During this week of celebration, allow me to remind you of what the Declaration of Independence does and does not say.
We must begin by looking at the language used in 1776 in most, if not all, official documents. By tradition of the time, there is most always a reference to a higher power in justification for the official document, as we, today, claim that all laws are justified to protect the public.
Thomas Jefferson, a deist, did believe in a higher power, but not necessarily the God of Abraham or that Jesus of Nazareth was God’s son of a virgin birth. Proof of this is easy to discern by reading Jefferson’s rewriting of the King James Bible, a wondrous work of cut and paste, removing the supernatural and leaving, as Jefferson used as his title, simply “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.”
The letter of declaration to King George III does contain 29 complaints as reasons for declaring independence from Mother England. Many of these reasons can be found in first ten Amendments to our Constitution, written some 15 years later. These include:
- HE has erected a Multitude of new Offices, and sent hither Swarms of Officers to harrass our People, and eat out their Substance.”
- FOR quartering large Bodies of Armed Troops among us:
- FOR imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
- FOR depriving us, in many Cases, of the Benefits of Trial by Jury:
- IN every stage of these Oppressions we have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble Terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated Injury.
However, nowhere in the document does Jefferson write about the suppression of religious belief by the Crown or the need for a national religion. This is an important note to those who believe that our independence from England had something, anything,to do with the religiosity of the nation. Jefferson and those who argued and signed the Declaration of Independence did not separate themselves from the majority religion in the United States, the Church of England in all of its manifestations. Nor did they indelibly connect the new nation to any church.
The fact that many individual states maintained a “state religion” is not, in itself, a proof that the United States maintains an official Christian religious body. This does make for the argument that tradition is not a justification for laws that discriminate, but that is for another essay.
We note that Jefferson’s use of “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” is not referring to the Christian ideals of a god or gods, but of something greater and undefined. Others have defined the terminology as “something greater than man’s imagination.” The term “deist” has been misdefined by many wishing to justify a return to official state religions.
Because few have read the entire document, most Christian nation advocates neglect possible arguments found in the closing paragraph. Jefferson wrote,
“WE, therefore, the Representatives of the UNITED STATED OF AMERICA, in GENERAL CONGRESS, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the Rectitude of our Intentions…”
Once again, Jefferson was not referring to the Christian god or gods, but to a different power. Some have suggested that it is the greater power alluded to in the second
This same argument can be made for the final sentence of the Declaration, where Jefferson wrote, “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.”paragraph. Still others the power of the greater good as seen in the change of American morals towards independence and the “Supreme Judge” refers directly to the majority of the American colonists.
In his writings before and after the Declaration, Jefferson maintained a language that separated his vision of providence and that of his Christian neighbors. This cannot be more evident that the partisan anti-Jefferson newspaper reports claiming that if elected President in 1800, Jefferson would close all churches. It is a fact that until his death, Jefferson for the most part maintain his deistic position and his belief in the separation of Church and State.
As we celebrate this Fourth of July, we are also celebrating that in the eyes of the American people, “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.”
To accomplish that singular goal, the government must remain secular.
(A bit of trivia about the document. John Hancock wrote his name larger and centered not to be flamboyant, but because the King was nearsighted and Hancock wanted to make the King could read his signature.)