Daniel L. Dreisbach is a professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, D.C. This interview is based on his new book, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers (Oxford University Press, 2017).
JF: What led you to write Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers?
DD: I am a student of the role of religion in the American founding. In my reading of primary sources, I have encountered numerous quotations from and allusions to the Bible, including references to biblical texts that I did not expect to see in this literature. This prompted my interest in the place of the Bible in the political discourse of the age.
Although scholars have noted in passing that the founding generation was well acquainted with the Bible and frequently referenced it in their private expressions, few have examined closely the Bible’s influence on the political culture of the age, giving attention to specific biblical texts and themes that appealed to the founders and may have informed their political pursuits. Indeed, some historians contend that the era, sandwiched between two great spiritual awakenings, was an enlightened age when rationalism was in the ascendancy and the Bible was, if not rejected outright, relegated to the sidelines. Because so little scholarly attention has been focused on the Bible in the founding era, at least compared to the extensive scholarship on Enlightenment and republican influences, I thought this topic merited further inquiry.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers?
DD: I contend that the Bible had a significant, yet often overlooked, influence on the political thought and discourse of the American founding and, therefore, it should be studied alongside other influences on the founding generation, such as British constitutionalism, Enlightenment liberalism, and classical and civic republicanism. The book examines the extensive and diverse uses of the Bible in the political discourse of the founding era, combining careful historical research, elementary political theory, and biblical interpretation.
JF: Why do we need to read Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers?
DD: If I am correct that the Bible was an important, yet often ignored, source that informed the political thought and discourse of the founders, then this book will enrich our understanding of the founding. The Bible was the most frequently cited literary work in the political literature of the founding era. Simply counting the number of biblical citations in the founders’ rhetoric, however, tells us little about the Bible’s contributions to the founding. I hope this book advances the conversation beyond the observation that the founders frequently quoted the Bible and engages deeper questions about how the Bible was used in political discourse and how it may have influenced the founding project.
Among the questions that excite my curiosity are these: which biblical texts appealed to the founding generation, how did they use the Bible, and why did they think these texts were so pertinent, so vital to their own time and place? I emphasize in the book that a study of the founding generation’s uses of the Bible must be attentive to why and how the Bible was used and not merely to the fact that the Bible was read and referenced. Drawing on some of the most familiar rhetoric of the era, I examine the founders’ diverse uses of the Bible, ranging from the essentially literary to the profoundly theological. Recognition of these distinct uses is important insofar as it is misleading to read spiritual meaning into primarily literary, political, or rhetorical uses of the Bible or vice versa.
Another question worth exploring, I believe, is did the Bible inform the founding generation’s political thought and influence their political and legal projects? I see evidence that the founders looked to Scripture for insights into human nature, civic virtue, social order, political authority and other concepts essential to the establishment of a political society. Many in the founding generation saw in the Bible political and legal models – such as republicanism, separation of powers, and due process of law – that they believed enjoyed divine favor and were worthy of emulation in their polities. The political discourse of the founding, for one example, is replete with appeals to the Hebrew “republic” as a model for their own political experiment. In an influential 1775 Massachusetts election sermon, Samuel Langdon, the president of Harvard College and later a delegate to New Hampshire’s constitutional ratifying convention, opined: “The Jewish government, according to the original constitution which was divinely established, . . . was a perfect Republic. . . . The civil Polity of Israel is doubtless an excellent general model …; at least some principal laws and orders of it may be copied, to great advantage, in more modern establishments.” Most of what the founders knew about the Hebraic republic they learned from the Bible. These Americans were well aware that ideas like republicanism found expression in traditions apart from the Hebrew experience, and, indeed, they studied these traditions both ancient and modern. The republican model found in the Hebrew Scriptures, however, reassured pious Americans that republicanism was a political system favored by God.
More generally, but no less significant to the founders’ political vision, many in the founding generation believed the Bible was an indispensable handbook for republican self-government. In a republican government, the founders believed, the people must be sufficiently virtuous that their personal responsibility and discipline would facilitate the social order and stability necessary for a regime of self-government. And the Bible was an ideal tool for developing civic virtue. Believing that “without national morality a republican government cannot be maintained” and that “[t]he Bible contains the most profound philosophy, the most perfect morality, and the most refined policy, that ever was conceived upon earth,” John Adams described the Bible as “the most republican book in the world.” In other words, the Bible nurtures the civic virtues that give citizens in a republic the capacity for self-government. Such sentiments were commonplace in the political discourse of the founding.
A study of the Bible in the political culture of the founding era gives us insights into one source of ideas that shaped the founders’ political thoughts and the political and legal systems they sought to establish. These insights, I hope, will enhance our understanding of ourselves as a people, our history, and the American experiment in republican self-government and liberty under law.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
DD: My parents loved history and reading about history, and they passed on that love to me, exposing me to great works of history and biography. In graduate school and law school I was drawn to political and constitutional history. Specializing in church-state law encouraged me to develop this interest because, as Supreme Court Justice Wiley B. Rutledge observed in 1947, “No provision of the Constitution is more closely tied to or given content by its generating history than the religious clause of the First Amendment. It is at once the refined product and the terse summation of that history.” My first book, Real Threat and Mere Shadow (1987), examined the Court’s use of history in church-state jurisprudence. Much of my subsequent research has expanded on the questions and themes raised in that book, especially questions about the prudential and constitutional role for religion in American public life.
JF: What is your next project?
My frequent collaborator Mark David Hall and I have co-edited several books that examine religion’s influence (or lack thereof) on the political thought and actions of both famous and forgotten founders. In that same vein, we are currently editing a collection of original essays that looks at religion’s influence on important American jurists from the seventeenth to the twenty-first centuries.
JF: Thanks, Daniel! This is great stuff.