The Bible and the Constitution

reading-the-bible-with-the-founding-fathersIn a recent article at The Hill, American University political scientist Daniel Dreisbach reminds us that the Bible was important in the framing of the United States Constitution. (See his visit to the Author’s Corner here).  I appreciate Dreisbach’s work.  Many friends who take a more secular approach to the ideological origins of the Constitution have asked me what I think about Dreisbach’s views on the Bible and the founding.  Frankly, I think his book Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers is excellent for what it does, namely showing that the Bible should not be neglected as a source of inspiration and ideas for many of the founding fathers.   In his interview with me about the book, Dreisbach wrote:

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.

I imagine that Dreisbach has no problem with the idea that the Bible was one of many sources that informed the thinking of the founding fathers.

Here is a taste of Dreisbach’s piece at The Hill: “Liberty under law was always rooted in biblical principles.”

Legal commentators have pointed to additional examples of the Bible’s influence on specific constitutional provisions, including provisions on cruel and unusual punishment, the number of witnesses required in cases of treason, affirmation in the alternative to an oath, and corruption of blood.

Although the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 readily conceded that the document they wrote was imperfect, there was a consensus that it was the best that could be framed under the circumstances. And some, such as Benjamin Rush, “believed the hand of God was employed in this work,” just as surely as “God had divided the Red Sea to give a passage to the children of Israel.”

Even the skeptic Benjamin Franklin, while disclaiming that the Convention’s work was “divinely inspired,” remarked that he could not conceive such a momentous achievement as framing “the new federal constitution” without it “being in some degree influenced, guided, and governed by that omnipotent, omnipresent and beneficent Ruler.”

Commentators today may disagree that the Constitution was a product of Divine Providence or that it contains elements informed by Christianity, but the Bible was undisputedly among the intellectual sources that influenced the founders. Acknowledging the Bible’s often-neglected contributions to the founding project enriches our understanding of the nation’s great constitutional experiment in republican self-government and liberty under law.

As I argued in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction, the Bible was important to the founding generation.  I was particularly interested in how the Bible was used, but Driesbach’s work goes much deeper and reveals just how much the eighteenth-century was saturated with biblical ideas.  Of course how that history is used today raises a very different set of issues and questions.  This is part of the reason I wrote a followup to Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? titled Why Study History?

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