May 14, 2010
Those of us at the Family Research Council and a number of guests were greatly enriched by a lecture given today by Professor Daniel Dreisbach, the distinguished, American University historian. Professor Dreisbach specializes in studying the relationship of religion and politics in the era of the American Revolution and the 30-40 years that followed. He is also an attorney, so his work incorporates issues related to constitutional law and, more specifically, First Amendment law. His Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State (2002) provided a groundbreaking book-length examination of Jeffersons wall cited in the Everson case over fifty years ago. (Here is a lecture-length treatment of the same topic by Dreisbach.)
The professors lecture today (The Bible and the Founding Fathers) focused not on Jefferson and walls, but on late 18th Century political texts and the Bible. FRC will be making the lecture available on the website shortly, and I urge anyone interested in American history to watch it.
The bottom line is that political discourse in the Founding Era was replete with Biblical references. Interestingly, the most commonly referenced book of the Bible was Deuteronomy a book that summarizes many of the principles and history found in the other books in the Torah. (Deuteronomy is also the most quoted book in the New Testament.) Deuteronomy is a book concerned with the establishment of a just and godly society, so it is fitting that it was used often when our new government was being created.
Additionally, Driesbach demonstrated that the subtlety with which the Bible is referenced indicated a very high level of Biblical literacy in the populace, so much so, that allusions without citation were expected to be understood. Analysis of texts by Washington and Patrick Henry were particularly illuminating in this regard.
One more point: after the lecture, Professor Dreisbach informed me that, in August 2009, he published a collection of primary source materials on religious liberty and church-state relations in the Founding Era. The book is The Sacred Rights of Conscience (Liberty Fund Books, 2009). Here is some information from the publishers webpage:
The Sacred Rights of Conscience provides students and scholars a rich collection of primary sources that illuminate the discussions and debates about religious liberty in the American founding era. This compilation of primary documents provides a thorough and balanced examination of the evolving relationship between public religion and American culture, from pre-colonial biblical and European sources to the early nineteenth century, to allow the reader to explore the social and political forces that defined the concept of religious liberty and shaped American church-state relations.
Including material that has been previously unavailable or hard to find, The Sacred Rights of Conscience contains original documents from both public and private papers, such as constitutions, statutes, legislative resolutions, speeches, sermons, newspapers, letters, and diary entries. These documents provide a vivid reminder that religion was a dynamic factor in shaping American social, legal, and political culture and that there has been a struggle since the inception of the Republic to define the prudential and constitutional role of religion in public culture.