Editor’s Note: We previously published a review of Daniel Dreisbach’s new book, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers, which examines how the Bible informed the thinking of both Christians and religious skeptics at America’s founding. IFWE’s executive director Hugh Whelchel recently interviewed Dreisbach about his book.
Hugh Whelchel (HW): I want to start with a great quote from George Washington’s 1783 Circular to the States:
The foundation of our Empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but at an Epocha when, . . . above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation, have had a meliorating influence on mankind and increased the blessings of Society.
Is Washington talking about the Bible here?
Daniel Dreisbach (DD): Yes, no book in the American colonial or founding periods was more accessible or influential than the Bible. The prominence and importance of the Bible in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America are difficult to overstate, especially as contrasted with the place of the Bible in our own secular society. Washington, I believe, is acknowledging here the vital importance of the Bible to the American founding.
HW: If that is true, why have so many modern scholars missed or dismissed the Bible in the founders’ political discourse?
DD: There are a number of reasons, I believe. First, often the most important things in life, like the air we breathe, do not receive the attention they merit because they are so pervasive and so much a part of our existence that they are taken for granted.
Second, a biblical illiteracy, especially a lack of familiarity with the distinct phrases and cadences of the King James Bible, may explain the failure of many scholars to recognize the biblical language in this discourse.
Third, scholars trained in the modern academy with its emphasis on the strictly rational and the secular may discount biblical themes because they find them less noteworthy or sophisticated than the intellectual contributions of the Enlightenment.
Finally, there may be a discomfort with or, perhaps, hostility toward explicitly religious material and themes. Some scholars find a focus on the God of the Bible and biblical religion divisive or even offensive to twenty-first-century, secular sensibilities.
HW: Give us a sense of context; what was the religious makeup of the colonists in 1776?
DD: About 80% of Americans of European descent were British, 98% or more identified with Protestantism, and approximately three-fourths were affiliated with the Reformed theological tradition.
HW: In your book, you suggest that the American founders were influenced by a combination of biblical and other philosophical/political ideas. Explain what you mean by that.
DD: The American founders were influenced not only by Hebrew and Christian traditions but also by British constitutionalism, Enlightenment liberalism, and classical and civic republicanism.
According to Donald S. Lutz, the Bible accounted for about a third of all references in the political literature of the founding era: “Deuteronomy is the most frequently cited book, followed by Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws.” The book of Deuteronomy alone is “cited almost twice as often as all of Locke’s writings put together” and “Saint Paul is cited about as frequently as Montesquieu and Blackstone, the two most-cited secular authors.”
HW: What was so appealing about the book of Deuteronomy to the American founders?
DD: Deuteronomy was a digest of the laws of Moses, which exerted significant influence on American law from colonial days. The book of Deuteronomy also recorded God’s dealings with a chosen nation, especially in establishing the political and legal institutions necessary to govern that nation.
Many Americans believed their own experience was analogous to the Hebrew commonwealth described in the books of Moses. They, too, were a chosen people who would be governed in every detail according to the word of God and would be instruments of God’s redemptive plan for humankind.
HW: What other biblical texts were popular with the founders?
DD: The founders were drawn to“Covenant Nation” texts. These texts described a covenant between God and his people in which God promised divine blessing and protection for a righteous people whose God is the Lord—a people who conform their ways to divine precepts. Examples would include Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28.
The founders also cited “Covenant Lawsuit” is texts, which described grievances God had with his people for their failure to honor the covenant. Micah 6:1-8 is an example of a Covenant Lawsuit text.
The “Righteous Ruler” text is another popular type of text. These biblical passages describe the characteristics and blessings of a righteous ruler—something they thought King George III was not. Examples include Proverbs 29:2, Exodus 18:21, and 2 Samuel 23:3-4.
Another interesting group of texts is the “Language of Liberty” texts. These texts describe the blessings and the source of liberty. They were often used without making a distinction between spiritual liberty and political liberty. One very popular text, for example, is Galatians 5:1, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free…”
In my book, I have multiple examples of how these groups of biblical passages were referenced or alluded to in the writings of the founding fathers.
HW: What is one of the major ideas you want people to come away with from your new book?
DD: I want readers to see that from the Pilgrim fathers to the founding fathers and beyond, Americans have looked to the Bible for guidance in creating and administering a well-ordered political society. The American founders drew on a variety of sources and authorities, but no source was better known or more authoritative and accessible in their culture than the Bible.