Independence Day is a time of reflection and contemplation. One of the most common ways we do this is by reflecting on the document that lays out for us what it means to be an American: the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence is one of the most important documents in the history of the United States. Writing and signing the Declaration of Independence took courage and was an important step in the founding of our Government.
One of the most recognized passages from the Declaration is “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.” The inspiring words of the Declaration were revolutionary then and remain so today. A topic of debate that often comes up around July 4th and related to the Declaration is the founders view on religion. Scholars trained in research universities have generally argued that the majority of the Founders were religious rationalists or Unitarians. Pastors and other writers who identify as Evangelicals often claim not only that most of the Founders held orthodox beliefs but also that some were born-again Christians.
This debate often brings up the question: Is the Declaration of Independence a Christian document? To uncover this, we should take a closer look at the backgrounds and beliefs of the founding fathers, in addition to the goal of the Declaration.
The founders came from similar religious backgrounds. Most were Protestants. The largest number were raised in the three largest Christian traditions of colonial America – Anglicanism, Presbyterianism and Congregationalism. Other Protestant groups included the Society of Friends (Quakers), the Lutherans and the Dutch Reformed. Did the founders private beliefs differ from the orthodox teachings of their churches? In some cases, yes. Most were baptized, listed on church rolls, married to practicing Christians and attended public worship. But the widespread existence in 18th-century America of a school of religious thought called Deism complicates the actual beliefs of the founding fathers.
Deism draws from the scientific and philosophical work of figures like Jean-Jacque Rousseau, Isaac Newton and John Locke. Deists argued that human experience and rationality, rather than religious dogma determine the validity of human beliefs. Deism subverted orthodox Christianity. Those influenced by the movement had little reason to read the Bible, pray, attend church or participate in church rites such as baptism and Holy Communion. Deistic thought was very popular in colleges from the middle of the 18th into the 19th century and influenced many men of the Revolutionary generation. Although orthodox Christianity was an influence, Deism also influenced a majority of the founding fathers.
Looking back at the passage which states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…” These words are extraordinary for a number of reasons. First, they tell an important story about how the founding fathers viewed religion. The founders were not secularists. They believed in God. The inalienable rights of man which was the principle at the very center of the Declaration were not a humanistic notion or abstract ideal; they were a gift from the Creator of humankind. The morality of the founders was rooted in religion and they were convinced that the morality of the people depended on religious life.
At the same time, the founders didn’t want the government to be an agent of religion. Because of this, they refused to use Christian images. The founding fathers authored the First Amendment, a display of our religious freedoms. While the Declaration mentions God, the Constitution doesn’t.
The founders had a view of religion that was quite complicated. They knew that keeping religion and politics in proper balance would require vigilance and they opposed any form of government sanction for religion. They also didn’t want to banish religion from public life altogether and they were ready to invoke God in a way that was unifying, but not divisive. God was a principle of the declaration.
While faith played into the foundation of our nation, Christianity was not at the center. Religious freedom was. The Declaration of Independence is not a truly Christian document. The Declaration did draw on Biblical precedent. Genesis 1:27 tells us, “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” The Declaration affirms that every single American is deserving of dignity, respect and equal rights. The Declaration tells us how God created us. Given these rights are “inalienable” they are not subject to change. We are all created equal and entitled to respect, along with rights, not just to certain people based on race, gender, class or sexual-orientation, but to all.
Many have and will continue to argue that the Declaration of Independence is a Christian document. There are also those that will argue against the separation of church and state pointing to the Declaration, believing that the text of this document supports the position that the United States was founded upon Christian principles. But there will always be flaws in this because of the declaration’s design and intent. The Declaration of Independence may have religious and Christian influences, but it is not a Christian document. While the Declaration refers to a Creator, it does not refer to God as Christians know Him to be.