Why do Americans’ sacred texts have a close, frequently fraught relationship with their political history?
In 2018, in a public speech to law enforcement officers, the attorney general of the United States used a scriptural passage to defend tougher implementation of immigration laws. His reference bewildered observers who were unaware of a long tradition of citing Romans 13 in American political controversies, including such formative conflicts as the American Revolution and the sectional crisis over slavery.
This course introduces students to a complex history of political invocations of scripture, encouraging them to think about why this practice persists, the interpretive strategies it involves, and the implications of such scriptural appeals for civic culture. Co-taught by faculty with expertise in biblical studies and American history, the course asks students to engage texts thoughtfully, to consider historical contexts thoroughly, and to see why these texts and their use matters in the present.
Course materials includes primary sources (e.g., campaign speeches, Congressional debates, Civil Rights slogans) and scholarly literature, such as the wealth of research on the history of biblical justifications for war or the legal theories that guide applications of the First Amendment.
Student projects afford class participants the chance to engage in both historical research and textual hermeneutics. The objective of the course is to equip students to recognize the historical legacies that contemporary political conversations carry, to engage critically the modes of textual interpretation that inform political rhetoric, and to write cogently about the complex implications of political appeals to scriptural authority.