‘Their Failure to Consider the Bible Relevant’: Debunking Christian Nationalists’ Favorite Claim About the Founding Era

Earlier this month, former Rep. Michele Bachmann spoke at an “Understanding The Times” conference in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, where she declared that “it isn’t even debatable” that the United States was founded to be a Christian nation.

As “evidence” of this claim, Bachmann asserted that “you can find scripture” throughout both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—which, as we have pointed out countless times, is entirely untrue.

Bachmann also falsely claimed that “the number one book that was referenced by the Founders, across the board, when they were putting this nation together was the Bible.”

Right-wing broadcaster Glenn Beck made this same claim on his television program a few weeks ago, misrepresenting the findings of a study conducted by a University of Houston professor.

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In an attempt to document the source of the unique ideas that created the longest ongoing constitution in world history, political scientists from the University of Houston analyzed writings from the founding era, covering the years 1760 to 1805. Their goal was to identify the specific political authorities quoted during that period. Selecting 15,000 representative writings, the researchers identified 3,154 direct quotations in the works. They documented the original sources of those quotations. The results showed a singular single source cited far more, far more, above and away: the Bible. Thirty four percent of all of the quotes that [are] in the representative writings of the founding era were taken directly from the Bible.

This false claim, like nearly all of the misinformation the right regularly cites about the supposedly Christian founding of this nation, originated with religious-right pseudo-historian David Barton.

As usual, Barton cherry-picked and misrepresented data from ta University of Houston study to bolster his political views, as researcher Chris Rodd explained more than a decade ago. But since Barton and those who rely on his work, like Bachmann and Beck, continue to spread this misinformation in their efforts to chip away at the separation of church and state, it is worth debunking this claim yet again..

In 1984, professor Donald S. Lutz of the University of Houston published a study in The American Political Science Review titled “The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth-Century American Political Thought.” The purpose of the study was to identify which writers and sources of ideas were most cited in “the political writings of Americans published between 1760 and 1805.”

The findings, Lutz reported, was that “there was no one European writer, or one tradition of writers, that dominated American political thought” during that era, but that the Bible was cited most frequently solely because many of the pamphlets included in the research were sermons that had been reprinted for mass distribution.

As Lutz explained:

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, making this nonsermon source of biblical citations roughly as important as the Classical or Common Law categories.

As Lutz noted, once the sermon pamphlets were excluded, quotes from the Bible appeared no more frequently than citations of the classical or common law.

More importantly, Lutz also noted that when the focus was solely on the public political writings from 1787 to 1788, when the U.S. Constitution was written and ratified, “the Bible’s prominence disappears” almost completely.

Tables 4 and 5 illustrate the pattern of citations surrounding the debate on the U.S. Constitution. The items from which the citations for these two tables are drawn come close to exhausting the literature written by both sides. The Bible’s prominence disappears, which is not surprising since the debate centered upon specific institutions about which the Bible had little to say. 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.

Not only is the claim that the Bible was the most cited document during the founding era misleading, the very article upon which this claim relies completely debunks the Christian nationalist narrative by demonstrating that the Federalists, who drafted the Constitution and supported its ratification, did not publicly cite the Bible once while framing and enacting the Constitution.


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