Equality, Deism and Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence

A long-running feature of America’s “culture wars” is the Religious Right’s assertion that the United States is a Christian nation founded on Christian principles. Unfortunately for them the Constitution does not invoke “God” (though Christians sometimes point in desperation to a mere dating convention, the signatures being dated “In the Year of our Lord”). The authority for the constitution is not God, it is “We the people”. This is not a top-down authority from an anointed King ruling by Divine Right, it is a bottom-up authority, the idea that legitimate government arises from the “consent of the governed”.

Contrary to Religious Right claims, God’s absence in the constitution was not an oversight — reference to God was not something regarded as too obvious to need stating — it was considered and deliberate. We’re told, by Luther Martin, Attorney General of Maryland and delegate to the Constitutional Convention, that those regarding the United States as a “Christian nation” were an unfashionable minority who did not prevail and were outvoted by the “great majority”. Reporting back to Maryland Legislature he commented on Article 6:

The part of the system which provides, that no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States, was adopted by a great majority of the convention, and without much debate; however, there were some members so unfashionable as to think, that a belief of the existence of a Deity, and of a state of future rewards and punishments would be some security for the good conduct of our rulers, and that, in a Christian country, it would be at least decent to hold out some distinction between the professors of Christianity and downright infidelity or paganism. [Farrand’s Records–CLVIII. Luther Martin: Genuine Information.3]

The tenor of the times can also be seen in the Treaty of Tripoli of 1797, ratified unanimously by the US Senate and signed by President John Adams. It begins:

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 Mussulmen [Muslims]

Given the absence of God in the Constitution, Christians instead point to the Declaration of Independence, the nation’s “birth certificate”. Noting the religious language of the Declaration they claim that it derives rights from God, and therefore founds the US as a nation “under God” — as Lincoln likely did not say at Gettysburg (given that the phrase occurs neither in the Nicolay copy, from which he likely read the speech, nor the Hay copy, the only other copy that Lincoln wrote close to the event, and given also that the disruption to the rhythm of the phrase “that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom” is a sign of a third-party addition).

In “What’s so great about Christianity” (2007), Dinesh D’Souza claims that: “Jefferson asserted his proposition of human equality as both ‘self-evident’ and a gift from God”, and asserts that the concept of human equality is a Christian one. Is this a fair interpretation of the Declaration of Independence? The Declaration was, of course, largely written by Jefferson, who was a deist rather than a Christian. He did not regard Jesus as divine, saying:

I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other.
[1803 April 21 letter to Benjamin Rush; emphasis in original.]

Jefferson regarded much of the New Testament as a distortion of Jesus’s teaching by Paul and others, and regarded the supernatural elements of the Gospels as myth-making. His “Jefferson Bible” cut out (literally!) all such material leaving only Jesus’s humanistic teachings.

As a Deist, Jefferson regarded “God” as a remote and largely un-knowable entity which didn’t concern itself directly with human affairs. Indeed he advised his young nephew, Peter Carr, to “Question with boldness even the existence of a god” (letter 1787 August 10).

jefferson

Jefferson wrote the draft of the Declaration, and took it to the committee of five to which the Continental Congress had delegated the writing. Several amendments were made, some attributed to John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, some being made against Jefferson’s wishes.

Jefferson’s original draft is worth reading, partly because it uses less religious language than the final wording. The idea that rights are “endowed by their Creator” is instead stated as the rights deriving “from that equal creation”. As well as there being no “Creator” there is no “Supreme Judge” of the world and no “divine Providence” (and their absence from Jefferson’s draft tells us that these phrases were not fundamental to his intent).

dec-indep-top

The one religious phrase that does appear in both is the reference to “nature’s god”. The first part of the rough draft is:

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for a people to advance from that subordination in which they have hitherto remained, & to assume among the powers of the earth the equal & independant station to which the laws of nature & 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 change.

We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independant, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed …

What did Jefferson mean by basing equality on “the laws of nature and of nature’s god”? This phrase “nature’s god” is characteristic of the deism of the times, it does not refer to a personal god involving itself with humans, but to a more remote nature’s god, the ultimate origin of nature of which humans knew little.

John Adams (2nd president) wrote in a letter to Jefferson (1813 Sep 14):

We can never be so certain of any prophecy, or the fulfilment of any prophecy, or of any miracle, or the design of any miracle, as we are from the revelation of nature, that is, nature’s God, that two and two are equal to four.

“Nature’s god” here is to be learned about from the study of nature, from science, and not from religious prophecy and miracles. The same interpretation is in Tom Paine’s “A Discourse At The Society Of Theophilanthropists” (1818):

As to that which is called nature, it is no other than the laws by which motion and action of every kind, with respect to unintelligible matter, is regulated. And when we speak of looking through nature up to Nature’s God, we speak philosophically the same rational language as when we speak of looking through human laws up to the power that ordained them. God is the power of first cause, nature is the law, and matter is the subject acted upon.

Nature’s “god” is the ultimate first cause, which set nature into motion, and which we can learn about, not by religious revelation, but by the scientific study of nature and nature’s laws. Regarding the ultimate origin, of “nature’s god”, Jefferson himself wrote: “Of the nature of this being we know nothing.” (Letter to John Adams, 1823 April 11).

The Deists accepted nature’s “god” as too remote to know much about, but regarded the correct approach as the pursuit of science, studying nature to “look through nature up to” nature’s god, and they contrasted this with the pretense of knowing through the revelation of holy books, which they regarded as “artificial”. As Paine wrote in “Of the word Religion”:

When, therefore, we look through nature up to nature’s God, we are in the right road of happiness, but when we trust to books as the Word of God, and confide in them as revealed religion, we are afloat on the ocean of uncertainty, and shatter into contending factions. Therefore the term `natural religion’ explains itself to be divine religion, and the term `revealed religion’ involves in it the suspicion of being artificial.

So why did Jefferson derive human rights from our “equal creation” by the “laws of nature & of nature’s god”? To understand an argument it is often illuminating to consider what it is arguing against. And in this case Jefferson was arguing against the Divine Right of Kings, as most eloquently stated a little later by Edmund Burke in his “Reflections on the Revolution in France”. Burke argued that the French were usurping the authority of their king, which was derived from God (the Divine Right of Kings). In this view authority flows:

God   =>  King  =>  government  =>  subjects

In the American context this would have made the American colonists subject to the English King, who had a divinely ordained station as their legitimate ruler. Jefferson’s Declaration (and as expounded at much greater length in Paine’s later “Rights of Man”) rejected this view.

Thus, the whole point of the Declaration was a rejection of the view that a theist god, a personal god who cared about humans, had gone around endowing rights and determining how human affairs should be ordered. No god had created men as subject to a king.

Given that, what was the alternative? Well, man came from nature, and there was nothing in nature placing one man above any other, so all men were equal, not subject to any other. Thus any government was only valid if freely entered into as a compact between citizens. In this view the only legitimate government authority is “the consent of the governed”, and authority runs:

{first cause}  =>  nature  =>  humans  =>  government

So that’s why Jefferson worded the Declaration as he did — he was removing divine authority from the picture and emphasizing the natural rights of man as equal products of nature (and ultimately of a remote “first cause”).

This had two implications. First, given that the “first cause” didn’t concern itself much with Earthly affairs, human morals and the right form of Government were things that humans had to work out for themselves. That is why the constitution made no reference to any deity, instead deriving from “We the people”.

we_people

Second, in this scenario the government was not placed between man and the deist god (whereas in the Divine Right scenario government was indeed placed between God and men). Hence government had no business interfering with anyone’s relationship with their god — and hence followed the separation of church and state (a phrase that Jefferson also originated).

Tom Paine, whose best-selling “Common Sense” had been published earlier that 1776 year, setting the scene for American independence and strongly influencing the Declaration, later summed the whole thing up in his “Rights of Man”:

But what we now see in the world, from the Revolutions of America and France, are a renovation of the natural order of things, a system of principles as universal as truth and the existence of man, and combining moral with political happiness and national prosperity.

I. Men are born and always continue free, and equal in respect of their rights. Civil distinctions, therefore, can be founded only on public utility.

[…]

III. The Nation is essentially the source of all Sovereignty; nor can any individual, or any body of men, be entitled to any authority which is not expressly derived from it.

It is striking that this puts the emphasis on the natural rights of man, not on any Creator. People didn’t need any standing or permission to decide their government, they were born free and equal.

Thus Jefferson’s reference to “nature and nature’s God” is in opposition to the concept of God-allocated rights (in which it would be a matter of determining, from revealed religion, who the theist God had appointed as sovereign).

Thus one cannot derive the idea that the nation is “under God” from the Declaration since in Deist thought “god” was too distant to be a controlling or influencing force — all that humans could perceive of such a “god” was the natural world accessible via science — and at most the nation would be distantly derived from a first-cause “god” at the third remove.

Putting the emphasis on “under God” is exactly the opposite emphasis to what Jefferson was intending; he put the emphasis on the natural rights of man. The idea that patriotism requires a belief in a theistic God is not supported by the Declaration (and even less by the Constitution).

Update: Matthew Stuart has written a book called Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic., which greatly adds to the above account of “nature’s god”, showing that many of the Founding Fathers of America were deists.

As a snippet, Stuart writes about Dr. Thomas Young, who was the person who came up with the idea for the original tea party in Boston Harbor, thus triggering the American Revolution. Dr Young called his creed “the religion of nature” and “the religion of nature’s God”. Stuart summarises Young’s views as:

There is no other world, no heaven but the starry sky above, no hell but the fictions that other people create. There is a deity, worthy of great praise, but it acts only according to reason and through the laws of nature. It has no need for holy books, prophets or priests. It is ultimately indistinguishable from its creation: nature itself. The study of nature, or science, is the only acceptable form of worship.

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4 thoughts on “Equality, Deism and Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence

  1. Joe Keysor

    As a conservative Christian who believes in the literal truth of the Bible, I have to say that I have long considered Jefferson to be very far from Christianity. The fact that he brought out his own Bible – the Jefferson Bible with all parts he disagreed with removed – should be all anyone needs to know. There are many other instances to show that he and Washington were not Bible believing Christians.

    Secondly, I believe there has never been a Christian nation. Jesus said “Straight is the gate and narrow is the way that leads to life and few there be that find it.” It says in I John that the whole world lies in darkness. To say “America’s alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears” was ridiculous even at the time it was first written.

    At the same time, Christianity was the dominant religion, sincerely believed in by many people, and it did have a large influence that the founders were always mindful of – but that was a long time ago. The fact that America used to be much more religious and Christianity used to be much more influential once upon a time is really irrelevant now as America is moving farther and faster away from traditional Christianity. Even many Christians are moving away from traditional Christianity.

    Finally, ancient Israel under David and Solomon was much more godly than America ever was, yet later God destroyed it because of its wickedness.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      The fact that America used to be much more religious and Christianity used to be much more influential once upon a time is really irrelevant now as America is moving farther and faster away from traditional Christianity.

      Hi Joe,

      American religiosity has gone in waves. At the time it was founded it seems to have been much less Christian than now (as you say, Jefferson and Washington were not really Christians, neither were the two Adams presidents nor Madison). Then Christianity become much more important through the Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s.

      It seems to me that Christianity in the US is currently at another peak, with rates of church-going and influence in politics vastly above those in other First World countries. That influence might decline from where it is now, but it is still very much at a peak.

  2. Anne Baker

    The influence of religion on American politics and policy-making is alarming to those of us on the outside looking in. If Americans are dissatisfied with the direction the country is going in, they should look to the regressive thinking of the religious right and their disproportionate influence

    Reply
  3. Dan M

    This is really a terrific post. I consider myself pretty well versed in American history, but I really learned a lot by reading it! I’m flattered that a Briton would take such an interest in the American founding.

    Reply

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