When asked to identify the “founding fathers,” Americans typically name a few prominent political leaders and military heroes — figures like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. A more difficult question is: Who are America’s intellectual founding fathers? That is, whose ideas informed the American founding principles in republican self-government and liberty under law?
The standard history books report that the American founders in the last third of the 18th century drew on diverse intellectual sources, most prominently British constitutionalism, classical and civic republicanism, and Enlightenment liberalism. One could fill the shelves of a substantial library with all the books written on how John Locke and Baron de Montesquieu, the authors of the influential “Two Treatises of Government” and “The Spirit of the Laws,” respectively, “founded” America.
Strangely missing from this list, however, is the Bible, the text sacred to the Christian faith and the most venerated, authoritative, and accessible book in 17th and 18th century America. It is a remarkable omission, indeed, given that several of the colonies were founded as Bible commonwealths. And even as late as the founding era, the Bible continued to hold a place of reverence in American culture. The Bible, in short, shaped significant aspects of American public culture, including language, letters, arts, education, and law.
Drawing attention to the Bible’s vital contributions to the founding is not meant to diminish, much less dismiss, the substantial contributions of Locke, Montesquieu, and other secular theorists who influenced the founders’ political pursuits. Rather, acknowledging the Bible’s often ignored role in the founding enriches one’s appreciation of the multiple, diverse influences that informed the ambitious enterprise of securing political independence and establishing new constitutional republics committed to political liberty and self-government constrained by the rule of law.
The founders, as I document in my new book “Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers,” lived in a biblically literate society. Their many quotations from and allusions to both familiar and obscure biblical texts confirm that they knew the Bible from cover to cover. Biblical language and themes liberally seasoned their rhetoric.
Following an extensive survey of American political literature from 1760 to 1805, political scientist Donald S. Lutz reported that the Bible was cited more frequently than any European writer or even any European school of thought, such as Enlightenment liberalism. Approximately one-third of all citations in the literature he surveyed were to the Bible.
Many in the founding generation regarded the Bible as indispensable to their political experiment. This should not surprise us because 98 percent or more of Americans in the founding era were affiliated with Protestant Christianity, which has traditionally viewed Scripture as authority in all aspects of life. Many founders thought the Bible was essential for nurturing the civic virtues that give citizens the capacity for self-government.
Despite this evidence of the Bible’s influence, both scholarly and popular works give little attention to the Bible and its impact on the founding generation. Not content to simply ignore the Bible’s substantial contributions to late-18th century political culture, some historians contend that the founding 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.
Why has so much modern scholarship missed or dismissed the Bible’s role in the founding? Biblical illiteracy, especially a lack of familiarity with the distinct phrases and cadences of the King James Bible, may explain the failure of some scholars to recognize biblical language in the founders’ political discourse.
Also, 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. Some fear that the mere acknowledgement of Christianity’s and the Bible’s influence on the American founding will diminish the Enlightenment’s influence and buttress the alleged theocratic impulses of some 21st century citizens.
Does it matter whether the Bible is studied alongside other intellectual influences on the founding fathers who established an independent constitutional republic committed to liberty and representative rule by the consent of the governed? Yes, it matters if one wants to understand the broad range of ideas that shaped the founders’ political thoughts, actions, and deeds.
Indeed, the widespread biblical illiteracy of the modern age inevitably distorts the conception Americans have of themselves as a people, their history, and their bold political experiment.
This danger alone should inspire Americans to study the Bible and its role in the life of the nation.
Dr. Daniel L. Dreisbach is a professor at American University in Washington, D.C. He has authored or edited 10 books, including “Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers” (Oxford University Press, 2017), from which this article is adapted. You can follow him on Twitter @d3bach.