The (Pagan) Declaration of Independence

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.

About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.

  • http://johnfranc.blogspot.com/ John Beckett

    “many of those feelings that led to the reawakening of Pan could have been a part of Jefferson’s life”

    Yes, exactly.  I think it’s a stretch to call the Declaration of Independence “Pagan”, but to use an evolutionary metaphor, the two have common ancestors.

    What isn’t a stretch is that the Founders could have established Christianity or one of its subgroups as a state religion.  They could have made explicit references to Jesus Christ in the DoI or in the Constitution.  In fact, they debated those ideas and they were all voted down – they actively chose to establish a secular republic.

    The results show their decision was good for Christianity (which has flourished here far more than in officially Christian nations) and good for the rest of us as well.

  • Joanne K McPortland

    While I would agree that many of the founders were Deists (and certainly more at home with Deism’s God than the God of today’s evangelical Christians, for example), no serious student of history would claim that the country was, at the time of its founding or any time thereafter, “an extremely unreligious nation.” Religions of all kinds have found shelter from persecution here (not to mention turning around and persecuting others), have flourished and waned and experienced revivals and great awakenings, have even been invented here. Not all the founders were Deists, and not all the philosophy that went into the writing of the Declaration of Independence would make Michelle Bachmann’s head explode, or anyone else’s. The intention of the founders was not to create a new secular entity (Novus Ordo Saeculorem translates “new world order,” not “new secular order”) but a new (for the Western world, anyway) political order in which the Divine right of kings yielded to the inalienable rights granted by God to all people (well, at the time, all white men), and a state-established religion yielded to the freedom to worship according to one’s conscience. The “pagans” of the time–the indigenous peoples of North America–were by no means considered a part of this new order.

    It is of course your right to rewrite the narrative, but just a couple of things to take into account: (1) Yahweh is not “the angry God of the Old Testament,” but the name of God as worshiped by Jews and Christians alike. Anger is but one of many qualities of the Divine as expressed in Scripture, and to limit the Divine to one quality would be as silly and as dismissive as if a Christian were to say (and yes, many have, but that doesn’t make it right) that all Pagan god/desses are satanic. You don’t need to set up a straw god to make your argument. (2) Your projection of Jefferson’s intent in the phrase “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” is intriguing, especially as it contrasts with the dominionist movements that deny any human responsibility for or Divine presence reflected in Creation. But I suspect a good many serious historians would have a chuckle. It’s most probable that Jefferson was referring to the long-standing Western religious and philosophical principle of Natural Law, that right order built into Creation by its Creator (whether the Deist watchmaker or the more traditional Judeo-Christian notions of God) which transcends cultural relativity and is apparent to all using reason alone, not needing verification by Divine revelation. In other words, Nature here is all that is, including humans, not the natural world apart from humans. Jefferson, an American expansionist extraordinaire, was a lot closer to the dominionists, sadly, than he was to modern Pagans. He liked his Nature stuffed or pinned to a specimen case.

    • JasonMankey

      There is a great deal of debate and speculation over church attendance in the Colonial Period, especially the Revolutionary War Period.  There are many historians who think the percentage of church goers during that period was extremely low.  Yes, America was certainly founded by Quakers and Puritans, but it was also founded by venture capitalists and land speculators.  It’s a combination of everything.  

      I write a Pagan blog for a mostly Pagan audience, the top of this article states pretty emphatically that this article is simply my interpretation.  If David Barton can argue history, so can I.  :)   Thanks for the thoughtful comments.   

    • LeohtSceadusawol

       “(1) Yahweh is not “the angry God of the Old Testament,” but the name of
      God as worshiped by Jews and Christians alike. Anger is but one of many
      qualities of the Divine as expressed in Scripture”
      Too true, he also claims to be jealous (Exodus 20:5; Deuteronomy 5:9 – this also shows how he can hold a grudge), vengeful (Genesis 4:15 – also shows ability to hold a grudge; Psalm 94:1) and prone to wrath (Exodus 32:10; Numbers 11:33).

    • WhiteBirch

       “Anger is but one of many qualities of the Divine as expressed in
      Scripture, and to limit the Divine to one quality would be as silly and
      as dismissive as if a Christian were to say (and yes, many have, but
      that doesn’t make it right) that all Pagan god/desses are satanic.”

      That’s… not really the same at all. Anger is a quality actually possessed by the Abrahamic God and accepted as part of his character by his followers. Satanic-ness is NOT a quality possessed by Pagan God/desses (except insofar as it is projected there by other religions) or acknowledged by their adherents. I don’t entirely disagree with your point. But I do disagree with your comparison.

      Good call on the Natural Law argument though, I would have said something similar myself. That’s FAR more of a political argument than a religious one in this case. Although I’d love it if Jason’s interpretation were closer to the way of it!

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    I think “Creator” is pretty gender-biased, at least linguistically–if it were speaking of a feminine being, it would have to be “Creatrix.”  And, because of the hegemony of Christianity for so long by the time this document was produced, I’m sure most people would read “Creator” and think “the Christian [g]od” just as many modern people do, and I don’t necessarily think they’re wrong in doing so, as that is one of many titles or epithets that Christianity has appropriated for its deity.  (Though I’m also tempted to suggest that the Masonic connections of some of the Founders might account for this language–they couldn’t say “Divine Architect,” which would also be more in line with deism, but “Creator” was close enough, probably.)

    However, “Divine Providence” doesn’t necessarily have to be Christian, or even Jewish.  One of the Roman deified abstractions, who appeared on coinage and elsewhere, was Providentia, the goddess of Providence.  So, that could have been understood in other ways, even by the founders, who were so influenced by Roman models it is astonishing that more people don’t realize it.

    • LeohtSceadusawol

      We are seeing less and less usage of the -rix suffix, though.

    • Sunweaver

       Linguistically, and I’m no expert here, when a noun could refer to a male or female, the default suffix or form was masculine. We didn’t really start using more inclusive language until after the 2nd wave feminist movement of the ’70′s and the tail end of it in the ’80′s. Even so, we still often default to the masculine form when there is one (since we don’t assign gender to nouns in the same way other languages do). I think it is reasonable to assume that in this instance, “Creator” could be gender-neutral.

  • Ryan

    On a marginally related note, while mentioning Swedenborg,  I would like to reccomend Henry Corbin’s book, “Sweedenborg and Esoteric Islam”, which I personally feel is quite relevant to the experience of anyone with an interest in mysticism(as Pagans often are).

  • David

    Not being American, I don’t know too much about the Founding Fathers, but, IMO, people seem to find what they want in the Mythos of the U.S. Founding Fathers. For example, Atheists look at them and find Atheist or Atheistic Fathers who wanted to create a Secular country, free “from the superstition of Europe” (itself an inherently anti-Europe belief), Evangelical Christians find Fathers who wanted to make the U.S. into a Christian nation, Pagans find Pagan or Pagan-like Fathers, and so on.

    Perhaps, it’s much like Jesus or Alexander the Great, it’s very, very difficult to separate the Myth from the historical individual, the Fathers of America are what anyone wants them to be (personally, I can’t see them as “moral”, as many owned slaves, which is wrong, regardless of what century or time period).


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