Reading The Bible With The Founding Fathers Transcript

Kevin Walsh (00:00:02):
Welcome. Let’s open with a prayer in the Father, son, Holy Spirit. Lead us Lord in your path and we will enter into your truth. Let our hearts be gladed that we may fear your name. Let us take joy in your law, meditating on it day and night that we may be like trees planted in your streams of water, that our leaves may not wither and that we may yield fruit in season. Father, son and Holy Spirit.

Okay, well welcome to this program sponsored by CIT, the project on Constitutional Regionalism and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition here at the Columbus School of Law, Catholic University of America. CIT is devoted to the scholarly exploration of the relationship between American constitutionalism and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition. For more information, I invite you to visit our website, My name is Kevin Walsh. I’m co-director along with my Columbus School of Law colleague, professor Joel Alicea, and we’re pleased to present this program on Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers. Each of our speakers will present after which I’ll facilitate a discussion amongst us.

Professor Daniel Dreisbach is professor in the Department of Law, Justice and Criminology at American University. His scholarship is very extensive, most of the point for today’s event, Professor Dreisbach is the author of the book that this event is about. Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers was published by Oxford University Press in 2017. This is an essential book on the book, The Bible and its place in American constitutionalism. Sometimes with these CIT events, I think of them as things I wish I had been exposed to in law school. Well, the book didn’t exist yet so I couldn’t read it then, but I commend you to read it right after this.

Next up is Professor Jerry Bradley, professor of law at the University of Notre Dame School of Law. Among Professor Bradley’s many books and journal publications I recommend to you in connection with this event, his 2021 article in Louisiana Law Review, Moral Truth and Constitutional Conservatism, Professor Bradley contends in that article that, “The perennial liberty of personal self-direction within a morally ordered universe can recover lost territory and claim its rightful primacy in constitutional law, only by resort to the frankly philosophical readings that the key constitutional provisions as a matter of historical faith and sound legal reasoning so clearly call for.” To which one may ask what is this historical faith and what about frankly theological readings. These questions point us to the very beginning of the book under discussion, the epigraph, which is the first verse of the first chapter of the gospel according to John. In the beginning was the Word, and so let us begin.

Professor Daniel Dreisbach (00:03:02):
Well thank you Professor Walsh for that kind introduction and I want to thank CIT for hosting this event and allowing me to be a part of this conversation. It’s a delight to be on this particular panel with Professor Bradley and Professor Walsh and I’m greatly honored to be here and I’m greatly honored by your presence here for this conversation.

In the brief time we have together, I want to consider the Bible’s influence on the American political and constitutional traditions. Now, my thesis I think is modest, but it may strike some of you as perhaps provocative in so far as it challenges what I think is the prevailing view in the academy. And that prevailing view I take it is that the American founding was a secular project and more specifically, the constitution is a strictly delegate, strictly secular or even as some have claim, a godless constitution. My thesis that I want to advance this afternoon, and it’s the thesis of my book, is that the founding generation in the last third or so of the 18th century drew on a number of intellectual traditions, but among those traditions, one worthy of our attention is a biblical tradition and I think we have to think about the founding project with the biblical tradition as being a part of those influences.

Now, I think it’s fair to say that there is no book that has had a greater influence on western culture than the Bible. Its expansive influence on public culture, on things like language, education, arts and letters is well-documented. The influence I think extends to the western legal tradition. Consider for example the influence of the 10 commandments on laws throughout Christendom including American colonial law. Now this afternoon the question that I want to pose is did that influence, the Bible’s influence extend to the American political and constitutional traditions more specifically, and I’m going to spend a little bit of time reflecting on some ways in which the Bible may have had an impact on the actual content of our national constitution.

Now we know that the American founders read the Bible. There are many quotations from, and allusions to, both familiar and obscure scriptural passages tell us that they knew the Bible very well. They knew it from cover to cover. Biblical language and themes, liberally seasoned their rhetoric, the phrases and the cadences of the King James translation of the Bible especially informed their written and spoken words. The ideas of this sacred text shaped their habits of mind and I think it in many respects informed their political pursuits. Now, I don’t think this is going to surprise us. The Bible was perhaps the most accessible and certainly the most authoritative text for most 18th century Americans and effective communicators, politicians and polemicists adeptly use the Bible to connect with to reach their audiences.

But let me caution the mere fact that a founder uses the Bible, quotes the Bible, even if a founder quotes the Bible a lot doesn’t tell us whether this founder was a Christian or not, both including a devout Christian founders as well as skeptics, those who doubted the Bible’s divine origins appealed to the Bible in their political discourse. Now again, the founding generation drew on a variety of intellectual perspectives and traditions in forming their political, legal constitutional thought. Among them were the English common law and British constitutionalism. We should include enlightenment liberalism in its many forms and variations. I would also add a variety of expressions of republicanism, both ancient and modern. These are all a part of the landscape, intellectual landscape that the founding generation is drawing on.

My basic argument here is that deserving to be studied alongside these perspectives is a biblical tradition, and this is both a Hebraic as well as a Christian biblical tradition. In a now famous study on the Political Literature of the American Founding, Donald Lutz of political science, scientists reported that the Bible was cited more frequently than any European writer or even any European school of thought. In his survey of American political literature from sort of the early to mid 18th century up to the 19th century, he found that approximately one third, one third of the citations in the political literature he surveyed were to the Bible and the book of Deuteronomy alone was the most frequently cited work followed by Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws. This is the most cited of the secular sources. In fact, Deuteronomy was referenced nearly twice as often as John Locke’s writings and the apostle Paul was mentioned about as frequently as Montesquieu.

Now, are these many references to this sacred text merely rhetorical ornaments without substantive significance? In other words, a question that I keep asking myself is did the founders, did the founding generation use the what Bible in ways that mattered, in ways that shaped substantively the projects that they were engaged in? Now, I think one can acknowledge that the founding generation read and referenced the Bible and simultaneously doubt that the Bible exerted consequential influence on their political and legal projects. So this is a question that I want to look at a little bit more carefully. Now, simply counting and documenting the founder’s many references to the Bible tells us little except that the Bible was a familiar and useful literary resource. Now, in my book, I try to move beyond the simple observation that the founders frequently cited, frequently quoted the Bible, and I want to move on to examine how the founders used the Bible and how it may have influenced the founding project.

I’m curious which biblical texts appealed to this generation of Americans and why did they think these texts were pertinent to them in their time and in their situation? The founders used the Bible for a variety of reasons, ranging from the primarily literary, rhetorical and political to the prophetic and profoundly theological. The Bible was used then and their political literature as it is sometimes used today to enrich a common language and cultural vocabulary through distinctively biblical illusions and figures of speech and symbols and metaphors and things like that. The Bible is also used to enhance the power and weight of rhetoric through its identification with a venerated authoritative sacred text. The Bible was used to identify and define normative standards and models of governance for ordering a political society and judging public life, and I’ll try to give some examples of what I have in mind in saying that.

In the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, the Bible was used to shape the moral conscience of the community, to identify and rebuke immorality in the community, to call people or their rulers to righteousness or to a righteous cause or to warn in the tradition of the Jeremiah of impending judgment resulting from collective immorality if there is no repentance and reformation. The Bible’s also used to gain insights into the character and designs of God, especially as they pertain to God’s providential oversight of the material world and more specifically his dealing with [inaudible 00:11:36]. This of course, is of great interest and great concern to Americans at this era as they embark on the creation of a new polity.

Now, I’ve laid out a couple different ways in which the Bible is used. I don’t want this to be taken as an exhaustive list of the variety of ways which the Bible can be used. I can think of some other possible uses. Moreover, the lines separating these different types of uses that I’ve just identified are not always distinct. Sometimes they’re quite fine and selected uses of the Bible can be illustrative of more than one of these categories that I’ve just mentioned. But here’s the key point that I want to make, and I think in some respects it’s the most important point I want to make in my book, and that is, recognition of these very distinct uses of the Bible is important in so far as it’s misleading to read spiritual meaning into literary, rhetorical, or political uses of the Bible or vice versa. One misreading of the Bible’s use furthers a secular inclination and the other implies a kind of theocratic impulse.

So let’s look at some ways in which the Bible informed the founding generation’s political and legal pursuits. Now, the founders held diverse theological views and some doubted Christianity’s transcendent claims, some doubted the Bible’s divine origins. With that said, I think this is a generation that frequently looked to the Bible for insights into human nature, civic virtue, social order, political authority, and other concepts essential to the establishment of a new political order, a new political society. In various conventions and representative assemblies of the age as well as in pamphlets and political sermons and private writings, private letters and the like, founding figures appealed to the Bible for principles and precedents, models, normative standards, cultural motifs that they would then draw on to define their community and to order their political experiments.

There were influential founders who thought the Bible provided political and legal models, things like Republicanism or a model for separation of church and state. You find references, for example, to the separation of the powers of prophet, priest and king laid out in Deuteronomy chapter 16, 17 and 18, or they looked to the Bible for insights on due process. A favorite text for this would’ve been Exodus chapter 23. They believed that these models that they saw in scripture enjoyed a kind of divine favor that was worthy of their study and perhaps emulation in their own political experiments. The Bible some thought gave insights, guidance on how to select political leaders. They looked here to Exodus chapter 18, for example, or the dying declaration of David as guidance on what kind of character should we look in our leaders. They also look to the Bible to outline the rights and responsibilities of citizens.

Let me give you an example here, in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Benjamin Franklin referred to Jethro’s counsel to Moses as recorded in the Book of Exodus regarding the selection of Israel’s civic leaders. During an August 10 debate on the qualifications for public office, Franklin spoke in opposition to any proposal that, and here I’m going to quote Franklin as recorded in Madison’s notes, Franklin spoke that he was in opposition to any proposal that, “Tended to debase the spirit of the common people. We should remember the character which the scripture requires in rulers.” He goes on to say that, “They should be men hating covetousness.” Now, what’s interesting to me from this brief passage from Madison’s notes is that Franklin clearly is appealing to a biblical standard, and this is in a substantive debate on a proposal for inclusion in the Constitution. He’s very clear in telling his audience that he is drawing on scripture and then he quotes a biblical text. The text here is Exodus chapter 18, verse 21.

To give you another example, the political discourse of the founding era has many examples of appeals to, “The Hebrew republic described in the Old Testament.” This is a reference to that time in the life of the nation between the exodus and the coronation of Saul as King of Israel. And again, they saw in this history, this history of a Hebrew republic, a model worthy of their study. Now again, let me give you an illustration of the use of this in the political discourse of the founding, and here I take you to a Massachusetts election sermon delivered by Samuel Langdon. He was, at the time of this speech, he was the President of Harvard College and he says, and I quote, “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 principle laws and orders of it may be copied to great advantage in modern establishments.”

Suggestion, I think here that this is a place that we should be looking to for some insight on Republican governance and we’re going to find other appeals to other texts for other aspects of Republican rule. The idea for example, that free and fair elections is a good thing. So this Hebraic history is a very popular source that Americans of this age are drawing on. Now, perhaps to state the obvious, most of what the founding generation knew about the Hebrew republic, they had learned from the Bible, that was their source when speaking of this republic. Now, they were well aware that there were other experiments in Republicanism, both ancient and modern, and they studied these and drew on these. They knew very well the history of the Roman Republic and the like.

But I think that one of the things that this Hebrew republic did for them is it kind of reassured them that Republicanism was a form of governance that enjoyed a divine approval. And that again, I think that was very reassuring for at least some in that generation. More generally, but no less significant to the founders, many founders believe the Bible is an indispensable handbook for Republican citizenship. In a Republican government, the founders often asserted the people must be sufficiently virtuous that their personal responsibility and discipline will facilitate the social order and stability necessary for a regime of self-government, a free self-governing people, in other words, had to be a virtuous people who were controlled from within by an internal moral compass, thereby replacing external control of the whip and the rod by an authoritarian ruler.

So the question becomes, how do we nurture, how do we develop that internal moral compass? And here again, the Bible emerges as the great textbook for Republican citizenship, and again, this is a claim made over and over again. One or two that I find really intriguing is John Adams. John Adams writes, “Without national morality, a Republican government cannot be maintained and the Bible contains the most perfect morality and the most refined policy that ever was conceived upon the earth.” Now having made that claim, Adams then says, “The Bible is the most Republican book in the world.” Right, direct quote. And he’s not alone. You can find almost identical quotes from people like John Dickinson and others in this generation. Again, the Bible is nurturing that kind of virtue that’s required of a people to govern themselves.

Now let me move finally to talk a bit about the influence of the Bible on our constitution and our constitutional tradition a little bit more broadly. Because I do think we’re going to find a number of provisions and aspects of the constitution in design and content that were familiar to a Bible reading people. The Constitution included provisions that long before had been written into… Long before they were written into the Constitution, imminent English juris and colonial lawmakers had said, were ideas grounded in the word of God. It’s difficult, and I want to be very candid here, I think it’s difficult to establish definitively that a specific constitutional provision was taken from a specific biblical text, rather I think a more plausible claim and one that I would make here is that constitutional principles were indirectly influenced by biblical concepts that had previously found expression in western legal tradition, especially in English common law, and more recently in colonial laws and customs.

So let me give you several examples here, and this is just a handful and I think there’s a really long list that we could refer to. But let’s start with this idea of I think it’s quite plausible to make the claim that a biblical understanding of original sin and humankind’s radical depravity that we read about in Genesis chapter three inspired the framers to create a constitutional system that would guard against the concentration or abuse of government powers vested in fallen human actors. Now, I just want to say parenthetically, there are other political traditions that have a similar view of the human character, but I think it would’ve been largely a reformed theological tradition that would’ve informed the founding generation on this side of the Atlantic, at least in terms of this kind of anthropology of man as a fallen sinful creature.

Now, if you think about it, the most basic fundamental features of American constitutional design, limited government, separation of powers and the like, I think are best understood in the light of this biblical anthropology and the attendant necessity to check in the words of Federalist 37, the infirmities and depravities of the human character. And by the way, this is a view of the human character that is going to be talked about in the record that we have of debates in the convention. And again, my point here is I don’t think you can appreciate the constitution’s near obsession with separation of powers, checks on government power without understanding this biblical view of human nature. Now, I also want to note that I think that there are some very specific provisions that were almost certainly derived from or informed by biblical doctrines and practice, and there’s many examples and I just want to give you a few to illustrate my point here.

And I’m going to start with Article one, section eight, clause five. I won’t ask you if you know what that’s a reference to, but I will tell you it grants Congress the power, the authority to fix the standard of weights and measures. Sir Edward Cook the great, perhaps the greatest English authority on the common law wrote in a 17th century commentary that this principle, standards of weights and measures, this principle was, “Grounded upon the law of God.” And then he cites Deuteronomy chapter 25 verses 13 and 14. Article three, section three, clause one, requires that conviction for treason be supported by the testimony of two witnesses. This too conforms to familiar biblical mandate for conviction and punishment. Again, Sir Edward Cook said this principle was, and I quote again from the great commentator, “Grounded upon the law of God expressed both in the Old and New Testaments.” And then he references a very long list of both old and New Testament authorities for this. But he starts with Deuteronomy chapter 17, verse six.

The constitution’s fifth amendment crafted by the first federal Congress prohibits double jeopardy or trying a defendant twice for the same offense. In a late fourth century commentary, St. Jerome and legal scholars ever since said, this was a principle expressed in the book of the Prophet Nahum, chapter one verse nine. From these origins, the principle forbidding double jeopardy entered into Canon law, English customary law and was transferred to the American colonial law and refined it showing up in early state declarations of rights before it’s ultimately enshrined in the Fifth Amendment.

Now, we could go as I say through a number of other examples of very specific texts that show a lineage taking us back to biblical authority and that lineage being clearly drawn, going back to English Common Law authorities. We could talk for example about various oaths of office provisions or due process provisions. One very interesting one that connects back with a Jewish tradition and that is prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments, corruption of blood, another provision again that shows very strong biblical origins at least as it’s articulated in the common law. Now, just as I conclude here, let me say tracing intellectual influences is seldom easy or certain. In fact, it’s often complicated and downright messy and one is well advised to bring a strong dose of humility to the enterprise. Searching the surviving convention records for biblical references is not the only way to establish biblical influence on the national constitution or the lack thereof.

In the search for intellectual influences on the American constitutional tradition, one must look wide and dig deep, and that includes plumbing, the depths of civil law, Canon law, common law, as well as colonial laws as in customs, looking for evidence of biblical influences that may have had subsequent expression in American law. Now drawing attention to the Bible’s contributions to the founding is not meant to diminish, much less dismiss the other intellectual influences on the founders that I mentioned earlier on in my remarks. Rather, acknowledging the Bible’s often ignored rule in the founding enriches an understanding of the broad range of ideas that informed the founder’s political thoughts and shaped their political and legal systems that they sought to establish here on this side of the Atlantic. Thank you.

Kevin Walsh (00:26:50):
Well, thank you very much. Even here at this law school, you can’t walk across campus to the law school without seeing Micah six, eight quoted, etched in stone on our building and I know you have a whole chapter just on that verse. Well, Professor Bradley, let’s turn it over to you now.

Professor Jerry Bradley (00:27:15):
Well, last year I was invited here to discuss Michael Breitenbach’s, Our Dear-Bought Liberty, which is a book about Catholics at the founding. And at one point Michael quoted very approvingly, I think, the opinion of James Madison biographer, who also was a Catholic convert, [inaudible 00:27:35] Gaillard Hunt. Hunt said, the soaring phrases about inalienable rights in the Virginia Declaration of Rights and in the Declaration of Independence, oh, this Catholic writer said to Cardinal Robert Bellarmine. Now Dan Dreisbach thinks that the founding was Protestant all the way down. So I gather, I infer that this gig that Kevin and Joel have going, this originalism thing is a pretty ecumenical outfit. So I suggest Kevin and Joel next year in Jerusalem. Now Professor Dreisbach’s book offers treats of all sizes. Among the many delights is his retrieval of the very unfortunately neglected work of Donald Lutz, L-U-T-Z, which he referenced in his own oral remarks here.

Now be honest, raise your hands if you’ve ever heard before an hour ago of Donald Lutz and clap them if you’ve ever read anything he’s written. Okay, I rest my case. He is neglected. Now a larger treat is that Dreisbach’s book breaks the choke hold that Madison and Jefferson have had on books like his about religion, church, and state, the founding. Now this unfortunate myopia has been most acute on our Supreme Court. I rejoice to say that I can’t recall even one mention in Daniel’s book of Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance, which has been the Supreme Court’s Bible on the establishment clause since 1947. Now, I haven’t done a computerized word count nor frankly could I, I don’t know how, but my educated guess is that the founding father most quoted in reading the Bible with the founders, is actually George Washington. In these pages, the father of our country emerges as much more than a taciturn man of action.

On public religion, Washington turns out to be more representative of the founding generation than our Jefferson of medicine and just as articulate as those two. Now the most arresting, for example of the many Washingtonisms related by Dreisbach’s is a 1783, They called it a circular letter to the states written by the general in 1783, in anticipation of resigning as commander in chief of the continental army. [inaudible 00:30:14] at GW wrote, now I’m quoting GW. Well, quoting Dreisbach according to GW, the pure and benign light of revelation has had ameliorating influence on mankind greater than an understanding of the rights of mankind or greater than also a knowledge of the science of politics. Now this book, reading the Bible is a compelling compliment I think to a volume that Daniel co-edited some years ago with Mark Hall and the other co-conspirator I think was Jeffrey Morrison. That book is called Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life and among the neglected souls who are given chapter length treatments in this other book are Oliver Ellsworth, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and Roger Sherman.

Now is still a larger treat in Dreisbach’s book is what I think is his strategically wise use of the concept of political culture. I don’t think it’s homemade. I mean I’ve seen that concept used, at least something like that concept used in other works, but I think Dreisbach uses it quite a effectively. Now, he writes at page 127 that 98% of Americans of European descent in 1776 were affiliated with Protestant communities and a large majority of these Protestants identified with the reformed tradition. 98% were somehow Protestant, but one could still ask, yes, fine, but how many of them actually held the faith? How many were churched? That is regular churchgoers or at least members of a church. How many possessed a working knowledge of Calvin’s political teaching? And Calvin is kind of Daniel’s hero I guess. Now I suppose we’ll never know and Dreisbach doesn’t seem to care because he has some other concept that he can put to work here. For him, it’s about the political discourse of the founding.

Now that’s a time which he stipulates to be the years between 1760 and 1800 and using that political culture slash political discourse concept, he really makes the case I think compellingly that anyone operating in that time and talking about politics could scarcely avoid speaking or thinking in a biblical vocabulary, grammar concepts, stories, norms, and I dare say truths. So I think we know what it feels like to be one of the founders in that political culture that is structurally similar, I think, is our own situation where we live in a political culture that makes non-negotiable demands upon our vocabulary and on some of our concepts. So let me give you an example of what I mean and I think kind of parallel illustration of political culture. Two decades ago, the acute social critic Philip Rife wrote, and now I’m going to quote Philip Wright, “The Orthodox are in the miserable situation of being Orthodox for therapeutic reasons.”

Father Richard John Neuhaus then writing about Rife’s work, rephrase the point, and I think this is true, still true. People who try to practice orthodox Christianity and Judaism today, inevitably remain trapped in a vocabulary of therapy and self-fulfillment. So just as we can scarcely avoid living, and I’ll just make it a bit crude here, living in Freud’s world, the founders could hardly avoid living in Jesus’s world. Now someone should tell Dan Dreisbach or tell his accountant to rev up the engines because I think there’s a bull market coming for this now 7-year-old book. Now I say that not because the book like fine wine has somehow improved with age, reading the Bible with the founding fathers was at first and shall ever remain a master work. It is rather that the Supreme Court recently made this book, I should say, made it unwittingly an indispensable critical guide to establishment clause jurisprudence. And I emphasize the adjective, critical guide.

So you know this part of the story or you can see it coming, the Supreme Court that Donald Trump shaped made a decisive move on establishment clause materials decisions. In June of ’22, Kennedy v. Bremerton schools was about a public high school football coaches very conspicuous post-game prayer. Now the court has fallen into this school prayer rabbit hole many times starting in 1962 to very little good effect. But this time, in Kennedy, in June of ’22, Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority that the court’s longstanding doctrinal approach to that issue as well as to all other establishment clause questions. And that longstanding doctrinal approach is the dread three part Lemon test. Gorsuch said, that was too abstract and ahistorical. Now I’m not sure about abstract, maybe so, now ahistorical is an interesting point because the court’s establishment clause decisions and including its Lemon doctrines have been tied more to history, especially the history of the founding and especially to Jefferson and Madison then I think the juris [inaudible 00:36:17] of any other constitutional clause has been tied to the history of the founding.

So go figure, next on UAC, Neil Gorsuch asked him what he was thinking, but now the new action. Gorsuch said in Kennedy that the court long ago abandoned this Lemon of a test, that was surely untrue. And if you look at the cases that Gorsuch cited for that proposition, you’ll see none of them abandoned lemon. Now, in fact, those were cases which went about their business or its business without relying on Lemon, but none of them said they were abandoning Lemon. Lemon didn’t say, but should say that Kennedy didn’t actually cite a case that abandoned Lemon. Nonetheless, it’s now clear that Lemon is not good law. So what now? Well, the court wrote in Kennedy that the establishment clause must be interpreted henceforth by reference to historical practice and understandings further from Kennedy. The line that courts and governments must draw between the permissible and the impermissible has to accord with history and faithfully reflect the understanding of the founding fathers. Henceforth, it’s to be all history and no doctrine.

The justices proposed to ride bareback across the founding era, checking to see what the fathers, the founding fathers did and thought about specific church state issues, things like legislative prayer, public support of religious schools, oaths, public religious monuments. Now I say Q, now Dan Dreisbach and reading with the founders. You’ll find no better one volume account of what the court says it’s seeking than this book. You’ll find no better one volume account about what the founders thought and did about what we would call church state issues than in this book. Now, one reason why the book is so good and so helpful is Dreisbach’s encyclopedic knowledge of the original source materials and the footnotes or their endnotes in this case cite, well, more primary documents that I’ve ever heard of or seen or can even imagine. But Dreisbach’s commentaries in the text of the book, especially on the European Calvinist roots of what I think he calls, if I remember correctly, the founder’s resistance theology, those commentaries, especially that one are an invaluable reader’s guide to those source materials.

But Dreisbach wisely chose, and I’m going to quote him from page 18. This is Dan speaking. “Let the founders speak for themselves rather than for me to tell the reader what the founders thought or said.” So what did the founders say about some of these issues facing our courts? Well, for example, in the full chapter on what Dreisbach titles, the title of the chapter is Benjamin Franklin’s call for Prayer at the Constitutional Convention. Dreisbach includes the entirety of Franklin’s Pivotal speech at that convention, urging that there be prayer. Dreisbach then observes that, and I’m quoting Dreisbach, “Indicates that Franklin acknowledged the existence of an omniscient superintendent deity who orders the affairs of men and nations and who is aware of the minute details of the material world.” In other words, a providential God. Dreisbach allows that one might question whether Franklin believed all that he said, and maybe he was a skeptic, but he certainly was a skilled rhetorician. He knew which buttons to push in his audience. So even if we treat Franklin’s speech as indirect evidence of what the audience believed, well then we’ve learned a lot about the founders on prayer.

There’s a whole chapter on oaths which I think is best captured or the gist of which is best captured in this quote from John Witherspoon among other things I think was the president of Princeton. I’m not sure if he was the first president of Princeton, but a president of Princeton. And here I’m quoting Witherspoon, but again from Dreisbach, “An oath is an appeal to God, the searcher of hearts for the truth of what we say and always expresses or supposes an imprecation of his God’s judgment upon us if we prevaricate and oath therefore implies a belief in God and his providence. And indeed,” this is still Witherspoon, “Is an act of worship. Thus, thou shalt fear the Lord by God and swear by his name.” Here, Witherspoon citing Deuteronomy. Now more about the founders and what they thought and practiced about the issues that we care about or that we face at least. The keystone and the arch of the founder’s sacred canopy, I call it, over their common life was surely belief in divine providence.

Chief among the takeaways from this belief was the belief of the founders that ours was a, what they would say, righteous nation, one with a divinely ordained mission. Here, Dreisbach paraphrases the exemp, his paraphrase, the exemplary belief here about providence of George Mason, who was at the convention didn’t sign the constitution, but a kind of celebrated founder. So this is Dreisbach paraphrasing Mason. The principle of divine rewards and punishments has more immediate implications for nations than for individuals, and that’s because God can punish individuals in the next life, but God can only reward or punish nations in this world because nations don’t exist in the next world. No surprise then that God-fearing American people erected at the time of the founding and thereafter so many artistic and verbal testimonies to God, the sovereign and almighty ruler of their universe. These were fit expressions of gratitude to a providential God.

They were also the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen. Now I’m going to say public authority at the founding was also neck deep in financial support for religious schooling, which was pretty much the only kind of schooling they knew. But I’ll leave aside for now some of the details of that and get to perhaps maybe my main point and leaving aside for now just resting on Dan’s comments about how they thought the Bible was the best Republican book of all time. But see, here’s the thing about what we get from Dreisbach about the founders, and here’s how I think it confounds the court’s expectation in Kennedy. And what’s why I say that his book is such a critical, I guess I mean to say negative, indispensable guide to what the court’s about to do. All these things, oaths, public prayer, religious monuments, religious schools, and more exhibited the founders’ convictions about what was true, true about divine realities.

Of these matters, legislative prayer, oath, et cetera, it surely appears that the meaning and the intelligibility and even the specific kind of human act that these things were erecting a monument, taking an oath, legislative prayer, Franklin, Witherspoon, you name it, all of these things depended on for their intelligibility meaning and significance, the conviction that it was true. And this constitutes, I suggest in these last couple of minutes of my talk, an insuperable divide between the court and what it seems to be seeking in the founding, namely historically common examples or close counterpart of these matters and what the founders actually did. So let me just explain this point. By referring to a Bible verse that Dan Dreisbach does not include in this book, at least as far as I can remember. So here’s the point I want to make about the divide between the founders and us and our Supreme Court and that dividing line is true, which enters into the intelligibility meaning and the nature of the human act, legislative prayer, oath.

So the Bible verse is this one from Matthew 23, “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, you were like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside of full of dead men’s bones and every impurity.” Our constitutional questions today are about whited sepulchers. Whited sepulchers that is religious formalities hollowed out from within, basically secularism and that’s partly due to the Supreme Court, which for 50 to 60 years has insisted upon and itself taken a hand in bleaching any genuine religion all the way out of legislative prayer, oaths, the monuments, et cetera. Now are the founders visible and articulate expressions of their living faith in and fear of God, real precedents for these whited sepulchers, I think not despite the outward similarity of form and appearance. These outward similarities don’t, they may paper over but don’t conceal totally different substance. It is not that the founders way back when and then some city council the day before yesterday are actually doing the same thing. Although they have different ulterior motives and in some sense have different intentions, they’re actually performing entirely different actions.

The oath taken by a total unbeliever precedent to giving testimony simply is a different act than the act of a believer at the founding or otherwise engaging a mighty and just God, the searcher of hearts. Inviting that judge, you might say to retaliate, if I should testify prevaricate falsely. Today we have civil religion and ceremonial deism and legislative prayer, but they’re all burlesque of what the founders thought. An actor reciting the Lord’s prayer, whether in front of a city council, before a meeting or in a movie, is simply not praying. And that’s it.

Kevin Walsh (00:48:18):
I think the best way to go would be Professor Dreisbach, if you have a response or particular things you’d like to say in response to what Professor Bradley said. And I have so many questions. Maybe in doing that, if you could touch on the Catholic Intellectual Tradition to the extent that it might be distinct or some ways separate from the reformed theology. You mentioned the emphasis on original sin, for example, but even I think in that circular letter, it’s in one of them, if it’s not the exact one that’s quoted by Professor Bradley from George Washington, he refers to superstition and ignorance for example. And there’s a real big strand in the opening of your book about how, well, read this bible, but read it for yourself, right, not absent from a church. So if you could touch on perhaps the extent to which there were occurrence of anti ecclesiastical, anti-church things as distinct from distinctively Protestant emphases, if that makes sense. But otherwise the floor is yours. Yeah.

Professor Daniel Dreisbach (00:49:38):
Well let me just mention a couple things. I can’t put it all neatly together in one nice thread, so I may jump around a bit here. I appreciate the very kind things you said about the book. A couple of things I would just underscore. What brings me to this project, and I don’t say this in the book, but it just reinforces what Professor Bradley said. I started out as a First Amendment litigator. And when you’re working with cases like Everson versus Board of Education, or even going all the way back to Reynolds versus the United States in the 19th century, the court laid out a kind of interpretive approach that was deeply rooted in history, or at least they claimed it was rooted in history. But it was a very narrow, and I would say an erroneous telling of the story. We know of the enormous weight put on Jefferson and Madison as if the First Amendment flowed fully formed from their quills, so to speak.

And I think at one point in Everson, one of the justices even speaks of Jefferson writing the first Amendment. Of course he had nothing to do with it, he was in Europe at the time. But it’s a very distorted version of history. And that’s what brought me into this story so to speak, is if the court tells us, as they’ve told us over and over again that it’s understanding of concepts like religious liberty are rooted in history and their history is wrong, it raises serious questions about the conclusions that they’ve reached. So I just underscore that I think we’ve seen in the last several decades other voices on the Supreme Court offering, I think a richer, more nuanced understanding of that history. But even so, that influence going back especially to Everson, and let me throw in another phrase here that the court has drawn on extensively and that is Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist in which he invoked a wall of separation between church and state.

I think it’s hard to overstate the influence that this extra constitutional phrase has had on the court’s jurisprudence, at least up through the end of the 20th century. They seem to have backed off a little bit since then. But then what, two terms ago, Justice Sotomayor began one of her opinions by once again invoking this wall of separation. So it’s hard to read some of the court’s First Amendment jurisprudence without thinking about whether they got their history right. I think some of these comments about oaths and the like that we heard from Professor Bradley reminds us that how deeply woven into the fabric of the culture where there was a religious ethic, it shaped every aspect of life from arts and letters to education to things like oath taking. You can’t find an 18th century moral philosopher who defines oath taking in anything other than religious terms. It was a profoundly religious act.

And interestingly, one of the very first bills passed by the first Congress on the Constitution was a bill concerning oaths. They couldn’t imagine beginning to create the infrastructure of a new government without tying the members of this new government down by an oath. And so it’s very much, very much a part of the culture of that time. I don’t think we can overestimate how much in the 20th century, especially in the academy, we have seen efforts to sort of strip this telling of history of its religious content. I have buried in a footnote, a statement that, I must have cited a half a dozen or more leading George Washington scholars who say he rarely quoted the Bible. It is an absurd statement, absurd statement. I have a quote in the book of half of a sentence from George Washington in which there are seven or eight different illusions or quotations of the Bible in a single sentence.

This is a guy, and by the way, this is a generation that learned to read with a Bible in front of them. So it’s not going to surprise us that biblical language is just woven into their manner of speech, into their way of expressing themselves and thinking. Now, why would a 20th century, a late 20th century scholar make the observation that Washington rarely quoted the Bible? Well, I think it says a number of things. It tells us something about the profound biblical illiteracy of our own age because I think we have a generation of scholars that simply don’t know the Bible. Washington never quoted or rarely put a biblical citation when he quoted the Bible, as best I can tell, the only time he put a biblical citation next to a biblical quote was when he was quoting Solomon, King Solomon. But it tells us everything you need to know about the biblical literacy of his own age, that he didn’t need to put a Bible verse citation next to his quotation for the Bible because he was writing to, speaking to an audience that knew the Bible and knew it well.

But I think there are perhaps less benign explanations why we have a generation of scholars today telling us that Washington did not know the Bible. And it’s because I think it comes out of a certain discomfort, maybe a disdain if you will, for the Bible itself and its role in public life. So I think there are some benign explanations, a kind of illiteracy, but I think that there are less benign explanations of why so much of the telling of American history today has gone to extraordinary links to remove its biblical content from the telling of that story.

Professor Jerry Bradley (00:55:47):

Professor Daniel Dreisbach (00:55:49):
Well, we have time for a question or two.

Speaker 4 (00:56:02):
Yeah, thank you both so much. My question, it’s multi-part, so feel free to just pick one part and answer it if you want, but I’m curious what your thoughts are on why on whether you think the Bible carries the same weight today that it did at the time of the founding in the Democratic process and public life, or even think of almost a century later when Lincoln famously quoted scripture and saying, a house divided against itself cannot stand. I’m kind of assuming the answer to that is no, it doesn’t carry the same weight today. And I’m just curious what your thoughts are on why that is, and if we can do anything to reclaim the Bible’s influence in a wider public life.

Professor Daniel Dreisbach (00:56:44):
Well, I think there are a couple things going on here. I just referenced the idea of a biblical literacy in the founding generation. And again, that shouldn’t surprise us because again, this is a generation that largely learned to read the Bible with a copy, not just of a Bible, but the King James translation of the Bible in front of them. This is largely the only translation available in America, largely viewed as a Protestant translation I might add. And it becomes a source of controversy. It’s used just down the road in American history. But interestingly, the King James translation is an ideal tool for literacy education. It is a translation that uses very short words. It has a limited vocabulary. The vocabulary of the King James Bible is maybe a third of the vocabulary exhibited in the writings of Shakespeare. It uses very punchy, dramatic language because it often draws on sort of Anglo-Saxon oriented words as opposed to Latinate words.

So you couldn’t dream up a better literacy tool than the King James translation. And it moves from there into other aspects of the culture. Things like the New England Primer, which was a wildly popular little pamphlet. Many additions of it, by the way were developed over the course of centuries. But this little pamphlet used in schools drew heavily. Sometimes it was called the Little Bible or the Condensed Bible because it drew heavily on a biblical text. And again, this would’ve been in many schools that the central text used for teaching kids to read and write. It used rhyming couplets famously for the letter A, it said in Adam’s fall resend all, right, so teaching the alphabet, starting with the letter A, there’s theology sort of packed into the very tools for developing literacy as we move into the 19th and of course, the 20th century began moving away from these kinds of texts for reading.

But the Bible would’ve been at the core, not only at an elementary level, but all the way up through the college level would’ve been woven into almost every discipline taught. And of course, we again have moved away from that in rather dramatic ways. I do think in the increasingly secular world in which we live, there are forces of antagonism that would desire to remove references to or even respect for the Bible. I think often of a little phrase that I grew up hearing frequently, all my neighbors, even if they were believers or not, if you mentioned the Bible, they would’ve said something like, oh, the good book, think of that as a euphemism for the Bible. It was common, and no one really challenged that.

But when I get on social media here in the 21st century, someone mentions the Bible, the vitriol, it oftentimes comes reverberating back, even challenging the notion that there’s some virtue, right? It ends up being a text of misogyny and racism and all these other kinds of forms of oppression, if you will. That’s just the nature of the culture in which we live, where we no longer would rely on the Bible as a tool for developing sort of civic virtues. Because in this modern world in which we live, it’s seen as being tied up with all these sort of oppressive aspects and features. And again, it is just a reflection of our current age.

Kevin Walsh (01:00:31):
Well, I can’t promise Jerusalem next year or Athens, but our speakers and you all are always welcome in Little Rome, here at the Catholic University of America. Please join me in thanking our speakers.

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