WASHINGTON – Scripture has had a tremendous influence on the rights of citizens throughout American history, two historians said at a recent Washington, D.C., forum.
“The Bible permeated both private expressions and the public announcements of those who shaped the new nation and its political institutions,” said Daniel Dreisbach, an author and a law professor at American University.
The Founding Fathers were not as religiously conventional as history textbooks make them out to be, he said.
“The Bible’s influence is not merely ignored in the scholarship; rather, many scholars contend that the leading founders – influenced by rationalism, the enlightenment – rejected biblical ideas,” Dreisbach said in the March 20 forum hosted by the Family Research Council.
Although many see the Founding Fathers as deists, Dreisbach said this may not have wholly been the case.
James Hutson, an author and a Yale historian, backed Dreisbach’s assertion that society tends to put the Founding Fathers in the box of deism. In reality, they may have been more religiously involved and may have believed in the intervention of a divine being – which would not align with the beliefs of deists, Hutson said.
Dreisbach also discussed the biblically laced language of the Founding Fathers. During a question-and-answer time, an audience member asked if the Founding Fathers used biblical language because it was such a part of their lives or if they were just being good politicians.
Dreisbach responded by explaining the Founding Fathers used biblical language not just in common speech but when discussing important matters, such as in policy debates.
“Saint Paul is cited about as frequently as Montesquieu or Blackstone, the two most cited secular authors, and Deuteronomy is cited almost twice as often as all of John Locke’s writings put together,” said Dreisbach.
John Adams’ statement that the Bible is a “republican book” shows many of the Founding Fathers saw the Bible as at least a “great textbook on civic morality,” Dreisbach said. The Bible’s early models of republicanism and due process appealed to the Founding Fathers, he told the audience.
“The Bible contains the most profound philosophy, the most perfect morality and the most refined policy that ever was conceived upon earth. It is the most republican book in the world, and therefore I will still revere it,” Adams said.
Hutson explained the history of rights in light of the Founding Fathers’ new republic. He defined a right as “the power to do [something] without interference.”
He also provided a brief history and explanation of subjective and objective rights. The Founding Fathers were afraid of composing positions of power and establishing rights because they had come from systems that did not enforce models of republicanism, due process or separation of powers, Hutson said.
“The great challenge that the founders confronted was how [to] nurture personal responsibility and discipline that facilitates self-government in a regime that is not guided by a tyrant with a whip and a rod,” he said.
Dreisbach has written widely on the Founding Fathers’ religious beliefs and American church-state relations.
Hutson has been chief of the Library of Congress’ Manuscript Division since 1982. He has written extensively on religion in relation to American government and on the life of John Adams.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tonika Reed is an intern with the Washington bureau of Baptist Press.)