An Interview with Dr. Dreisbach from American University

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By Jason Georges, Executive Director of The Bible Nation Society

BNS:  What worldview, in your opinion, influenced the thinking of the founding fathers?

I think the first thing to keep in mind is the founding fathers were not a monolithic  group.   They didn’t come out of the same religious tradition, or the same political, or regional backgrounds.  They came from different parts of the country with different interests, different professional backgrounds.  And they were influenced by a variety of worldviews, perspectives, and the like.  Clearly they lived in a Biblically-literate culture.  Christianity was, I would say, probably the most dominant cultural influence.  But they were also being influenced by other ideas, some of which are coming from the other side of the Atlantic.  Some of them, a small number of them, were being influenced by Enlightenment ideals, or the ideas of classical Republicanism, Whig political tradition.  So, they were influenced by a variety of perspectives.  But I think most of them are going to be viewing these different perspectives largely through a Christian lens.

BNS:  Did our founding fathers reference the Bible from a personal knowledge and interest, or was it a political thing to do at the time?

I think that’s a very good question because it really gets to the heart of what I think is one of the most important questions when talking about the Bible in the American founding, and that is for what purposes did this generation use the Bible?  Now the truth of the matter is they used the Bible for a whole variety of reasons, depending on the context, or the time at which they used the Bible.  There are times they used the Bible for purely literary allusions.  They are trying to pick examples from history, from literature, that their audience will know and understand.  And the Bible would have been one of the major sources for that kind of literary allusion.  Sometimes they would have used the Bible for rhetorical effect.  The language of the Bible, especially the King James Bible, carries with it a certain authority, a certain seriousness.  And so, occasionally you’d find this generation using the Bible, or Bible-like language, to convey that kind of authority or seriousness, or to bring solemnity to a particular discourse.  There are other times when you’re going to find them using the Bible to paint a parallel between their own experience and perhaps the experience of the children of Israel as described in the Old Testament.  Other times they use the Bible to make theological points about who is God, the nature of God, and most especially from their perspective how God deals with human beings in the here and now.  So, you find this generation using the Bible for a lot of different reasons, a lot of different purposes.  You have to read this literature in its context.  I don’t think we can make a generalized statement about why they used the Bible, but understand they used the Bible for a variety of reasons and we have to read each example in its context to understand and appreciate why they’re using the Bible.

BNS:  Does one historical figure come to mind where you would say he had an adamant Biblical worldview, even almost ignoring any other influence?

There were certainly founding fathers who are very devout and pious Christians, who want to reflect that piety in all their actions including their involvement in politics.  I would identify people like John Jay, first chief justice of the United States and one of the co-authors of the Federalist Papers.  I would also include Samuel Adams, Elias Boudinot president of the Continental Congress, Oliver Ellsworth, Roger Sherman two men that came out of the state of Connecticut.  Roger Sherman is very much involved in the founding of the American republic.  He was one of only two men to sign three organic expressions of American law:  the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the United States Constitution.  Sherman was a member of the first congress involved in framing the first amendment.  Someone else that I would include is someone like John Witherspoon, leader of the Presbyterian community in the United States, also very involved in politics.  He sat on over one hundred communities in the continental congress, president of what was then called the College of New Jersey, today known as Princeton.  A very devout man who brought his faith with him into the public realm.

BNS:  Did Thomas Jefferson intend for any reference to religion to be excluded from all public discourse when he used the metaphor ‘wall of separation’?

Well, I think the wall of separation metaphor is used today in ways that Jefferson probably would not recognize and might even repudiate.  Looking at his record as a public official I think we would have to conclude that Jefferson did not mean and did not intend to exclude all references to religion and even references to God from public life.  Jefferson himself in numerous public statements made references to God.  You might want to look at what today we call the state of the union address, in his annual messages to Congress he would frequently make references to God and our need to be thankful to God.  Now I wouldn’t suggest that Jefferson was an Orthodox Christian necessarily, but I don’t think he intended to exclude religion and religious expressions from all aspects of public life.

BNS:  In your opinion, what are the dangers of a Bible-illiterate society?

I think that to the extent that many of our expressions, many of our idioms, our manners of communicating with each other are based on ideas, concepts, and allusions to the Bible.  I think it hinders our ability to communicate to each other.  If you take a common expression like, ‘lion’s den’, or ‘Damascus road experience’, or ‘handwriting on the wall’, or ‘forbidden fruit’, the kinds of expression that work their way into popular discourse, if you lack or lose knowledge where these phrases come from it really hinders our ability to communicate to each other.  So, to that extent I think it’s useful, valuable, to be literate in the Bible and how the Bible has informed our culture and in our manner of expression and speaking to one another.

BNS:  What, if any, major events in history participated in the decline of Bible literacy?

I think there have been certain forces of modernity, perhaps, in the last several hundred years that have emphasized the rational over the transcendent, that have wanted to marginalize matters of faith, to privatize matters of faith.  We see this not only in political ideas but we see it in decisions of our courts, limiting the expression of our religiosity in the public square, those kinds of things.  I think to some extent that has had an impact on the ability of traditional Christianity and Biblical faith in particular to influence the broader culture.

Professor Dreisbach’s principal research interests include American constitutional law and history, First Amendment law, church-state relations, and criminal procedure. He has written extensively on these topics. He has authored or edited five books and numerous articles in scholarly journals. Among the courses that Professor Dreisbach teaches are American Legal Culture, Issues in Civil Justice, Civil Justice Systems and the Constitution, and The Constitution and Criminal Procedure.

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