Saturday, December 5, 2009

God and the Declaration of Independence

Here are some more thoughts on the Declaration of Independence , many of which will appear in one form or another in my book manuscript, "Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Primer." (If all goes well, it should be available in January 2o11).

What should we make of the references to God in the Declaration?

As I have written before ,the Declaration of Independence was never meant to be a formal statement of American values, of universal human rights, or of the relationship between God and American independence. Yet by the nineteenth century it had certainly become all of these things.

Unlike the United States Constitution, the Declaration makes reference to God. There are four of them. A close examination of these references tell us something about the religious world view of its writers.

The first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence begins:

When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws and Nature and Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind required that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Here Jefferson is affirming that the idea of independence is grounded in natural law and the God who gave us that law. “Nature’s God” was a term used often by eighteenth-century deists. These deists believed that God created the world, instilled it with natural laws of science, morality, and politics, and did not interfere with it any further. Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration, was not a deist. He believed that God sustained the universe and, at times, even intervened in human affairs. But Jefferson's choice of the phrase “Nature’s God” is so vague that it would have been accepted by nearly all of the colonists. Deists, free-thinkers, and Enlightenment liberals (such as Jefferson) would have no problem affirming the idea that natural rights come from God. Eighteenth-century Christians might have preferred a more explicitly Christian reference to God, but they too could affirm this belief.

The next reference to God in the Declaration of Independence occurs in the second paragraph: “

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

Actually, the reference to the idea that self-evident truths are “endowed by their Creator” was not part of Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration. It was added later by Benjamin Franklin, a member of the writing committee. Jefferson’s original wording was: “that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable.” Franklin’s change to the text makes it clear that he and the Continental Congress wanted to affirm the belief that the unalienable rights of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” came from God. Yet, like Jefferson’s use of the phrase “Nature’s God” in the first paragraph, Franklin never elaborates any further on the attributes of this “Creator.” Once again, this vague reference to God could have been embraced not only be Christians, but by deists, Unitarians, and freethinkers as well.

References to God do not appear again in the Declaration until the final paragraph. Here we find the phrase:

We…appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name and Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.

Once again, these words were not included in Jefferson’s original draft, but added during the discussion of the document on the floor of the Second Continental Congress. Unlike the references to “Nature’s God” and the “Creator,” the phrase “Supreme Judge of the World” is a bit more specific. Unlike the vague God of the first two paragraphs, the use of the words “Supreme Judge of the World” suggests that the God to whom the Congress appealed will one day judge humankind. The judgment of God is an important dimension of Christian theology. But one could reject some of the other central tenets of orthodox Christianity (such as the deity of Christ or his resurrection from the dead) and still believe that God would judge humans in the next life based upon their behavior in this one. Indeed, nearly all of the signers of the Declaration believed in a God who judges humankind, either in this world or the next.

The last reference to God in the Declaration:

And for the support of this Declaration with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

The God of the Declaration of Independence is not only the author of natural rights and the judge of the world, but He also governs the world by His "Providence." The term "providence," as it was used in the eighteenth-century, was usually used to describe an active God who sustains the world through His sovereign power. This is not the distant God of the deist, but a God who is always active in ordering His creation. He performs miracles and answers prayers. By referencing "Providence," the members of Congress were affirming their belief that God would watch over them and protect them in this time of uncertainty, trial, and war. Whether they embraced all of the tenets of orthodox Christianity or not, most of the signers could affirm a belief in the providence of God.

In the end, some may be disappointed with the way in which Jefferson, his committee, and the Second Continental Congress did not produce a Declaration of Independence that was overtly Christian. The Declaration never mentions Jesus Christ, does not quote the New Testament, and fails to move beyond vague descriptions of God.

While we would be hard pressed to describe the Declaration as a uniquely “Christian” document, it certainly does reflects the theistic world view prevalent in the eighteenth-century British-American colonies.