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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.

Reader Discussion

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on July 04, 2019 at 10:25:06 am

If it was God that made us unique, then it is God who wants us to have the political liberty to present our uniqueness to others. You would not give a robot a soul just to make it live like a slave, and neither would God.

Free-will theology requires political liberty to exercise that free-will. That's why religions that don't believe in individual political liberty require belief in pre-destination, determinism, and fatalism rather than free-will. That's why collectivists and communitarians, (like communists and socialists), so often talk about the "illusions" of free-will--see Sam Harris' argument against free-will.

If you don't want political liberty, you have to claim that people aren't really exercising their free-will anyway and so political liberty (free-will) is just an illusion. People give this position away when they say things like "no one's really an atheist, or a homosexual, or gunowner, etc., so no one can have the right to be"

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Enslavedrich Loyak
on July 04, 2019 at 10:54:54 am

Outstanding analysis.

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Jon Rowe
on July 04, 2019 at 11:54:37 am

From the 'hold' to the clause 'all men are created equal [under God, fallen with one hope of salvation]', to an historic Endowment emanating as foreordained into a ripeness of independence resting on a platform of a petition of grievance, we see the interaction of Biblical religion with Common law precedent in the decision of Declaration. The rights are legal, yet no less Divine in their Biblical origin, even with a Deistic flavor having already been compromised from Socinianism into what became Unitarianism cum Universalism, together with an emerging amalgam of Canon into Equity to moderate the Common under the rubric of a heritage extending back to the Hebrew republic, like that repudiating the scourge of monarchy in its rejection of NT patriarchy, God alone the Father of all mankind. And one doesn't have to weather the Reasonableness of Christianity through the withering lens of John Edwards to see the handmaiden following closely behind.

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gdp
on July 04, 2019 at 16:03:26 pm

I think you're right that there's a fuller portrait of the Deity in the Declaration that not all Christians will accept, which French sort of passes over in that tweet. A liberal Christian may not even be aware of those issues.
I also think there's a fuller portrait of equality and natural rights in the Declaration that French doesn't get, and that's the more decisive thing for this debate possibly.
The Declaration's insistence on equality in certain rights was not an equality in merit as many assume. The extension of "equality" in the Declaration was much more limited than most people today assume, which can be shown most easily I think by pointing to Jefferson's letter to Adams where he claimed our government ought to aim toward an "Aristocracy of Merit", at the same time as it aimed toward equality of protection for education, opportunity, and a inalienable rights.
Getting this latter point about the limited aim of the Declaration principles would help French and many others avoid some confusion about the Declaration I think. However, that piece he wrote against Ahmari contained additional confusions about the Christian duties toward justice versus charity in my opinion - from either a Catholic or a Protestant Christian perspective. Maybe liberal Christians are OK with treating Justice and Charity as coextensive, but that is not what most orthodox Christians believe

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CJ Wolfe
on July 05, 2019 at 00:44:29 am

Free-will theology requires political liberty to exercise that free-will. That’s why religions that don’t believe in individual political liberty require belief in pre-destination, determinism, and fatalism rather than free-will. """

You write what you do not understand. You have no freewill because the influence of sin, corrupting your mind:

"And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive altogether with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses...."
-Col 2:13.

The founding fathers did not understand this.

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Oft
on July 05, 2019 at 01:05:55 am

"God is present in the Declaration."

Which god? Not the true God, Christ Jesus. I don't see His name anywhere.

"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."

Unalienable rights are not in the bible. Therefore, the ff's made them up, but they were already the topic of conversation in the enlightenment colleges.

"revolution is for freedom and independence, the known will of the Creator."

Too bad the bible teaches the opposite:

"Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. 2Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. "
-Rom 13:1-2

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Oft
on July 05, 2019 at 09:00:48 am

I would be hard pressed to concur with the assertion that the God of the Bible is in the Declaration of Independence. The reasons are too numerous to mention individually. I will, however, address a couple of the glaring contradictions. First, the Declaration is a record of open rebellion against the king, which is a direct contradiction to Peter’s instruction to fear God and honor the king (1 Pet. 2:17) I don’t know anyone with a modicum of intelligence that would agree that rebelling against a king is a form of honor. Furthermore, Peter instructs the saints to “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.“ (1 Pet. 2:13-14) It stands to reason that a god that would permit insurrection in direct opposition to his inspired instruction would be inconsistent at best.
But perhaps the bedrock of the argument lies in the truth that both Britain and the United States are Gentile nations, strangers to both God and his commands and statutes:
He sheweth his word unto Jacob, his statutes and his judgments unto Israel. He hath not dealt so with any nation: and as for his judgments, they have not known them. Praise ye the LORD. (Psa. 147:19-20)
Nowhere in the Bible is there any evidence that God had covenant with any other earthly nation other than Israel. Did God allow the rebellion to occur? Indeed he did. He had no more interest in the forming of this country than he did with any other country. Invoking the name or title of God does not mean God endorses or approves of the action.
Finally, why did the writers emphasize that the truths were “self evident?” The answer is simple: they could not prove they were truths at all. In reality, it was a sharp rebuke to the king, telling him that he was no better or greater a man than they were. In conclusion, just because we sing “God bless America” doesn’t mean he is compelled to do so. We were created by him, not the other way around.

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Ron Mosby
on July 05, 2019 at 12:00:58 pm

The right of resistance, a precurseur to our right to bear arms, was employed by the papacy to counter monarchs who refused papal sanction, compounded by papal edicts like that of 1572 urging Elizabeth I's Catholic subjects to rise in rebellion and overthrow her for her failure to kowtow. Peter's instruction did/does not violate the underlying condition to obedience articulated by Paul in Rom 13, despite commentary missing the point. As for Justice and Charity, see Matt 23:23; 1 Cor 13:13. The Founders and Framers, imbued with the heritage of the 39 Articles, the Westminster Confession, the Savoy Confession and the Baptist Confession of 1689 cum 1742 were well informed respecting the Biblical position articulated from before Augustine and its call for not merely joint but several acknowledgement, and there in recognition of the distinction between carnal free will and moral incapacity - the philosopher's presumption at the heart of Pelagius' alleged position carried over into the semi-Pelagianism of Trent leading to the excesses of man's moral autonomy in the exercise of his will from before the 18th Century, despite brilliant apology by the likes of Jonathan Edwards.

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gdp
on July 05, 2019 at 15:54:35 pm

Well, this is a timely essay, and a subject to which I have devoted the last twenty or so years of my life. During this time I have immersed myself in the writings of the Founders and of things they read. It is clear to me that the Declaration of Independence conveys 18th Century American Political Philosophy better than any one other document. That philosophy is not possible to understand until one has discovered the founders' definition of Liberty. And the significance of this Liberty cannot be understood unless we first understand that the fundamental purpose of all just government is to protect the Liberty of the People. The Declaration of Independence makes this clear.

John Adams defined it as a "power to do as we would be done by" in 1819. This connects it to the Golden Rule, the summation of all the laws of God and Nature according to the Judeo-Christian Natural Law tradition. Once connected to the Golden Rule, Liberty is revealed as an inevitable consequence of obedience to the Ten Commandments of God, and the Commandments themselves as a code of morality designed to teach us Wisdom and Virtue. This is all about Cause and Effect, not the whims of a capricious deity. On this, American Christians, Jews, and Deists agreed and each religious tradition contributed to the greater understanding of the wonderful and unique political philosophy that inspired the American Revolution.

The Declaration actually contains two identical references to a working definition, twice in the same sentence, "free and independent". The definition of Freedom and Independence must also be correctly identified or the whole thing falls apart. There are two main definitions of Liberty that have been at war with each other since the beginning of time: Liberty as a more eloquent term for "freedom from any kind of control"--no limits on individuals and no limits on government power. Which makes no logical sense. This is the definition that inspired the French Revolution and explains the Anarchy & Tyranny that came out of it. It is not the definition the Founders used.

The Founders defined Freedom as "the absence of external control". And they believed Liberty was much more than that. They defined it as Freedom and Independence, and independence as "self-control", "self-government" and/or "self-reliance and self-restraint". These are the virtues that come from our voluntary obedience to the Ten Commandments which the ancient Greeks believed was the only code of morality capable of producing the high degree of individual virtue required for getting and keeping Liberty.

After working this all out, I went back to the Holy Bible to see what it said about Life, Liberty, Property, Wisdom, Virtue, Blessing, and Happiness. Based on Biblical teachings, I believe that God gave man Life and Liberty so we could seek Him, and His Law so we could find Him. Liberty is about Free Will, meaning the power to make moral choices. Sin is the consequence of failure to make them, and all the trouble in the world comes from the cumulative and accumulating disobedience of individuals, societies and nations to God's commandments. The Bible tells us that it is God's will for us to be Happy and Free, so it must be that it is also His will for us to obey His commandments.

There is misunderstanding about these commandments. They are the essential essence of Western Tradition, for the Ten Commandments & Golden Rule built Western Civilization. They do not require anyone to belong to any particular religious organization. I have a friend who says he is an atheist. He also says he thinks it would be good if people did follow the Ten Commandments because then his Liberty would be secure. And he says a friend of his knew a rabbi that asserted even atheists could follow all ten commandments, even the first commanding us not to put any other God before the Lord. Which is amusing to me, and makes sense. I like to think God has a sense of humor, but I am not sure we can count on a logical possibility that someone who doesn't believe in something can keep from putting something else in its place.

The first table of the Law teaches us our Duty to God and the second table teaches us our Duty to Man. Our Duty to God helps keep us from running off half-cocked after things of this world and points us in the right direction, allowing us to stay in the real world which I have found is danged hard to do sometimes. Our Duty to God is also nobody else's business as long as we cause no harm to others--it is a matter between us and our Maker. This is what the principle called Liberty of Conscience is based on, the principle behind Separation of Church & State--ideas that did not originate with Thomas Jefferson, but way back in the Christian tradition. The idea that resistance to tyrants is obedience to God came from this tradition--but it has to be according to the laws of God, which protect our right to self-defense. The great Protestant Reformer John Calvin taught that if a people are to do this according to God's commandments, their civilian authorities must lead them. He would have approved of the American Revolution, but not the French.

Liberty of Conscience developed into a body of teachings fundamental to the Protestant Reformation, spelled out quite systematically by Calvin and promulgated by John Knox. Roger Williams brought his own exceedingly pure version of these to the American colonies in the 17th Century. His ideas influenced many people, including William Penn, John Locke, Trenchard & Gordon, Benjamin Franklin and the Founding Generation. Now, they all didn't agree on every point--there were differences in theology, doctrine, practice and so forth--but the main thing is they thought Liberty could not exist without God. Eventually, they decided the only way keep any one denomination from becoming the official state church they would all have to be equally free to operate according to their own custom.

The second table shows us how to live in Peace so we can pursue our own Happiness. This is the legitimate province of government--for it lays out the basis for civil law so wrongdoers can be punished according to a system of justice that protects everyone's rights and liberty. We are commanded not to disrespect our parents, commit murder, adultery (this is about protecting the sacred family bonds which are for stabilizing society so people can grow up to be responsible and happy adults), robbery, theft, perjury, slander and fraud. Read them again and tell me which of the first table causes you any harm if others wish to follow them, and read the second table and tell me which of them you think you want other people to disobey.

These are indissolubly bound up in a multi-faceted tradition that includes Divine & Natural Law (Decree of Amagi, Torah, the Prophets, Cicero, Philo, Jesus of Nazareth, Paul, Aquinas, the Protestant Confessions), British Common Law (Coke), Magna Carta, the Mayflower Compact, the British Enlightenment (Williams, Bourke, Locke, Smith), Radical Whig Movement (Trenchard & Gordon), Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights, 13th, 14th, 15th, 19th, & 24th amendments, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address (Abolition Movement), Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech (Civil Rights Movement)

There are a lot of books about America's unique and powerful political philosophy, and they come from many different writers and points of view. These are some I recommend:

"Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of American Liberty" by John M. Barry (Penguin)

"Political Writings of John Adams" ed. C. Bradley Thompson (Liberty Fund)

"John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic" by Jeffry H. Morrison (Notre Dame Press)

"George Washington: A Collection" ed. W.B. Allen (Liberty Fund)

"Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty" by Jon Kukla (Simon & Schuster)

"Political Sermons of the American Founding Era: 1730-1805" ed. Ellis Sandoz (Liberty Fund)

"American Political Writing during the Founding Era: 1760-1805" ed. Hyneman & Lutz (Liberty Fund)

"Political Writings of William Penn" ed. Andrew Murphy (Liberty Fund)

"The Founders at Home: The Building of America, 1735-1817" by Myron Magnet (Norton)

"The Lamp of Experience: Whig History and the Intellectual Origins of the American Revolution" by Trevor Colbourn (Liberty Fund)

"The English Libertarian Heritage" ed. David L. Jacobson (Fox & Wilkes)

"Christianity & Classical Culture" by Charles Norris Cochrane (Liberty Fund)

"The Roots of Liberty: Magna Carta, Ancient Constitution, and the Anglo-American Tradition of Rule of Law" ed. Ellis Sandoz (Liberty Fund)

"Freedom and Liberty" by David Hackett Fischer (Oxford)

"Original Intent: The Courts, the Constitution & Religion" by David Barton (Wallbuilders)

"The City Tavern Cookbook" by Chef Walter Staib with foreword by David McCullough (Running Press)

The thing is to stay away from academic orthodoxy--this is where you find assertions that the Founders were all Deists or Atheists or Hypocrites. One can arrive at this conclusion only by reducing them to a list of five to ten and largely ignoring the historical record.

If you stick with writers who know what they are talking about, you will discover that Americans were a very religious people compared to Europeans & English despite their ever-growing diversity of denominations. They also tended to be more inquisitive and broad-minded. So that it was possible for a communicating member of the Episcopal Church to join the Freemasons without violating their conscience. And for orthodox Protestants, Jews, Unitarians (a kind of American Deism), and Freemasons to speak of God using the same terms (God, Creator, Supreme Judge of the World, and Divine Providence) even if they did not define these terms in exactly the same way. They were all referring to the Power that created the Universe and the laws which govern it.

America was, and is, a melting pot of ideas as well as people & cultures. If we believe in Liberty, and that it comes from a power higher than ourselves, then American Liberty has a future yet.

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Karen Renfro
on July 05, 2019 at 16:08:47 pm

"I would be hard pressed to concur with the assertion that the God of the Bible is in the Declaration of Independence. "

How do you explain this a month before the DOI:

"The Congress...desirous...to have people of all ranks and degrees duly impressed with a solemn sense of God's superintending providence, and of their duty devoutly to rely.... on His aid and direction... do earnestly recommend...a day of humiliation, fasting, and prayer; that we may with united hearts confess and bewail our manifold sins and transgressions and, by a sincere repentance and amendment of life,...and through the Merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, obtain His pardon and forgiveness."
--Journals of Congress (1905), Vol. IV, pp. 208-209, May 17, 1776.

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Oft
on July 05, 2019 at 19:33:57 pm

Deism or "theistic rationalism" is unnecessary to explain the Founding theology. There is nothing in the Declaration's concept of God that does not comport with either "Calvinist Resistance Theory"

http://davekopel.org/Religion/Calvinism.htm

or the [Catholic] Scholastics.

https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=6607

Bellarmine: "In the commonwealth, all men are born naturally free and equal." De Clericis, Ch. VII. "There is no reason why amongst equals one should rule rather than another." De Laicis, Ch. VI.

Virginia Declaration of Rights [George Mason]: "All men are born equally free and independent" was originally written, but changed by the convention to read "All men are by nature equally free and independent."

DOI: "All men are created equal."

Bellarmine: "For legitimate reason the people can change the government to an aristocracy or a democracy or visa versa." De Laicis, Ch. VI. "It depends upon the consent of men to place over themselves a king, counsel, or magistrate." De Laicis, Ch. VI.

VDR: "When government fails to confer common benefit, a majority of the people have a right to change it."

DOI: "Whenever any forms of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government . . ."

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Tom Van Dyke
on July 07, 2019 at 11:54:28 am

I'll leave my comment short. The Declaration of Independence "is an early form of liberation theology." Wow. So the the Declaration of Independence can now be shoehorned into a Marxist framework started in Latin America by Marxist Catholic's? Whew! Now I really feel enlightened. I am sure that the Founding Fathers would be relieved of this emphinay!

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Dana Pope
on July 07, 2019 at 12:04:06 pm

Thank you. Good post.

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Dana Pope
on July 07, 2019 at 16:00:24 pm

Dana Pope: Economic egalitarianism or collectivism may be wrongheaded (I personally think it is); but it wasn't invented by Marx. There are plenty of Jewish and Christian sources for such. I am not an expert in liberation theology. But if I wanted to learn more I'd start with real scholars not demagogues. Someone like Paul Sigmund from Princeton who was a devout Catholic, but also a man of the Left.

He may well have been sympathetic to liberation theology; but he also liked John Locke (he was a Locke scholar) and Thomism. He told me he thought Locke sounded like a liberal Thomist.

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Jonathan Rowe
on July 08, 2019 at 15:15:51 pm

To be very brief. Yes, the Declaration refers to God and the signers were believers of one stripe or another. However. the Declaration was a (brilliant) rhetorical statement and call to action. The political legal intent of the Founders is in the Constitution, which does not call on God for its authority, but "We, the people..."

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Jack Latona
on July 08, 2019 at 16:43:17 pm

Lots of interesting comments here. First of all, Ron Mosby who seems to have it on good authority that God had nothing to do with the American Revolution. Well now. I would say that although this cannot be known for certain, it is more likely that God was at least involved as the First Cause.

If God created the Universe and governs it by His laws, which we know as Cause and Effect, then the cumulative and accumulating effects of the obedience to His Commandments by individuals and groups in a finite sector of any given population will inevitably lead to a good outcome. God gave us His Commandments so we could aim towards good outcomes in our own lives and the lives of others. It is obvious to me that the Ten Commandments, Golden Rule and Sermon on the Mount are about more than just achieving individual blessings, but a society where our God-given Liberty may be exercised freely. In such a society, the blessings are more widespread than in any other kind of society.

John Adams did not say that "Liberty is a power to do as we would be done by" because he believed in liberation theology. He said this because he believed the One True Living God, the God of the Bible, is the Author of Liberty and he wanted people to adhere to the fundamental principle of reciprocity inherent in Liberty and the Golden Rule. He was not thinking of material equality or reciprocity, but the Rights Inherent in Liberty, which can be deduced from the Ten Commandments.

Other comments:
John Locke was influenced by the Scottish and English Enlightenment. I am quite familiar with his works. It is hard for me to see how he meant to inspire anyone to some kind of collectivist society. I think he wanted a free society where government serves the people, which is not what collectivism is all about.

The Resistance Movement had three sides: Catholic, Protestant and Secular Humanist. The American Revolution was inspired directly by the Protestant Resistant Movement, not the other two. That is why the Founders did not look to the Pope for direction.

The Declaration of Independence is classic Radical Whig Philosophy, based on Protestant Resistance Theory, Anglo-American Common Law, Natural Law, & Scottish & English Enlightenment. The traditions that fed these distinct but related views of the world go back to ancient times and include Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman sources.

The Declaration of Independence states very clearly what made the Self-Evident Truths self-evident. See if you can find the passage. If you can, the proof will come with it.

In conclusion:
Folks, if collectivists are trying to usurp the Founders that is because they are losing too many arguments.

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Karen Renfro
on July 08, 2019 at 19:57:20 pm

Jesus was not a socialist or a promulgator of liberation theology, however much some folks would like to think so. That is because he placed his faith in God & His Word as the salvation of mankind, not government. His Parable of the Talents shows he believed people should use their resources wisely, including investing in worthwhile ventures--something that people in totalitarian societies often cannot do either because they have no money or there is nothing to invest in. Jesus taught his followers that they should provide for the poor, not government. He did not advocate redistribution of wealth--a government program forced on the people against their will. What he advocated was for individuals to provide for those in need--individually, not as a "class" of people--which is the same thing that is still taught by the Jewish religion today.

The Declaration of Independence is the foundation of American government. The Constitution does not mention God because there is no need--it is about setting up a framework for government, not its purpose. In the view of the Founding generation, government gets its power from the People, and if the People are governed by God (this is all about individual choice, liberty of conscience) then they will endeavor to live by His commandments. In so doing, they will create a society where the level of wisdom and virtue necessary to support a free and independent society.

The Declaration is NOT simply a rhetorical call for action. It is a statement of the sentiments of the American people, their idea of what government is about and the role of government in the lives of the people. The Founders did not come up with these ideas at the last minute, they had been discussed in great detail for several hundred years already. But the Founding generation developed something powerful out of them, a whole system of thought unique to the history of the world.

"The Decalogue, or the Law of the Ten Commandments, delivered by God Himself from Mt. Sinai with great Glory and astonishing Circumstances, was little else but the Law of Nature reduced into Tables in words of God's own chusing." -- John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, The Independent Whig, 1719. Trenchard & Gordon are better known for their essays under the name "Cato's Letters". They were members of the British Parliament, Radical Whigs whose works were best-sellers in the American colonies for three generations.

Thomas Jefferson, in a statement about the evils of slavery, asked the question whether the liberties of a nation can exist if the people have lost their conviction that they come from God. That means he believed God is the Author of our Liberty and that all our natural rights come from God. He was a Deist of sorts. But he was not so offended by the Protestant Christian Church that he stopped attending services even when he was President.

Benjamin Franklin, who was not a Christian but neither was he a Deist, thought that it was not possible for a nation to rise without the aide of the Almighty and that is our duty to seek His favor and be grateful for His benefits.

George Washington, John Adams, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, Patrick Henry, George Mason, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and just about every last Patriot in the colonies believed in these ideals.

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Karen Renfro
on July 09, 2019 at 04:50:12 am

Liberty: "John Adams defined it as a 'power to do as we would be done by' in 1819. This connects it to the Golden Rule, the summation of all the laws of God and Nature according to the Judeo-Christian Natural Law tradition. Once connected to the Golden Rule, Liberty is revealed as an inevitable consequence of obedience to the Ten Commandments of God, and the Commandments themselves as a code of morality designed to teach us Wisdom and Virtue."

You so echo the Lost Cause rationale circa 1900: simply filtering the words of the Constitution through the prism of the desired outcome, and the outcome appears fully clothed. You rationalize away all those mortal obstacles--Franklin wasn't a deist. Jefferson was, but not like we think. Adams saw the Constitution as inspired by the Ten Commandments.

Religion is addressed in the Constitution, once, and it is a negative citation. Can you rationalize the no-religious-litmus-test clause to mean that, since everyone was settled on a nation ruled by the Ten Commandments, no need to demand what was already a foregone conclusion? Of course, you can.

We have laws based on Natural Law that protect children from their parents, and that jail parents who force their children to do what is contrary to the social compact. Breaking the Ten Commandments is as easy as being a decent, God-fearing human being. Then there were Nine.

Have you inquired at all into the role the Qur'an played in shaping the Constitution? Unlike the Holy Bible, the Qur'an was studied in 18th-century law schools for its remarkable legal code that was based on Natural Law.

Natural Law exists with or without a god, and certainly without the Ten Commandments. Locke made his case for free and independent citizens without referring to the Bible or the Commandments at all. So there's that.

Adams, Madison, and Jefferson had this in common: they were devotees of the Roman, Cicero, who you barely mentioned in passing. They all cite Cicero as being perhaps the most sublime philosopher who ever lived. Jefferson's Cicero library was the largest in the Western Hemisphere. Adams gushed over his ideals.

And then, I see you have cited David Barton with a straight face.

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Bill Housden
on July 09, 2019 at 15:20:00 pm

Mr. Housden:

Cicero is part of the Greco-Roman tradition that I referred to. If I mentioned every important contributor, my comments would fill a book.

The "natural law" you refer to is not identical to the Judeo-Christian Nature Law tradition that animated the American colonists. The two are not related at all. The one you refer to is based on some kind of newfangled, idiotic progressivist nonsense.

The one I refer to can be traced back to ancient Sumer, and it has two branches. One branch came out of Ur with Abraham and the other came down from Sumer through Hammurabi to the pagan world. The two branches reunited in the Early Christian Church. This is the tradition that carried forward the Rule of Law tradition and promoted the idea that government's purpose is to protect the Liberty of the People. The documents of this tradition include The Decree of Amagi, Torah, the Code of Hammurabi, Greek and Roman Law (Solon & Cicero), The Sermon on the Mount, The Digest of Roman Law, The Latin Vulgate,The Code of English Common Law, Magna Carta, The English Bible, Mayflower Compact, The English Bill of Rights, etc., and into the American Revolution.

There is a difference between a political philosophy and religion, and both can be based on the same principles without being an excuse for Anarchy or Tyranny. The Golden Rule is for everybody.

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Karen Renfro
on July 10, 2019 at 08:23:47 am

For the record, J. Adams clearly believed in the Golden Rule. Such is not the same thing as the 10 commandments. In at least one letter, Adams doubts that we have the right version of the 10 commandments. Likewise, Catholics and Protestants can't seem to agree on what constitutes the exact list of 10.

And while I would agree there are a lot of good sources on Karen's list, I'd scratch the David Barton.

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Jonathan Rowe
on July 10, 2019 at 08:32:19 am

Bill: "Franklin wasn’t a deist. Jefferson was, but not like we think. Adams saw the Constitution as inspired by the Ten Commandments."

Karen: "So that it was possible for a communicating member of the Episcopal Church to join the Freemasons without violating their conscience. And for orthodox Protestants, Jews, Unitarians (a kind of American Deism), and Freemasons to speak of God using the same terms (God, Creator, Supreme Judge of the World, and Divine Providence) even if they did not define these terms in exactly the same way. They were all referring to the Power that created the Universe and the laws which govern it."

Arguably J. Adams, Franklin and Jefferson all three were what Karen defines as "Unitarians (a kind of American Deism)." That's what Gregg Frazer's book (mentioned in the original piece) is about. He argues others like Washington, Madison etc. were too; it's possible. But the evidence is stronger with those three who basically wrote the DOI.

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Jonathan Rowe
on July 10, 2019 at 15:15:00 pm

The Golden Rule is given in the Old and the New Testament: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (summary of the Second Table of the Law), "What is hateful to yourself, don't do to others. This is the whole of the Law. All the rest is commentary. No, go! Study!" (Rabbi Hillel's version of the Golden Rule), and "In everything, as you would that men would do unto you, do ye likewise even so unto them, fort this is the Law and the Prophets" (Jesus' version of the Golden Rule based on Hillel).

This is the basis of the long tradition about the Golden Rule being tied to the Ten Commandments. It is the basis of the Judeo-Christian Natural Law tradition which also incorporates Greco-Roman moral and political philosophy where they are in agreement. And this is where people like John Locke got most of their ideas.

The question about whether we have the "right" version of the Ten Commandments, as I understand it, usually revolves around the translation of the Sixth Commandment. One version says "Thou shalt not kill" and the other says "Thou shalt not murder". The difference in meaning is enormous, but the confusion exists in the Hebrew, which can easily be resolved by a study of the Torah.

In the Torah, killing is defined in two ways: Lawful killing and unlawful killing. Both are further defined to allow a judge to determine what kind of lawful killing or murder it was. A lawful killing is one that is ordered by a duly-authorized official after a trial in which at least two witnesses give credible testimony that the defendant committed some type of murder, or when a nation goes to war in self-defense, or an officer of the law is required to prevent an unlawful killing. Self-defense is considered a lawful killing in principle, but each case must be evaluated on its own merits.

This means the correct translation must be "Thou shalt not murder".

I urge you all to read David Barton's "Original Intent". He is considered by many scholars, both religious and secular, to be one of the most reliable sources of information about the Founding Fathers' views on a variety of subjects. Over the years, he has adjusted a few of his conclusions based on further study. he is not doctrinaire. His book "Original Intent" is a compendium of citations from the historical record, mostly court rulings and official papers. Before he wrote this book, I had occasion to contact his research library to ask a question about a supposed quotation from James Madison. I had already contacted Cato Institution, Claremont Institute, Heritage Foundation and the Library of Congress, but they all said pretty much the same thing: Madison might have said it but there is no verifiable source so it must remain "attributed".

I spoke to one of Barton's research assistants and was told that Barton could not find a source, either, so he was no longer citing it. I had several conversations with his assistants and actually brought to their attention something they did not know about the Separation of Church and State principle--that it came from the Protestant Reformation to America by way of Roger Williams, and it was intended to protect Liberty of Conscience (the church) from the power of the sword (the state). Some years later, I saw Barton elaborate on the subject, and he had obviously followed up on this and expanded his commentary accordingly.

Barton is certainly more reliable than a number of popular historians who think the ideas in the Declaration of Independence came from the French. Anyway, I like to read from a variety of scholars, but I prefer to read primary sources for myself. When it comes to the Founding Fathers, you have to get past the notion that we are talking about a handful of men, or a dozen men, or a score of men, or even several hundred. You have to define correctly who they were to be able to say with any certainty what they believed.

To understand the DOI, you must know how the Founding generation defined terms.

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Karen Renfro
on July 10, 2019 at 19:10:00 pm

"I urge you all to read David Barton’s “Original Intent”. He is considered by many scholars, both religious and secular, to be one of the most reliable sources of information about the Founding Fathers’ views on a variety of subjects. "

LOL. That's the opposite of the truth. And I am aware of the James Madison quotation: it's phony. No need to dance around it.

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Jonathan Rowe
on July 11, 2019 at 12:44:44 pm

My sources are not one-dimensional. I do not assume anything when I begin an inquiry into a matter. Nor do I subscribe to any academic theory about history. I think the way you study history is to assume nothing and let the historical record speak for itself.

If you want to understand the Founders, you have to go beyond the opinions of orthodox academia. These folks spend a lot of time writing silly papers about their colleagues' silly theories. They spend very little time in primary sources and do not exert themselves much if they do. Thus, the eminent David Hackett Fischer was able to amass a monumental body of knowledge about Paul Revere and his times based on entirely original research. Many of the records had not been seen since they were packed away after the Founding.

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Karen Renfro
on July 12, 2019 at 07:57:28 am

Karen,

I go right to the primary sources and have been doing this for well over a decade. See my linked website. While some academics operate with blinders on it's not the case that all of them do.

David Barton has made enough serious mistakes that he's damaged his credibility. And yes it's the professionals who played a big role in calling him out.

On a related note, I'm interested in the source of your Trenchard and Gordon 10 commandments quotation. Your quotation on this site is the only place it occurs on the Internet.

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Jonathan Rowe
on July 12, 2019 at 14:44:26 pm

"The Independent Whig" was a weekly journal that preceded "Cato's Letters". It is cited in Ronald Hamowy's introduction to Liberty Fund's annotated two-volume edition of Cato's Letters (1995). But I have an anthology of Trenchard & Gordon that includes several Independent Whig essays, "The English Libertarian Heritage", edited by Hamowy with an introduction by David Jacobson.

In that introduction, Jacobson says that later in life John Adams wrote that in the early 1770's "'Cato's Letters and The Independent Whig, and all the writings of Trenchard & Gordon, Mrs. Macauley's History, Burgh's Political Disquisitions, Clarendon's History...all the writings relative to the revolutions in England became fashionable reading.' The importance attributed to the work of the two Englishmen, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, by John Adams has recently been affirmed by the American historian Clinton Rossiter: 'No one can spend any time in the newspapers, library inventories, and pamphlets of colonial America without realizing that Cato's Letters rather than Locke's Civil Government was the most popular, quotable, esteemed source of political ideas in the colonial period.'"

It is important to understand that Trenchard & Gordon were introduced to the colonies in the early 1720s and their works were bound together in one volume, printed and reprinted many times over the next fifty years. They were always among the top ten best-selling books in the thirteen colonies. The Number One best-seller was always The Holy Bible. This is not to say that American was founded as a Christian nation. It was not. But it was founded on Judeo-Christian Natural Law principles. That is why we are able to have religious, economic & political liberty for all.

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Karen Renfro
on July 13, 2019 at 08:44:08 am

Okay Karen. I know the Trenchard & Gordon stuff edited by Hamowy at the Liberty Fund is available online. But I was looking for your quotation on the ten commandments and it wasn't coming up.

BTW, the vast majority of work I do is self published; but I have a done a little non-self published stuff and Hamowy, who was an online friend of mine, edited one of my pieces (for Cato, named after Cato). He was a treasure. The preeminent scholar of the Scottish Enlightenment. And those words ought to figure into your analysis.

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Jonathan Rowe
on July 13, 2019 at 09:07:38 am

". The great Protestant Reformer John Calvin taught that if a people are to do this according to God’s commandments, their civilian authorities must lead them. He would have approved of the American Revolution, but not the French."

Arguably Calvin would have disapproved of BOTH. Some of his follows who played up the notion of "interposition" may have supported the AR, but Calvin has some smoking gun quotations in his "Institutes" that suggest revolution is categorically wrong in the face of Romans 13 and the believers just have to suck it up.

He was very careful with his words when describing "interposition" that it must be done pursuant to the positive law, like impeaching a President. Not revolution. Ever.

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Jonathan Rowe
on July 13, 2019 at 18:24:32 pm

Jonathan:

As I said before the quotation from Trenchard & Gordon came from "The English Libertarian Heritage" (Fox & Wilkes, 1965). It is from "The Independent Whig", No, IX: March 16, 1720 -- Of the Clearness of Scripture, page 22. You might be able to find the book in the University of Alberta library.

Regarding your comments about John Calvin. I have three translations of the various editions of his "Institutes". I believe the 1559 edition, translated by Beveridge, is definitive. Calvin makes clear that it is the magistrate's duty to protect the Liberty of the people. It is very clear about the limits of resistance to tyrants. If the people are lead by their local magistrate or lord, then resistance to tyrants is not rebellion.

As best as I can make out, this includes taking up arms against a tyrant. When the members of the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence, that was on their minds. They wanted a government where the people could resolve problems peaceably. The famous slogan of the American Revolution, "Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God", precedes Jefferson & Franklin. It was a slogan of the English Civil War. I believe it goes back to Calvin & Knox. Sounds like them.

If a people act on their own, they are violating the law of God. But if they are lead by a duly-authorized magistrate or lord then they are not in rebellion. The American Revolution was not a rebellion because they were lead by their elected representatives in the colonial assemblies who were elected to the Continental Congress.

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Karen Renfro
on July 13, 2019 at 18:50:26 pm

Karen,

Thank you for the T&G source.

"“Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God”, ... Didn't come from Calvin. It came from one of his followers. America did more than just "resist," it revolted. The beginning of America's DOI (which by the way profoundly influenced the French Revolution) is not consistent with what Calvin wrote in Institutes. Though it may resonate more with what later Calvinists wrote.

You can see a discussion of the exact quotes from Calvin's "Institutes" in the article below by Gregg Frazer (mentioned in Seaton's OP).

https://www.wnd.com/2008/08/71614/

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Jonathan Rowe

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