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The Unchristian Roots of the Fourth of July


The United States Constitution is, of course, literally a “godless” document: the word “God” (like the words “Jesus,” “Christ,” “Christianity,” or “Bible”) simply doesn’t appear anywhere in our country’s fundamental legal document. If the Founders of the United States meant to establish this as a “Christian Nation” in any constitutional, legal, or political sense, they neglected to mention it in the document from which our federal government derives its authority.

Often, though, supporters of the “Christian Nation” ideology claim that the Declaration of Independence is the document that establishes this country as distinctively Christian. Leaving aside the fact that the Declaration, however important it may be in our history, technically has no legal standing in our government, this is at least superficially a more convincing claim. After all, the Declaration does at least use the word “God,” and uses synonyms thereof three more times later in the Declaration. To be sure, none of these words or phrases (“Nature’s God,” “Creator,” “Supreme Judge of the World,” “Divine Providence”) is specifically Christian — there are no references to Jesus Christ or the Holy Trinity — but none of them is necessarily incompatible with Christianity either.

It should be pointed out that Thomas Jefferson, the principal drafter of the Declaration, although he often referred to himself as a “true Christian,” did not accept the doctrines of the virgin birth, the resurrection of Jesus, the divinity of Jesus, or any miraculous powers ascribed to Jesus, nor did he believe in original sin or justification by faith.[1] Given Jefferson’s religious beliefs and the lack of any distinctively Christian language in the Declaration, many have argued that the theism of the Declaration is the religion of Deism and not the religion of Christianity. (Deism was a rationalist, monotheistic faith associated with the 18th Century Enlightenment in Europe; Deism had no creeds or dogmas, but in general Deists, while believing in God as Creator of the Universe and even as author of moral laws, rejected belief in miracles and considered reason and experience rather than revelation and faith to be the proper sources of religious truth. The modern Unitarians are probably the closest heirs to the Deists of Jefferson’s day.) It’s also true that the Declaration contains no scriptural citations or even any obvious allusions to the Christian Bible, which is certainly peculiar for an ostensibly Christian document. However, what’s most important to look at in the Declaration of Independence are the basic ideas it embodies, rather than the rhetoric with which they are presented.

In addition to numerous condemnations of the policies of King George III, which need not concern us here, the Declaration of Independence is most famous for setting forth a basic philosophy of government: people have certain natural rights deriving from their Creator; in order to preserve those rights, people establish governments; since govern-ments derive their power from the establishment of the people, the people therefore retain an inherent right to change or even overthrow any government that no longer carries out its original purpose of protecting the rights of the people. This is far from an entirely atheistic or materialist philosophy-the Declaration does derive those natural rights from an endowment by a Creator-but it is far from being a Christian or Judeo-Christian view of government either. In the Old Testament, the ideal form of government is literally a theocracy. The laws of the ancient Israelites are handed down directly by God, not written by human legislators answerable to the people at large. The purpose of the laws is not to protect the inalienable rights of the people but to ensure that the Israelites would remain “a people holy to the Lord” (Deuteronomy 14:2; all Bible quotes are from the New English Bible, published by Oxford University Press). The leaders of the people-Moses, Aaron, Joshua-are selected by the deity, not elected (Exodus 2:14, 3:11-12, 4:14; Numbers 27:15-21; Joshua 1:1-2). When Israel first becomes a kingdom, the Bible teaches that Samuel-a prophet chosen by God and not responsible to any human constitution or institution-selects a king on divine instruction (I Samuel, chapter 8; this chapter also reveals the ambivalence of the Biblical writers towards the whole institution of human kingship, which in the Old Testament is at times portrayed as tyrannical and even an affront to God; clearly, though, what is being preferred over monarchy is not a democratic republic but a continued theocracy in which divinely chosen priests, prophets, or “judges” rule by God’s power.) Later, when the first king (Saul) is abandoned by God, a new king (David) is again chosen by direct, divine intervention (1 Samuel 16:1-2). When kings of Europe claimed that the proper form of Christian government was a monarch who ruled by “divine right” as the “Lord’s anointed,” they were putting forth a view of government that is genuinely in accord with Biblical, Judeo-Christian values.

The New Testament also upholds the view that government is an institution of God, not of the people. Romans 13:1-2 clearly for-bids rebellion against the established authorities and was, moreover, written about the pagan government of the Roman Empire, which actively persecuted Christians: “Every person must submit to the supreme authorities. There is no authority but by act of God, and the existing authorities are instituted by him; consequently, anyone who rebels against authority is resisting a divine institution, and those who so resist have themselves to thank for the punishment they will receive.” George III, it should be noted, was a Christian monarch; if Paul commanded obedience by Christians to the pagan and tyrannical Roman emperors, surely he would have demanded equal obedience by Christians to the avowedly Christian (and far less cruel or oppressive) British king and parliament. The New Testament does, of course, present a major shift in viewpoint from the Old; now, obedience to secular authorities is commanded not so much because they rule over a divinely ordained theocracy as it is because secular authorities, along with everything else in the world, will soon be swept away by the Second Coming. Christians should act morally-which to Paul included obedience to a corrupt and tyrannical state-in preparation for judgement day, which he preached was quite near at hand in the first century C.E. (Romans 13:7-14).

The theory of government presented in the Declaration of Independence, then, represents a radical break with Judeo-Christian traditions that went back thousands of years. Government, it asserts, derives its powers not from the will of God but from the consent of the governed. From being an instrument of God’s wrath, government is demoted to an invention of human beings, to be altered at the will of its creators. Our Constitution goes even further than the Declaration in its godlessness, not even bothering with a ceremonial invocation of God or “Divine Providence” in vesting ultimate authority in “We, the people.” As James Madison, principal drafter of the Constitution, said, “religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together” (Letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822; excerpted in Quotations That Support the Separation of State and Church). John Adams, second President of the United States, wrote that “Although the detail of the formation of the American governments is at present little known or regarded either in Europe or in America….[i]t will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses” (“A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America,” 1787-1788; excerpted in Quotations That Support the Separation of State and Church ).

This country went on not only to found what is likely the first entirely secular government in human history but also to guarantee religious liberty for all in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Article VI of the Constitution, in barring any religious test or oath for federal office, and the First Amendment, in protecting freedom of religion and the separation of church and state which guarantees that freedom, ended the long “Judeo-Christian” tradition of persecution, torture, and death for differences of opinion in matters of religion-a tradition that began with the Bible itself, which calls on the faithful worshippers of God to denounce even their own parents and children and to cast the first stone in putting them to death if they deviate from the “true” religion (Deuteronomy, 13:6-11). That we do not have a government based on the Bible-or “God’s law”-or “Judeo-Christian values”-is something that all Americans can be grateful for every Fourth of July: grateful not to any god, but to the human beings who established this country as a free country, and not a Christian nation.

[1] Although Jefferson often referred to himself as a “Christian,” he viewed Jesus of Nazareth as a great man, and a moral and religious reformer, and not as the Christ or Messiah. In a letter to William Short, October 31, 1819, Jefferson lists doctrines which he explicitly rejects: “the immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of the Hierarchy, etc.” In a later letter to Short, 1820, Jefferson even wrote “[i]t is not to be understood that I am with him (Jesus Christ) in all his doctrines. I am a Materialist; he takes the side of Spiritualism; he preaches the efficacy of repentance toward forgiveness of sin; I require a counterpoise of good works to redeem it….” Both of these letters are excerpted in Quotations That Support the Separation of State and Church, Second Edition, 1995; Edward M. Buckner and Michael E. Buckner, editors; published by [and available from] the Atlanta Freethought Society.)

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