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The Declaration of Independence—A Christian Document?

Is America a Christian nation? Some Christians eagerly point to the word “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence (1776) as evidence:

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.

Who is this “Creator”? Is it Yahweh, the Christian god? Is it a placeholder into which you can imagine any god so that Muslims can imagine Allah or Hindus can imagine Brahma?

No—the opening sentence clarifies: it’s not Yahweh but “Nature’s God.” At the time, this phrase was understood as the deist god of Enlightenment philosophers like Spinoza and Voltaire. Deism was popular in Revolutionary America, and Franklin, Jefferson, Washington, and other founding fathers were either deists or inspired by the movement. Deism imagines a hands-off god, a creator who, once the clock is built and wound up, leaves it to tick by itself.

The role of this “Creator” is clarified in the Declaration:

Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

In other words, the Creator has no role in government. We’ve turned our back on the divine right of kings, where the king was God’s representative who served at God’s pleasure. God isn’t the foundation on which authority rests. No—it’s the consent of the governed. The buck stops here, which is very empowering.

Remember that the purpose of the Declaration was to inform Britain that the colonies wanted to become independent. When government becomes abusive, the recourse isn’t to appeal to God:

Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Again, we see that the government rules at the pleasure of the people, not God.

While the Declaration of Independence doesn’t give Christians what they may imagine it does—an acknowledgement of the existence of the Christian god and his sovereignty over this country—this exercise is largely irrelevant. The Declaration isn’t the supreme law of the United States. That’s the Constitution, and it’s secular. Like the Declaration, it makes clear where the buck stops. In huge letters, it begins, We the People.

Watch out for Christian revisionist historians bringing up the Declaration. They’d bring up the Constitution, the document that actually matters, if they could. But they know they can’t, and that’s the white flag of surrender.

I think of myself as a militant agnostic:
I don’t know, and you don’t either.
— Michael Shermer

(This is a modified version of a post that originally appeared 2/10/12.)

Photo credit: Wikimedia

About Bob Seidensticker

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