The Bible’s presence in public culture has been pervasive, featuring prominently in the script and soundtrack of the American experience. Americans have looked to the sacred text at moments of commencement, celebration, crisis, and tragedy; and the rituals and liturgies of civic life reverberate with scriptural sounds, symbols, and themes.
The Bible animated John Winthrop’s “A City upon a Hill” (Matthew 5:14) speech in 1630, outlining a vision—a mission statement—for a new Bible commonwealth in Massachusetts Bay. It was read aloud at the commencement of the First Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia in early September 1774. On April 30, 1789, George Washington, standing on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City, placed his hand on an open Bible and recited the presidential oath of office, becoming the first president inaugurated under the US Constitution. He then, according to eyewitness accounts, bent forward and kissed the sacred book.
Abraham Lincoln invoked biblical phrases and themes in his second inaugural address, delivered in the wake of a bitter civil war, signaling a new birth for a nation, under God, rededicated to liberty and equality for all. A century later, standing in the shadow of a monument dedicated to the martyred sixteenth president, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. reinforced these themes in his “I Have a Dream” speech, infused with biblical language and allusions.
The Bible similarly resounds in the American soundtrack. The nation’s songbook is replete with songs saturated with biblical phrases, rhythms, and themes—from the Bay Psalm Book to the spirituals sung by enslaved peoples to Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” to the shape-note hymnals of the American South to Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season).”
Americans across the centuries have viewed the Bible as an indispensable handbook for their great political experiment in republican self-government and liberty under law. From the colonial era to the founding era and beyond, Americans have studied the scriptures for insights into concepts essential to a well-ordered political society, such as human nature, civic virtue, legitimate political authority, and the rights and responsibilities of citizens. They have looked to the Bible to identify models and precedents for civil government, set normative standards for the ordering of public life, and inspire citizens and civil governments to pursue liberty and justice.
The Bible in American Law and Politics: A Reference Guide, by John R. Vile, is a welcomed resource for surveying and exploring the Bible’s contributions to American political and legal cultures. The author is a professor of political science at Middle Tennessee State University and a longtime student of the intersection of religion, politics, and law in American history. Describing himself as one who believes the Bible is “a sure guide to faith and practice,” Professor Vile is both academically rigorous in his assessment of the subject matter and respectful of the faith claims he examines.
This nearly 700-page volume contains approximately 300 articles, ranging in length from a couple paragraphs to four or five pages, covering both familiar and forgotten personalities, texts, and controversies that tell the story of the Bible’s contributions to American politics and law. Enhancing its value as a reference work, the volume also includes a brief introduction, timeline, glossary, extensive bibliography, several indexes, and, accompanying each article, recommendations for further reading.
Arranged alphabetically from “Abington v. Schempp” to “Zionism,” the articles examine a broad range of topics, including noteworthy people, texts (books and pamphlets), speeches and sermons, symbols, legislative enactments, legal cases, biblical characters as archetypes in political discourse, religious sects, organizations, movements, events, and controversies. To illustrate briefly the diverse topics examined, the volume includes entries on America as New Israel, City upon a Hill, Frederick Douglass, Election Day Sermons, Martin Luther King Jr., Moses as Political Archetype, Old Deluder Satan Act, Mike Pence, Philadelphia Bible Riots of 1844, Political Hebraism, Scopes Trial, Social Gospel, Sunday Closing Laws, Temperance Movement, John Witherspoon, and Woman’s Bible. The treatment of the selected topics is, for the most part, accessible, balanced, and appropriately documented.
As is perhaps inevitable in an encyclopedic work of this type and size, a few of the selected topics seem quirky, topical, or peripheral to the project, such as entries on Cory Booker, Stephanie Borowicz, and Bernie Sanders. There are, more importantly, some surprising omissions (although, to be fair, some topics that arguably merit a separate entry are briefly mentioned in related articles). There are no separate articles, for example, on the phrases “separation of church and state” or “wall of separation” (said by some advocates to have biblical warrant), Moral Re-Armament (or its founder Frank Buchman), John Courtney Murray, liberation theology, or the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (1993). Missed entries, however, are more than made up for by the many articles introducing readers to forgotten, yet important, figures and controversies.
The Bible in American Law and Politics richly documents the Bible’s expansive influence on civic culture, providing appropriate contexts and assessing the implications of this influence. Sadly, there are few scholarly works on this topic. By contrast, a substantial library could be filled with all the books written on the influences of classical republicanism, British constitutionalism, Enlightenment liberalism, and other intellectual traditions on the American political experiment.
Why has so little scholarship focused specifically on the Bible’s influence on American politics and law? The Bible, after all, was the most venerated, authoritative, and accessible book for much of American history; and few observers would deny its prodigious influence more generally on the nation’s life and culture.
The biblical illiteracy of our age may explain the failure of some scholars to recognize its presence in public life. Also, scholars trained in the modern academy with its emphasis on the strictly rational and the secular may discount biblical themes because they find them less noteworthy or sophisticated than other intellectual contributions. There may even be a discomfort with or, perhaps, hostility toward explicitly religious material and themes. Some commentators object to the mere acknowledgment of biblical influences on civic life, viewing it as a betrayal of a commitment to church-state separation. Some fear that acknowledging biblical influences will fortify the alleged theocratic impulses of some twenty-first-century citizens.
Some commentators find a focus on God, religion, and the Bible divisive or even offensive to twenty-first-century, secular sensibilities. In an admonition seldom mentioned in the scholarly literature, for example, George Washington warned in his Farewell Address (1796) that one who labors to subvert a public role for religion and morality cannot claim the mantle of patriotism. Such rhetoric, unexceptional in its time, is discordant with the secular ethos of our time.
Does it matter whether the Bible is studied alongside other intellectual influences on American civic culture? Yes, it matters if one wants to understand the broad range of ideas that have shaped the nation’s laws and civil governments, as well as the way Americans view themselves and their political pursuits.
The Bible in American Law and Politics makes a compelling case that the Bible has been a wellspring of principles, themes, values, symbols, and narratives that have informed—for good and ill—diverse aspects of American politics and law. It offers insights into the people, ideas, and events, shaped by a biblical culture, that have influenced the nation’s civic life. It also serves as a reminder and a warning that the widespread biblical illiteracy of our own age will inevitably distort the conception Americans have of themselves as a people, their history, and their political endeavors.