Daniel Dresibach lecture finds Founding Fathers drew from the Bible
“How did religion affect how the United States was founded?” was the question on the table during a presentation by Daniel Dreisbach, researcher, American University professor and author on how politics and religion have interacted in history.
“I don’t think we can adequately understand our constitutional tradition or the historic events that produced our great political experiment in self-government of liberty under law without referencing the Bible,” Dreisbach said.
“This is an annual lecture series that is dedicated to the education, research and public engagement in the historical traditions of the United States of America and Western civilization. … The objectives are to increase the knowledge and appreciation of the political, religious and economic heritage of this nation and the West,” interim chair of the Department of History Toni Alexander said. She introduced the Oxford University doctor of philosophy.
Dreisbach said he hoped to cover the material in his latest book, “Reading The Bible with the Founding Fathers,” beginning by making the connection between the references in thinking people of the 18th century made to the Bible. The language and phrases of the King James Bible heavily influenced the discourse and communication of the citizens of America at the time. If a family possessed one book, it was the Bible.
Both the “pious and those who were deeply skeptical” among the Founding Fathers, Dreisbach said, made reference to the Holy Bible in their writing. According to his research, the Bible accounted for more of the thinking of the time than any other school of thinking, with one-third of literary references from 1760 to 1805 coming from the Bible.
The Founding Fathers were interested in parts of the Bible, such as Exodus, for its story of the Israelites escaping a tyranny relatable to their own, Dreisbach said. Dreisbach said he would use the presentation to look at whether the uses of the Bible were rhetorical or theological, and whether or not they were meaningful.
“There is a tendency among scholars today to discount or even dismiss the influence of the Bible in the founding culture, in the lives of the Founders and their founding project,” Dreisbach said.
Many scholars have said the American Revolution occurred during a more secular era, directly in between the two Great Awakenings in America, Dreisbach said.
“I suspect that we could walk across campus here to the library and find many books, maybe many shelves of books on how John Locke or Montesquieu founded America. … Yet I suspect we would be hard-pressed to find even a handful of books on the Bible’s influence on the American founding,” Dreisbach said.
Many also looked to the Bible for insight into human nature. The doctrine of original sin, or the idea that humans have a natural state of or tendency for corruption, affected how the Founders viewed and debated the shape of the government. He said this outlook, featured in the Federalist Papers, caused them to develop separations of power, oaths of office, and the federalist levels of authority.
Dreisbach said Americans viewed the Hebrew commonwealth of the Old Testament as an excellent model on which to base their new government, especially the Hebrew system of checks and balances between prophet, priest and king.
Article I, Section 7 of Constitution, which provides the president with 10 days to veto a bill excluding Sundays, Dreisbach said is a clear reference to the Sabbath day, which is set aside for rest. Article III, Section 3 requires two witnesses for a case of treason on trial, which is drawn from Deuteronomy 17:6, requiring testimony from two to three witnesses in trial. The 5th Amendment’s ban on double jeopardy Dreisbach finds routed in Nahum 1:9.
“‘The Bible is the most republican book in the world,’” Dreisbach said, quoting John Adams. He went on to say Adams meant there was much for a modern republic like America to learn from the tribe of Israel’s form of government and the virtuous teaching of civil life described in the New Testament.
The Bible’s moral teachings, as the Founders saw it, would teach Americans to govern themselves, which was essential to a stable republican government. Dreisbach quoted Continental Congress delegate David Ramsey, who he said many called the first great historian, in giving the debatable point, “Remember that there can be no political happiness without liberty, that there can be no liberty without morality, and that there can be no morality without religion.”
Although she said she was not very religious, sophomore majoring in historic preservation and audience member Cassie Prock said she enjoyed the presentation and thought his reasoning on the “context of the time period” as it was influenced by the Bible was “fantastic.” Prock also said she disagreed with the idea religion is necessary for morality, but his presentation helped to show how they believed that in their own time.
In closing, Dreisbach urged the audience to read and study the Constitution, and to gain understanding of it through reading the Bible.