Friday, July 11, 2008

A Political Scientist on the Lutz Study

When debating the Bible's influence on the American Founding "Christian America" apologists invariably cite the study of one Donald S. Lutz, et al. that purports to find the Bible quoted more than any other source during the era. The following from WorldNetDaily is typical:

Indeed, of the 15,000 political writings of the men who crafted the Constitution, the source they quoted most frequently in expressing their political beliefs was the Bible. A whopping 34 percent of their political quotes came straight out of the Book they hailed as the inspired Word of God.

Tom Flannery, the author of that article, revealed to me in email correspondence that he wasn't even aware the figure came from Lutz et al., but rather thought the figure was the original research of David Barton, who often cites the the figure.

This source also represents a typical misuse of the Lutz et al. study.

In truth, the study never purports that the Framers of the Constitution quoted the Bible more than other sources, rather that sermons abounded in Founding era literature and they (obviously) quoted the Bible quite a bit! Indeed, regarding the framing of the Constitution Lutz's study says:

The Bible's prominence disappears, which is not surprising since the debate centered upon specific institutions about which the Bible has little to say. The Anti-Federalists do drag it in with respect to basic principles of government, but the Federalist's inclination to Enlightenment rationalism is most evident here in their failure to consider the Bible relevant.

Washington, Madison, Franklin, Hamilton et al. rarely if ever quoted the Bible as specific authority for the Constitution's particular provisions.

Enter one James Hanley who is an actual political scientist who has published in the very same journal, American Political Science Review (APSR), that published the Lutz et al. study. His post sheds further light on the proper contextual understanding of the Lutz et al. study and how it has been misused by "Christian America" advocates.

Hanley, though, does something with the study that I can't: Crunch the numbers in a social scientist sense (I'm terrible with numbers). Here's a taste:

Fortunately, Lutz gives actual numbers of citations, so we can do a rough calculation of average biblical citations per sermon/non-sermon.

1. In 916 publications he counted 3,154 citations.

2. 34% of those citations were biblical, so there were 1,072 biblical citations (3,154 * .34).

3. There were approximately 92 sermons in the sample (916 * .1). (Note: Here I am making an assumption that 10% of Lutz sample were sermons, based on his statement that 10% of publications of the era were sermons. Lutz does not explicitly say so, but his statement about the percentage of publications that were sermons is placed within his discussion of the sample, so the extrapolation is reasonable. If his sample had been widly disproportionate, he would presumably have said so.)

4. Approximately 804 biblical citations came from the approximately 92 sermons (1,072 biblication citations * .75).

5. From that we can estimate the mean number of biblical citations per sermon at 8.7 (804 biblical citations/92 sermons).

5. Approximately 268 biblical citations came from non-sermon writings (1,072 - 804, or 1072 * .25)

6. The sample contained approximately 824 non-sermon publications (916 * .9)

7. Finally, we can estimate that the non-sermon writings had a mean of .3 biblical citations (268 biblical citations/916 non-sermon publications).

In summary, sermons contained more than 8 biblical citations each (on average), which is not too surprising for sermons, whether they contain political content or not. But the non-sermon publications contained less than 1 citation each, on average. In fact because the mean number of citations per non-sermon is less than .5, the likelihood of a non-sermon political publication from the founding era containing a biblical citation is not even random! The political writings were more likely than not to have no biblical references at all.

But there is yet more to the story. Keep in mind that Lutz was just counting citations, not analyzing them for substance. As he explained:

"Another advantage is that a citation count need not distinguish between positive and negative citations;"

So Lutz was not making any claim that the Founders used the Bible to support any particular political view, a point that becomes relevant when we look at the pattern of citations by Federalists and Anti-Federalist in 1787 and 1788, the years the Constitution was being debated (Lutz's Table 4). The Federalists--the founders of our actual political system, the supporters of the Constitution, so often said to have a biblical basis--never quoted the Bible! Lutz counts zero Federalist citations to the Bible. Conversely, 9% of the Anti-Federalists' citations were to the Bible, far less than the 38% of their references to enlightenment authors (and note that the enlightenment challenged the idea of God as the source of knowledge), but obviously far more than the Federalists. So the conclusion here, if we were to follow Flannery's method, is that God opposed the Constitution. A silly conclusion, of course, but the natural outgrowth of the "they cited it" school of historical analysis.

Read the whole thing.


Brad Hart said...

Very interesting, Jon. I think it would be interesting to see how often the main founders cited sources like Locke, Bacon, etc. in their writings v. the Bible. My guess is that the Enlightenment thinkers would prevail...this is certainly the case in our founding documents.

Raven said...

If the founders relied so heavily on theBible like so many argue, then why didn't they free the slaves? Why didn't they follow the other 600 commandments mentioned in Leviticus? Why didn't they mention God or Christ in the founding documents?

THeir case doesnt make sense.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Bad study, elegantly fisked.

Jonathan Rowe said...

The study is not so bad; Mr. Lutz is actually a reputable figure. It's the way the David Barton types cite it to mean something it never intended that's so bad.

Ed Darrell said...

I've wished a hundred times that the Lutz piece were available online.

It doesn't say what Barton claims it says. It's not quite the partisan hack piece it would have to be to support Mr. Barton's outlandish, fantastic claims about it, as the statistics show.

So, how does it come to pass that so few people have ever read it, and that it's so damnably difficult to get a copy of the thing? Is Barton buying up anything with a copy, to keep it out of circulation?

Anonymous said...

But this misrepresents the Founders themselves. I have been studying John Adams in an online reading group and he said :

“Suppose a nation in some distant region should take the Bible for their only law book and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there exhibited.What a Eutopia, what a Paradise would this region be. I have examined all [religions]. and the result is that the Bible is the best Book in the world. It contains more of my little philosophy than all the libraries I have seen”sophy than all the libraries I Have seen"

So this most well-read and intellectual of the Founders, a man who wrote the Massacusetts Constitution says this -- and they are the same man!-- then the influnence on himself is profound

Ed Darrell said...

Anonymous, you should look for the full text of that piece from Adams. He's not defending the Bible as the model American government should follow -- and he's not even defending Christianity, as I recall. He's saying that if we all agreed on a system of morality AND we all were disciplined enough to live it, it's a good system.

But Adams does not disagree with Madison's line that such a system works if all men were angels, but since we're not, the Constitution and checks and balances are required.