The Bible in American Public Life, 1860-2005
This country is, as everybody knows, a creation of the Bible, and the Bible is still holding its own, exercising enormous influence as a real spiritual power, in spite of all the destructive tendencies "1 These words, spoken 102 years ago, came from an unexpected source. Yet as part of an address delivered by Solomon Schechter at the dedication of the main building of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, they echoed what was then a common assertion about the biblical character of the United States. Much more frequently, of course, similar words came from Christian commentators and with specific reference to the Christian character of the Scriptures.
Thus, only a few years after Schechter's address, the governor of New Jersey addressed a crowd of about 12,000 in Denver on the subject, "The Bible and Progress." The occasion was the 300th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version. In his speech, Woodrow Wilson called Scripture "the 'Magna Carta' of the human soul," and he summarized the burden of his remarks like this: "The Bible (with its individual value of the human soul) is undoubtedly the book that has made democracy and been the source of all progress."2 What Schechter and Wilson wanted to say is that without full consideration of the Bible, no adequate account of American national history or of American national ideals was possible.
A century and more later, much has changed. Political, social, legal, and cultural developments have altered the practice of religion, and of everything else, in American life. Yet despite manifold changes, reading of the Bible, reverence for the Bible, reference to the Bible, and debate over whether and how to use the Bible continue as constant features in American public lifeevident most recently in the Supreme Court decisions regarding whether and how to display the Ten Commandments in courthouses and other public spaces.
In this ongoing negotiation, two notable Americans provide examples of perhaps the most effective use of the Bible ever in our nation's public history: Martin Luther King, Jr., in the speech he delivered from the east steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, during the March on Washington for Civil Rights, and Abraham Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address, which he delivered from the east side of the Capital Building on March 4, 1865.3 Beyond cavil, the extraordinary force of these addresses owed much to their anchorage in Scripture. Yet the two speeches were quite different and so serve to illustrate the various ways that the Bible has been put to use in American public life.4
First, we can see in them a rhetorical or stylistic echoing of Scripture, where speakers, in order to increase the gravity of their words, employ a phraseology, cadence, or tone that parallels the classic phrasing of the King James Version. The most dramatic example in our entire history of such a biblical tone may in fact be King's speech in August 1963, which was filled with biblical-sounding phrases: "the Negro finds himself in exile in his own land ; now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice ; Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred "; and more.
A second usage of the Bible may be called evocative, where speakers put actual Bible phrases to use, but as fragments and jerked out of original context in order to heighten the persuasive power of what they are trying to say for their own purposes. Lincoln used the Bible in this way during his Second Inaugural when he took a phrase from Genesis 3:19 to say it was "strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces."
Third, in political deployment of Scripture the Bible is quoted or paraphrased to make a direct assertion about how public life should be ordered. The difference from merely rhetorical or evocative use is the speaker's implicit claim that Scripture is not just supplying a conceptual universe from which to extract morally freighted phrases, but that it positively sanctions the speaker's vision for how public life should be ordered. Thus, King, toward the end of his great speech, quoted Isaiah 40:4 in order to enlist a divine sanction for his vision of a society free of racial discrimination: "I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places shall be made plain, the crooked places shall be made straight and the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."
In his Second Inaugural, Lincoln did something similar when he combined resignation before the workings of providence with an indictment of the ones who had asked God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces. For that combination of opinions a quotation from Matthew 18:7 was Lincoln's clincher: "The prayers of both [sides] could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. 'Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!'"
Political use of Scripture is at once more dangerous and more effective than the rhetorical or evocative. It is more dangerous because it risks the sanctified polarization that has so often attended the identification of a particular political position with the specific will of God. It can also be dangerous for religion. In the telling words of Leon Wieseltier, "the surest way to steal the meaning, and therefore the power, from religion is to deliver it to politics, to enslave it to public life."
Yet political use of Scripture can also be remarkably effective. When a specific political position is successfully identified with the purposes of God, that position can be advanced with tremendous moral energy. With these two speeches, strategic quoting from the Bible played a significant part in reassuring many Americans that Lincoln's opposition to slavery and King's opposition to racial discrimination really did embody a divine imperative.
Finally, after rhetorical, evocative, and political usages, there is the theological deployment of Scripture, where the Bible is quoted or paraphrased to make an assertion about God and the meaning of his acts or providential control of the world. In American public life, this use of the Bible is by far the most rare. Lincoln's Second Inaugural may represent its only instance. What he said pertained not primarily to the fate of the nation, and not even to a defense of his own political actions, but to the sovereign character and mysterious purposes of God. For that statement, a quotation from Psalm 19:9 provided the last word:
If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hopefervently do we praythat this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
As one of those "believers in a Living God" whom Lincoln referred to here, I am convinced that only his public articulation of scripturally derived theological principle about the sovereignty of God can explain the unprecedented humility that followed in the Second Inaugural's peroration. In other words, without a scriptural theology concerning the righteousness of God's ultimate judgment, there would have been no proclamation of "malice toward none" and "charity toward all."
The orations by King and Lincoln were unusual because they brought a panoply of biblical testimony to bear on circumstances of great public moment at times of evident national crisis. King's dramatic address underscored a turning point in the nation's moral history when, nearly a century after the end of the war to end slavery, the United States was moving haltingly to confront the bitter realities of racial discrimination. For Lincoln, an unexpectedly calm meditation near the conclusion of an unexpectedly violent war became the occasion for profound reflections on the inexorable costs of justice delayed, the counter-intuitive blessings of charity for all, and (supremely) the unfathomable mysteries of divine providence. In both cases, the Bible was indispensable for shaping what the speakers said.
But now, long after Lincoln applied his words to bind up the nation's wounds and more than a generation removed from King's appeal to let freedom ring, we inhabit a cultural and political landscape in which it is considerably more difficult to draw on the resources of Scripture as Lincoln and King did. The difficulties concern both more narrowly religious and more broadly political factors.
In the first instance, since World War II the Bible has shrunk to a smaller place in the American cultural landscape. The issue may not be primarily a decline in the distribution of Scripture, since Bible sales continue to be very strong, so much as a consequence of incredible expansion in the distribution of other media. Bible content can hold its own in an age of proliferating media, as evidenced by the considerable success of products like The Jesus Film, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, or the children's programming provided by Veggie Tales. Bible content cannot, however, dominate in an entrepreneurial age of democratic media in the way that the King James Version once provided a conceptual canopy for the entire English-speaking world.
Reference to the once dominant place of the King James Version draws attention to the good news-bad news constituted by the proliferation over the last half century of new Bible translations. The good news is that modern translations present the Bible as an open, accessible book in a way that it was ceasing to be when the archaic King James prevailed as the Bible of the English-speaking world. The bad news is that no one of the new translations comes anywhere near to the broad linguistic and conceptual currency that the King James Version once enjoyed. When Lincoln in 1858 spoke of a "house divided" or in 1865 of "judging not that ye be not judged," almost all educated people who heard him recognized not only that he was citing the Bible, but that he was using the very words of Scripture that they themselves had also read, heard, and inwardly digested. The gain in accessibility that the new translations all genuinely offer is matched by a loss in familiarity that the King James Version once provided for the culture as a whole.
Difficulties in the public use of the Bible caused by the multiplication of modern media and the proliferation of contemporary translations are, however, puny when compared to difficulties caused by contemporary political realities. Part of this difficulty is structural and, for traditional Christian believers, nicely ironic. The United States may be today the most religiously pluralistic nation that has ever existed on the face of the earth.5 It has become so, at least in part, because of political values encouraged by the American democratic appropriation of teachings derived from the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. With the religious pluralism resulting from an explicit policy of religious freedom, it risks misunderstanding, if not also offense, for leaders to employ the Bible as if the Bible necessarily spoke to and for the citizenry as a whole.
Yet difficulties with the public use of Scripture arising from American religious pluralism are not what spring most easily to mind today. Rather, it is the clamor of partisan political polemics. Naturally in such a climate extreme voices attract the most attention. On the one side we hear rhetorical, evocative, and political use of the Bible on behalf of partisan national or political goals. Thus, in one well-reported kerfluffle from late 2003, a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence was reported as delivering speeches before local churches in which he proclaimed that the real enemy in the battle against el Qaeda and Saddam Hussein was "a spiritual enemy called Satan," and that America as a "Christian nation" needed to "come against its enemies in the name of Jesus" in order to achieve military success.6 Such sentiments were intended to do what Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. had done with similarly biblical rhetoric, but this effort was so clearly advanced to promote a contested moral position and to combat domestic opponents of the war that its striving for biblical authority fell flat.
On the other side we hear partisan panic about how public invocation of Scripture heralds the dawning of a theocratic Dark Age. Thus, in a recent issue of The American Prospect, an author introduced a consideration of President Bush and his supporters with a fusillade of fearmongering: "History judges religious zealots harshly, particularly those wielding state power. The Crusades slaughtered millions in the name of Jesus. The Inquisition brought the torture and murder of millions more. After Luther, Christians did bloody battle with other Christians for another three centuries."7 Apart from a loose grasp of historical fact, assertions like these betray an incredible confidence in the moral power of merely secular norms, which in actual historical situations have never lived up to the claims made for them.
The combined result from recent changes in the religious landscape touching the translation and circulation of the Bible, and recent changes in the political landscape touching polemic uses and polemical resistance to Scripture, is a series of dilemmas. These dilemmas can be expressed as a vicious cycle:
- the more religiously plural the nation becomes, the less it is natural for the citizenry as a whole to grasp the significance of the Bible;
- the less it is natural for the citizenry as a whole to grasp the significance of the Bible, the more it is likely that the Bible is used to appeal to only some of the citizens;
- the more it is likely that the Bible is used to appeal to only some of the citizens, the greater the likelihood of partisan and therefore superficial use of the Bible;
- the greater the likelihood of partisan and therefore superficial use of the Bible, the more the Bible loses its integrity as a public force;
- the more the Bible loses its integrity as a public force, the more irrelevant it looks in a religiously plural nation;
- but the more irrelevant or partisan or superficial the Bible becomes in a religiously plural nation, the less likely that leaders can use Scripture for the self-sacrificing, altruistic, or prophetic purposes for which Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., put the Bible so dramatically to use.
So, what is to be done? At this point, I am more than happy, as a historian, to hand this series of dilemmas over to pundits, political theorists, and theologians. But as a historian, there is more that can be said, especially by shifting attention away from these dilemmas that now are so obvious at the center of power. If we move to the marginsthat is, to voices or groups with strong opinions about the American use of the Bible but with little standing in American public lifewe discover a set of engaging observations and perhaps even intimations of a way forward. And so I would like to draw attention to four such perspectives from the margins, which I will treat in order from far away to closer at hand. First are the opinions of European Catholics before and during the American Civil War. Second are the opinions of French Catholic Quebec nationalists during the last part of the 19th century. Third are the opinions of Jewish immigrants to the United States, especially from the start of the 20th century. And fourth are the opinions of African Americans up to the era of World War I.
Foreign Catholic commentators on the Civil War paused often to note the prominence of Scripture in debates that led up to the outbreak of conflict and that transformed the conflict into a religious war. What struck foreign Catholics most forcibly was the moral confusion that resulted when a fervent trust in Scripture was exercised democratically.
For Southern whites, and a substantial number of Northern moderates and conservatives as well, it was obvious that the Bible in some manner or other legitimated slavery. Thus, at a fast day sermon in December 1860, a Presbyterian minister, Henry Van Dyke of New York, examined the many New Testament passages that simply accepted Roman slavery as an incontestable fact of life. Van Dyke's conclusion spoke for a wide swath of American opinion. To him, it was obvious that the "tree of Abolitionism is evil, and only evilroot and branch, flower and leaf, and fruit; that it springs from, and is nourished by, an utter rejection of the Scriptures."8
But, of course, for many abolitionists the Bible spoke just as clearly in opposition to slavery. For them, biblical passages like the Golden Rule as recorded in the gospels ("therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them," Matt. 7:12) or the egalitarian mandate of Galatians 3:28 ("there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free : for ye are all one in Christ") completely ruled out the practice of slavery.
From abroad, this division in interpreting the same sacred text drew sharp criticism. The Paris politician Augustin Cochin (1823-1872), who was one of the leading liberal Catholics of his generation, published in 1861 a substantial tome with the straightforward title, L'abolition de l'esclavage, which mounted one of the era's most thorough biblical, theological, and historical attacks on slavery. But this book's abolitionism differed from American efforts by including a strong defense of Roman Catholicism, especially with respect to Scripture: "The manner in which men find in the Bible all that their interest desires fills me with astonishment, and I thank God once more for having caused me to be born in the bosom of a Church which does not abandon the Holy Books to the interpretations of caprice and selfishness."9
Of all foreign Catholic attention to the American Civil War, it was a substantial journal edited by Italian Jesuits, La Civiltà cattolica, that made the sharpest criticism. To the Italian Jesuits, all of American history was tied in knots because of problems arising from biblical interpretation. American religion began with the Puritans who tried to found "a new social and political life on the basis of their own religious doctrine." The result was "an extensive despotism" over every detail of life. But then in reaction to Puritan despotism, the United States lurched to the other extreme by setting up an absolute separation of church and state. This separation did offer unprecedented liberty, but so great was this liberty that it undercut the Protestants' professed desire to order all of life by the Bible: "the sacred text is explained by each one according to his own will and under the influence of a rationalistic philosophy." These circumstances explained why Americans were constantly founding new churches on the claim of "new effusions of the Holy Spirit."10
Civiltà cattolica's interpretation of the Civil War tied the break-up of the United States as a political entity to its history as an experiment in Protestant public order. The Jesuits expressed mingled admiration and humor in finding that "suddenly both parties have become theologians, the one side quoting the Pentateuch to justify slavery, the other side quoting the gospel to condemn it." While the Jesuits found much to praise in American religion, they nonetheless saw a "great mistake," a "missing principle that is dissolving a great union." That missing element was "religious unity." Reconciliation, so the Jesuits thought, would elude the Americans, "because they are divided on a moral question, and moral questions are fundamentally grounded in religious dogma." But if Americans understood the true character of religious authority, then it would be possible to use Scripture with greater effect. If the Americans lived where their rights and their trust in Scripture "were assured by an authority respected by both parties, then the Bible could come into the conflict not as a play-thing, but as in a contest of truth over against falsehood." Such an authority, which obviously meant the Roman magisterium, could exercise "an almost invincible strength over the two parties, so that one would surrender or that both would be reconciled to each other." As it was, however, "Their independence makes it impossible to find a solution to their quarrel, both because they lack a central religious authority and because they lack moral honesty, which is itself a consequence of not having a central religious authority."11
A conservative Roman Catholic solution to American problems in the use of Scripture hardly seems like a solution that could be promoted today. To make it work, a massive campaign would be required to convince Americans both that the Bible should be regarded as an authoritative norm for public life and that interpretation of the Bible should be guided by one particular Christian authority. Yet to contemplate a situation in which, as the Italian Jesuits put it, the Bible could be used "not as a play-thing, but as in a contest of truth over against falsehood," deserves, at least for citizens who believe in the beauty of truth and the peril of falsehood, a moment of calm reflection.
A very different kind of commentary on the American use of the Bible arose in the second half of the 19th century when Quebec Catholic leaders developed an extensive scriptural interpretation of their country. Here the commentary on the United States was indirect, but no less thought-provoking. These Catholic Québécois knew very well that many in the United States looked upon their own nation as, in Solomon Schechter's words, "a creation of the Bible," but they were not at all impressed with this American conceit. Rather, to them it was French Canada that deserved to be considered the cynosure of Providence and the antitype of biblical narrative.
This view, that "French America was nothing less than the new Israel of God," was promoted for the better part of fifty years by a number of prominent clerics and provincial authorities.12 Their number included Mgr. Louis-Adolphe Paquet, who in 1902 delivered a memorable address to the Société-Jean Baptiste in which he applied Isaiah 43:21 ("This people have I found for myself; they shall shew forth my praise") to the French Canadians.13 Especially prominent in promoting a providential history of Quebec was the third bishop of Trois-Rivièrs, Louis-François Laflèche (1818-1898), who in 1865 and 1866 published a series of 34 articles in his diocesan paper that were then collected as a book entitled Some Considerations on the Connections between Civil Society and Religion and the Family.
Laflèche is particularly relevant for American examination because of how thoroughly he employed Scripture in setting out his conviction that "our mission [is] the extension of the Kingdom of God by the formation of a Catholic people in the Valley of the St. Lawrence." In making such assertions Laflèche ranged far and wide in Holy Scripture. By his public use of the Bible, Laflèche hoped to provide not only an inspiring vision for Quebec nationalism, but also a practical antidote against what he considered the gravest threat to Quebec society. That threat he called "la fièvre de l'émigration" to the United States, which he described as an "an epidemic no less terrible in a sense than the typhus attack of 1848."14
The theology driving Laflèche was an interpretation of Scripture that saw nationhood as the direct product of divine action. In his view, God's call of Abraham as described in Genesis chapters 12 and 13 provided a norm for all of human history: "each nation has received from Providence a mission to fulfill and a determined goal to reach."15 Biblical history as well as secular history showed, in addition, that God blessed or judged nations depending on how they fulfilled the mission given by God. In Laflèche's understanding, the exemplary record established by the founders and early martyrs of French CanadaJaques Cartier, Samuel de Champlain, the pioneering Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf, and Canada's first bishop, François Montmorency de Lavalhad verified the sacredness of Quebec's destiny. On the basis of this scriptural theology, Laflèche then urged his readers to do their duty by not emigrating to the United States, as well as by supporting God-given authorities in family, government, and church. In presenting these opinions, Laflèche was a master in using the Bible evocatively, as also in salting what he wrote with a persistent biblical rhetoric shaped by both the Latin vulgate and the authorized French Catholic translation of the Bible.
For Americans, there should be great benefit in observing Laflèche and his French Catholic compatriots as they read the history of Quebec out of the sacred text. Serious internalizing of biblical narratives and themes has always been a multinational phenomenon. The conclusion that the Bible speaks directly to an individual nation's political history has flourished at different times in Poland, Ireland, South Africa, Russia, and several other nations, as well as Quebec and the United States. At the least, realizing that such usage has taken place might key Americans to the fact that, what they have seen in the Bible about themselves, other nationswith less power and apparent influencehave just as easily found about themselves. At the most, putting the United States' own history of Bible usage in the context of other nations' having done the same thing might raise questions about the consequences of entertaining such interpretations. In the case of Catholic and French Quebec, the belief in a scripturally defined destiny would seem to have done less for good but also far less for evil than when the same convictions have been entertained in the United States.
To move from Quebec Catholic opinion to the opinions of American Jews is to remain at a margin defined by ethnicity and religion but to relocate the margin geographically closer to the American center. Jewish organizations do certainly continue to be understandably nervous about efforts to define the United States as a Christian nation, Jewish voters shy away in droves from appeals by the Republican Party featuring "biblical values," and influential Jewish spokespersons regularly protest against any trespassing of the divide between church and state. At the same time, it is noteworthy that from the founding of the nation, a prominent strand of Jewish opinion has embraced the proposition that the United States can be identified as an unusually biblical nation. Thus, David Gelernter recently wrote in Commentary to praise what he calls "Americanism" and to claim that "the Bible is not merely the fertile soil that brought Americanism forth. It is the energy source that makes it live and thrive."16
More often, however, ambiguity has prevailed in Jewish assessments of the Bible and American life. Thus, in the 1850s, Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise of Cincinnati spoke out against the practice of requiring readings from the King James Bible in the public schools, but Wise also in 1854 published a book, History of the Israelitish Nation, in which he suggested that American principles of democratic republicanism had been adumbrated in the Hebrew Scriptures.17
The tension between Jewish identity and American identity also defined the context in which Solomon Schechter expressed the opinions with which we began. Commentary from Schechter is especially interesting, since his wide range of experience before coming in 1902 to the United States and the Jewish Theological Seminary included birth and early years in Romania, education in Poland, Austria, and Germany, teaching assignments at Cambridge and the University of London, and much esteemed work on ancient biblical texts in Egypt. The great impression made on Schechter by reading Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address as a youth in Foscani, Romania, perhaps in a Yiddish translation, may have influenced his later views, for Schechter reported that when he contemplated the sentences of this address that I quoted earlier, he could "scarcely believe that they formed a part of a message addressed in the nineteenth century to an assembly composed largely of men of affairs." Instead, Schechter imagined himself "transported into a camp of contrite sinners determined to leave the world and its vanities behind , possessed of no other thought but that of reconciliation with their God."18
A fuller account of what Schechter had to say in defending the biblical character of the United States is particularly pertinent, since his words from 1903 were spoken when Schechter himself was actively supporting Jewish efforts to end Christian Bible-readings in New York public schools, when he was working to establish an independent network of private Jewish day-schools, and when he was offering full support to the Jewish Publication Society's efforts at producing its own translation of the Hebrew Bible.19
Given these activities, Schechter's willingness to assert that "this country is, as everybody knows, a creation of the Bible" deserves careful attention.20 First, he suggested that it was "particularly the Old Testament" that gave the United States its biblical character. Then he expanded upon problems he saw when Americans took such a conviction seriouslyincluding an "excess of zeal," a spate of "caricature revelations," and the presence of "quacks" who "create new Tabernacles here, with new Zions and Jerusalems." Schechter was using a Jewish vocabulary, but students of America's churches could describe all of these excesses, and more, in any fair-minded account of how American Christians have expressed their zealous attachment to Scripture.
Yet though Schechter was willing to acknowledge problems in the Biblio-centric character of the United States, even more did he want to defend that character. He was, thus, pleased that trust in the Bible was standing up well against what he called "all the destructive tendencies, mostly of foreign make." And he was convinced that, despite genuine difficulties, "the large bulk of the American people have, in matters of religion, retained their sobriety and loyal adherence to the Scriptures, as their Puritan forefathers did."
Schechter's final point in praising the biblical character of the United States came back, however, to the Bible rather than to America. For his audience in New York City in 1903 he wanted to stress that they were celebrating the foundation of "a Jewish Theological Seminary." As he explained what such a foundation meant, Schechter spelled out in great detail how it would be appropriate for ancient Jewish teaching to adapt to the American contextby, for example, respecting American democratic traditions. Yet, in the end, Judaism was more important than America: "Any attempt to confine its activity to the borders of a single country, even be it as large as America, will only make its teachings provincial, narrow and unprofitable." Rather, the point of a Jewish theological seminary must be "to teach the doctrines and the literature of the religion which is as old as history itself and as wide as the world." An American setting for studying Judaism was important precisely because of how much Bible had gone into the shaping of the United States. But because the study of Judaism took in all of history and implicated the whole world, it, rather than the United States, had to remain the highest concern.
To those who downplay the importance of scriptural grounding for the American experiment, Schechter would appeal for a more positive assessment of what biblical convictions have contributed to American history and American ideals. To those who focus only on excesses of Christian imperialism in American history, he would claimas a Jewthat this Christian heritage has provided an unusually commodious home for Judaism to thrive. But to those who equate the Bible and America, he would assert that because Scripture embraces all of history and all of the world, it must be able to assess, evaluate, and even judge the United States rather than the reverse.
When now we turn to African American understandings of the Bible and public life, we come much closer to the center. Yet because of the particular circumstances of African American existence, we are also approaching the most persistently marginalized of major American populations.
The great national confusion that bore down upon African Americans with special weight was once well described by David Brion Davis: "In the United States the problem of slavery had become fatally intertwined with the problem of race."21 Quite apart from its devastating impact on economics and politics, the confusion spotlighted by Davis between race and slavery profoundly affected Christian interpretations of Scripture during the first decades of nationhood. From the early 1830s onwards a great flood of authors labored intensively to interpret the many scriptural passages that seemed simply to take slavery for granted as a natural part of society. By contrast, far less attention was devoted to what the Bible affirmed, also in many passages, about the equality of all races and peoples before God.
For African American Bible believers, the result was doubly unfortunate. On the one hand, they could see more clearly than any of their peers that studying what the Bible had to say about slavery could never illuminate the American dilemma unless the Bible was also studied for what it had to say about race. On the other hand, because of the racist character of American public life, including prejudices about which publications had to be noticed and which could safely be ignored, the considerable writing that African Americans produced on the Bible and slavery received almost no general attention.
Despite this disadvantage, black Americans in the antebellum decades regularly offered their own forceful arguments arising from a universal application of scriptural teaching. As an example, the Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World by David Walker, a free black from Boston, which was published in 1829, used the Bible extensively in crafting a powerful manifesto. In one of the many contrasts Walker drew between the universal teachings of Scripture and its particular use by Americans, Walker referred to the "Great Commission" from Matthew 28:18-20, where the resurrected Christ sent out his followers to "teach all nations to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you." Walker berated his white readers with a challenge: "You have the Bible in your hands with this very injunctionHave you been to Africa, teaching the inhabitants thereof the words of the Lord Jesus?" No, far from it. Americans "entered among us, and learnt us the art of throat-cutting, by setting us to fight, one against another, to take each other as prisoners of war, and sell to you for small bits of calicoes, old swords, knives, etc. to make slaves for you and your children." To Walker, such behavior was a direct contradiction of Scripture: "Can the American preachers appeal unto God, the Maker and Searcher of hearts, and tell him, with the Bible in their hands, that they made no distinction on account of men's colour?"22
A particularly intriguing example of African American biblical interpretation that followed in the train of David Walker by appealing to the universal norms of Scripture came early in the motion picture era, more than half a century after the constitutional prohibition of slavery. The huge success of D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, which was released in 1915 as a cinematic version of the Rev. Thomas Dixon's novel The Clansman, posed a particularly compelling challenge to African Americans and a small number of whites who agreed with them that this film represented an egregious example of the worst kind of public racism. Several times in The Birth of a Nation biblical words or images were used to make a point about the degeneracy of African Americans and the triumph of the noble Ku Klux Klan over the despicable regimes of Reconstruction. Most dramatic was the movie's closing scenes that mixed visions of civilized whites triumphing over bestial blacks with apocalyptic images of Jesus coming to establish a millennial reign of joyful peace.
In response to these provocations, leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People promoted plans with other interested parties to produce their own film to counter what had appeared in The Birth of a Nation. Out of this effort eventually came a movie directed by John W. Noble, entitled The Birth of a Race, which was released in 1919. While neither an artistic nor commercial success, this film did offer a very different understanding of the Bible and its teachings.23
Like The Birth of a Nation, The Birth of a Race eventually made a series of grand statements about American patriotism. But most of the film70 of its 90 minuteswas devoted to four biblical episodes: the creation of Adam and Eve, Noah and the flood, Moses and the Exodus from Egypt, and the life and passion of Jesus. Throughout, the Bible was referenced as the charter of "Equality" for all humanity. Thus, Noah's family, which for many Americans had provided the source for a racist exploitation of the Curse of Canaan, was described in this film as living together harmoniously; Moses was given the movie's greatest block of time as the one who called for "the liberation of his people"; and as head shots of listeners from Africa, the Far East, and Europe flashed on the screen, Jesus was portrayed as teaching "all races Christ made no distinction between themHis teachings were for all." Christ's passion, moreover, was portrayed as Roman retribution against Jesus' effort to teach "equality instead of slavery."
Even in the film's last 20 minutes, with its rapid jumble of Christopher Columbus, Paul Revere, signers of the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln, and racially integrated troops marching off to World War I, a universal message predominated. With dubious theology, but a clear intent to maintain the film's major themes, it described Lincoln's assassination as kindling "the torch of freedomwhich today is the Light of the World." In a word, where The Birth of a Nation used race as a device for identifying heroes and villains, The Birth of a Race used the word in its more general sense of encompassing all people.
This African American usage of the Bible echoed much of the standard patriotic usage of white Americans. Where it differed was in the contention that the race singled out for special divine consideration in Scripture was the human race.
I hope it is clear from this brief attention to four sets of marginal opinions that the question of the Bible in American public life looks very different, depending on the angle from which the question is viewed. To foreign Roman Catholics during the Civil War, to Quebec nationalists of the 19th century, to American Jews in the first generations of immigration, and to African Americans in the period before the exercise of full civil rights, the Bible was held to be a living book, and it was held to be relevant to the United States. But it was not relevant in the way that those at the center of American influencebe they Bible believers or Bible deniersfelt it was relevant. Another essayor rather a long bookwould be required to move from description to prescription concerning how the Bible should now be put to use, but let me attempt, in conclusion, a cautious excursion into the realm of the normative.
For this purpose, I would like to use a statement from the translation committee of the New Revised Standard Version, chaired by the venerable Bruce M. Metzger of Princeton Theological Seminary. Its perspective sets out an essential beginning point:
In traditional Judaism and Christianity, the Bible has been more than a historical document to be preserved or a classic of literature to be cherished and admired; it is recognized as the unique record of God's dealing with people over the ages. The Old Testament sets forth the call of a special people to enter into covenant relation with the God of justice and steadfast love and to bring God's law to the nations. The New Testament records the life and work of Jesus Christ, the one in whom "the Word became flesh" as well as describes the rise and spread of the early Christian Church. The Bible carries its full message, not to those who regard it simply as a noble literary heritage of the past or who wish to use it to enhance political purposes and advance otherwise desirable goals, but to all persons and communities who read it so that they may discern and understand what God is saying to them.24
From the angle provided by this statement, let me propose three premises arising from my own convictions and then three political implications:
Premise 1: In the terms of the NRSV statement, the Bible is true for all people in all times and in all places.
Premise 2: Therefore, the Bible can never be the possession of only one modern nation or of only one faction within a particular nation.
Premise 3: While everything in the Bible can be construed as political, politics can never exhaust, equal, or contain the message of the Bible.25
Implication 1: American society would be immeasurably poorer if it was no longer possible to bring the universal message of Scripture to bear on the particulars of American public life as did Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., with such memorable effect.
Implication 2: Narrow use of the Bible for partisan political advantage violates what the Bible itself says about the dignity of all human beings under God and also what it says about political power as a stewardship bestowed by God for the maintenance of order, the guarantee of justice, and the care of the powerless.
Implication 3: Given the current American situation, the only hope for using the Bible in public life that conforms to the Bible's own message is to employ it humbly, wisely, and on behalf of all people.
Mark Noll is McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College. This essay is adapted from a lecture that he gave in April as the Maguire Fellow in American History at the Library of Congress.
1. Solomon Schechter, "The Seminary as a Witness" (April 26, 1903), in Seminary Addresses and Other Papers (Burning Bush Press, 1959 [orig. 1915]), p. 48.
2. "An Address in Denver on the Bible," and "Wilson to Mary Allen Hulbert Peck" (May 7, 1911), The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, Vol. 23, 1911-1912, ed. Arthur S. Link (Princeton Univ. Press, 1977), pp. 15, 11.
3. Quotations in the following paragraphs are from Martin Luther King, Jr., I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches that Changed the World, ed. James Melvin Washington (HarperSanFranciso, 1992), pp. 102-06; and "Second Inaugural Address," The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler, 9 vols. (Rutgers Univ. Press, 1953), Vol. 9, pp. 332-33.
4. The following categories are adapted from Joseph R. Fornieri, Abraham Lincoln's Political Faith (Northern Illinois University Press, 2003), pp. 38-69.
5. For a discussion, see William R. Hutchison, Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal (Yale Univ. Press, 2003).
6. See "Should Boykin Get the Boot?" Modern Reformation, January/February 2004, pp. 5-7; Martin E. Marty, "A Guy Named Satan," Christian Century, November 15, 2003, p. 47; and Lexington, "A Tale of Two Faces," The Economist, October 25, 2003, p. 32. Quotations are from Modern Reformation.
7. Robert Kuttner, "What Would Jefferson Do?", The American Prospect, November 2004, p. 31.
8. Henry Van Dyke, "The Character and Influence of Abolitionism," in Fast Day Sermons: or the Pulpit on the State of the Country (Rudd & Carleton, 1861), p. 137.
9. Augustin Cochin, The Results of Slavery [a partial translation of L'abolition de l'esclavage by Mary L. Booth] (Walker, Wise, 1863), p. 299.
10. K. A. von Reisach, "Il Mormonismo nelle suo attinze col moderno Protestantismo," La CiviltÀ cattolica, ser. 4, vol. 6 (May 19, 1860), pp. 394, 396, 397.
11. Anon., "La disunione negli Stati Uniti," La CiviltÀ cattolica, ser. 4, vol. 9 (February 2, 1861), pp. 317-18.
12. The phrase is from Gabriel Dussault, Le CurÉ Labelle: Messianisme, utopie et colonisation au QuÉbec 1850-1900 (Montreal: Hurtubise HMH, 1983), p. 61. This book provides a useful introduction to one of the key promoters of such ideas. My own treatment of this general subject, however, is most heavily indebted to the arguments, historiography, and bibliographical references found in Preston Jones, "A Most Favoured Nation: The Bible in Late Nineteenth-Century Canadian Public Life" (Ph.D. diss.: Ottawa University, 1999).
13. On Paquet's speech, see Jones, "Most Favoured Nation," pp. 162-63.
14. Louis-FranÇois LaflÈche, Quelques ConsidÉrations sur les Rapports de la SocietÉ Civile avec la Religion et la Famille (Saint-Jacques, Quebec: Editions du Pot de Fer, 1991 [orig. 1866]), pp. 71, 25, 35.
15. Ibid., pp. 41-42. A long quotation from Genesis is found in Quelques ConsidÉrations, p. 40, with pp. 37-40 presenting a full account of how early biblical history from Adam to Abraham anticipated the early history of Quebec.
16. David Gelernter, "Americanismand Its Enemies," Commentary, January 2005, pp. 41-48 (quotation, p. 42).
17. Lance J. Sussman, "Reform Judaism, Minority Rights, and the Separation of Church and State," in Jewish Polity and American Civil Society: Communal Agencies and Religious Movements in the American Public Square, ed. Alan Mittleman, Jonathan D. Sarna, and Robert Licht (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), pp. 265-66.
18. Schechter, "Abraham Lincoln" (lecture on February 11, 1909), in Seminary Addresses, pp. 156-57.
19. For more details on these efforts, see Mark A. Noll, "The Bible, Minority Faiths, and the Protestant Mainstream," in Minority Faiths and the Protestant Mainstream, ed. Jonathan Sarna (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1998), pp. 200-04.
20. Quotations in the next paragraphs are from Schechter, "The Seminary as a Witness," pp. 48-50.
21. David Brion Davis, "Reconsidering the Colonization Movement: Leonard Bacon and the Problem of Evil," Intellectual History Newsletter, Vol. 14 (1992), p. 4.
22. David Walker, Appeal, in Four Articles to the Coloured Citizens of the World, ed. Charles M. Wiltse (Hill & Wang, 1965 [orig. 1830]), p. 42.
23. For an excellent treatment of this film, see Judith Weisenfeld, " 'For the Cause of Mankind': The Bible, Racial Uplift, and Early Race Movies," in African Americans and the Bible, ed. Vincent L. Wimbush (Continuum, 2000), pp. 728-42.
24. New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs, New Revised Standard Version (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989), p. ix.
25. Apologies to H. M. Kuitert, Everything Is Politics But Politics Is Not Everything (Eerdmans, 1986)
Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.