How did America’s Political Rhetoric Become so Biblical? – By Robert E. Brown

Robert E. Brown on James Byrd’s Sacred Scripture, Sacred War and Eran Shalev’s American Zion

James P. Byrd, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution, Oxford University Press, 2013, 243 pp., $27.95
James P. Byrd, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution, Oxford University Press, 2013, 243 pp., $27.95

Martin Luther King, Jr. was the last great orator to use the Bible effectively in public discourse. One key to King’s success was his non-sectarian use of the Bible: he called forth the deep moral sentiments of scripture regarding human dignity without asking his audience for any specifically religious response. But the power of King’s biblical rhetoric also derived from his marrying scripture to the ideals of republican democracy — equality, liberty, and pluralism, values deeply rooted in the mythos of the American psyche. King deftly wove two of the defining streams of American self-identity into a moral vision that galvanized citizens to engage in a radical social transformation.

At first glance James Byrd’s Sacred Scripture, Sacred War and Eran Shalev’s American Zion bear little connection to King’s rhetorical strategy, not to mention his pacifism. And yet, they show how early forms of national discourse set the stage for the religiously-inflected political language that has characterized American life for the better part of two centuries. They also illuminate, by way of contrast, the rather dramatic shift away from such rhetoric within the public square in the last half of the twentieth century as religion has become a less plausible means of building consensus for civic causes.

Byrd’s study of the Bible’s rhetorical role during the American Revolution details how religion can be exploited for martial purposes. War represents an existential threat of the most dreadful kind. It is a small wonder that even in the contemporary world, even in the secularized West, our wars inevitably provoke religious responses aimed at understanding and prosecuting them. The Revolutionary War was not unique in this way, nor was it novel at the time.

Since the colonists’ first arrival, invocations of the militaristic elements of the Bible on behalf of British causes made wars with Native Americans and rival European powers palatable. By the time of the Revolution, Americans reflexively made recourse to the Bible in time of war. Significantly it was the sermon — in both its spoken and printed forms — that served as the primary means of mass communication in mobilizing for war. Clergy acted as the principal agents in providing war with religious justification and motivation.

Like many sacred texts, the Bible can be molded to fit the sorts of expedient, if not facile, interpretations needed in moments of national crisis when the urgent need for self-preservation overwhelms the value of critical self-reflection. This was the case during the Revolution when colonists readily employed martial aspects of biblical history and theology to their own advantage. Not surprisingly, events and figures related to divine judgment figured prominently in the patriotic use of the Bible.

The Exodus was perhaps the overarching exemplum for the colonists. A great man of God’s choosing led an oppressed people to escape the tyranny of a king. They sought personal and religious liberty at great danger, and they won a liberty that would be codified in a national covenant through a body of laws. The Exodus was such an inspirational event for the colonists that both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, neither of whom were overly attached to the Bible, proposed that the national seal employ scenes from the story such as the parting of the Red Sea.

Passages related to holy war were also very popular, especially stories in which prophets give sanction to violence in the name of God. The most cited war passage in the colonial period was the Song of Deborah (Judges 5). The prophetess exults in the violence of battle and the divine deliverance that victory represents — and shames those who show cowardice in the face of danger. Hardly any element of the Bible escaped the colonists’ attention as they sought to understand the events unfolding before them and worked to bolster their confidence in the ultimate success of their cause. David served as a metaphor for the weak overcoming the strong (Goliath) and as a warrior-king (psalms of battle) but also as a symbol for the inherent corruption of monarchy (Bathsheba). The Apostle Paul’s call to Christian liberty from religious legalism (Galatians 5) was transliterated into a call to political freedom. The Book of Revelation was turned into an allegory for the key events and figures of the Revolution.

Byrd sets before us many issues both in terms of how early Americans negotiated the relationship between religion, violence, and national identity, and in terms of the psychology of war and its seeming affinity for religious justification. He misses an opportunity to explore the complexity of these issues by largely neglecting to include use of the Bible by other parties to the Revolution. The inclusion of loyalist, pacifist, and British rhetorical invocations of scripture would no doubt have provided more texture, more nuance, for understanding the broad range of religious possibilities that the Bible represented — and represents — for those facing the difficult choices presented to them by war. What Byrd makes clear, however, is how powerful the Bible was as a rhetorical and ideological resource in the earliest years of the American nation, and how much its citizens relied on that text to create meaning and identity for themselves and their political experience.

Eran Shalev, American Zion: The Old Testament as a Political Text from the Revolution to the Civil War, Yale University Press, 2013, 239 pp., $40.00
Eran Shalev, American Zion: The Old Testament as a Political Text from the Revolution to the Civil War, Yale University Press, 2013, 239 pp., $40.00

It is easy to see how the crucible of war might bring forth appeals to divine sanction through the use of sacred texts. But Eran Shalev’s study shows that the early American political assimilation of the Bible was much more substantive than the ephemeral needs of those in crisis. Far beyond the expediency of the moment, American Zion explores the constructive role that the narrative world of the Bible played in articulating and appropriating the dimensions of secular democracy in a largely religious society, a form of public discourse that endured for the first several decades of the nineteenth century.

The origins of American political thought are often said to lie in the Enlightenment, and behind that, in the recovery of classical Greek thought. Many scholars believe that the rationalizing and secularizing currents of modernity pushed the Americans towards a republican form of government. But Shalev argues that these sources were mediated through reflections upon the precedential Hebrew polity as it was described in the biblical narratives of Deuteronomy, Joshua, and Judges, and that this mediation significantly transformed the nature of American political reflection, giving it a distinctively religious character.

As historians have long observed, the new political realities of the American experiment — individual equality and autonomy, secularism and religious pluralism, and representative democracy — created anxieties for all concerned. Would a free citizenry exhibit the virtues necessary for a functioning republic? Would the religious ethos necessary for virtue remain vital in a society where religion was not reinforced by the state? Shalev shows that again and again clergy, politicians, and other opinion-makers turned to the first divinely appointed government as a model to emulate.

In pre-monarchical Israel they found a state that existed as a federation of territories (the twelve tribes) ruled by democratic consensus (no central monarchy) centered upon a written constitution (the Law). The recasting of the American experiment in biblical terms helped to relieve anxieties over the inherent risks of an egalitarian society by showing that such an arrangement had divine sanction. Perhaps more importantly clothing the structures and values of republicanism in biblical dress was pivotal for disseminating and inculcating those ideals among the masses, whose exposure to classical Greek and modern political thought was not widespread. The joining of these two currents of thought was an important part of creating the mythology of American polity: a modern democracy modeled on ancient divine patterns, republican virtues rooted in biblical piety.

This ideological rationalization was possible in large part because early Americans — beginning with the Puritans — were accustomed to thinking of themselves as the new Israel, bound by covenant to honor God in their public life. This mindset helps to explain why the Exodus and other biblical events were so rhetorically compelling during the Revolution, why the patriots naturally identified with the Israelites struggling under the bondage and tyranny of the Egyptians. Americans’ identification with the concept of the new Israel continued well into the nineteenth century as the struggle to inculcate republican ideals and virtues commenced. Americans were warned not to take their newfound liberty for granted, to know that they would be held to account by a higher authority. Like the Israel of old, the new nation had a divinely appointed mission to the world: in this case, to offer a form of political redemption. Political biblicism exercised a conserving influence on American society aimed at restraining the libertarian impulses set loose in the antebellum era.

This “Old Testamentism,” as Shalev characterizes it, was so prevalent in the mindset of early Americans that it inspired a number of interesting cultural practices. One of these was literary, the other genealogical. Shalev identifies the widespread use of what he calls “pseudo-biblicism,” a literary device that employed the English of the King James Bible in thinly disguised fictional narratives to discuss political events and controversies. Imported from England, it became a popular form of satire in the 1760s and lasted until the 1830s; it was particularly in evidence in the debates between Federalists and Jeffersonians. The use of archaic English as well as the narrative structure of biblical history lent this body of literature an air of authenticity and intelligibility, given that the KJV Bible continued to be used in Protestant liturgy.

Americans also used the Old Testament to negotiate the unresolved tensions that existed with native peoples. By identifying natives as the Lost Tribes of Israel, Anglo-Americans sought to incorporate them into the myth of the new Israel. The new nation might be made whole through native assimilation. Ultimately this proved to be an ineffective way of resolving those tensions.

Both of these cultural practices would become foundational to Mormonism, America’s first homegrown religion. Shalev presents the Book of Mormon as a quintessential example of pseudo-biblicism, affecting the style of KJV English in a noticeably pedantic manner that may have held value to converts but was ridiculed by opponents for its prosaic artifice. Mormonism is the only version of American Christianity to incorporate a version of the Lost Tribes theory of native peoples into its sacred mythology. Its genealogy of Indians presents them as descendants of ancient Jewish immigrants.

Curiously, the flowering of political biblicism came to an abrupt end by mid-century. Shalev attributes this rapid decline to the rises of evangelicalism and individualism and to the controversy over slavery. Evangelicalism centered its conversionist spirituality on Jesus. Calvinism had made the Old Testament the pivot-point of early American religious and-political reflection. But a new focus on Jesus (and the New Testament) displaced the reigning Calvinist theology of covenant and its view of the people of God (Israel) as a spiritual template. At the expense of communalism, American polity created societal values that emphasized individualism, making the Israel metaphor less and less compelling. Finally, the controversy over slavery radically undermined the moral authority — and so the mythic power — of the Old Testament. Pro-slavery apologists repeatedly trumpeted that the Old Testament sanctioned slavery, and abolitionists responded by fashioning interpretive methods that privileged the moral vision of the New Testament at the expense of the Old. The mythology of an ideal Hebrew polity that could be held out for modern emulation was substantially eroded. The Civil War dealt a final, crushing blow to American self-identity as a renewed Israel. Like the old Israel, its unity was shattered by insurmountable dissension.

This merging of biblical rhetoric and American politics has never fully disappeared. It lingers on in secularized forms, perhaps most acutely in the idea of American exceptionalism. Our political rhetoric still contains echoes of this earlier language, from concepts like Manifest Destiny to the rhetorical flourishes of Woodrow Wilson’s “making the world safe for democracy” and Ronald Reagan’s “city set on a hill.” Nonetheless, the present condition of the public square allows little if any room for the religious mediation of civic ideals or calls to social transformation. A figure with the religiously-inflected rhetorical strategy of a Martin Luther King, Jr. would be almost unthinkable in the contemporary American context, even though Americans continue to idealize leaders and rhetoric from a safe distance — especially in foreign icons such as Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, or Bono.

Marriages of biblical mythology and American political reflection are still undertaken today, though they are marginalized on the fringes of public discourse and all but ignored by mainstream media. These two studies reveal the potency of religion for civic life, in both its baleful and constructive aspects. In particular, they reveal the key role that the Bible has played as both a socially-conserving as well as a socially-radicalizing instrument in American life. The facility with which Americans have read and continue to read their political experiences into the grand biblical narrative is a subject of real importance. Myths matter. The meanings we make, make us. The new myths that are in the process of displacing biblical metaphors in American self-identity ought to be a matter of intense interest to students of American political life.