The Promises and Perils of Using the Bible in Political Discourse

The founders mentioned the Bible more frequently than any European writer or even any European school of thought, such as Enlightenment liberalism or republicanism. The book of Deuteronomy alone was the most frequently cited work, followed by Baron de Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, the most cited secular source. Deuteronomy was referenced nearly twice as often as John Locke’s writings, and the Apostle Paul was mentioned about as frequently as Montesquieu.

See Also: Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers (Oxford University Press, 2017).

By Daniel L. Dreisbach
School of Public Affairs
American University
Washington, D.C.
On Twitter @d3bach
February 2017

From John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” speech in 1630 to twenty-first-century presidential inaugural addresses, the Bible has featured prominently in American political rhetoric. Some of the most celebrated wordsmiths and orators in American political history, including Daniel Webster, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ronald Reagan, have woven biblical language and themes into the fabric of their public pronouncements. They have appealed to the Bible for a variety of reasons. Many have drawn on its bountiful literary resources – figures of speech, aphorisms, and the like. Others have looked to Scripture for normative precepts or guidance for ordering civic life. Still others have heard in Scripture a prophetic voice or divine perspective they believed pertinent to their time and place.

As I document in my new book, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers (Oxford University Press, 2017), the Americans who secured independence and established new constitutional republics in their states and nation in the last third of the eighteenth century, appealed frequently to the text sacred to the Christian faith. The political discourse of this age, notwithstanding increasing Enlightenment influences, was replete with biblical language and themes. Both pious and skeptical founders, including some who doubted the Bible’s divine origins, incorporated the Sacred Text into their rhetoric.

The founders’ many quotations from and allusions to both familiar and obscure scriptural passages confirm that they knew the Bible from cover to cover. Biblical expressions and allusions liberally seasoned their rhetoric. The phrases and cadences of the King James Bible, especially, informed their written and spoken words. Its ideas shaped their habits of mind and influenced their political pursuits.

The Bible was the most referenced work in the political discourse of the age. In his survey of American political literature from 1760 to 1805, Donald S. Lutz found that the Bible accounted for approximately one-third of all the citations in the literature surveyed. In fact, the founders mentioned the Bible more frequently than any European writer or even any European school of thought, such as Enlightenment liberalism or republicanism. The book of Deuteronomy alone was the most frequently cited work, followed by Baron de Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, the most cited secular source. Deuteronomy was referenced nearly twice as often as John Locke’s writings, and the Apostle Paul was mentioned about as frequently as Montesquieu.

Biblical principles and themes contributed in significant ways to the founders’ bold experiment in republican self-government and liberty under law. The Bible informed the way many eighteenth-century Americans thought about human nature, civic virtue, social order, political authority, the rights and duties of citizens, and other ideas vital to the establishment of a political society. Many in this generation saw in the Bible political and legal models – such as republicanism, separation of powers, and due process of law – that they believed enjoyed divine favor and were worthy of emulation in their polities.

Merely counting and documenting the founders’ many references to the Bible tells us little except that these Americans found the Bible to be a familiar and useful literary resource. More important than cataloguing their biblical invocations is an examination of the purposes for which they appealed to Scripture and how it contributed to their political pursuits. What can the founders teach us about the promises and perils of deploying the Sacred Text in political – sometimes partisan – discourse?

Diverse Uses of the Bible in Political Discourse

Authoritative texts – including sacred writings – are appealed to and cited for a variety of reasons. A study of the Bible’s use in political discourse, it seems to me, must be attentive to how and for what purposes Scripture is used and not merely to the fact that a political communicator has invoked the Bible. Although generally regarded as a sacred text, not all uses of the Bible in American political discourse have been for spiritual ends. Indeed, Scripture has been employed for literary, rhetorical, and political purposes. These distinctions are important because it is misleading to regard a theological appeal to Scripture as merely a political expedient or rhetorical flourish, just as it is misleading to read spiritual meaning into literary, rhetorical, or political uses of the Bible. One misreading of the Bible’s use furthers a secular inclination and the other implies a theocratic impulse.

What are some of the diverse uses of the Bible in political rhetoric? In Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers, I propose a simple typology that accounts for uses of the Bible ranging from the primarily literary and cultural to the essentially theological. The Bible has been used both in the founding era and in subsequent eras (1) to enrich a common language and cultural vocabulary through distinctively biblical allusions, phrases, figures of speech, proverbs, aphorisms, and the like; (2) to enhance the power and weight of rhetoric through its identification with a venerated, authoritative sacred text; (3) to identify and define normative standards and transcendent rules for ordering and judging public life; (4) to marshal biblical authority in support of specific political agendas and policy objectives; and (5) to gain insights into the character and designs of God, especially as they pertain to God’s providential oversight of the material world and, more specifically, His dealings with men and nations.

This list is not meant to be exhaustive. Still other uses, one imagines, could be added to it. Moreover, the lines separating these categories are, at times, fine and even indistinct, and selected uses of the Bible can be illustrative of more than one category. Nonetheless, I hope this typology offers preliminary guidance on how to think about the place and contribution of biblical language in political discourse.

American politicians living in a society favorably disposed toward the Bible have long employed biblical language in their public discourse because, as an authoritative and sacred text, its mere invocation, some believe, lends rhetorical weight to their words. (This may be changing in an increasingly secular culture as evidenced by recent criticism of the presence of Bibles and scriptural readings at presidential inaugurations.) The evocative use of biblical language stirs an audience’s religious imagination. Such uses of Scripture, which sometimes mimic pulpit oratory, are calculated to persuade by capturing an audience’s attention (with, perhaps, the fear of God), emphasizing the gravity of an idea or argument, solemnifying a discourse, projecting an aura of transcendence and truth, arousing a righteous passion, and/or underscoring an argument’s moral implications or sacred connotations.

Although less obvious, but perhaps as significant, is the use of bible-like language; that is, phrases, figures of speech, or rhythms that resemble, imitate, or evoke the language of a familiar Bible translation. In the American experience, the translation most frequently imitated because of its wide availability and enduring influence is the King James Bible. A mere resemblance to its mellifluous language and intonations infuses rhetoric with solemnity, sanctity, and authority. Such usage of morally freighted language can be an honest rhetorical device; it can also, in the cynic’s hands, be an instrument to manipulate a pious public who venerates the Sacred Text.

Few late-eighteenth-century political figures were more fluent in biblical language or adept in appropriating the distinct vernacular and cadences of the King James Bible than Patrick Henry. Consider, for example, arguably the most famous lines of revolutionary rhetoric, Henry’s “give me liberty or give me death” declamation. (The familiar text of this speech was reconstructed many years after it was given, not from Henry’s text, notes, or memory, but from an auditor’s recollections. Thus, some historians question its accuracy.)

Delivered before the Virginia Convention assembled at St. John’s Church in Richmond on March 23, 1775, Henry passionately implored his fellow delegates to prepare Virginia for military resistance to the British. Familiar biblical images and phrases were integral to this revolutionary prose. He adroitly tapped the righteous indignation of the Old Testament prophets and, in a stirring political jeremiad, warned “Virginia of impending doom.” The oration’s dramatic climax was punctuated by the unmistakable words of the Prophet Jeremiah. Henry, like Jeremiah two and a half millennia before, ridiculed the idea of peace when “there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14, 8:11) and boldly called on his fellow citizens to prepare for war.

The speech, reverberating with revivalistic fervor, was so permeated with biblical language that it read like a lay sermon. Henry lifted entire lines nearly verbatim from the King James Bible to emphasize the urgency of the moment – phrases like “having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not” (Jeremiah 5:21; Ezekiel 12:2), “[t]he battle . . . is not to the strong alone” (Ecclesiastes 9:11), “to fight our battles for us” (1 Samuel 8:20; 2 Chronicles 32:8), “[w]hy stand we here idle” (Matthew 20:6), and “[i]s life so dear” (Acts 20:24). Other biblical phrases liberally seasoned the speech.

Significantly, however, he appropriated biblical language, not to draw attention to some specific biblical theme or principle, but to enhance the dramatic appeal and gravity of the rhetoric. A few lines plead for Divine assistance in the confrontation with the enemy. A particularly poignant phrase warned patriots not to be betrayed with a kiss, an allusion, of course, to the signal with which Judas betrayed Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:48-49; Luke 22:47-48). Building to the speech’s rhetorical climax in which Virginians were asked to choose their destiny, Henry invoked the phraseology of a famous and not dissimilar emphatic choice Joshua made: “choose you this day whom ye will serve; . . . but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). The source of all these phrases and allusions would have been immediately apparent to biblically literate Americans in Henry’s day. Through the use of biblical phrases and idioms reminiscent of the King James Bible, Henry communicated the gravity of the moment, the righteousness of the patriots’ cause, and the promise of God’s sustaining aid.

The mere fact that a political figure uses the Bible tells us little about the Bible’s influence on that individual’s political thought. Furthermore, it does not necessarily reveal whether or not the individual reveres Scripture or, even, is a Christian. Some polemicists have made the error of assuming that selected politicians are committed Christians based principally on the number of quotations from and allusions to the Bible in that individual’s political speech. Pamphleteer Thomas Paine illustrates the error of this approach. He made frequent allusions to the Bible in his writings, yet no figure of his generation was more famously dismissive of orthodox Christianity and its view of Scripture than Paine. Throughout American history, both Christians and skeptics have utilized rhetoric informed by the Bible. Again, the important consideration is how and for what purposes the Bible is used, not simply that it is used.

American Political Religion

The Bible’s use in political rhetoric is often met with criticisms from religious and nonreligious auditors alike. One concern is that politicians who rely on biblical language and themes in their speeches are contributing to a civil religion. A civil religion, as I use the term, deliberately appropriates sacred language, themes, and symbols for a distinctly political purpose, such as promoting national unity or legitimizing the political regime. There may be a subtle, yet potent, unspoken claim that God has endorsed the party and arguments associated with a speaker who has invoked biblical language. Critics decry what they regard as the misappropriation of sacred themes and symbols in political rhetoric for profane purposes. They repudiate political authorities who requisition religion in general and Scripture in particular to serve their own political ends.

This concern is illustrated by one of the most celebrated speeches in American letters, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (November 19, 1863), delivered more than two generations after the founding era. Lincoln, like Patrick Henry, was especially adept at appropriating the distinct phrases and rhythms of the King James Bible for political purposes. More than a few commentators have described the Gettysburg Address as a hymn or even the bible of American civil religion. Lincoln’s invocation of the unmistakable gospel themes of conception, birth, death, and rebirth, and, in particular, equating the sacrificial shed blood of Union soldiers with Christ’s atoning death at Calvary, has struck some critics as verging on blasphemy. Lincoln’s apparent effort to use this address to advance his partisan interpretation of the war underscores that he was invoking profoundly sacred themes in the service of a political point. Delivered on the blood soaked battlefield, Lincoln seemed to be saying that these “brave men” (that is, Union soldiers) gave their lives in this “great civil war” so that the nation might enjoy a “new birth of freedom,” just as Jesus Christ gave his life so that humanity could enjoy a new, spiritual birth and the hope of eternal life. Lincoln, of course, was not alone among Union partisans in making this analogy (see, for example, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”).

Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address (March 4, 1865), by contrast, appears to be a sincere meditation on the will and ways of God in a partisan conflict in which both sides pray to the same God and solicit the same God’s assistance. His rumination on a vexing question is remarkably nonpartisan. It would have been easy for him to say on this occasion, at the war’s end, that God had favored the Union side and its cause and, therefore, awarded them the victory in this terrible civil war. Remarkably, however, he said something very different. This war, he said, is the “woe” or punishment due all Americans for the sin of “American slavery” – not just southern slavery – and, by the way, God’s punishment is true and righteous (Psalm 19:9).

The Bible and Political Culture

The Bible has been a prodigious source of idioms and ideas for American political figures, from the Pilgrim fathers to the founding fathers and to the present day. For most Americans, it is an accessible, familiar, and authoritative text. Not surprisingly, public figures have been drawn to the Bible in thinking about and talking about the nation’s political challenges. The use of biblical language is not always deliberate. Certain phrases and motifs from the King James Bible, especially, have permeated the vernacular so thoroughly that speakers make use of them without regard to their biblical origins. This underscores the Bible’s historical and expansive influence on the culture.

Again, it is important to recognize the diverse uses political orators make of the Sacred Text. To interpret biblical language in political discourse as purely stylistic or rhetorical, for example, can lead to the cynical conclusion that a speaker has employed the Bible only for temporal political advantage or has used religious language, in Joseph Fornieri’s words, as “merely a political expedient to accommodate the prejudices of a Bible-reading nation.” This interpretation discounts the extent to which the Bible and biblical precepts penetrate the core beliefs of many citizens – including public figures – and the manifold manifestations of those beliefs in both public and private utterances.

The opposite error – to read all invocations of biblical language as direct, literal appeals to transcendent, divine claims – ignores the nature of political rhetoric and arguably leads to an erroneous conclusion that a speaker is driven by a theocratic, even messianic, vision of America. Some politicians, no doubt, employ biblical language merely to excite a pious public.

Sometimes the Bible is appealed to for literary, rhetorical, or political purposes; sometimes it is used to invoke the divine and the transcendent. Those who hear this language should be aware of the complexity and richness of biblical expressions in political discourse and seek to appreciate the various ways and diverse purposes for which political orators use Scripture.

*Daniel L. Dreisbach is a professor at American University in Washington, D.C. He has authored or edited 10 books, including Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers (Oxford University Press, 2017), from which this article is adapted. You can follow him on Twitter @d3bach.

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