Chris Rodda is doing an exceptional job of documenting the many false claims and wild exaggerations in the NCBCPS Bible curriculum. Her latest post exposes the highly dishonest distortion of the findings in a 1984 article by historian Donald Lutz about the influence of the Bible on public (not government) documents during the founding era. If there is one recurring theme in culture war contexts it is the willingness of our opponents, whether creationists or Christian Nation advocates, to completely distort the work of legitimate scholars, presumably counting on their followers’ ignorance to get away with it. Thankfully, Rodda is taking the time to actually check original documents against their claims about them; the results are clear.
Lutz’ study was of documents with explicit content regarding political theory printed for public consumption – books, newspaper articles, pamphlets, etc – between 1760 and 1805. His goal was to determine the primary sources for the founding premises of the nation, and Christian Nation apologists love to cite one particular chart in the study that showed that 34% of those documents contained references to Biblical concepts. But as Rodda points out, this is highly misleading and ignores the primary source of such references.
Here’s how the NCBCPS curriculum portrays the results of that study:
As noted above, a frequently cited university study, (i.e., Donald S. Lutz, “The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth-Century American Political Thought,” The American Political Science Review 78 (1984), pp. 189-197), concluded that the Founders cited the Bible four times more often than either Montesquieu or Blackstone, and twelve times more often than John Locke. In fact, the study of 15,000 original documents concluded that biblical references accounted for 34 percent of the direct quotes in the political writings of the Founding Era.
Rodda points out the many false claims in this one paragraph. First, and most obviously, the study was not of documents written by “the Founders” (though some of them were, of course); the study was of documents printed for public consumption that had explicit political content relating to the foundations of government. Second, the study was not of 15,000 documents; that was the sample Lutz began with, but he ended up including only 916 documents in his study. Nor did the study count “direct quotes”. But most importantly, it ignores Lutz’ own explanation of where the bulk of the Biblical citations came from. Lutz wrote in this study:
…From Table 1 we can see that the biblical tradition is most prominent among the citations. 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…
Thus, 3/4 of the references to the Bible came not from the founding fathers at all but from ministers preaching about politics. More importantly, they ignore another major conclusion of Lutz’ study, that when you actually do limit the study to those documents written by the founders themselves during the years the Constitution was being written and ratified, the influence of the Bible all but disappears. Rodda writes:
Of all the findings in Lutz’s study ignored by Barton and the NCBCPS, however, none are as important as those found in the section of his article entitled “The Pattern of Citations from 1787 to 1788.” As seen in the earlier chart, Lutz broke down the number of citations by decade. In addition to this, he singled out the writings from 1787 and 1788, and then further separated these writings into those written by Federalists and those by Anti-federalists. Lutz found few biblical citations during these two years, and, very interestingly, not a single one in any of the Federalist writings. The following is from what Lutz wrote about this two year period in which the Constitution was written and debated in the press.
The Bible’s prominence disappears, which is not surprising since the debate centered upon specific institutions about which the Bible has 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.
In other words, those who wrote and advocated the passage of the Constitution (the Federalists) did not refer to the Bible at all in explaining or supporting the provisions it contained. Those who opposed the passage of the Constitution (the anti-Federalists), like Patrick Henry, were the only ones citing the Bible and they did so in opposition to its passage.
Indeed, you will not find in the Federalist papers – the series of essays written by Madison, Hamilton and Jay to explain and defend the various provisions in the Constitution – a single reference to the Bible or to Christianity. Surely if the Constitution was based on “Biblical principles” those who wrote it would have said so in their attempts to explain to a predominately Christian public why they should vote for ratification of that document. The reality is that Lutz’ study argues strongly against the argument they’re making.
You might also want to take a look at Rodda’s previous post on what the NCBCPS curriculum has to say about the alleged influence of the ten commandments on American law. Predictably, more false claims and non-sequiturs abound. The curriculum attempts to show such influence by citing laws from the state of Kentucky (which wasn’t even a state when the Constitution was ratified) that, they claim, are based upon the ten commandments. To call their analysis superficial would be far too kind:
Needless to say, some of the comparisons are pretty big stretches. Pornography laws are a prohibition of making a “graven image;” the acknowledgement of God in the state constitution’s preamble is an example of “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me;” the fee for a minor’s marriage application is an example of “Honor thy father and thy mother;” etc.
Rodda reprints the entire list and you will laugh out loud. The prohibition on coveting your neighbor’s house, they claim, is the basis for laws against criminal conspiracy. Their credulity seems to know no bounds.