The Religious Values of the Declaration of Independence
The 4th of July is almost upon us. When it arrives, we will gather for barbecues, soft drinks, and beer, and enjoy the holiday with neighbors, family, and friends. And most of us, amidst the food and festivities, will spend at least a few minutes talking about the state of our country and contemplating the meaning of the day.
And while there is much that divides us, we will nonetheless find comfort in the knowledge that we Americans share an abiding love of our country. We particularly treasure the freedom of this land. And as significant as our differences are, we will not permit them to overwhelm us. The 4th is an appropriate occasion for us to remember that in America, there is a fundamental unity in our diversity. And it is a time to recall as well that what Americans need right now is less anger and more thoughtful reflection, less shouting and more listening. Even when we disagree, an inevitable occurrence in our contentious democracy, we can do so without demonizing each other. We can build bridges, focus on our shared values, and join together in common cause, working always for civility in public debate.
Perhaps the best way to promote respect for our common values and our shared identity is to recall the document that we celebrate on July 4th that lays out for us what it means to be an American. This year is the 240th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the proclamation that initiated the American experiment and that still, better than any text of that period or later, summons us to the moral vision of America’s founders.
The stirring words of the Declaration were revolutionary then and remain so today. In the Declaration, the founders focused on the values that animated the soon-to-be-born country and the ideals to which it aspired. Caught up in the daring of rebellion and the fervor of the moment, the founders used the text of the Declaration to speak the language of conscience and principle. The Constitution, on the other hand, is a practical document and a careful work of compromise; in it, the Declaration’s principles were often submerged and dissolved in the pragmatic give-and-take of creating the political structures of the new republic.
This is why America’s greatest leaders often referred back to the Declaration. In his 1860 Cooper Union speech on slavery that paved his road to the presidency, Abraham Lincoln did not dwell on the Constitution, which grounded slavery in law. He focused instead on the Declaration, which asserted ideals that, by implication at least, rejected the legalized human bondage that had stained our country’s honor and undermined its foundation. And this is why much of America’s history can best be understood as a great struggle to make the Constitution more consonant with the Declaration of Independence.
In our country’s current difficulties, there is much in the Declaration that can help us. Let us take a single passage, certainly the best known, which states that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…”
These words are extraordinary on many levels.
First, they tell an important story about how the founding fathers viewed religion. The founders were not secularists. They believed in God. The inalienable rights of man—the principle at the very center of the Declaration—were not a humanistic notion or abstract ideal; they were a gift from the Creator of humankind. The morality of the founders was rooted in religion, and they were convinced that the morality of the people depended on a vibrant religious life.
At the same time, of course, they did not want government to be an agent of religion, and they refused to use sectarian—specifically Christian—images. It was they who authored the First Amendment, the noble sanctuary of our most precious freedoms. And tellingly, while the Declaration mentions God, the Constitution does not.
So what are we to conclude from all this? The answer, it seems to me, is that the founders had a view of religion that was both more complicated and more positive than we usually imagine. They knew that keeping religion and politics in proper balance required constant vigilance, and they opposed any form of government sanction for religion. But they surely did not want to banish religion from public life altogether, and they were prepared to invoke God in a way that was unifying and not divisive. For the founders, religion and God were not an afterthought; they were a first principle of the Declaration.
Second, the ringing words about inalienable rights resonate with special power on this July 4th. Drawing on Biblical precedent (Genesis 1:27), the Declaration of Independence affirms in the most specific language possible that every single American is deserving of dignity, respect, and equal rights in the eyes of God and government. That, the Declaration tells us, is how God created us. And rights that are “inalienable” are just that—not subject to change, or diminishment, or dismissal, or indifference. This principle is the heart of the American experience: We are all created equal, and we are all entitled to the respect that flows from that reality, along with the rights and responsibilities. That is what America is; that is what America does.
And these rights apply not only to those mentioned in the Declaration, but to all: Rich and poor, white and black, man and woman, Asian and Hispanic, gay and straight, Jew and Christian, Muslim and Hindu. Many of these groupings, of course, did not even exist in America in the colonial era. At the time of the founders, there was no feminist movement or gay rights movement. Gays were invisible and talk of women’s rights was mostly suppressed, to the point of invisibility. And Muslims were nowhere to be found. Nonetheless, the Declaration’s intent is clear. Abraham Lincoln knew that if we are all created equal, then slavery is wrong, and in fact an abomination, even if the founders did not connect the dots. And what was true for slaves is no less true for women, gays, Muslims, immigrants, and Hispanics. The Declaration is clear. Their rights too are “inalienable,” even if unstated.
And so, on this July 4th, let us celebrate America and the extraordinary diversity of people and of faith that makes America strong. Let us celebrate too the Declaration of Independence that brought America into being. And especially now, at a time when mockery, derision, scorn, and contempt dominate our public discourse, let all Americans affirm the central truth of the Declaration: We are all children of God and equal in God’s sight.