Daniel Dreisbach on Biblical Rhetoric in the Founding Era
Date: January 15th, 2017

The Bible was the most common book to be found in houses throughout the United States in the late 18th century, and it is no surprise that the Founders would rely upon passages from Scripture to inform the dialogue around the building of a new nation and governmental system.  Prof. Daniel Dreisbach, a professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University, elaborates on how the Bible was used to frame political ideas during this revolutionary era.  Our conversation begins with how religious symbolism manifested itself in the first presidential inauguration of George Washington, and how the choices made back then still echo throughout the ages and up to the present.  We also discover that despite all the thoughtful planning that went into the pageantry of the first inauguration, the planners almost forgot one crucial thing.  (You will have to listen to the audio to find out what that was.)  We then turn to a discussion of the role of literacy, religion, and the King James Bible in the British American colonies and how this impacted how political leaders would frame their arguments for the new republic and communicate with the citizens.  Irrespective of the religiosity of any given Founder, the presence of the Bible in American education meant that it was a references point for all people and a literary source for speaking a unified language in a new nation.  Daniel notes that the King James version had a certain rhythm and poetry to it that lent itself to rhetorical uses.  He also points out how Protestantism’s “dangerous idea” about a “priesthood of all people” also became a crucial component of justifying a democratic republic placing sovereignty in the common person as opposed to a monarch.  We then discuss how the Bible was used rhetorically, with Daniel emphasizing its importance in crafting metaphors, providing weight and authority to political language, modeling new precedents that were being established with this revolutionary form of government, and promoting the notion of Providence at work in American history.  Prof. Dreisbach provides specific examples of how this plays out and gives reference to a couple critical biblical passages including Micah 6:8 (on the role of government by covenant), Proverbs 14:34 (the need for an informed and virtuous citizenry), and Proverbs 29:2 (on the character of the magistrate).  Daniel points out that while the Founders desired a virtuous political class, the Calvinist emphasis on original sin made it necessary to create institutions that built in a “Plan B” to contain the worst desires and actions of are all-too-human leaders.  We finish off with Daniel providing his personal thoughts on what all this means for our contemporary period, what he learned over the decades of studying this era, and promising to come back later in the year to talk about the role of religious rhetoric in justifying the notion of liberty within the American experiment.  Recorded: December 19,2016.


Prof. Daniel Dreisbach’s bio at the School of Public Affairs at American University.

Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers, by Daniel Dreisbach.

Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State, by Daniel Dreisbach.

Faith and the Founders of the American Republic, edited by Daniel Dreisbach and Mark David Hall.

The Sacred Rights of Conscience, edited by Daniel Dreisbach and Mark David Hall.

The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life, by Daniel Dreisbach, Mark David Hall, and Jeffry Morrison.

The Founders on God and Government, edited by Daniel Dreisbach, Mark David Hall, and Jeffry Morrison.


Daniel Dreisbach on Abe Lincoln’s Religious Rhetoric.

Mark David Hall on Religion and the Founding Fathers.

John Fea on Religion and the American Founding.

Mark David Hall on Roger Sherman, American Patriot.

Mark David Hall on Religious Accommodations and the Common Good.

Mark David Hall on Religious Minorities in the U.S. Founding.

Chris Beneke on Religion, Markets, and the Founding Era.

Kyle Swan on Christianity and (Classical) Liberalism.

John Fea on the American Bible Society.

Jonathan den Hartog on Patriotism and Piety.

Jonathan den Hartog on the Spiritual and Political Life of John Jay.

Gary Scott Smith on Presidential Faith.

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