a long time; and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this Truth, that GOD governs in the Affairs of Men [cf. Daniel 4:17]. And if a Sparrow cannot fall to the Ground without his Notice [Matthew 10:29; Luke 12:6], is it probable that an Empire can rise without his Aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings, that “except the Lord build the House, they labour in vain that build it” [Psalm 127:1], I firmly believe this; and I also believe, that, without his concurring Aid, we shall succeed in this political Building no better than the Builders of Babel [Genesis 11:1-9]; we shall be divided by our little, partial, local Interests, our Projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a Reproach and a Bye-word [see Deuteronomy 28:37; 1 Kings 9:7; 2 Chronicles 7:20; Psalm 44:14] down to future Ages. And, what is worse, Mankind may hereafter, from this unfortunate Instance, despair of establishing Government by human Wisdom, and leave it to Chance, War, and Conquest.
I therefore beg leave to move,
That henceforth Prayers, imploring the Assistance of Heaven and its Blessing on our Deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to Business; and that one or more of the Clergy of this city be requested to officiate in that Service.
Quite the request.
Here is Dreisbach’s major conclusion:
The Bible shaped the world of the founding fathers in profound and manifold ways. The founders’ written and spoken words give evidence that they were intimately familiar with the text sacred to the Christian faith. The language and cadences of the King James Bible, especially, permeated their patterns and figures of speech (229).
Lest you jump up and accusingly ask, “We need to be told this?” Well, Yes, but the book is a detailed and magnificently articulated set of studies on how the Bible was used by our past leaders. Dreisbach knows the Bible was used to prop up republicanism not to resurrect ancient Biblical government. But…
Nevertheless, the Bible was the most authoritative, accessible, and familiar book in eighteenth-century America, and it was an important source that Americans studied for insights into law, politics, civil government, and many other activities of human society. The Bible was thought to offer valuable insights into human nature, political authority, and other matters of importance to political theory. Moreover, the moral instruction found in Scripture was thought to nurture the civic virtues a people require for self-government. For these reasons, the student of the American founding is well advised to be attentive to how the founders read the Bible and its place in the political culture of the founding era (231).
Critics have made their points, and made them well, and I re-format and enumerate to make them clear:
- Critics have expressed concern that the Bible was invoked to buttress unrighteous causes, such as chattel slavery, or that believers in biblical authority have misperceived divine guidance or calls to action based on misinterpretations of the Sacred Text.
- There is a danger that pious citizens will fall for the deception that comes from confusing one’s personal interests for God’s will.
- Another criticism is that the founders used biblical language and themes in the service of a “civil religion.” A civil religion, as the term is used here, deliberately appropriates sacred language, themes, and symbols for a distinctly political purpose, such as promoting national unity or legitimizing the political regime. In addition to the political invocation of biblical language, the founders’ uses of the Bible in public ceremonies, such as George Washington’s presidential inauguration, and public prayers, such as the first prayer service in the Continental Congress, further contributed to crafting a distinctly American civil or political religion.
- Critics have decried selected founders’ alleged misappropriation of sacred language, themes, and symbols for profane political purposes. This, they say, poses the danger of attributing divine purposes and authority to a temporal political enterprise. The concern is that the political authority will requisition religion in general and the Bible in particular to serve its own ends.
- Another concern is that political uses of the Bible (and the Christian religion) trivialize or debase the sacred Word of God. Indeed, some critics go so far as to say that deployment of the Bible in partisan political discourse verges on blasphemy.
These were for some the “golden days” of the faith in America, and much has changed since those days, but it is worthy of serious thinking to ponder the influence of the Bible in political rhetoric.