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Politics Declaration of Independence Copy Up for Sale

Published on March 13th, 2012 | by Daulton Dickey

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Does the Declaration of Independence Establish America as a Christian Nation?

In public discourse, when questions of separation of church and state arise, the Declaration of Independence is inevitably drawn into the conversation. This document, we’re told, includes overtly religious language, therefore helping to establish America as a Christian nation. 

“The Declaration of Independence is the official and unequivocal recognition by the American people of our belief and faith in God,” wrote Phyllis Schlafly  (“America’s Great Religious Document”; 7.08.2010, Human Events) “It affirms God’s existence as a ‘self-evident’ truth that requires no further discussion, debate or litigation.

“The nation created by the great Declaration is God’s country.  The rights it defines are God-given. The actions of its signers are God-inspired.”

In 2010, Pastor Peter Lillback, the President of Westminster Theological Seminary, told CBN (“Is America Really a Christian Nation?”, Paul Strand), “It’s absolutely clear our founders did not want to separate God and government. The Declaration of Independence on four occasions refers to God and that created our government.”

The question confronting us is that of America as a ‘Christian nation.’ Some argue the affirmative by quoting the so-called “Founding Fathers” on matters of religion; others emphasize the religious affiliations of those who signed the Declaration and the United States Constitution; some point to an act by the Continental Congress in 1776, when they printed and distributed 20,000 Bibles.

If you’re making an argument in support of the claim that America is a Christian nation, then the above ‘evidence’ depends entirely on how you define “Christian nation,” a phrase that can be interpreted two ways: (1), a polity whose political institutions rely on Christian doctrines as legal precedence in the formulation, ratification, and codification of legislation; and, (2), a society composed of a Christian majority.

It is important to keep these distinctions in mind—(1) is a political argument; (2) is a social argument. Those who cite the Declaration of Independence in favor of (1) do so for demagogic reasons. On its own, the Declaration doesn’t confirm (1).

When considering the “Founding Fathers” or the Declaration of Independence, you should keep in mind that this is a political paper—not a legal document. The differences are not minor: one is a logically structured instrument, sometimes used to appeal to the emotions of the masses, to the so-called ‘herd instinct,’ or to political opponents, while assuming the form of a logical argument; the other is a logical argument composed entirely of neutral language, ratified and codified only if it doesn’t conflict with existing laws.

Signing the Declaration of Independence

Signing the Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence doesn’t possess the force of law. To note an example, the phrase, “all men are created equal” is a powerful statement, but in the United States it cannot be cited as legal precedence. Judges can’t cite this phrase by itself to support a ruling. Politicians can’t pass laws by employing a legal argument supported solely by this passage.

That’s not to suggest that lawyers or legislators, public orators or politicians don’t cite this passage—many do; but when they cite it, they’re doing it for demagogic reasons: they’re appealing to the emotions when citing that, or similar passages, from the Declaration of Independence.

But by law, it can’t be cited as legal precedent. Judges, especially Supreme Court Justices, can and do cite these passages when attempting to discern the ‘intentions’ of the ‘framers of the constitution,’ but they can’t cite these passages as themselves establishing rights. In some cases, legal problems may be so obscure or outside what has been anticipated that Judges sometimes consult a wide range of evidence meant to establish the intentions of those who wrote laws. From this pool of evidence, they attempt to infer a conclusion to the argument they’re obligated to form.

—But doesn’t the language show that the “Founding Fathers” intended to establish the United States of America as a Christian Nation, in the political sense?

Although most colonists were Christian, no single sect claimed authoritative dominance.  Of the signers of the Declaration, 54% were Episcopalian/Anglican, 23% were Congregationalist, 21% were Presbyterian, 3% were Quakers, 3% were Unitarian or Universalist, and 1% were Catholics—and some, such as Thomas Jefferson, within these groupings overtly expressed Deistic understandings of God and His role in the universe.

The men who signed the Declaration adhered to different sects, understanding Christianity—and Christian doctrines—in profoundly different ways. Among those who scribbled their names, exegetical opinions varied; that they agreed on broad themes of Christianity probably wouldn’t have tempered heated arguments had they attempted to base a political system on explicitly Christian values.

We should also bear in mind the tenor of the age in which they lived, and the thinkers who inspired them: the Declaration of Independence was written in a period we refer to as the Enlightenment, a time in which thinkers like Montesquieu and Hobbes, Mill and Locke laid the foundations of secular thinking—although couched in religious language and theology. One philosopher, John Locke, an influence on Jefferson—and specifically on the political philosophy expressed in the Declaration of Independence—challenged many Christian doctrines, laying the foundations for Deism, a religious philosophy without a belief in a personal God who intervenes in human affairs.

If we turn our attention to the religious language used in the Declaration, we can discern an interesting pattern. Of the approximately 1400-words in the document, only a handful were dedicated to religious ideas: “The Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions,” and, “with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.”

This is broad language designed to appeal to people of all denominations and religious affiliations, included in the document for rhetorical purposes—to establish moral sanctions for independence and appeal to the emotions of the people, some of whom professed allegiance to non-Christian theologies such as Judaism.

It’s worth noting that although the arguments employed in the Declaration draw on religious language, the list of grievances designed to criticize King George III’s political policies toward the colonies do not mention religion.

The absence of politico-religious grievances in the document invites several conclusions, of which we’ll focus on two: (1), religious tolerance under the Monarchy was exceptional and invited no substantive criticisms; or, (2), the absence of politico-religious grievances articulated a reasoned approach to politics and religion: the latter could provide moral justifications on which to base some political actions, such as a declaration of independence, without requiring the language and concepts to influence other political actions, such as legislation.

In short, a distinction between what we’d call church and state is implicitly drawn by relegating religious language entirely to emotional appeals. This distinction, it seems, is largely overlooked in discourse on the religiosity of the Declaration of Independence.

—Can’t the courts, including the Supreme Court, use this language to infer the intentions of the men who signed the document?

On obscure matters, yes. But not in broad religious matters.

The Declaration of Independence is not a legal document. That is worth repeating. The laws of the United States are based on the Constitution and its Amendments. To understand the intentions of the “Founding Fathers” in the establishment of a form of government, we need to turn to the Constitution, which explicitly delineates the role of religion in the American political system.

Article VI of the Constitution, which focuses on “Debts, Supremacy, Oaths,” states:

“All Debts contracted and Engagements entered into, before the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be as valid against the United States under this Constitution, as under the Confederation.

“This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.

“The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

This Article is important for two reasons—it establishes the Constitution and satellite documents and agreements, not the Declaration of Independence or the Old or New Testament as “the supreme Law of the Land”; and it insists that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

Language is important, and in this Article the language chosen is definite and unequivocal: “no religious Test shall ever be required[…]” [emphasis added.]

Adopted in 1791, the First Amendment to the Constitution included the establishment clause, which reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof […]” This language is not ambiguous; it establishes unequivocal neutrality: congress cannot make laws in favor of or against religion.

Eight years after the adoption of the Constitution—and six years after the adoption of the First Amendment—a well-known document attained the force of law. The so-called Treaty of Tripoli was ratified and signed into law to establish a friendship between the United States and Tripoli. Article 11 of the Treaty makes it worth noting here:  “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen,-and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

“[…]the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion[…]” This is a document written and passed during the lifetime of most “Founding Fathers” and, in accordance with Article VI of the Constitution, was—in their lifetimes—one of the documents defined as “the supreme Law of the Land.”

—But what about the quotes we used to open this article, samples of Christian interpretations of the Declaration?

According to Phyllis Schlafly, “The Declaration of Independence is the official and unequivocal recognition by the American people of our belief and faith in God. It affirms God’s existence as a ‘self-evident’ truth that requires no further discussion, debate or litigation.

“The nation created by the great Declaration is God’s country.  The rights it defines are God-given. The actions of its signers are God-inspired.”

Pastor Peter Lillback said, “It’s absolutely clear our founders did not want to separate God and government. The Declaration of Independence on four occasions refers to God and that created our government.”

Both arguments seem to operate under the assumption that the Declaration is a legal document, which, as we have shown, it is not. Of the two definitions of “Christian Nation” that we established at the outset of this article, we can say that Phyllis Schlafly’s argument falls in line with our second—social—definition.

While Pastor Peter Lillback attempted to establish the first—political—definition of “Christian nation,” his argument is based on a false premise: that the Declaration of Independence “created our government”—it didn’t; the Declaration made it possible for the colonists to establish a government; the Articles of Confederation and, later, the Constitution, “created our government.”

On broad matters of religion, the United States Constitution is not quiet: legislation must remain neutral on religious matters and political candidates can never be required to submit to any form of “religious test.” These two points establish the American form of government—a “Republican form of Government,” Article IV, Section 4—as an explicitly secular system. Add to it the Treaty of Tripoli, which had the force of law, the American government cannot be construed as being “in any sense founded on the Christian religion.”

Of our two definitions of “Christian Nation”—political or social—we cannot conclude that the language embedded in the Declaration of Independence served as a catalyst to establish the United States of America as an explicitly Christian political system. Given the nature of the language used in the Declaration and the language used in the Constitution and the Treaty of Tripoli, we can conclude that, although we can discount the notion of America as a Christian polity, we can’t exclude the role of religion in culture and society—and the founders of this nation didn’t exclude the role of religion in society; but they prohibited it from affecting the laws of this nation.

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About the Author

Daulton Dickey is a freak carving out his niche in a freak kingdom. He makes no apologies for it. As a writer, he’s annoyed people for several years by contributing to several prominent websites, magazines, and literary journals. His recent thoughts and writings can be found here: http://nonobsense.blogspot.com/



One Response to Does the Declaration of Independence Establish America as a Christian Nation?

  1. Tope says:

    Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any nation.

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