Now and then someone reads my Christian critiques of the Constitutional era and attempts to refute me by pointing to a study that “proves” the Founders were biblical Christians with a biblical worldview because they quoted the Bible more frequently “by far” than any other writer.
For just one example, the claim appears in summary form in an article by someone I regard as an ally and an admirable scholar and gentleman, John Eidsmoe. He writes,
Not only were those founding fathers actively affiliated with Christian churches, but they looked to the Bible as their primary source of authority. . . .
In a study that appeared in the American Political Science Review back in 1984, two political science professors, Dr. Donald Lutz and Dr. Charles Heineman [sic] researched 15,000 writings, letters, diaries, sermons and other works that were written by various leading Americans from 1760-1805. Their purpose was to identify quotations to find out who the founding fathers were quoting’ where they got their ideas, what authorities they were most impressed with. They found that by far the most widely quoted source in the founding fathers’ writings was the Bible. Thirty-four percent of all quotations came out of the Bible. And the book of the Bible they quoted most often was the book of Deuteronomy. Now most of us don’t go around quoting Deuteronomy a great deal today, but Deuteronomy is the book of the law. And they were writing about law and government.((See also Dr. Eidsmoe’s book, Christianity and the Constitution: The Faith of Our Founding Fathers, 51–53.))
While this was written in 1996, the Lutz and Hyneman study continues to reappear today. I just noticed it in a study course on jury nullification which I am reviewing. It is a pretty astounding claim—one which you would expect to settle any argument on the matter. So is it true?
Well, let’s say that if the devil is in the details, then this demon is legion.
‘First, the representation of the data is a little misleading. Lutz and Hyneman did in fact “review” an estimated 15,000 items, but according to Lutz’s recollection of it, this included “closely reading” only 2,200 of them. Still impressive as far as reading goes. But while that group of 2,200 may have included “letters” and “diaries,” these did not factor into the items finally analyzed by the pair of scholars. Lutz writes, “Excluded was anything that remained private and so did not enter public consciousness, such as letters and notes.”1 Thus, the only things included in the real review were anything published in the newspapers, or otherwise published or available in a public library.
This in itself is problematic. If we are trying to discover intellectual influences, we would most certainly want to read the private correspondence of these men! After all, it is here where men were often more candid about their real feelings. We even have Jefferson, for example, stating in a private letter that he specifically avoided expressing his religious views—whatever they truly may have been at any given time—in public. Furthermore, the volume of private correspondence is significantly larger than the publications for several of the leading men of the era, especially during the Constitutional period. To shuck the entire body of private work is at the very least to risk skewing the evidence from the start. Not to go further and compare the private expressions against the public is a shame as well—what a fascinating study that could turn out to be.
Nevertheless, from these 2,200 items, Lutz’s and Hyneman’s exclusions narrowed their study to 916. It was only after limiting the study to considering only this small minority of the writings that the pair could conclude that the Bible was by far the most quoted authority—making up a whopping 34 percent of all citations.
That still seems somewhat impressive, but we’re not done.
Second, also excluded were “the proceedings of legislatures and conventions.”2 Get that! This study is purporting to study the intellectual roots of America’s political founders by reviewing whom they cited, quoted, or paraphrased, and yet it chooses to exclude the most obviously and explicitly political venues in which these guys were speaking and arguing most. To me this seems simply irresponsible.
Third, this 34 percent claim loses much of its striking appeal once we understand the nature of the numbers. Lutz writes,
Anyone familiar with the literature will know that most of these citations come from sermons reprinted as pamphlets; hundreds of sermons were reprinted during the era, amounting to at least 10% of all pamphlets published. These reprinted sermons accounted for almost three-fourths of the biblical citations. . . .3
Well, now that changes everything. At first blush, the 34 percent claim makes it sound like Bible quotations were scattered across all the works of all the founders. But in reality, three-fourths of the citations appear concentrated in a small ten percent minority of the printed material.
And since these were printed sermons, we can be pretty sure the vast majority of them were not written by the relevant men who debated and decided the legislation and Constitution. As such, these sermons tell us little about the intellectual citations of Constitutional framers themselves, because the framers didn’t write these pieces.
Consider an analogy: what if today we took a cross-section of public writings from prominent figures today, and then we weighted the sample with ten percent of printed sermons from today (from random churches). Would we not get roughly the same results when it comes to cited authorities?
Wouldn’t we expect to find a handful of popular secular authorities scattered throughout, and yet find a concentration of biblical citations among those sermons (even the liberal churches and Jeremiah Wrights of the world quote the Bible profusely!). And yet if we reported the statistics from such an experiment generally without much qualification, we would probably see that, among such a sample, the Bible is quoted more than any other authority still today.
And yet our society is much further down the socialist-leftist, one-world-government road than it was in 1787. Why? Because the methodology is flawed.
More importantly, I think Dr. Lutz himself gives a helpful clue, one always left out by those who cite his study to defend the standard “Christian Constitution” position. This is . . .
Fourth, Dr. Lutz’s study covers the period 1760 to 1805. But he notes that a curious phenomenon occurs when we approach the Constitutional Convention years:
The Bible’s prominence disappears, which is not surprising since the debate centered upon specific institutions about which the Bible had little to say.4
“The Bible’s prominence disappears. . . .” Get that. And it was the pro-Constitution forces that neglected the Bible the most, replacing it with quotations from Enlightenment rationalists. The opposition—the so-called Anti-Federalists—actually appealed to the Bible on occasion, and yet lost the debate!
The Anti-Federalists do drag it in with respect to basic principles of government, but the Federalists’ inclination to Enlightenment rationalism is most evident here in their failure to consider the Bible relevant.5
So in summary we can see the great level of fallacy involved in claiming how the so-called fathers (Constitutional framers) “looked to the Bible” and “got their ideas.” The study doesn’t include the most important writings—the private correspondences and the actual deliberations in conventions and legislatures. The 34 percent number merely represents a heavy concentration in a tiny corner market of the data. Most of these printed sermons were probably not even read by the decision makers. Finally, and most importantly, even in the stacked minority of literature that was considered, “the Bible’s prominence disappears” and Enlightenment literature gains supremacy when the Constitutional era begins.
Thus, it should not surprise us to find even Lutz himself acknowledging the Constitution’s secular basis. In another (really good) journal article, he traces the history of of the concept of Covenant from the Hebrew Old Testament, up through the New England Puritan tradition, and then tries to extrapolate it up through the various state constitutions and finally the national Constitution of 1787-1789. But sure enough, even Lutz finds himself admitting that the Constitutional preamble was a “secularized version” of the type of covenants or compacts made by earlier, ore explicitly religious, settlers—for example, the Mayflower Compact.6 This fact is also left out of those citing the Lutz study.
Now, I certainly don’t think this little correction is all that devastating to either 1) the larger Christian history of America, or 2) the goals we need to be working toward now as we speak. The first is true because those Bible quotations are still there, and there is much more out there besides this small niche of printed sermons from which we can draw. We just have to be willing to go back before the Constitutional era and read and learn the history of the people who actually did quote the Bible and make explicitly religious compacts. Of course, these people aren’t perfect in their worldviews either, but they are much much closer, and much more open about it in 1660 than in 1787. We need to look more closely at the earlier period for a great many things.
On the second point, the more we make the attempt to do the opposite—that is, to uphold the Constitutional era, the Constitution itself, and its framers as shining examples of applying the Bible to government which we must praise and emulate—the more we are both deluding ourselves and distracting ourselves. We delude ourselves because the facts simply don’t bear out that thesis, and the central sources of authority which proponents quote for this thesis themselves prove just the opposite when we actually pay attention to them and report them candidly. And we also distract ourselves thereby because we are looking to yet one more example of centralized government, which is what the Constitution was for its day. And it doesn’t help to look to an example of centralized government in order to solve the problems of centralized government—save, maybe, to learn about how it went wrong.
Instead, we need to be about finding ways to decentralize power, meet basic needs of education and welfare at the level of family and church, roll back the reach of federal government powers, resist government handouts, grants, subsidies, and bond funding at our local and state government levels and in our businesses. We need to demand reform in money and banking, end private-public partnerships and government contracts, decentralize and privatize the court system, decentralize the military, and end rule by executive orders (at all levels). And as long as we are looking to Washington and Washington’s Constitution (in any era) to accomplish these fundamental goals of biblical worldview, we will not make one inch of advance because Washington stands for and has always stood for just the opposite in each of these areas (with minor exceptions).
It is time to get to work, and getting to work for Christians in social, political, and economic areas means thinking differently than we have in the past. This requires a plan. But a plan requires that we properly understand the problem we are trying to solve. If we cannot be honest first about where things went wrong, chances are we will not be able to chart the proper path forward. I, for one, am simply tired—and I got tired of it quickly—of getting distracted by illusions that don’t represent biblical law and biblical worldview in the first place.
- Donald S. Lutz, “The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth-Century American Political Thought,” The American Political Science Review, 78/1 (Mar. 1984), 191.(↩)
- Lutz, 191.(↩)
- Lutz, 192.(↩)
- Lutz, 194.(↩)
- Lutz, 195.(↩)
- Donald S. Lutz, “From Covenant to Constitution in American Political Thought, Publius 10/4 (Autumn 1980), 118.(↩)