The depth and durability of the 400-year-old biblical roots among most Americans have been consistent with the separation of religion and state, but not the separation of religion and society.By Yoram Ettinger
The following essay is part of The Federalist’s 1620 Project, a symposium exploring the connections and contributions of the early Pilgrim and Puritan settlers in New England to the uniquely American synthesis of faith, family, freedom, and self-government.
Four hundred years ago, in late 1620, the 102 pilgrims of the Mayflower landed in Plymouth Rock, which they considered the modern-day Promised Land. They were inspired by the Bible, in general, and the Mosaic legacy, in particular, which features a civic covenant, cohesive peoplehood, 12-tribe governance, and a shared vision.
These beliefs and values planted the seeds of the Federalist Papers, the 1776 American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the overarching American political and justice systems to come. These seeds vaulted the United States into the leadership of the Free World, economically, technologically, scientifically, educationally, and militarily.
The 102 pilgrims of the Mayflowerviewed themselves as “modern-day Biblical Israelites,” seeking freedom from the bondage of the “British Pharaoh,” King James I. They sought biblical-driven liberty, planting the roots of the uniquely thriving, mutually-beneficial kinshipbetween America and Israel, historically, spiritually, culturally, technologically and geo-strategically.
Indeed, these roots eclipse the political beltway of Washington, D.C., transcend the pertinent role of the Jewish community, and run deeper than geostrategic considerations and formal agreements. They precede both the 1776 U.S. Declaration of Independence and the 1948 reestablishment of the Jewish state, Israel.
These critical bonds have yielded an exceptional bottom-up international relations phenomenon, whereby pro-Israel sentiments among most Americans have played a key role in shaping the mindset of their state and federal legislatures, as well as the actions of the person sitting behind the Resolute Desk of the Oval Office.
The First Pilgrims
The Bible was the most widely read book in colonial America, inspiring the early Pilgrims, the Founding Fathers, educators, the clergy, political leaders, and the public at large. The early Pilgrims referred to King James I as the modern-day Pharaoh; their departure from England as the modern-day Exodus; the sailing across the Atlantic Ocean as the modern-day Parting of the Sea; and the New World as the New Canaan and the New Israel. Truly, they considered themselves the modern-day People of the Covenant and Chosen People.
Hence, the litany of biblically named towns, cities, mountains, deserts, rivers, national parks, and forests throughout the United States for a total of 18 Jerusalems, 30 Salems (the original name of Jerusalem), 83 Shilohs (where the first tabernacle stood), 34 Bethels, 27 Hebrons, 26 Goshens, 19 Jerichos, 18 Pisgahs, and more.
William Bradford and John Winthrop, the leaders of the Mayflower (1620) and the Arabella (1630), were called Joshua and Moses, respectively. Moreover, the 1620 “Mayflower Compact” and the 1639 “Fundamental Orders of Connecticut” highlighted the rights of the individual — and the limits of centralized government — and were partly inspired by the Mosaic laws and covenant.
In 2020, the 400-year-old roots of the special American-Israeli ties are reflected by the statues and engravings of Moses and more than 200 Ten Commandments monuments, which are featured in the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, the Justice Department, the National Archives, and throughout important buildings and landmarks across the United States.
Early America and the Hebrew Language
Familiarity with Hebrew was quite common among the early Pilgrims’s intelligentsia and the better-educated clergy. In fact, the initial ten colleges in the colonies offered Hebrew courses.
Moreover, the first two presidents of Harvard University, Henry Dunster and Charles Chauncy, were ardent Hebraists. So were Harvard’s 6th and 11th presidents, Increase Mather and Samuel Langdon, who proposed to make Hebrew an official language in the new colonies. Valedictory addresses at Harvard, Yale, and other institutions of higher learning were offered in Hebrew. King’s College (Columbia University) founding President Samuel Johnson installed Hebrew as a required course, and stated that “Hebrew was part of a gentleman’s education.”
Yale University’s 7th president, Ezra Stiles, spoke, read, and taught Hebrew in addition to astronomy, chemistry, and philosophy. He corresponded with Hebron’s Rabbi, Hayyim Carregal, and noted that “Moses assembled 3 million people — the number of Americans in 1776.” He urged graduate students to be able to recite Psalms in Hebrew, “because that is what St. Peter will expect of you at the Pearly Gates.”
The official seals of Yale University(“Light and Truth”), Columbia University(“Jehovah” and “Divine Light”), and Dartmouth College (“G-d Almighty”) feature key biblical terms in Hebrew. The official seal of Princeton Universityfeatures an open Bible with the Latin inscription: Old and New Testaments.
The special role of Hebrew in the formation of American culture and university curricula was demonstrated by Prof. George Bush, the great grand-uncle of President George H.W. Bush. The first Hebrew professor at New York University, this Bush wrote books on the Bible and Hebrew, and urged the ingathering of Jews “to the Biblical Zion.”
Hebrew words have been integrated into the English language. For example, the origin of Jubilee is the Hebrew word Yovel (liberty in Hebrew), Jehovah is Yehovah (He was, He is, He will be), amen is a’men (faith in Hebrew), hallelujah is halleluyah (praise God in Hebrew), Abracadabra is Evra keDabra (creating while talking in Hebrew), evil is Eyval (the Biblical Mount of Curse), kosher is kasher (proper in Hebrew), etc.
The Founding Fathers and the Mosaic Covenant
The Bay Psalm Book was the first book printed in 1640 in the New World in Cambridge, Mass. One thousand, seven hundred copies were printed, containing Hebrew characters. In 2013, one of the 11 existing copies was sold for $14.2 million, a record for a printed book. Currently, some 20 million copies of the Bible are sold annually, making it still the best-selling book in America.
According to a February 2020 Pew Research Poll, 49 percent of Americans say the Bible should have at least some influence on U.S. law, including 23 percent who say it should have a great deal of influence.
Even the name of America’s political system — the federalist system — is a derivative of Foedus, which is the Latin word for the biblical covenant between God and Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, as well as the civic covenant among the biblical Israelites during the 40 years following the Exodus.
Moreover, the inscription on the Liberty Bell is from Leviticus, Chapter 25, Verse 10: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the Land, unto all the Inhabitants thereof.” This inscription is the essence of the Jubilee, which is the biblical role model of liberty — freeing slaves and prisoners and returning land to original owners.
Furthermore, Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” which was the moral and intellectual touchstone of the American Revolution, was influenced by the Old Testament: “For the will of the Almighty as declared by Gideon, and the prophet Samuel, expressly disapproves of government by kings.” Harvard University’s 11th president, Samuel Langdon, opined:
The Jewish government … was a perfect republic. … Let us therefore look over [the Israelites’s] constitution and laws. … They had both a civil and military establishment under divine direction, and a complete body of judicial laws drawn up and delivered to them by Moses in God’s name. … Instead of the twelve tribes of Israel, we may substitute the thirteen states of the American union…
James Madison was deeply influenced by his study of Hebrew and the Old Testament at the College of New Jersey (Princeton University). In a 1778 speech at the General Assembly of Virginia, he stated, “We have staked the future of all our political institutions upon our capacity … to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.”
John Quincy Adams, the 6th president, asserted, “The Bible is the best book in the world. … The law given from Sinai was a civil and municipal as well as a moral and religious code. … The Bible is the book to be read at all ages.”
The Abolitionist Movement and Moses
Moses and the Exodus played a key role in the formation of the Abolitionist anti-slavery movement. Thus, Harriet Tubman, who was born into slavery and escaped in 1849, was called Mama Moses, since she was among the initiators of the Underground Railroad, which freed black slaves through a network of secret routes and safe houses.
In 1862, the anti-slavery informal anthem of black slaves was composed of lyrics from Exodus 8:1: “Go Down Moses, way down in Egypt land, tell old Pharaoh to let my people go.” This black spiritual regained popularity in the 20th century when sung by Paul Leroy Robeson.
Martin Luther King, Jr., a leader of the U.S. civil rights movement from 1955-1968, based many of his sermons and speeches — including “I have a dream” — on Moses and the Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt, as well as on the biblical books of Psalms, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Amos. His battle cry was: “Let My People Go” (Exodus 5:1).
President Abraham Lincoln was a student of the Bible, which bolstered his determination to abolish slavery. In his second inaugural address, he stated the Bible was “the best gift God has given to man,” and “The rebirth of Israel as a nation-state is a noble dream, shared by many Americans.”
The Bible, in general, and the Moses legacy, in particular, provided American slaves with much hope and strength, striving for their own Exodus, trusting that God opposes black slavery in the United States as he opposed Jewish slavery in Egypt.
400 Years of American Identification with the Jewish State
The chief engine behind the unique U.S.-Israel kinship was the spirit of the early Pilgrims and the Founding Fathers. They considered the idea of a Jewish commonwealth in the land of Israel an authentic implementation of the biblical vision. President John Adams, for example, supported the idea of a Jewish state in the land of Israel: “I really wish the Jews again in Judea an independent nation.”
Most notably, on March 5, 1891 — six years before the convening of the 1897 First Zionist Congress by Theodore Herzl, the father of modern-day Zionism — 431 American leaders, including the chief justice, House and Senate leaders and chairmen of congressional committees, governors, mayors, businessmen, clergy, professors, and editors, signed the Blackstone Memorial, which called for the re-establishment of a Jewish state in the land of Israel. Pastor William Eugene Blackstone was a Christian Zionist, who dedicated his life to the reestablishment of the Jewish commonwealth in its homeland.
In 1917, the Blackstone Memorial influenced President Woodrow Wilson’s support of the Balfour Declaration, and on March 3, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson stated: “… In Palestine shall be laid the foundation of a Jewish Commonwealth,” and “The Bible is the Magna Charta of the human soul.”
In 1918, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote in his best-selling “History of the American West”:
It seems to me entirely proper to start a Zionist State around Jerusalem. … Many of the best backwoodsmen were Bible-readers. … They looked at their foes as the Hebrew Prophets looked at the enemies of Israel. … No man, educated or uneducated, can afford to be ignorant of the Bible.
Highlighting the potency of these roots, on June 30, 1922, Congress passed a joint resolution, introduced by the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Henry Cabot Lodge, R-Mass., and Rep. Hamilton Fish III, R-N.Y., which was signed by President Warren Harding on September 21, 1922. It states its purpose as “Favoring the establishment, in Palestine, of a national home for the Jewish people.” The resolution was opposed by the State Department and the New York Times, which also opposed the re-establishment of Israel in 1948.
On June 10, 1943, Alabama Gov. Chauncey Sparks signed a unanimous Joint Resolution of the Alabama State House and Senate, which called for the establishment in Palestine of a Jewish homeland, following the 1917 Balfour Declaration, as was approved by the 1922 joint congressional resolution and the 1924 Anglo-American Treaty.
On May 12, 1948, during a critical session at the White House, Clark Clifford, a special assistant to President Truman (and defense secretary under President Lyndon Johnson), confronted Secretary of State Gen. George Marshall, who opposed the recognition of the Jewish state: “Behold, I have set the land before you; go in and possess the land which the Lord swore unto your Fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give unto them and to their seed after them (Deuteronomy, 1:8).”
On May 14, 1948, during a special broadcast upon Israel’s declaration of independence, American radio icon Lowell Thomas stated: “Today, as the Jewish state is established, Americans read through the Bible as a historical reference book.”
The Biblical Effect on Modern American Leaders
While the U.S. Constitution does not require presidents to be sworn in on a Bible, almost every chief executive since George Washington has chosen to do so. Furthermore, almost all American presidents have integrated biblical verses in their inaugural addresses and major speeches.
In just one example, on May 3, 1925, President Calvin Coolidge said: “Hebraic mortar cemented the foundations of American democracy … If American democracy is to remain the greatest hope of humanity, it must continue abundantly in the faith of the Bible.”
Still more instances abound. On February 15, 1950, President Harry S. Truman told the Attorney General’s Conference:
The fundamental basis of this nation’s laws was given to Moses on the Mount. The fundamental basis of our Bill of Rights comes from the teachings which we get from Exodus and St. Matthew, from Isaiah and St. Paul. I don’t think we emphasize that enough these days…
On September 10, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson told a B’nai B’rith conference, “Bible stories are woven into my childhood memories as the gallant struggle of modern Jews to be free of persecution is also woven into our souls.”
In his 1969 inaugural addresses, President Richard Nixon referred to the book of Isaiah: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more (Isaiah 2:4).”
President Ronald Reagan was known for his biblical references, such as when he said, “Within the covers of the Bible are all the answers for all the problems men face. … Of the many influences that have shaped the United States of America into a distinctive Nation and people, none may be said to be more fundamental and enduring than the Bible.”
President Bush’s deep biblical conviction was evident during his May 15, 2008 speech at Israel’s Knesset:
When Israel was declared independent, it was the Redemption of an ancient promise given to Abraham, Moses, and David. … The source of our friendship runs deeper than any treaty. … It is grounded in the shored spirit of our peoples, the bonds of The Book, the ties of the soul. When William Bradford stepped off the ‘Mayflower’ in 1620, he quoted the words of Jeremiah: ‘Come let us declare in Zion the word of God.’ The Founders saw a new Promised Land and bestowed upon their towns names like Bethlehem and New Canaan. And, in time many Americans became passionate advocates for a Jewish State. … Our alliance will be guided by clear principles, shared convictions rooted in moral clarity, and unswayed by popularity polls or the shifting opinions of international elites.
President Barack Obama frequently used biblical quotes, such as when reciting Psalm 46 at the unveiling of the 9/11 Memorial upon the 10th anniversary of that Islamic terror attack on the United States: “God is our refuge and strength … therefore we will not fear.”
America’s Civil Religion
The depth and durability of the 400-year-old biblical roots among most Americans have been consistent with the separation of religion and state, but not the separation of religion and society. It is demonstrated by the institutionalization of “In God We Trust,” inscribed above the seat of the speaker of the House of Representatives, and since 1974, Congress opens daily deliberations with a prayer. In 2020, the state constitutions of all 50 states refer to God.
In 2012, the National Democratic Convention reinstated God and Jerusalem into its platform. On October 31, 2011, the House of Representatives voted 396:9, reaffirming “In God We Trust” as a national motto, as did Joint Resolution #396 (July 30, 1956), and a May 26, 1955, resolution to inscribe “In God We Trust” on all U.S. currency.
According to an NBC May 2019 poll, 86 percent of Americans favor “In God We Trust” and retaining “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. An April 2018 Gallup poll showed that 45 percent and 39 percent of Protestants and Catholics attend church each Sunday. About 20 million copies of the Bible are purchased annually in America, there are more than 300 Christian TV (nine in 1974) and 3,000 Christian radio stations across the United States.
On June 28, 2005, Chief Justice William Rehnquist ruled that the Ten Commandment monument on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol was constitutional, underlining the effect and the legacy of Moses and the “Ten Commandments” on American culture and civic life:
Since 1935, Moses has stood, holding two tablets that reveal portions of the Ten Commandments, written in Hebrew, among other lawgivers in the [Supreme Court’s] south frieze. … Moses sits on the exterior east façade, holding the Ten Commandments. … Since 1897, a large statue of Moses holding the Ten Commandments alongside a statue of the Apostle Paul, has overlooked the rotunda of the Library of Congress’s Jefferson Building. A two-tablet-medallion depicting the Ten Commandments decorates the floor of the National Archives.
In the Justice Department, a statue entitled ‘The Spirit of Law’ has two tablets representing the Ten Commandments. In front of the Ronald Reagan Building stands a sculpture that includes a depiction of the Ten Commandments. A 24-foot-tall sculpture, outside the Federal Courthouse [in Washington, D.C.], depicts the Ten Commandments and a cross. Moses is prominently featured in the Chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives … a lawgiver, and a religious leader, and the Ten Commandments have undeniable historical meaning.
The Lasting Kinship
While there has been a gradual erosion of the 400-year-old roots of the shared, core values that created the healthy foundation of relations between Israel and the United States, they have been notably resilient and broadly cultivated by the state of mind of most Americans.
The recent dramatic enhancement of such a unique and mutually beneficial relationship — militarily, industrially, technologically, agriculturally and medically — has evolved in response to mutual threats and challenges, but in defiance of the State Department bureaucracy and much of the “elite” media, which opposed Israel’s establishment in 1948.
Israel remains the top unconditional ally of the United States in the Middle East and beyond, wholeheartedly reciprocating the value-driven heartfelt identification by most Americans with the Jewish State. And, as “The Ethics of the Fathers,” a second-century compilation of Jewish ethical teachings suggests: “Conditional love is tenuous; unconditional love is eternal.”