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The Declaration of Independence and God

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People occasionally debate the degree to which the Declaration of Independence relies on religious references. The familiar “their Creator,” in “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” and “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” near the beginning of the Declaration refer to God; but some argue that it just refers to a “watchmaker God” who set up the universe — and a natural order from which natural rights are inferred — and then left it alone.

But this misses, I think, the less well-known phrase that starts the last paragraph: “We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions ….” (The last paragraph also speaks of “a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.”)

This isn’t just God as Creator — it’s God as Judge, who apparently isn’t leaving the world alone but is judging it. It needn’t be seen as limited to a specifically Christian, or even Judeo-Christian God, but (unsurprisingly) it seems to be tracking at least two of that god’s major attributes.

It’s also worth recalling that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which Jefferson drafted a year later, included similarly religious language. As introduced in 1779, it read (emphasis added),

Well aware that the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds; that Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time. …

This doesn’t refer to God the Judge (though it doesn’t deny that theory, either), but does speak not just of God the Creator but of God the Almighty, God the Holy, and God the Lord Both of Body and Mind — words of reverence to a God who is present in people’s lives, and not just one who made the world a long time ago. (The three accomplishments that Jefferson asked to be listed on his epitaph were that he was “Author of the Declaration of American Independence,” author “of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom,” and “Father of the University of Virginia.”)

Now what Jefferson actually believed can be contested. Lawyers and politicians often craft persuasive arguments that are aimed at fitting the audience’s beliefs, even if they depart in some measure from the speaker’s own. But it does, I think, help indicate just how pervasive religious language was in governmental documents of the time — and how legitimate such language was seen as being — including in documents drafted even by Jefferson himself, who is often seen as one of the more religion-skeptical leaders of that era. I myself am not religious, but it’s hard for me to deny that the Framing generation was quite comfortable with not just religious but even theological rhetoric in government speech.

How much this — and other evidence like it — should influence our modern view about what the Establishment Clause allows or forbids by way of religious government speech is a complicated matter. But if one thinks that historical practice is at all relevant here, then it’s worth remembering not just the opening lines of the Declaration but its closing ones as well.

UPDATE: I originally focused on “the Creator” from the beginning of the Declaration, since “Nature’s God” seemed to me to be much in the same vein; but a comment persuaded that I should expressly mention both, so I revised the post accordingly. I also added the “divine Providence” passage, likewise for the sake of completeness.