Happy 4th of July, 2018.
That the Declaration of Independence was signed in August 1776, should not be of concern. The argument that this document, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution were written as “religious documents” should be.
The argument is coming from conservative-Christians, sometimes identified as Christian Nationalists, and is an ongoing fervor of their commitment to making the United States a theocracy.
In 2010, I asked my Christian friends to give me their proofs that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. I received about 75 replies and boiled those down to 12 chapters in my book, A Christian Nation? An examination of Christian nations theories and proof.
There are actually three documents that have been considered the “law of the land” in our short history; The Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and The United States Constitution.
The Declaration is an elaborate letter of complaint to King George concerning the plight of the colonies. Acts of war, unfair taxes, tariffs and nonresponses to earlier communiques are only a few of the reasons for the call for independence. Nowhere in The Declaration is there a mention of God, religion or the Lord. Jefferson made sure this was a completely secular document.
It took about five years from the signing of The Declaration to establish the first truly national government of the independent states. Each state had an established church to which tax moneys were funneled. To accommodate the sovereignty of each state, the Articles established that each state:
“…for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretense whatever.”
There is no reference to God or Jesus in the Articles. “Lord” is mentioned only in reference to the year the document was produced: “Done at Philadelphia in the State of Pennsylvania the ninth day of July in the Year of our Lord One Thousand Seven Hundred and Seventy-Eight, and in the Third Year of the independence of America.”
The Constitution was finally ratified in 1787 as the inadequacies of the Articles were firmly noted. The central government needed to be stronger, establish rules common throughout the new nation and commit to a common defense of the new nation. The first ten Amendments to the Consitution, the Bill of Rights, was adopted in 1791.
Once again, God and Jesus are not mentioned in the documents. Religion is mentioned in Article VI, clause 3, stating, “… but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
Religion is once again mentioned in the First Amendment to the Constitution in the Establishment Clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”
As with the Articles, Lord is used only to designate the year in which the document was signed, “Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven…”
Even the earliest documents, including the Mayflower Compact, established that the laws of the land were to be made by man: “…in the presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together in a civil Body Politic…”
We must be mindful that not all of our Founders were happy with the notion of not having an official religion of the new nation. Patrick Henry wanted a national religion, but the writers of the Constitution and its Amendments were of the majority and we are free to practice our religion as we please, to the point of having no religion.
As the current government pushes more towards the political right and has the support of the right-wing evangelical Christians, we will have people arguing that the U.S. was founded as a Christian Nation. They are fundamentally wrong in their assessment, but should we continue to argue facts as they argue from their emotions? The simple answer to that is “yes.”
I am proud that I live in a land where I can write things that are contrary to a church’s teaching without fear of retribution, imprisonment, or death. As secular humanists, atheists and agnostics, we need to continue to respond to the false statements made by the religious right. Ours is a secular government and it needs to remain secular if we are to remain the greatest country on this planet.