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Declaration of Independence & Christianity Myth

Does the Declaration of Independence Support Christianity?

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Myth:
The Declaration of Independence exhibits a preference for Christianity.

 

Response:
Many have argued against the separation of church and state by pointing to the Declaration of Independence. They believe that the text of this document supports the position that the United States was founded upon religious, if not Christian, principles, and therefore church and state must remain intertwined in order for this nation to continue properly.

There are a couple of flaws in this argument. For one thing, the Declaration of Independence is not a legal document for this nation. What this means is that it has no authority over our laws, our lawmakers, or ourselves. It cannot be cited as precedent or as being binding in a courtroom. The purpose of the Declaration of Independence was to make a moral case for dissolving the legal ties between the colonies and Great Britain; once that goal was achieved, the official role of the Declaration was finished.

That leaves open, however, the possibility that the document expressed the will of the same people who wrote the Constitution — thus, it provides knowledge about their intent as to what sort of government we should have. Leaving aside for the moment whether or not that intention should bind us, there are still serious flaws to consider. First, religion itself is never mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. This makes it difficult to argue that any particular religious principles should guide our current government.

Second, what little is mentioned in the Declaration of Independence is only barely compatible with Christianity, the religion most people have in mind when making the above argument. The Declaration refers to “Nature’s God,” “Creator,” and “Divine Providence.” These are all terms used in the sort of deism which was common among many of those responsible for the American Revolution as well as the philosophers upon whom they relied for support. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, was himself a deist who was opposed to many traditional Christian doctrines, in particular beliefs about the supernatural.

One common misuse of the Declaration of Independence is to argue that it states that our rights come from God and, therefore, there are no legitimate interpretations of the rights in the Constitution that would be contrary to God. The first problem is that the Declaration of Independence refers to a “Creator” and not the Christian “God” meant by people making the argument. The second problem is that the “rights” mentioned in the Declaration of Independence are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” — none of which are “rights” discussed in the Constitution.

Finally, the Declaration of Independence also makes it clear that governments created by humanity derive their powers from the consent of the governed, not from any gods. This is why the Constitution does not make any mention of any gods. There is no reason to think that there is anything illegitimate about an interpretation of any of the rights outlined in the Constitution merely because it runs contrary to what some people think that their conception of a god would want.

What this all means is that arguments against the separation of church and state which rely upon the language of the Declaration of Independence fail. First, the document in question has no legal authority with which one could make a legal case. Second, the sentiments expressed therein do not support the principle that government should be guided either by any specific religion (like Christianity) or by religion “in general” (as if such a thing even existed).

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