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God in the Declaration

The recent Sohrab Ahmari-David French exchange reignited a discussion that erupted earlier in conservative circles, stirred by Patrick Deneen’s book about the tremendous successes, and worse failures, of liberalism. (For Deneen, the two are often the same, or two sides of the same coin.) The Ahmari-French exchange added an important dimension to the debate, by explicitly involving the religious faiths of the two participants. French is an Evangelical, Ahmari, a fairly recent convert to Catholicism. With them, Christianity entered into the discussion over how conservatives should view liberalism.

As part of his response to Ahmari, French tweeted the famous lines from the Declaration of Independence concerning all men being created equal and those that immediately follow, on the origins of free government, then he asked if Ahmari and his ilk would, or could, subscribe to them? [1] The Declaration was presented as a touchstone of American creed and commitment. Shortly before the nation’s 4th of July anniversary, therefore, our attention was led back to this founding document, this “expression of the American mind,” this time with specific, and large, questions in mind. How is the Declaration with respect to God? With respect to man? With respect to the formation and ends of government? Can Christians subscribe to its tenets?

In my previous July 4th essays, I wrote mainly about the Declaration on man and politics. Now I will say a few words about the first topic, its theology or presentation of the divine.

To begin with the obvious: God is present in the Declaration. He is mentioned or referred to four times. He is presented as Creator, Legislator, Provident, and Judge. Men are created equal, Nature is lawful, and both are connected with God and his activity—precisely the activities of creating and legislating. These two features occur at the beginning of the document. The other two show up near the end. As scholarship has shown, the last two references were added to Jefferson’s draft by the Continental Congress. They have the effect of “beefing up” the portrait of the divine. Providence is protective and can be relied upon, the Supreme Judge scrutinizes human activity “the world” over and penetrates to the “intentions” of agents.[2]

Gregg Frazer has called this theological package “theistic rationalism.” Theistic rationalism is halfway between the clockwork god of deism and the Christian orthodoxy of the day; its lodestar is Reason, not Scripture, creed, or tradition. It is a rationalistic religious faith tailored to classical liberal politics, one held by a number of founders.

There is a good deal in the document to support this characterization. The Declaration’s deity is very much a political animal. His concern, his norms, bear upon men in political community, not in ecclesial communion. Nor is it just any sort of political community he favors, but one that explicitly acknowledges the Creator’s equal endowment of inalienable rights and is properly established to protect them.

A political animal, the Declaration’s God also favors human liberty. He has created his human creature free and independent, for political and civil freedom. This helps account for the paradox that the signers of the Declaration expressly rely on Providence and the Declaration is a call to strenuous human action, revolutionary action in fact. The reconciliation is found in the fact that revolution is for freedom and independence, the known will of the Creator. God-given and God-willed, freedom must be humanly exercised, defended, and established. In this sense, this is an early form of liberation theology, a sober form, to be sure.

Others have noted the political character of the Deity as well. Some time ago, George Anastaplo argued that the Declaration’s God is a political model, crafted for two purposes. First, to show what human political leadership should aspire to, whether it be in legislating, executing, or judging; second, to show that because the unity of legislative, executive, and judicial power in the Deity coexists with omniscience and impeccable rectitude, fallible human beings rightly divide political power and do not give all political authority into one set of hands. One might call this a political, and liberal, version of “man, the (imperfect) image of God”.

Other scholars have emphasized the political character of the document in yet another sense. By this they mean its character as a deliberate compromise, perhaps even obfuscating differences, for the sake of presenting a common front for practical purposes. Theistic rationalism’s straddling of the differences between deism and orthodoxy would fit this description. In a similar vein, Wilson Carey McWilliams noted the occurrence of Reformed Christianity vocabulary in the otherwise largely Lockean text, instancing the important term “institute,” which allowed Calvinists to see something of themselves in the theory of government proclaimed by the Declaration.[3] At the very least, this claim has the virtue of reminding us of the highly communal understanding of human liberty that informed many Americans of the time, about which Barry Shain has written.

Peter Lawler focused upon the Congressional additions of “Providence” and “Judge” in making the case that the Declaration was a statesmanly compromise between Jefferson’s purer Lockean draft and the more orthodox believers among the founders and the populace. However, when Lawler wrote on Orestes Brownson, he followed Brownson’s lead in making the Declaration a thoroughly Lockean document, which, purportedly, enshrined “political atheism.” Instead of a tension, there was a one-sided resolution. The estimable scholar of Locke and of the founding, Michael Zuckert, has done the same. The “statesmanly compromise”-position seems to me to be more exegetically and historically correct, however.

Given all this, what light, if any, does it shed upon today’s controversy? It seems that David French was precipitous in the use he made of the passage from the Declaration that evoked the Creator. He presented it as a norm that a Christian can and should accept, apparently without much further ado.

However, the fuller argument from which it is taken, and the fuller portrait of the Deity in the document, should give an orthodox Christian believer pause, precisely because the Deity is so politically—and this-worldly—focused. In the Declaration, the “course of human events” that takes place under Providence leads to the first rightly established polity, not to the spread of the Word, much less a Second Coming and Last Judgment. In other words, the theology limned in the Declaration is very much a political theology, what one could call, in hindsight, fledgling America’s civil religion.

As such, it arguably served its purpose at the time and for a long time. But given that from the point of view of consistent liberal thought, its theological attachments are extraneous increments, and from the point of view of Christian orthodoxy, that it has severe theological deficiencies, one cannot be too surprised that, eventually, each would want to strike out on its own. This certainly seems to be the case with liberalism today. It would be fitting for Christian theology to reciprocate. Unlike liberalism, however, which constantly looks forward, Christian theology, to be faithful to its nature, needs to look back to its roots, to its sources and authorities. One authority that French and Ahmari might agree on is Augustine. His City of God therefore beckons on this 4th of July, with its critique of civil theology and of human hubris, and its account of two cities and how they are mixed in this life as they proceed to eternity.

[1] The passage he tweeted: “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. – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, – That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will ….”

[2] “… with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence ….”

[3] “Governments are instituted among men, … it is the right of the People to institute new Government ….”—McWilliams made this point on a paper on the Declaration I wrote for him many moons ago.

[4] Michael Zuckert, The Natural Rights Republic: Studies in the Foundation of the American Political Tradition (University of Notre Dame Press, 1997). Zuckert, however, has also proposed an “amalgam” thesis concerning the American founding. In it, Lockean elements were central and fundamental to the political philosophy of the founders, but other pre-modern and biblical elements found a place.

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