NAME the American Founding Fathers, or at least the ones everyone knows, and then describe their religion. George Washington: reticent, probably lukewarm; Jefferson: accused of atheism, disliked organised religion, basically a deist; Franklin: another deist; Hamilton: youthfully religious, lost his enthusiasm, not keen on churchgoing. Madison: largely indifferent. Only really John Adams and John Jay can lay claim to piety.
Add to this the Fathers’ undeniable enthusiasm for Enlightenment rationalism, the new nation’s desire to keep Church and State separate, and the First Amendment to the Constitution (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”), and you seem to have built up a pretty godless, or at least God-uninterested, picture.
One of the many merits of Daniel Dreisbach’s book is to show how misleading this picture is. Against this popular image, the Bible was referenced more often than any other text, or even writer, during the Revolutionary period. The most prominent Founding Fathers were not typical of American revolutionaries, and even they were steeped in, and often fascinated by, biblical ideas and figures.
Dreisbach shows how prevalent the Bible was in early American culture and politics: think England or Scotland c.1650, and you wouldn’t be far wrong. He also demonstrates, in the book’s best chapter, that the Revolutionaries’ political theorising, in particular their justification for rebellion, would have been impossible (or at least unrecognisable) without two preceding centuries of Protestant “resistance theology”: Vindiciae contra tyrannos was an extremely useful text when you found yourself defending liberty against those you considered to be tyrants.
Dreisbach recognises that the Fathers’ biblical rhetoric was sometimes only skin deep, borrowing figures and phrases to lend political speechifying a weight, dignity, and significance that it would not otherwise have had. Nevertheless, to dismiss it all as theological window-dressing is mistaken. Even when the Bible was not embedded in the Fathers’ lives (and chapter three shows that it often was), it underpinned and defined the sense of justice, rights, duty, liberty, providence, and destiny that created the new nation.
Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers is a scholarly book, drawing on an abundance of source material and demonstrating an admirable familiarity with the period and the Bible. It is also somewhat repetitive: having established that the Fathers were deeply informed by biblical language, narrative and ideas, Dreisbach effectively goes on repeating the conclusion with different examples and from different angles. By the end, you have well and truly got the point.
Still, it is a point that needs to be got. In the United States’ polarised climate, this book will remind culture warriors that the nation’s robust constitutional secularism was grounded, paradoxically, in its equally robust Christianity.
Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos.
Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers
Church Times Bookshop £18