Mark Noll: America is a Biblical Civilization

When I am on the road speaking about Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction I am often asked whether there is a difference between the idea that America was founded as a “Christian nation” and the idea that America was founded as a “Biblical nation.” 

Recently the editors at Duke Divinity School’s “Faith and Leadership” blog put this question to Notre Dame historian Mark Noll.  Here is his response:

Q: You’ve described the United States as a “biblical civilization.” What do you mean by that, and is this different from the question of whether America is a Christian nation?

Noll: The Christian nation question is very complicated, and it means bringing to the table a standard by which the question should be answered. So that’s one question.

The other question, about a Bible civilization, is a problem that’s worked out historically and objectively.

What were the shapers of the language? By any stretch of the imagination, the one great shaper of the language of Americans for the first 100 or more years of national history was the King James Version of the Bible.

This was true for all Protestants who spoke English. It became true for Protestants who didn’t speak English when they began to speak English, and became true for Catholics, who used actually a different translation but often, when they talked about the Bible in public, would use the language of the King James Version.

It was true for the first Jewish Bible translations in America, which sounded an awful lot like the King James Version.

In the 1850s, there wasn’t any television. There wasn’t any radio. There wasn’t any Internet. People read, and what they read was almost always, in some way, influenced by the King James Bible.

And I’ve studied the way in which the national schism that led to the American Civil War was a schism over how to interpret the Bible.

From the early 1830s onward, there was a strong abolitionist attack against slavery, and those attackers drew liberally on the Bible. That attack generated a response. The respondents drew liberally on the Bible.

All the sides to the debate brought the Scriptures to bear. It wasn’t the only authority or the only warrant that was brought to bear on this issue, but it was … by far the most often-cited authority.

Read the rest of the Noll interview here.