The Bible’s Forgotten Influence on the American Constitutional Tradition

September 29, 2020 | Daniel Dreisbach
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To many scholars of the subject, the American founding reflected the high-water mark of Enlightenment rationalism, producing a secular Constitution that makes no reference to God and mentions religion only insofar as it protects the free exercise thereof—and even that, not in the Constitution’s originally ratified text but in its first amendment. Not so, argues Daniel Dreisbach, noting that, in the political literature of the founding, the Bible was far and away the most-cited work:

Not all founders revered the Bible, but even those who doubted Christianity’s transcendent claims or the notion that the Bible was divine revelation thought it was vital to their experiment in republican self-government. (Interestingly, some of the most skeptical, heterodox founders, such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine, were the most prolific in referencing Scripture in their political writings.)

There was, in particular, broad agreement that the Bible was a useful handbook for nurturing the civic virtues that give citizens the capacity for self-government in a republic. For this reason, both John Adams and John Dickinson called the Bible “the most republican book in the world.” In various representative assemblies of the age, as well as in pamphlets, political sermons, and private papers, founding figures appealed to the Bible for principles, precedents, normative standards, and cultural motifs to define their community and to order their political experiments. Some founders also saw in Scripture, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures, political and legal models—such as republicanism and separation of powers—that they believed enjoyed divine favor and were worthy of emulation in their own polities.

Among the many specific cases Dreisbach cites is one likely familiar to anyone who has studied talmudic jurisprudence:

The provision in Article III, § 3, clause 1 [of the Constitution] that convictions for treason be supported by “the testimony of two witnesses” conforms to a familiar biblical mandate, asserted in both the Old and New Testaments, requiring multiple witnesses of malfeasance for conviction and punishment (see Deuteronomy 17:6). The principle was written into early colonial laws, such as Article 47 of the Massachusetts Body of Liberties (1641), requiring “the testimony of two or three witnesses” in capital cases, and it continued to find expression in later statements of colonial law.

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