The Political Theology of the Declaration of Independence
Brian Andrew Smith is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and Law at Montclair State University in New Jersey. Sarah Morgan Smith is an instructor in the Master of Arts in American History and Government (MAHG) program housed in the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University and co-director of the Ashbrook Center’s Religion in American History project.
As we celebrate our nation’s political independence, we would encourage you to actually read the text of the Declaration of Independence for yourself; read it out loud, or better yet, listen to it being read by someone else. In doing so, as this 1783 etching published in Britain near the end of the Revolution illustrates, you will be participating in the oldest of our national traditions: Americans “declared themselves independent” of Great Britain seven years before that independence was official by sketching out not only their grievances against the king, but also the basic principles underlying their political convictions. These, as Thomas Jefferson was careful to point out, were not “new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of,” but “an expression of the American mind.” The Declaration of Independence was central not just to the creation of the separate political entity known as the United States of America, but it did for the country what catechisms do for more traditional churches: it publicly elaborated the country's identity. That identity—grounded neither in blood nor soil but in principle—is what continues to set America apart from the rest of the nations of the world, and it is what makes the Declaration worthy of consideration not merely as an historic document but as a contemporary reminder of what binds us together as a people. As the preeminent statement of America’s core political principles, the Declaration serves as a moral standard: Our public practice both legally and conventionally has often fallen short of its aspirational heights, yet the fact that those aspirations exist at all provides an important standard against which we can measure our politics.
In today’s political climate, it may surprise some of us to learn that the Declaration is a deeply theistic document, one that is as much theological as philosophical. Yet there are four explicit references to God in the text: He is referred to as “Nature’s God” and as the “Creator” in the preamble, and as the “Supreme Judge of the world” and as “Divine Providence” in the final paragraph. In addition to these direct references, there are several additional principles that might be deduced from the central portion of the text, the list of grievances against the king and parliament of Great Britain.
In what follows, we will briefly consider the political theology of the Declaration of Independence, focusing on what we can gleam from this beautifully sparse text about the relationship between faith and the public square. Although the Declaration is not a Christian document, in the sense that it does not mention Jesus or point to any specific biblical revelation for its source of authority, neither is it an anti-Christian document. Rather, its argument grows out of what the natural law teaches: those things we can’t not know, truths so inescapable they can be described as self-evident, that is, not requiring outside evidence to substantiate them.
We begin with the preamble, in which we learn that in the American understanding, Nature is not simply wild and capricious but governed by Laws that are given to it by God. Nature, in this sense, refers not to the natural world simply, so the Laws of Nature cannot be simply things like Newton’s Laws or the gravitational constant. It includes human nature as well. As “Nature’s God,” He has provided an order to the world such that certain things are discernable as good or bad by reason—these are the “Laws of Nature” by which the Americans justify their actions and to which they make their appeal.
Chief among these, of course, are the “self-evident truths” of the second paragraph: 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.” Note that the American commitment to equality is clearly dependent upon a prior understanding of man as a creature: individual men are equal to one another first in the fact of their subordination to their mutual Creator, and secondly, in their shared possession of particular endowments from the same. As the Creator, God has given us the gift of an unspecified number of unalienable rights, including chief among them the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
In the peroration of the Declaration, God is once again directly referenced, this time in his capacities as the “supreme judge of the world” and as “Providence.” By referencing God as the Supreme Judge of the world, the Americans once again point to an authority apart from and above themselves. So, based on their understanding of the natural law created by the same authority, those who signed the Declaration believed that a revolution against Great Britain to be not only morally justified but required.
This implies, however, that there are political actions that are morally unjustifiable—even when consented to by legislative majorities or popular votes. We cannot consent to government that does not respect our fundamental rights, or that does not allow us to choose representatives in government. The Declaration’s logic also precludes the elevation of any particular derivative principle (equality, freedom, consent) above the foundational truths about the world as ordered by God, and so suggests that politics ought to be limited not merely by what is possible but by what is right and in accordance with the Laws of Nature. The Declaration’s appeal to God’s role as a judge also implies a belief in a future state of rewards and punishments; that is, in the eternal significance of our actions as citizens.
Finally, by closing the Declaration with an affirmation of their “firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence,” the text makes clear that this first creed of the United States includes an understanding of God as an ongoing, active presence in the world. He offers his protection and intervention in the affairs of men, rewarding them not only in the hereafter, but also in the here and now for the righteousness of their actions.
As far as it goes, the political theology of the Declaration is sound: It correctly identifies our status as created but fallen individuals and suggests that the remedy lies in understanding ourselves as subject to a natural law beyond our own making that compels us to restrain our desire to glorify ourselves at the expense of others. As Christians, however, we know that what the Declaration asks us to do is impossible apart from Christ: We cannot live in peace with our fellow man, respecting his equality and rights, on our own strength. This, after all, is part of why governments exists--to coerce the worst of us, and to coax the rest of us into believing that the costs of breaking that natural law outweigh the benefits.
The political theology of the Declaration then, is partial: It points us in the right direction, but without naming the destination. As those who claim the name of Christ, we ought to ask ourselves how our faith can help us to more fully embrace the aspirational goals of the Declaration. How can we encourage policies—in our homes, our businesses, our schools, and our towns—that enrich the life, liberty, and happiness of those around us? How can we be agents of Providence in politics, bringing light to the harsh shadows of the world around us?
The Declaration of Independence is not only a historical document but continues to be one of the Organic Laws of the United States. Its logic—and the political theology that undergirds it—is at the heart of our national identity and its aspirations continue to shape us as a people.
Indeed, even the aspirations of the Declaration to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" for all citizens point us to the need for something beyond it. The Declaration can only take us as far as a detente between sinners. It cannot, by itself, create community, which is the true heart of political life. As Christians, we ought to strive to bring about the sort of "beloved community" Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of when he applied the principles of the Declaration to the racial and economic injustices of his society. But in so doing, we shouldn’t forget that we are only wayfarers here in this world, and that politics ought not be our defining passion.
The challenge of living in light of the Declaration, though, is that while the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God are written on all of our hearts as self-evident truths, we are not endowed with a precise understanding of exactly how to defend those truths in politics. What it does provide is a starting point for serious discussion about civics and a moral limit to the scope of American politics. Although the Declaration is not specifically Christian, it is compatible with Christianity and in many ways, derivative of the Church’s core teachings about the nature of God and man. We celebrate the Declaration, therefore, not only as a landmark historical document but as a reminder that in America, religion is neither the master nor the slave of politics--rather, faith can be a partner in giving shape to the principles at the core of our national identity.
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