What role should the bible play in American politics? This question remains at the center of debates over hot-button social issues—such as abortion and same-sex marriage—where traditional and progressive values continue to clash. As these debates persist, how should American Jews leverage their unique values and texts to develop their own responses to these pressing social and political challenges?
Somewhat counter-intuitively, this is the foundational question raised by a new edited sourcebook, Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land: The Hebrew Bible in the United States. Edited by Stuart Halpern, Matthew Holbreich, Jonathan Silver and Meir Soloveichik, the anthology collects important historical texts in which religious and political leaders incorporated the values, messages and narratives of the bible into their vision of American liberty, community and politics. That this sourcebook bears on contemporary political deliberation may seem odd given that the collected texts themselves date primarily from the 17th through the mid-19th century. Yet in highlighting how generations of prominent American historical figures placed the bible front and center when they spoke and wrote, this anthology invariably asks the reader to evaluate the role of Jewish text and values within the context of political debate and deliberation.
In terms of organization, the anthology is divided into four parts. The first collects primary sources from colonial life prior to the American revolution and the second focuses directly on the period of the American revolution itself. The third then considers texts from the early years of the American republic, with the fourth and final part turning to texts addressing slavery, abolitionism and the Civil War. As the editors note in the postscript, they chose to end the anthology after the Civil War because the bible largely fell out of political discourse by the late 19th century.
It is this marginalization of the bible in political discourse that the editors clearly seek to remedy by bringing readers back to a time when the bible had far more political valence when it came to how America imagines itself.
But what separates this anthology from the average collection is its focus on context. Thus, not only does the anthology organize, collect and annotate important American texts and speeches that reference the bible, but it also provides the reader with the actual biblical texts at the end of each excerpt. Importantly, juxtaposing the historical and biblical texts allows the reader to consider how the bible is being used. In turn, readers will invariably ask to what extent did the political deployment of Jewish text excerpts comport with the traditional meaning of those texts when read in context.
These questions go to the heart of the book’s core inquiry. By placing biblical text and context side by side, the anthology presses readers to ask whether these appearances in the American tradition represent points of pride—where the values of the bible helped generate a unique form of traditional Americanism that embraced life and liberty—or whether instead they represent moments of political appropriation—where biblical text is being used for political purposes in ways that do not track the original meanings when considered in context.
By way of example, how should we think about Benjamin Franklin’s desire to incorporate an image of Moses lifting his staff and dividing the Red Sea into a seal of the United States? Or how should we view Jonathan Edwards’, the famous Puritan preacher and theologian, reading of Isaiah’s prophecy about the reestablishment of Jerusalem as a vision actually referring to the birth of the American republic? In these cases, great figures in American history sought to portray the American values of freedom and redemption by using—and transforming—classic Jewish texts and images.
The editors, in creating the anthology, provide an answer to these questions. As Meir Soloveichik notes in his preface, the book’s goal is to provide “testimony to the Hebraic roots of the American founding, so that loyalty to its principles may be inspired for generations to come.” To explain how so, the anthology, presents an excellent assessment of the bible’s multifaceted influence: the bible provided narratives and terms that fed into a collective American vocabulary and self-identification, introducing key concepts such as chosenness, exodus and covenant into the American self-imagination. In turn, the bible also served as a source of authority; political arguments that could be traced to the bible had more force and influence.
This is not to say that the editors are blind to the ways in which the bible has been, at times, exploited for nefarious purposes. Whether the Salem Witch trials or slavery, the editors acknowledge that once drawn into politics, the bible has been abused to justify some of America’s most heinous crimes. But all told, the anthology envisions the bible as playing an “essential role not only to the miracle of the American founding, but also to the extraordinary impact that the Jews had on the development of the West.” And in this way, the anthology hopes to return political discourse to a time where the bible—with its images and values—played a far more central role. In the words of the editors: “Our public life is less laden with Hebraic symbols than it once was. But we believe that one cannot understand this country – its institutions, its culture, its way of balancing order and freedom, liberty and equality, centralized and federated power – without reference to the Hebraic sources that inspired its architects, founders, and public leaders.”
The beauty of this anthology, however, is that a reader can use the very sources to reach opposite conclusions; readers of this anthology will invariably disagree on whether or not a return to the bible in political discourse would serve as positive development. To some, an infusion of the bible’s timeless values, such as liberty and covenant, is exactly what are fractured political discourse might need—a reminder of how our core values can serve to unite us at a time of increasing discord. To others, the use of the bible in politics might not only inflame our current state of divisiveness, but also do violence to the very meaning of the bible itself.
For Jewish readers, revisiting how the bible shaped influenced American political discourse in the past ultimately asks the reader to consider how the bible should influence American political discourse in the future. And in this way, Proclaim Liberty serves as an invitation, asking Jews to breathe new meaning into their most sacred texts and values as they navigate an increasing charged and divisive political landscape. The ultimate contribution of Proclaim Liberty — and the reason why it is so urgent for the contemporary Jewish political imagination — is that it presents text and context, and then lets the reader decide how the past informs the best way forward.
In that way, a book ostensibly about America’s history is, in truth, about America’s future.
Michael A. Helfand is Professor of Law and Associate Dean for Faculty and Research at Pepperdine University School of Law.