What the Straus Center Reads – The Bible in American Law and Politics


John R. Vile | Rowman & Littlefield | 2020

Reviewed by Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern

“…for the pathos of the narrative; for incident selections that go straight to the heart; for the picturesqueness of character and manners; the selection of circumstances that mark the individuality of people; for the fullness, grandeur and sublimity of the imagery; for irrefutable force and closeness of reasoning; and for an irresistible force of persuasion; no book in the world deserves to be studied and meditated on so deeply as the Bible,” wrote John Quincy Adams in a letter to his son, George Washington Adams, in 1813.

As John R. Vile demonstrates in his encyclopedia, The Bible in American Law and Politics, Adams, and his son’s namesake, were among countless American leaders who turned to the Bible to speak about the American project. An invaluable tool for anyone interested in the role the Bible has played in American public life, Vile’s work provides relatively short and immensely useful entries, compiling and distilling knowledge on a wide range of topics.

The author, professor of political science and dean of University Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University, draws heavily on recent landmark work on the role the Bible has played in American political and legal thought, including through Eric Nelson from Harvard University, Daniel from American Dreisbach University, and Eran Shalev from the University of Haifa, for providing the latest research on the topics discussed. Dreisbach, as Vile notes, has extensively documented how American politicians’ rhetorical uses of the Bible enrich a common language and cultural vocabulary, reinforce the power of their discourse, evoke ancient and transcendent rules, and illuminate the role of Providence. in American history in numerous articles and Read the Bible with the Founding Fathers.

A large number of The Bible in American Law and Politics‘ entries focus on the concept of America as the new Israel, including the Puritans comparing their arduous sea voyage to the ancient Jews crossing the Red Sea, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson considering depicting the Exodus from Egypt as part of the American seal, and the jeremiads in which American leaders would thunderously rebuke their constituents as prophets of old.

Many quirky and lesser-known topics sit alongside expected ones like the Scopes trial, the Liberty Bell (on which Vile wrote an entirely separate encyclopedia), the comparison of George Washington with such figures as Moses and Gideon, and verses quoted in presidential inaugural speeches. We learn that Bible-inspired “days of humiliation, fasting, and thanksgiving” were undertaken both in early America and in Britain under George III. During the “Bible Balloon Project” between 1953 and 1957, helium balloons from West Germany dropped Bibles into Eastern European countries controlled by the Soviet Union. The Bible has been used to advocate for environmental efforts and to advocate for and against capital punishment. Noah Webster, famous for his dictionaries, wrote several books on the Bible, including the one from 1834 Value of the Bible and excellence of the Christian religion: for the use of families and schools. And several American personalities have been compared to the wicked Queen Jezebel depicted in the biblical book of Kings.

Students of American history, biblical interpretation, and political rhetoric, as well as anyone seeking a fuller appreciation of the immeasurable impact the Bible has had and continues to have on American history, have much to gain from comprehensive and engaging work by Vile. .

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