Acton Commentary

The Scandal of Our Declaration of Independence


Would our Founding Fathers have filed an amicus curiae brief in the recent Ohio suit to eliminate the words "With God, All Things Are Possible" from the state motto? The Federal Appeals Court that heard the case ruled that the motto indeed passes constitutional muster, but that might not stop litigious secularists that pore over the misunderstandings of original intent from appealing the case to the Supreme Court.

As we celebrate the 225th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence this week, it is appropriate to ask: Did the Founding Fathers intend to eradicate God from human events and historical documents, or did they mean something different from the modern dogmatic version of church and state separation?

Some people, still parroting outdated information and antiquated party lines, might genuflect and chant, "Yes, strip down any vestiges of religious language. Public faith is prohibited by the Declaration and other constitutional acts of America’s founders." New evidence and recent studies, however, suggest that the Founding Fathers, both in the Declaration and through numerous other acts, favored the separation of jurisdictions while not advocating the erection of a brutal iron curtain between faith and politics.

Those who favor such a wall of separation might find it scandalous that the Declaration of Independence exhibits at least five themes that grew from a religious incubator.

(1) It refers to the transcendent basis for government in the two opening sections. Our Declaration not only roots itself in the providence of human events, but it also grounds the powers of government in transcultural and universal notions as provided by the "laws of Nature and of Nature’s God " [emphasis added]. That the Declaration is more than mere Deism—which might be in question had the wording contained only "the laws of Nature"—is seen with the addition of the crucial phrase "and of Nature’s God." The authors could have—and many moderns likely would have—simply omitted any reference to theological notions as possible First Amendment violations; however, they thought such transcendent notions were essential for intelligibility among their countrymen—and also necessary for providing the best possible apology for the coming revolution.

Further, the authors confessed that the self-evident rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were inalienable rights endowed by their creator. God is not only transcendent in the Declaration; he is also the creator and donor of human rights. God is the guarantor of civil conditions, and, as the universal creator, he gives certain liberties, which transcend geographical barriers. The penultimate paragraph of the Declaration refers to "the Supreme Judge of the World," who, at the time and in the original intent, most likely referred to the God of various Calvinistic theologies.

(2) The Declaration then moves to discuss derived powers, which stem from the consent of the governed. Oxford historian Jonathan Clark’s recent The Language of Liberty 1660–1832 contains a defense that the "consent of the governed" idea is properly derived from the covenant theology of the late sixteenth century. In this context, the Declaration refers to "the right of the People to alter or abolish" an existing government. A principled right to revolt arose on the foundation of Swiss pilgrims—Theodore Beza, John Ponet, and John Knox. Three times the Declaration refers to tyrant or tyranny—verbally shadowing the 1579 Vindication against the Tyrants .

(3) Another early modern treatise is recalled as the Declaration condemns "absolute Despotism" and calls citizens to their "duty" to overthrow a king who would not submit to a higher law. Echoes of Samuel Rutherford’s Lex Rex , a work that illustrates how God’s authority supersedes that of earthly rulers, are heard in the call for King George III to reside under the law. Rutherford had earlier written that the king is not above the law, and he must serve the people who have entrusted him with authority.

(4) Separated powers and checks and balances are mandated by this scandalous Declaration. One of the condemnations of British rule was the litany of items where the king had abused his power. According to the Declaration, he made judges dependent on his own will (including their pay); he created new Offices, which became "Swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance; and he imposed Standing armies." These and other abuses are instances of non-separation of powers. When absolute power, as so many election-day sermons and tracts argued in early eighteenth-century America, is lodged in a single individual, checks and balances are minimized. Ingrained in the homilies of the time was the notion that, due to the fall of man and the transmission of sin to each generation, the accrual of power to one or an elite was to be vigilantly resisted.

(5) Minimal government is called for in the last paragraph. Such small-scale governments—in contrast to the opulent (and often oppressive) mammoth medieval monarchies—were one of the most enduring contributions of Christian ideals to the modern world.

On the afternoon of July 4, 1776, Congress also appointed a committee that included Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson to design a fitting national emblem. The first proposed seal (which ultimately was not adopted) featured this motto borrowed from Reformation political thought: "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God." Modern congresses, unaware of our heritage, might be bullied into stripping the references to "obedience to God." Of course, Franklin and Jefferson—courageous enough to face down zealous devotees of secularism—even approved a graphic for the seal depicting a scene from the Book of Exodus, complete with Moses, pillar of fire, and George III cast as Pharaoh. That was real independence.

Further, over the next decade, Congress itself would proclaim eight fast days and nine days of thanksgiving; each proclamation sported significant theological content.

The Declaration and other documents from the period make one thing clear: Our Founding Fathers were not religion-phobic.

Facts are stubborn things. So are the meanings of words from earlier contexts. These telltale words betray a close affinity between faith and politics, a balance that the state motto of Ohio calls us to remember.

On this Independence Day, it is nice to recall the courage of our Founding Fathers, who were independent enough to confess their faith in public arenas.