Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Founders’ Go-To Text

The book has two main parts. In the first, Dreisbach shows the pervasive influence of the Bible on American public culture (chapter 1), the Founding Fathers (chapter 2), and political discourse at the time of the Founding (chapter 3). Part 2 explores specific Bible verses—Micah 6:8 (chapter 5), Proverbs 14:34 (chapter 7), Proverbs 29:2 (chapter 8), and Micah 4:4 (chapter 10)—as well as thematically arranged content on resistance (chapter 6) and liberty (chapter 9). After each chapter in part 2, Dreisbach also offers an example of the Bible in the context of American history; for example, George Washington taking his presidential oath with his hand on an open Bible.

 

In his illuminating Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers, Daniel L. Dreisbach shows how early Americans used the Bible both as an intellectual sourcebook and as a tool for moral instruction. He thinks “the Bible was the most authoritative, accessible, and familiar book in eighteenth-century America.” But be comforted, O Unbeliever! This book is not a work of Christian apologetics.

“A claim of biblical influence,” Dreisbach writes, “does not suggest that the founders were theocrats intent on imposing a biblical order on the polity.” On the contrary, he says, “Believers and skeptics alike made use of the Bible.” The American University professor is admirably cautious, avoiding the Scylla of making every Founder a deist and the Charybdis of making every reference to the Bible a mark of true Christian piety.

Nevertheless, Dreisbach has an agenda. He exhorts students of the Founding “to be attentive to how the founders read the Bible and its place in the political culture of the founding era.” His advice is not just for fellow academics. The “biblical illiteracy” of our age “inevitably distorts the conception Americans have of themselves as a people, the nation, and their political experiment in self-government.”

The book has two main parts. In the first, Dreisbach shows the pervasive influence of the Bible on American public culture (chapter 1), the Founding Fathers (chapter 2), and political discourse at the time of the Founding (chapter 3). Part 2 explores specific Bible verses—Micah 6:8 (chapter 5), Proverbs 14:34 (chapter 7), Proverbs 29:2 (chapter 8), and Micah 4:4 (chapter 10)—as well as thematically arranged content on resistance (chapter 6) and liberty (chapter 9). After each chapter in part 2, Dreisbach also offers an example of the Bible in the context of American history; for example, George Washington taking his presidential oath with his hand on an open Bible.

Not everyone sees the Founding through Dreisbachian spectacles. The author quotes the late Wilson Carey McWilliams, for example, as saying that the Founding generation, far from using the Bible, “rejected or deemphasized the Bible and biblical rhetoric.” Also cited is John Fea’s claim that “one is hard-pressed to find any Christian or biblical language apart from a few passing references to God” in the arguments made by colonial leaders prior to 1776.

Dreisbach sets the stage for his rebuttal with Donald S. Lutz’s selective survey of American documents from 1760 to 1805. A single biblical book, Deuteronomy, occurs more often than the Baron de Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws—indeed, Deuteronomy is cited almost twice as often as John Locke’s entire corpus. “The American founders drew on a variety of sources and authorities,” Dreisbach notes, “but no source was better known or more authoritative and accessible in their culture than the Bible.” He makes clear that he takes the word “Founders” to include far more than Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton. The term describes “a cast of thousands who played their patriotic part at the local, state, and/or national levels.”

The book is at its best—and shows how it is “the product of three decades of research”—when Dreisbach makes a point about the Bible and then uses a Founder to illustrate his observation or, even better, quotes a Founder making his point for him. Such is the case when Dreisbach claims that “the founding generation wove biblical language, often without quotation marks or explicit references” because “quotation marks and citations were unnecessary to identify the source of words so familiar to a biblically literate people.”

Dreisbach’s opponents may take issue with him here. Perhaps the Founders used biblical phrases without even knowing they were in the Bible. Dreisbach thinks the reverse is far more likely. The Founders knew the Bible, even if historians do not: “The failure to recognize Washington’s numerous biblical references perhaps indicates widespread biblical illiteracy among modern scholars.”

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