With religious freedom under assault around the world and increasingly in the United States, it’s critical to go back to the American founding and hear from the founding fathers about how they viewed religious freedom, and why they enshrined it in the first amendment to the Constitution. Join us for this conversation with noted scholar Dr. Daniel Dreisbach about the religious beliefs of the founders and their views of religious freedom.

More About Our Guest

Portrait of Daniel Dreisbach

Dr. Daniel Dreisbach is professor in the department of Justice, Law and Criminology at American University in Washington, DC. He holds a JD from the University of Virginia and a D.Phil from Oxford in political philosophy. He is the author of several books on the history of religious freedom, particularly, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State.

Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast, Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. I'm your host, Scott Rae, Dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics, Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University.

We're here today with a special guest, Dr. Daniel Dreisbach, professor from American University in Washington DC. One of the leading experts in the country on the subject of religious freedom, particularly religious freedom as the founding fathers envisioned it and the impact of the Bible on the American constitutional tradition. Daniel has both a JD and a D. Phil, JD from the University of Virginia, D. Phil from Oxford University where he studied as a road scholar. He's the author of several books. The one I think that our listeners would be the most interested in is his most recent one entitled, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers, published by Oxford University Press. He's also a specialist and has published on Thomas Jefferson, The Wall of Separation Between Church and State, what we mean by the whole idea of the separation of church and state. We'll get into that as we talk about some of the questions we have specifically for Daniel.

So Dan, welcome. Thank you so much for being with us today.

Daniel Dreisbach: It is my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Scott Rae: So tell me first, you have a lot of different academic interests. How did you get interested in the subject of religious freedom?

Daniel Dreisbach: Well, I started out working in the political arena and I worked for a Congressman and there was a major church state case going on in the congressman's district, which got me thinking about the prudential and the constitutional relationship between church and state. And as I moved on to graduate school, I came back to this topic and developed it further.

And so after law school, I actually practiced law for a few years, again, specializing in the area of first amendment law, dealing with issues related to establishment of religion, the free exercise of religion. So it's been a very much a part of my professional life and career.

Scott Rae: Okay. And your academic interests, I think among other things, is the theological religious beliefs of the founding fathers themselves.

Daniel Dreisbach: That's correct. I often describe my academic interests as an interest in the intersection of religion, law and politics in the American founding era. And by the founding era, I'm larger referring to the last third or so of the 18th century. This is a time when the Declaration of Independence is written and The Constitution is drafted and new states are being formed in the aftermath of the War of Independence.

Scott Rae: Okay, so this may be a very broad umbrella question, you can nuance it however you like. So what were the religious beliefs of the founding fathers if you had to categorize them?

Daniel Dreisbach: Well, I would start by a brief description of the demographics, religious demographics, of that era. The religious historians and sociologists tell us that at the time of independence, approximately 98% of all Americans of European descent would have identified with one form or another of Protestantism. And in particular, about three fourths of Americans would have been affiliated with the reformed theological tradition. And so I think in one sense, the founders, those who were intimately involved in the political affairs that led to independence and creating new governments, reflected those demographics.

So you're going to find a wide range of beliefs among the American founders ranging from those who are Orthodox to those who are skeptical. You know, some of the more famous founders give some evidence of questioning some of the transcendent claims of Christianity, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin. Certainly someone like Thomas Paine, the famous author of Common Sense, was not an Orthodox in his religious beliefs.

But on the other hand, there were founders who were profoundly religious who are very Orthodox in their religious beliefs, important founders like Roger Sherman or John Witherspoon. Two very important influential signers of the declaration involved in many of the projects of the founding era. So again, it's a range of beliefs.

Scott Rae: Okay. So would it be fair to say that the vast majority of the founding fathers were very familiar with the Bible?

Daniel Dreisbach: So separate from the question as to what were their own faith commitments, you're absolutely right. This was a biblically literate society. Many of the founders would have learned to read with a copy of the Bible open in front of them, so they were intimately familiar with-

Scott Rae: So the King James Bible was actually the thing that they used to learn to read by?

Daniel Dreisbach: That's right. The King James Bible would have been the Bible almost exclusively. There were a few other translations floating around, but the vast majority of Americans would have been reading the King James Bible and this is the Bible that many, maybe most of them, would have learned to read from.

Scott Rae: So how did their religious beliefs and their familiarity with the Bible both, how did those things impact through the formation of the constitution and the structures of what the American political system came to be?

Daniel Dreisbach: Well, I would say that most of the American founders, and this is founders from across the broad range of personal faith commitments, they would have looked to the Bible for insights on things like what is human nature like? What is the nature of social order, political authority? What are the rights and duties of citizenship? They would look to the Bible for answers and insights on these important topics that are essential to creating an a new political society.

I would say perhaps most importantly, they wanted to understand human nature. This is at the very heart of their project of building a new political order. And so they saw in scripture, understanding Genesis, chapter 3, that man was a fallen creature and we had to create a government designed to contend with fallen political leaders. So were power was given, there was power given to someone else to check that power. So we would avoid hopefully the abuse of power, concentration of power in sinful creatures. So it's very much informing their political projects.

Let me give you another example that I think is really important that we oftentimes overlook. A very difficult question that the Americans confronted is, do people have a right to resist a tyrant? They, of course, were increasingly viewing George the Third in parliament, as tyrannical in their rule.

But this is a difficult question for Christians because they read in Romans 13, that be in submission to those in authority over you. And so they read Romans 13 and they offered a very nuanced understanding that in fact provided a rationale for resistance to a tyrant. They understood Romans 13, for example, to say that God has created government and civil magistrates to serve the public good. But if a political leader ceases to serve the public good, they in a sense, they depose themselves, they abdicate power themselves and therefore citizens are no longer obligated, pursuant to Romans 13, to obey. And so this became a liberating interpretation of Romans 13, that many Americans were ... they grappled with this difficult question, but they look to scripture to understand can we resist George the Third in parliament.

Scott Rae: So even if they had to address some difficulties in terms of interpretation and application, they still looked to the Bible as their first source?

Daniel Dreisbach: Well-

Scott Rae: I know not the only one.

Daniel Dreisbach: Yes.

Scott Rae: But would it be fair to say that the Bible was their primary source?

Daniel Dreisbach: I think it's fair to say it is the source that is most accessible in late 18th century American culture. It is the most authoritative text. But let me note one other way in which I think the Bible is absolutely essential to the American founding generation. They're embarked on a great political experiment in Republican self-government and they believe that-

Scott Rae: Spell out a little bit further what you mean by that term.

Daniel Dreisbach: So republicanism would have meant to Americans at this time, it will always meant at least two things. First, government by consent of the governed. And secondly, that power is exercised through representatives of the people. And they believe that in order for self government to work, the people themselves must be virtuous.

And the question now becomes how do you nurture that kind of virtue in citizens in a Republic? And it's on this point that Americans look to scripture because they see in scripture a regime, a system of morality, that would provide that internal moral compass that would allow them as a people to govern themselves without the external control of a tyrant's whip and rod, so to speak. So the Bible to them is absolutely essential in nurturing civic virtue, which facilitates the kind of self-government that they're looking to develop.

Scott Rae: Now you found, in your book on Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers, you found that the founders in a wide variety of context actually cited the Bible repeatedly.

Daniel Dreisbach: Oh, absolutely.

Scott Rae: Where you surprised by that?

Daniel Dreisbach: Well, I had been reading, not so much focusing or looking for the Bible, but just reading generally the political documents of the age. I was struck, and this is over the course of several decades of study, I was always struck by how much one encounters scripture, references to scripture.

And that's really what drew me to this topic and why I wrote the book, is I wanted to make sense. Why were they using the Bible? Which biblical texts were they most drawn to? I've already mentioned Romans 13, perhaps the most sited biblical text. But they were also drawn to some of the New Testament texts that speak of liberty. Galatians 5:1, stand fast, therefore in the liberty, where in Christ hath made us free. Now, this is a problematic use of scripture because as I read the scripture, I see that as speaking of Christian liberty or spiritual liberty.

Scott Rae: Yeah, freedom in Christ.

Daniel Dreisbach: And here, there's a kind of a misappropriation. They were drawn to that rhetoric of liberty. So again, they were very drawn to that, but there are other biblical texts that is very much a part of the vocabulary of the age of. For example, Proverbs 14:34, righteousness exalted the nation. Sin is a reproach to her people or they were especially attracted to Proverbs 29:2. Which speaks of when the righteous rule, the people rejoice but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn or the people groan. But they were drawn to biblical texts that spoke to what is a righteous ruler look like? What does a righteous nation look like?

So they turned to scripture on a whole variety of topics. And these are some of the ones that they were, especially ... Exodus 18:21, is a very interesting text. It shows up all the time. And let me put it briefly in its biblical context. This is, the children of Israel have just crossed over the Red Sea and all the responsibilities of governance are falling on the shoulders of Moses. And his father-in-law, Jethro, comes to him and says, Moses, you need some help and assistance in governing the children of Israel. And let me tell you what kind of people you should look for to help you govern. You should look for able men who love truth, who hate covetousness, and so America-

Scott Rae: Character kinds of things?

Daniel Dreisbach: Character issues and so Americans looked at that verse in thinking about, well, what kind of rulers do we want here in America? And so that verse shows up all the time in the political literature of the founding era.

Scott Rae: Let's turn to the idea of religious freedom that's encapsulated in the first amendment. Why was the protection of religious freedom so important to the founders?

Daniel Dreisbach: Well, I think there are political theory reasons. There's also personal history reasons. There were many Americans, my own family included, who come to America in search of religious liberty. They had experienced a persecution, intolerance, in Europe. And so they come to America in search of a place where they can practice their faith freely.

So there's a personal history that compels many Americans to pursue a regime of religious liberty. And by the way, America is attracting all kinds of religious sex from Europe. And so they have to think about how do these various religious-

Scott Rae: What do you mean, then or now?

Daniel Dreisbach: Well I'm talking about in the founding era, the extraordinary pluralism of religious denominations that you find in America.

Scott Rae: But mostly Protestant?

Daniel Dreisbach: There in the Protestant, largely in the Protestant tradition. But you know, there are Episcopalians, they're Presbyterians and later there are going to be Methodist and they're living side by side. And the history of Europe said this breaks out into war and they don't want to have these religious wars in the new world. So they have to figure out a policy of religious liberty that's going to allow them to live side by side in American soil and not kill each other. They wanted to avoid that horrible history that we had seen in the previous centuries in Europe.

But let me give you one more reason why religious liberty is so important to the Americans, and that is this. We've just mentioned that this was a generation who thought religion was indispensable to social order and stability. They thought religion was essential to nurturing the civic virtues that allow a people to govern themselves. And so to allow that religious voice, that religious influence, to flourish in the American society-

Scott Rae: Regardless of denomination?

Daniel Dreisbach: Regardless of denomination, they looked to religious liberty to unleash that religious voice. You might remember the famous lines from the farewell address, George Washington's farewell address, in 1796. He says, "Of all the habits and dispositions which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports." Those are strong words. Religion and morality are indispensable to social order, self-government. And so how do you nurture that kind of religious culture that's going to allow and facilitate self-government? And religious liberty becomes a means of doing that. It's going to unleash a vibrant religious culture that's going to inform the public ethic and public policy in how government conducts itself.

Scott Rae: So they set this up, essentially, to have peaceable competition.

Daniel Dreisbach: That's right.

Scott Rae: Among world views.

Daniel Dreisbach: And order, peaceable, sort of coexistence so that religion can flourish and inform the public ethic.

Scott Rae: Okay, so actually in practice, after the first amendment was written, the conventional wisdom is religious freedom had a bit of a rocky start because there were some states that only allowed the practice of certain types of religion. How long did it take before the idea of religious freedom really took root at a national level?

Daniel Dreisbach: Well, we have of course the first amendment to the constitution, which says Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. This is written by the first Congress in the summer of 1789. It's ratified by the States, becomes law in 1791. And so we have this policy of free exercise of religion at the national level, but let me suggest something that's going on here and that is we tend to think of establishment of religion and religious liberty, free exercise, as incompatible. I'm not sure that the founding generation always saw it in those same terms.

And so I think they often viewed this as, yes, there can be some official role of religion in connection with this state and still have a tolerant regime of religious liberty, religious exercise, religious expression. I think later generations are going to start to think and act a little bit differently in that regard, but there's no doubt there are some ugly episodes in American history where we see expressions of intolerance, but I think the story of religion in America is most remarkable for the amity that is shown.

There's a wonderful story that Thomas Jefferson tells about his hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. He says, "There's many sex in my community, a four main sex, four main denominations." He says, "But we have a problem. There's only one meeting house," and so what was their solution? He said, we give one Sunday a month to the four largest denomination so that they can conduct their religious services and everybody comes and we listen respectfully to the minister even if it's not the minister of our own denomination. And I think that's a telling story about the degree to which Americans are respectful of their religious differences and are willing to sort of live side by side without fighting each other, again, as had been their experience in Europe, in the old world.

Scott Rae: I wish we could recreate that today.

Daniel Dreisbach: Yes.

Scott Rae: In our polarized culture. Now help us understand the term, the wall of separation between church and state. Because I think the conventional wisdom is that that means a complete separation of religion and the state. And some people even say that's a separation of religion from morality.

Daniel Dreisbach: Right.

Scott Rae: A very different view of what the founders held, but what is the wall of separation actually mean? What did Jefferson intend by that and then how has it been misunderstood?

Daniel Dreisbach: Yes, wonderful question. This term, a wall of separation between church and state, has been around in political discourse for at least 500 years that we know of in the Western world. But the modern use of that term, we generally attribute to Thomas Jefferson. It's a phrase that he used in a letter that he wrote to the Danbury Baptist association in Danbury, Connecticut. A letter he wrote on January 1st, 1802 and it's a metaphor that has come to dominate the way we think and talk about church, state relations, at least the constitutionally permissible relationships between church and state. It's hard to have a conversation without encountering this kind of rhetoric.

Sadly, I think it's a phrase that has been much misunderstood and it in fact has been a source of much mischief. In my opinion, in my study of Jefferson and the documents in which he uses these terms, it's my view, that Jefferson erected the wall of separation, not between church and state per se, but between the national government and state government on matters pertaining to religion. A very different understanding of the term than what we encountered today.

So Jefferson, when he writes this letter in which he uses the metaphor, is president of the United States and he wants to explain to the American people why he, as president, is declining to issue religious proclamations. And he's saying that the federal government, the national government, has strictly delegated enumerated powers and he doesn't see power given to the president to issue religious proclamations in the constitution. He just doesn't see that power. But he's in essence is saying, if you want your government to issue religious Proclamations, go to your state governor. And in fact, when Jefferson was governor, he issued a Thanksgiving Day proclamation to almighty God.

So he's trying to explain to the American people why he is declining to issue a religious Thanksgiving Day proclamation as president, but had done so as the governor of Virginia. And the explanation is to be found where he places the wall. Again, it's a wall that he places, in my opinion, between the authority, the power of the national government on matters pertaining to religion and the authority that state governments have. And he's saying as president, I don't have that authority but I did have that authority when I was a leader of the state of Virginia. But today it's a phrase that's taken on a life of its own. Right?

Scott Rae: I mean, the way it's understood today, it's not even close to that.

Daniel Dreisbach: That's right. That's right.

Scott Rae: How did it come to be so misunderstood?

Daniel Dreisbach: Well, it picked up by the Supreme court and it's woven into American jurisprudence. First mentioned in a court case at the end of the 19th century, but it's really the mid 20th century that the Supreme court, in a case from 1947, a case called Everson vs board of education. The court embraces this metaphor as a metaphor for the first amendment and so they suggest that the way to interpret that non-establishment language in the first amendment erects, and this is the course language not mine, has erected a high and impregnable wall of separation. The court went on to say we could not approve the slightest breach of that wall of separation. And the effect of that language was to strictly limit the place and role of religion in public life.

And again, I think this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the first amendment. And let me sort of illustrate it in one way and that is this. If we read the first amendment, it begins with these words, Congress shall make no law. Whatever you think the first amendment means, one thing we can be sure of it is putting a restriction on Congress, on government. However, if you replace the literal language of the first amendment with a wall of separation, that fundamentally changes our understanding of the constitutional principle because a wall by its very nature is a bilateral barrier. And if there's a wall of separation, it puts as much restriction on the state as it does on religion. And that transforms the understanding of the first amendment. It now takes an amendment that's a restriction on Congress or government only, to now being a restriction also on the church or on the faith community and limits their ability to inform public debate, to inform a public discourse. And this I think, has severely restricted the voice of the faith community in our public life.

And it's not required by the first amendment, but you can see how it's been used by the replacement of the first amendment with the metaphor of this wall of separation.

Scott Rae: So basically what we've done is we have substituted them the metaphor of the wall of separation for the actual language of the first amendment itself?

Daniel Dreisbach: That's right. And interestingly enough, every so often I read of a survey where they ask American people what is the language of the first amendment? And they're more likely to say it's the language of a wall of separation than they are to recognize the literal language of the first amendment. And what does that tell you? It tells me how deeply embedded this idea of a wall has become in our culture. And it's, again, being used to deprive people of faith, the ability to engage in argumentation, in discourse, in the public marketplace of ideas, and I think that diminishes our pluralistic democratic society.

Scott Rae: So the idea of the no establishment clause, it was really designed to enhance the free exercise of religion clause?

Daniel Dreisbach: Yeah.

Scott Rae: Substituting that metaphor has actually done just the opposite of that.

Daniel Dreisbach: I think that's absolutely right. In fact, this is I think a sort of an interesting, almost semantic point, for many, many generations Americans spoke of the religion clause as if one was in service of the other. Today, typically you hear courts and commentators speaking of the religion clauses as if they're two separate principles, oftentimes at war with each other. And so that too, I think, has transformed the way we think of the original principles of the first amendment.

But let me just add one more element, which is this, having erected a wall, we now look to some institution to become the umpire to say when something has impermissibly crossed that wall or breach that wall and what institution has filled that role? Largely courts, the federal courts in particular.

So think of this, we began with an amendment that's a limitation on government only to where we are today, where we in essence have empowered the government to tell the faith community, to tell churches, what they can and cannot do in the marketplace of ideas. So in a century, we've turned the first amendment almost completely on its head. And again, the instrument for that transformation, I think, has been this language of separation of church and state or the more architectural version, the wall of separation.

Scott Rae: So let me ask a question about the application of that idea today because we've had lots of cases where this idea of a wall of separation between church and state has come into play, in the Masterpiece Cake Shops, the florist for the weddings, things like that. Are there places, in your opinion, where government's umpiring of this has been less than even handed? Is the wall thicker in some places than in others?

Daniel Dreisbach: Well, personally, I want to avoid the metaphoric language of a wall.

Scott Rae: I understand.

Daniel Dreisbach: Because I think again, that reconceptualizes. Let me put it in slightly different, it misconceptualizes the first amendment principle. But if we're going to accept a wall, and I know this challenge is the metaphor, it's a one sided wall in this sense that the first amendment is a restriction on government only, right? But again, the wall as it's been erected, has become part of our jurisprudence is used as frequently, maybe even more frequently, to restrict the voice of faith, private expressions of faith.

I'm always from, it just seems like every week or two I get a call from someone, it might be a student in a public school who's been reprimanded for speaking about their faith in a class or even in an extracurricular activity. And the rationale is you can't talk about faith in a public school, that's a violation of the wall of separation. I think that is so far from what the first amendment was intended, but it's a rationale that only makes sense if you replace the literal language of the first amendment with this wall that restricts the voice of faith, the people of faith, just as much as it restricts the government and what the government can say or do.

Scott Rae: This has been my understanding of it for some time, that even before Jefferson conceptualize the term, Roger Williams, the Baptist, formulated the idea of a separation between church and state. Not because the church would infect the state, but to prevent the opposite from taking place. To prevent the state from being an arbiter over matters of conscience and belief.

Daniel Dreisbach: That's absolutely right.

Scott Rae: Did that have an impact on how the first amendment was crafted originally?

Daniel Dreisbach: It may, but let me just say, so Roger Williams uses this metaphor in the mid 17th century. He's, a hundred years before Jefferson comes along, and again, you're absolutely right. He envisions a wall or a hedge of separation, but his purpose for a wall is to protect the purity of Christ's church from the rough and corrupting hand of wilderness, the outside world. But Jefferson's wall is very different, or at least it's come to be interpreted in a very different way, to protect the state from the influences of religion. And there are other uses of the metaphor with still other purposes and objectives. Unfortunately, the version of the wall embraced by the Supreme court that's become so influential in our laws today, is the Jeffersonian.

They've made a very brief passing reference to Roger Williams, but when they speak of the wall separation, they are speaking of a wall that they've attributed to Jefferson, but it's a wall about protecting the state from the interference or the influence of religion.

And again, I think this does a disservice to our understanding of the first amendment. And let me give you an illustration. Take, for example, freedom of press that refined in the first amendment. Was freedom of press written into the first amendment to protect government from nosy journalist or was it written to protect free and independent journalists in their pursuit of truth, even if it meant uncovering corruption with the state? It's clearly about protecting a free and independent press. Now take that same parallel construction of freedom of press to religion. Is freedom of religion written into our constitution to protect the government from religious influences or is it to protect the community of faith from the rough and corrupting hand of the state?

It's about protecting religion, but we live in a culture today. We find courts today increasingly say, no, we need a wall of separation to protect ourselves from this influence of religion. We don't want religious influence, that's a violation of what the framers and constitutional authors had in mind. It does a perversion to the structure of the first amendment. And it does violence, I think, to the historic understanding of the vision that the American founders of the role that religion must play in order to nurture those kinds of civic virtues that allow a citizenry to govern themselves.

Scott Rae: This is really insightful, so appreciate the historical background on this. Let me ask one last question. How would you suggest that our listeners can be better educated about religious freedom?

Daniel Dreisbach: Yeah, it's important. We live in a time, sadly, where I think religious Liberty is being challenged. Challenged in ways that I think are very worrisome and so it's absolutely essential that all American citizens, this is not just citizens of faith, but certainly people of faith, but all citizens I think need to do more study, more understanding of what religion and religious liberty has meant historically in this country.

Let's start with our organic law. Let's read what the constitution has to say. Let's read and study the first amendment and the history of the interpretation of the first amendment, so that we can be well informed decisions about the vital role religion plays in our democratic, pluralistic society. There are of course, great commentators and books that will help us along the way, but we need to make this apart, not only our personal study, but I hope community groups, I hope churches and Sunday school classes will devote time and energy to try to truly understand what the constitution says about the role of religion in American public life.

Scott Rae: Well, Daniel, thank you so much for helping us get this straight historically. I want to commend to our listeners, two of your books. First of all, Thomas Jefferson and The Wall of Separation Between Church and State, which spells out this view that I suspect many of our listeners, this is the first time they've heard of such a view of Jefferson like that. And then secondly, your book, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers. I think will be a terrific place for people to start on the role of scripture in the founding political documents of our nation.

So this has been really insightful stuff. So appreciative for you being with us on our show today.

Daniel Dreisbach: Well, thank you so much for having me, Scott.

Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Dr. Daniel Dreisbach and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkingbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.