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God in the Declaration of Independence

Updated on July 2, 2012

In which God did the founding fathers believe?

There are four references to God in the Declaration of Independence. Here are the first two, cited from the opening paragraph and the first sentence of the second:

"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.

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 God referenced here seems to be consistent with the deistic conception of God. In this point of view common during the late 18th century Enlightenment period, God is essentially the first mover of the universe. He created the universe with certain laws of nature in place, and then He basically stepped aside and allowed it to unfold. God is like an engineer and the universe is a machine of His design.

The laws of nature, however, refer to more than merely the physical laws of the universe. There are also certain natural laws that dictate how humans should treat one another and how governments should treat their subjects. It is therefore up to humans to determine these natural laws and to live according to them. God is not going to do things for us. Instead, he has given us the capacity to use our sense of reason and our conscience to determine what is true and just. As the opening sentence of paragraph two says, certain truths are "self-evident."

The other two references to God do not get as much publicity as the first two, and they both come from the closing paragraph:

"We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — 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."

This God does not sound like the first mover of the universe who created a machine and sat back to let it run. Instead, this God is the "Supreme Judge of the world" who can provide the "protection of Divine Providence." Rather than deism, this conception of God is more reminiscent of Judeo-Christian monotheism. And the writers and signers of the Declaration, as they were announcing this dangerous treasonous decision, were clearly appealing to this omnipotent, just God to grant them success. Since they were convinced that their cause was just, all nervous supporters of the patriot cause could take comfort in the fact that God was actively involved in blessing the good guys.

So were the Founding Fathers who drafted the Declaration a bunch of deists or a collection of Christians? From what I have read, any general statement about the religious beliefs of all of the Founding Fathers will inevitably be oversimplified, whether you want to turn them all into a bunch of secular humanists or evangelical Christians. The Founders were a collection of individuals with a wide variety of religious (and political) beliefs. And since the Declaration of Independence was essentially a piece of political propaganda designed to make a sales pitch for the righteousness of the revolution, it's hard to say how accurately it reflected the beliefs of those who drafted it anyway. A reference to an omnipotent, divine judge, after all, may have been primarily an attempt to attract the support of as much of the general public - who were often Christians - as possible.

And in the end, the personal religious beliefs of the Founders are essentially irrelevant. The only thing that matters is what our Founders did. The Declaration of Independence, while it was a very important founding document that laid out some general principles on which this new nation would be built, is not a legally binding part of the American political system. Americans live under the Constitution, not the Declaration of Independence. And in the Constitution, there are exactly zero direct references to God. In fact, religion is not even mentioned until the First Amendment, which was not even part of the original document. So for the people who wrote the Constitution, the only important thing to point out about religion was that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .'

The Founders, whatever their personal religious beliefs, clearly understood that it was best for politics and religion to remain as separate as possible. When the state became involved with either regulating or promoting religion, it was bad for both politics and religion. And I find it very strange that the Religious Right, which often tries to argue that the Founders were all good Christians who founded our government on Christian principles, would want to promote and protect religious references and activities in the public sphere. Since conservatives are so generally hostile toward excessive government action, why would they want the government to promote religion in any way? Won't the government do more harm to Christianity than good?


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