American Conservatives, and especially Evangelical Christians on the right, have a tendency to claim “ownership” of America’s Founding Fathers and the documents they wrote. Any serious student of American History laughs at such claims, many of the Founding Fathers were deists* and America during the Revolutionary War Period was an extremely unreligious nation. Those who write the narrative control the narrative, but today I’m writing the narrative, and where Evangelicals see a Declaration of Independence full of references to God and Jesus, I see a document expressing Pagan religious beliefs.
There are only three religious references in the DoI, and none of them mention Jesus, and only once is the word “God,” used, and even that usage is very untraditional. Most of us are familiar with the DoI, but a lot of our familiarity with it comes from opinion and analysis designed to fit a certain narrative. While reading it this morning I was struck by how much the DoI echoes modern Pagan thought, and how that might make Michelle Bachmann’s head explode.
Of the three references to the Divine in the DoI, two of them are in the document’s first paragraph/sentence:
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
Hmmm . . . Laws of Nature? Capitalized Laws of Nature no less!?!? Modern Paganism is ruled by the Laws of Nature. Our holidays are dictated by the turn of the seasons, our lives governed by the idea that we are a part of nature and not apart from it. Compare this to the Evangelical Creed ripped from the book of Genesis:
“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
That horrible misunderstanding of one little verse in Genesis has created generations of individuals who feel as if they have no responsibility to take care of the Earth. A document extolling “The Laws of Nature” and “Nature’s God” seems to imply that our Founding Fathers revered Nature, and would have wanted us to take care of it.
The one reference to God in the DoI is not a traditional one, but a specific ode to “Nature’s God.” It’s impossible to determine exactly what Thomas Jefferson meant by including Nature, but this is obviously not the angry Yahweh of the Old Testament. Nature’s God doesn’t sound like a deity giving “dominion” to human beings over every natural thing upon the Earth.
The metaphor of Jesus as shepherd is a bit more “Nature’s Godish,” but it doesn’t quite fit the bill. The Pagan part of me wants to make Jefferson’s “Nature’s God” into an early Pan/Pagan prototype, but the timing is off. Pan didn’t really re-awaken until the early 19th Century, three decades after the DoI, and in Great Britain. However, many of those feelings that led to the reawakening of Pan could have been a part of Jefferson’s life. To many, the theology of Christianity does not fill the need for a deity that is truly a part of nature, Nature’s God could express the desire for a natural deity that brings balance and justice, all within the “Laws of Nature.”
The last reference to deity in the DoI might be the most well known:
“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.”
Creator is obviously a reference to deity, but it is obviously not a reference to Jehovah. Creator is gender neutral, the cosmic matrix could be either male or female. The use of the term Creator states a belief in a higher power, but it does not define that higher power, nor does it endorse any higher power. That Creator could be the Great Goddess, or Jesus, or Allah, the Founding Fathers in their wisdom did not endorse a particular “god” for their new nation.
There is one rather seemingly explicit Christian reference at the end of document (added against the wishes of Jefferson), where the phrase “Divine Providence” is used:
“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.”
(Divine) Providence generally refers to the actions of deity in the world. It’s not exclusive to Christianity in any way. There are several references to providence in Jewish writings, and was the title of a book by Christian mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg** published in 1764. Even this most “Christian” of references can be looked at as something far more inclusive and tolerant than the Evangelical Right would have us believe. Besides, if the Continental Congress had wanted to put “Jesus” in the DoI, they would have done so.
While many will try to warp the ideas of Jefferson and the Continental Congress this Independence Day by weaving Jesus and the Old Testament into a document they are absent from, I will celebrate my country’s birthday by praising “Nature’s God,” and thanking Jefferson for making religious freedom and tolerance a part of this country from the very beginning. Have a great Fourth of July everybody!
*Deism in a nutshell: there is a God, that God created the universe, and then left that universe to its own devices.
**While I won’t say that Swedenborg had a huge influence on Modern Paganism, he’s had a huge impact on the “New Age” movement in general and was an influence on Christian Spiritualism and other “heretical” Christian movements. Also Johnny Appleseed was a Swedenborgian, and I love me some Johnny Appleseed.