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How often did the founders quote the Bible?

Research by Jim Allison and Tom Peters.

In the first version of his videotape, America's Godly Heritage, David Barton makes reference to two University of Houston researchers who studied the most frequently cited authors in the writings of the founding fathers. According to Barton, these researchers concluded that 94% of all the citations found in these writings were either to the Bible, or to authors who based their conclusions on the Bible. This, he concludes, demonstrates the profound influence of the Bible on the Constitution.

While Barton doesn't name the researchers in his videotape, he refers to them in his recent book, Original Intent. Barton's reference is to The Origins of American Constitutionalism (hereafter, Origins), a 1988 book by political scientist Donald Lutz. On pages 136-149 of Origins, Lutz summarizes the results of a 1984 paper in which he and colleague Charles Hyneman analyze some 15,000 items of American political commentary published between 1760 and 1805 ("The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth-Century American Political Thought," The American Political Science Review, 78 (1984), pp. 189-197; hereafter, Relative Influence). The purpose of the paper was to determine the sources that most influenced the development of American political thought during our nation's founding period.

Does Lutz's and Hyneman's research support Barton's conclusions about the Bible and the Constitution? In some ways, the answer is "yes." In particular, Lutz and Hyneman demonstrate that the Bible was the most frequently quoted source between 1760 and 1805, and he concludes that future research on the development of American political thought should include increased attention to "biblical and common law sources" (Relative Influence, p. 190). It is perfectly reasonable that Barton would use this evidence to support his argument, and we have no quarrel with that aspect of Barton's case.

But this isn't all that Lutz concludes. Lutz also devotes a full section of his article to political writings about the Constitution, and these data largely refute Barton's conclusions. Needless to say, Barton doesn't report these data, despite their relevance to his argument. Additionally, Barton attributes to Lutz and Hyneman conclusions they do not reach about the importance of the Bible during the founding period. Accordingly, Barton's treatment of Lutz's data is both selective and dishonest.

Let's begin with Barton's 94% figure. In the videotape, Barton breaks it down as follows: 34% of the founder's quotations were taken directly from the Bible, and 60% were from authors that base their conclusions on the Bible. The 34% figure, at least, is accurate; this corresponds exactly to Lutz's and Hyneman's conclusions with respect to the total percentage of citations between 1760 and 1805. But where does the 60% figure come from? Not from the paper; Lutz and Hyneman provide no category of citations that even remotely corresponds to "authors that base their conclusions on the Bible." Rather, the 60% figure is manufactured by Barton himself on the basis of his own reading of other authors that scored highly in Lutz and Hyneman's survey, people like Montesquieu, Blackstone, and Locke. You would not know this from the videotape, which reports the 60% figure as if it were the conclusions of Lutz and Hyneman themselves. [Note: there are a number of problems with this 60% figure. In particular, Barton overstates the degree to which these authors used the Bible in reaching their own conclusions. We'll do an article on this issue at a later time.]

Beyond this, what exactly does this 94% figure prove? Barton wants us to think that because the founders quoted at length from the Bible, or people that quoted the Bible, the Constitution must somehow embody Biblical law, be "based" on the Bible, or otherwise have the Bible in mind. But this doesn't follow; the fact that the Bible was frequently quoted is not the same thing as saying it was quoted for the purpose of creating a legal code or the Constitution. Indeed, Lutz's and Hyneman's data suggest that the Bible was for the most part irrelevant to the Constitution, and that what connections there were between the Bible and the Constitution are not of the type that support Barton's claims.

First, Barton does not report the most relevant evidence from Lutz's article: in addition to their general citation count from 1760 to 1805, Lutz and Hyneman compile a count specific to political debate on the Constitution between the years 1787 and 1788 (the years corresponding to the drafting and ratification of the Constitution). According to Lutz, this sample "comes close to exhausting" the literature written on the Constitution during this period (Relative Influence, p. 194). If the founders believed that the Bible was truly relevant to the Constitution, Biblical citations should appear in abundance in this sample, but, they don't. On the contrary, Biblical citations are virtually nonexistent in this sample. According to Lutz, federalist (i.e., pro-Constitution) writers never quoted the Bible in their political writings between 1787 and 1788. Conversely, anti-federalist writers quoted the Bible only 9% of the time. According to Lutz:

Additionally, Barton omits Lutz's breakdown of sources for his 34% figure. Three fourths of the Biblical citations in Lutz's 1760 to 1805 sample come, not from secular sources, but from reprinted sermons (one of the most popular types of political writing during these years). Conversely, the Bible accounts for only 9% of all citations in secular literature, about equal to the number of citations from classical authors (Origins, p. 140). Hence, were it not for the political activity of religious clergy, the Bible would be tied for fourth place among source citations during 1760 and 1805.

Interestingly, Barton's reference to Lutz's work in Original Intent is not to Lutz's article, but to Origins, Lutz's later book. Lutz's book reports his 1984 data in abbreviated form, and does not refer to his citation count for the years 1787 to 1788, or the conclusions he draws from that count. A reader that simply follows Barton's citations, in other words, would be ignorant of this data. At the same time, no reader of Lutz book would likely come away with the feeling that the Constitution was written with the Bible particularly in mind. As Lutz documents, by the time of the Constitution, American political theory was a rich tapestry of ideas drawn from many different sources; the Bible and colonial covenant theology were simply two of many influences that played in the minds of the American founders.

In the end, Lutz's work is far more supportive of separation than of accomodationism. Did the founder's quote the Bible in their political writings? Of course they did, and there is nothing remarkable about that fact. Lutz's data suggest that, whatever the cultural influence of the Bible, it did not play much of a role in the construction of the Constitution. On the contrary, the Constitution is a secular document concerned with the nuts and bolts issues of how to create a workable nation in a land of economic, cultural, and religious diversity. It simply did not touch on matters relevant to the Bible.

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