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What is really meant by "... that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator ..."?

Updated on January 8, 2017
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ME has spent most of his retirement from service to the United States studying, thinking, and writing about the country he served.

Declaration of Independence


What is Really Meant by the Term Creator?

THOMAS JEFFERSON WROTE "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.--" Notice he didn't say " ... endowed by God ...." or "... endowed by Jesus ...", he says " ... their Creator ..." Why did Thomas Jefferson, who was an extremely careful wordsmith, choose those particular words instead of the ones that are more direct references to the Christian God.

In most of the colonial and state founding documents, it was made very clear that it was God, and more specifically the Christian God that was being referred to and that the guiding document was the Bible. Most states required you to be a Christian to hold office; a couple of states pursecuted you if you weren't Christian; a couple of states pursecuted you even if you were Christian but the wrong kind, i.e., Catholic. Only one state, Rhode Island, I believe, wasn't having any of that and kept religion out of the their government.

So, why did Thomas Jefferson use such a strange phrase as "their Creator", a much more ambiguous phrase than "by God". "Their Creator" allows for different interpretations, doesn't it? To me, "their Creator" lets me have my Creator and lets you have your Creator without those Creators necessarily being the same Creator. If he had used the phrase "by God", their would have been no doubt whose God was being referred to.

I am not Christian, yet I believe in a creator. My idea of a Creator does not have hardly any of the attributes Christians assign to their creator; yet we both call our creator, God. Isn't this what Thomas Jefferson, also not a Christian but a strong believer in a creator, really had in mind when he penned the Declaration of Independence? He fought very hard for religious freedom in Virginia and to diminish the domination of the Christian church in the Virginia government; wasn't he encapsulating this idea of religious freedom in the phrase "their Creator"?

Further, as I said, most political documents of the era contained clear references to the Christian church and Christianity yet Thomas Jefferson left out any reference to faith, any faith, in this siminal document. How come? Could it be that he didn't see the future America being just a Christian theocracy which the colonies currently were?

In the last debate of the 2012 Florida Republican primary, both Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney referred to phrase "their Creator" as specifically meaning that America was founded on the Judeo-Christian faith, that "their Creator" was the same thing as saying "by God", the Christian one. This is a popular refrain for virtually everyone to the right of center and one they wear on their sleeve. Yet, when you actually think deeply about it, It is hard to see, at least for me, how they can come to this conclusion.

The Man Behind the Declaration of Independence

1632 - 1704
1632 - 1704 | Source


THE EXCELLENT COMMENTS MADE BY CMERRIT prompted me to write a little bit more about this subject.

John Locke, 1632 - 1704, originating the philosophy of Liberalism, is behind much of the Declaration of Independence; some of the Declaration was lifted verbatim out of Locke's writings. The idea of the "natural right to Life, Liberty, and Happiness" comes directly for John Locke's statement that ”The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges everyone: and reason which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions…“; Jefferson and others combined "health and possessions" into "Pursuit of Happiness" while keeping, "Life" and "Liberty" as is. (I didn't realize Locke included health in his natural rights, which leads us to a different discussion concerning the role of government in that area.)

In developing his ideas on the natural law, there is no doubt where the law came from ... God, not a Creator, but God, the Christian kind. He belonged to the Church of England (if you didn't in those days, you ran the risk of being hung alongside the Catholics) and was a believer. So, and here we get back to CMerritt's and my point, we come to the question of why was the word "Creator" used in the Declaration of Independence and later in the U.S. Constitution? What was the motive of the authors of the Declaration to make this change or, as CMerritt notes, not even include the reference at all in the initial drafts.

It is also interesting to know that Locke is also Jefferson's inspiration, and I suspect the U.S. Supreme Court's for the idea of "Separation of Church and State". Locke wrote in his letters, Letters Concerning Toleration (1689–92), produced in the aftermath of the European wars of religion, formulated a classic reasoning for religious tolerance.

Three arguments are central: (1) Earthly judges, the state in particular, and human beings generally, cannot dependably evaluate the truth-claims of competing religious standpoints; (2) Even if they could, enforcing a single "true religion" would not have the desired effect, because belief cannot be compelled by violence; (3) Coercing religious uniformity would lead to more social disorder than allowing diversity.[15]

Locke also believed that according to his principle of the social contract, he argued that the government lacked authority in the realm of individual conscience, as this was something rational people could not cede to the government for it or others to control and therefore must remain protected from any government authority.

In addition, John Locke was a proponent of separation of powers between the branches of government, although it did not originate with him; the Greeks thought of that a couple thousand years before.

What Do You Think?

Do you think "their Creator" in the Declaration of Independence is specifically referring to the Christian God?

See results

While I am obviously one of the 'No' votes, I am rather surprised about how much company I have, especially given the relatively even split between political leanings. In fact, now that there are 29 votes, and the Demographic Survey # 1 is split evenly at 33%, 33%, 33%, there is, among males anyway, almost a statistically significant difference between those who think the Creator in the Declaration of Independence is the Christian God, and those who think it is referring to some more general higher being. The margin of error at a 95% confidence level is 31.5%.

That means due to chance alone, those voting YES,, could actually be has high as 55% while those voting NO could be as low as 34%. So long as there is that overlap, you can't quite say the results ARE statistically significant, but only getting close. If the number of votes were 65, however, then we would be at a point where we could say the difference is significant; so we will just have to wait and see.

Demographic Survey #1

Do you more closely identify with the -

See results

Demographic Survey #2

Are you -

See results

© 2012 Scott Belford


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