Pledging to the God of the Declaration of Independence

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Dec 18, 2007 3 Comments ›› Greg Jones

Pledging to the God of the Declaration of Independence

My last post (http://morallaw reported in general on the arguments recently made before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals concerning Michael Newdow’s constitutional challenges to “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and to the national motto “In God We Trust.”  At the end of that post I hinted that the most fascinating argument advanced in that oral argument was made by Kevin Hasson (http://www NULL.becketfund NULL.php/person/3 NULL.html), the founder and president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty (http://www NULL.becketfund, who opposed Newdow by representing some of the school children that want to be able to recite the Pledge as it is.  He argued (http://www NULL.nysun (quoting from the New York Sun):

[T]he God in the pledge is the same God referred to in the Declaration of Independence, but is not the deity in the Bible. “It wasn’t the Christian God. It wasn’t the Jewish God. It was the philosopher’s God,” Mr. Hasson said. He said the “under God” reference refers to a creator early philosophers and scientists like Aristotle concluded “could be known by reason alone.”

Mr. Hasson has the honor of making an argument that I can unequivocally state I have never heard in any previous Establishment Clause case.  He is actually claiming that the God referenced in the Pledge is not the God of the Bible, but rather is some amorphous “philosopher’s God.”  Even more, this is supposedly the God whom the Founders believed in because that is the God referenced in the Declaration of Independence.  Let’s examine these claims in their logical order.

First, there is no doubt that the Congress which inserted “under God” in the Pledge intended to refer to the same God referenced in the Declaration of Independence.  On June 22, 1954, Senator Thomas Burke spoke about the addition of “under God” to the Pledge and drew direct parallels to the Declaration:

We see the pledge, as it now stands, as a formal declaration of our duty to serve God and our firm reliance, now as in 1776, on the protection of divine providence.  The pledge in this form should receive immediate wide dissemination, and on the coming July Fourth, anniversary of that occasion on which the Continental Congress simultaneously declared our independence of England and our dependence upon God, young voices and old should rise all over the land in this solemn pledge . . . . 

Moreover, the House of Representatives Report on the resolution proposing the insertion of “under God” in the Pledge quotes extensively from the Declaration, citing its four specific references to “the existence of the Creator” as a precursor to the language in the Pledge.  (House Report No. 1693, May 28, 1954).    

That Congress was referring to the Christian God when it inserted “under God” in the Pledge seems equally clear.  The House Report on the proposal stated in part:

At this moment in our history the principles underlying our American Government and the American way of life are under attack by a system whose philosophy is at direct odds with our own.  Our American Government is founded on the concept of the individuality and the dignity of the human being.  Underlying this concept is the belief that the human person is important because he was created by God and endowed by Him with certain inalienable rights which no civil authority may usurp.  The inclusion of God in our pledge therefore would further acknowledge the dependence of our people and our Government upon the moral directions of the Creator.  At the same time it would serve to deny the atheistic and materialistic concepts of communism with its attendant subservience of the individual.

This statement is followed in the legislative history by references to God throughout American history meant to demonstrate that “[f]rom the time of our earliest history our peoples and our institutions have reflected the traditional concept that our Nation was founded on a fundamental belief in God.”  The references included: The Mayflower Compact (1620), the Supreme Court’s opinion in Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States (1892), the aforementioned Declaration of Independence, and quotes from the founder of Pennsylvania William Penn and Virginia’s great legislator, George Mason.  A closer look at all of these citations indicates that the God referenced in the Pledge is the Christian God. 

In the Mayflower Compact (http://www NULL.historyplace NULL.htm), the famous Pilgrims declared that they had undertaken their voyage “for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith.”  After providing a litany of historical examples, Justice Brewer’s opinion in Church of the Holy Trinity (http://members NULL.htm) unequivocally stated: “These, and many other matters which might be noticed, add a volume of unofficial declarations to the mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation.”  143 U. S. 457, 471 (1892).  William Penn was a devout Quaker who attested in a letter to the King of Poland (http://www NULL.qhpress NULL.htm), among other places, that he believed ”there is one God and Father, one Lord Jesus Christ, and one Holy Spirit, and these three are one.”  George Mason was the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights (http://www NULL.constitution NULL.htm) (1776), the foremost precursor to the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights.  The last article of the Declaration of Rights proclaimed, in part, that “all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and . . . it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity, towards each other.” 

As if all of this were not proof enough, a recounting of the signing ceremony for the Pledge bill by the Senate Chaplain that was placed in the Congressional Record noted:

There stood Senator Homer Ferguson, who had sponsored the resolution in the Senate, and with him a group of legislative colleagues from both houses of Congress.  As the radio carried their voices to listening thousands, together these lawmakers repeated the pledge which is now the Nation’s.  Then, appropriately, as the flag was raised a bugle rang out with the familiar strains of Onward, Christian Soldiers!  (Cong. Rec. June 22, 1954, p 8317).

Thus, it can be stated without equivocation both that the God referenced in the Pledge is the Christian God and is intended to be the same God referenced in the Declaration of Independence.  This alone is enough to debunk Mr. Hasson’s claim that “under God” referred to “the philosopher’s God.”  But let us explore one step further and ask: Did the Founders intend to reference a generic “philosopher’s God” when they penned the mighty words of the Declaration?  The Declaration of Independence explicitly references God four times.  It mentions “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God”; it proclaims that “all men are created equal, [and] that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”; it appeals to “the Supreme Judge of the World”; and it professes “a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.”  Are these amorphous, generic “supreme being” references or are they terms for a specific God?

Strict separationists like Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and atheists like those at Freedom from Religion Foundation often claim these are generic rote references in order to downplay the Christian influence on the founding of our country.  They typically say that the Founders were deists at best and only employed religious language to dupe the masses in America to go along with their proposals.  This claim is, by and large, flatly false.  As Librarian of Congress James Hutson has observed, the Founders “were demonstrably, regular churchgoers, who knew their Bibles and incorporated scriptural texts into their working vocabularies.”  Most of the Founders were thoroughgoing Christians, while a few were less religious.  All were theists, believing that an all-powerful God had created life and blessed America.  Even Common Sense (http://www NULL.earlyamerica NULL.html) author Thomas Paine, who later wrote diatribes against Christianity (for which he was castigated in America), stated in his infamous Age of Reason (http://www NULL.infidels NULL.html) that, “I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.”  Belief in the afterlife is not a deist doctrine.

The separationists and atheists’ most common “proof” of the Founders’ deism is Thomas Jefferson.  Their claim that Jefferson was a deist leads them to a syllogism which goes something like this:

(1) Jefferson was a deist;

(2) Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence; therefore,

(3) The Declaration is a deistic document, referencing a generic God.

This syllogism would be clever if it were not based on two false premises.  First, Jefferson was not a deist.  Navigating this issue requires proper definitions.  Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language (http://1828 NULL.mshaffer, the first standard dictionary of American English, defines a deist as “One who believes in the existence of a God, but denies revealed religion, but follows the light of nature and reason, as his only guides in doctrine and practice; a freethinker.”  The key to this definition is the emphasis on following “the light of nature and reason” because deists held that God does not intervene in human affairs and that supernatural intervention was not necessary to life and understanding of the world.  Jefferson did not believe this.  In one of his most famous quotes, he discussed the repercussions for the nation regarding slavery and noted:

And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God?  That they are not to be violated but with His wrath?  Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever . . . .”  (Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII (http://www NULL.teachingamericanhistory NULL.asp?document=529), 1781). 

This quote clearly considers God’s intervention, and even judgment, in human affairs.  In a letter to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse (http://etext NULL.virginia NULL.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&tag=public&part=266&division=div1) on June 22, 1823, Jefferson wrote, “The doctrines of Jesus are simple, and tend all to the happiness of man. 1. That there is one only God, and he all perfect. 2. That there is a future state of rewards and punishments. 3. That to love God with all thy heart and thy neighbor as thyself, is the sum of religion.”  As I noted before, believing in a future state of rewards and punishments is contrary to deist doctrine. 

Other quotes could be culled from Jefferson’s writings, but the above statements should suffice to establish that—while Jefferson was not thoroughgoing Christian—he certainly was not a deist.  This matters because it means that when Jefferson referenced God in the Declaration, even his version of God was not the distant “philosopher’s God” Hasson argued for before the 9th Circuit. 

Even so, the fact that Jefferson was the primary author of the Declaration matters very little when pondering the religious content in the document.  To begin with, while it is true that Jefferson wrote the bulk of the Declaration of Independence, significant changes (http://www NULL.wsu NULL.HTM) to the document were made by the Continental Congress.  In fact, two of the four references to God in the Declaration were inserted by the Congress: “the Supreme Judge of the World” and the “firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.”  Both of these references describe a God who is active in the affairs of men. 

More important for this post than who gets credit for the authorship of the Declaration is its audience.  Jefferson himself related in an 1825 letter to Henry Lee (http://www NULL.teachingamericanhistory NULL.asp?documentprint=3) who the audience was when he said that the Declaration was “intended to be an expression of the American mind and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by that occasion.”  The American people—to whom and for whom the Declaration spoke—were overwhelmingly Christian.  A ten year study of 15,000 documents from the founding era (1760-1805) showed that the Founders quoted the Bible more frequently than any other sources.  Thirty-four percent of their citations were directly to the Bible.  (See Donald S. Lutz, The Origin of American Constitutionalism, pp. 141-143 (1988)).  Other authors they frequently cited—such as John Locke, William Blackstone, and Baron Montesquieu—also cited the Bible frequently as an authority for their political ideas.  This is relevant because it shows that the Founders not only knew their Bibles, they also understood that their audience knew and respected the Bible as an unparalleled authority.  Both Jefferson and the Continental Congress at large referenced God in the Declaration first because they believed it to be important and second because they knew that their audience would feel it was necessary when discussing momentous topics like the rights of man and the independence of a new nation.  These references were part of the “expression of the American mind” the Declaration represented. 

More specifically, the references to God in the Declaration do not indicate a distant deistic God who set the world in motion and does not care at all what has transpired since the beginning.  It is not the language one uses to describe, as one writer (http://maverickphilosopher NULL.powerblogs NULL.shtml) has put it, “a blind metaphysical cause posited to explain why the universe began to exist.”  Consider each reference in turn. 

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them . . . . 

The “political bands” refers to the colonies’ relationship with Great Britain.  The “Powers of the Earth” are the governments of countries around the world.  This passage claims that God’s law “entitle[s]” the colonies to break away from the government of Great Britain and to form a new government.  In making its central claim—independence from Britain—the Declaration appeals to God’s law as the highest authority for breaking away.  There would be no need to appeal to God as an authority if they did not view Him as relevant to these momentous affairs.  In their minds, the laws of society were derived from God’s law, and, by implication, if a law or a regime (i.e., Great Britain) contravened that divine source it lacked legitimate authority.  The passage further assumes, as the second paragraph of the document spells out in more detail, that God is the author of government, which is an organizational principle of society that He has implanted in the laws of nature.  Only a God who cares about the affairs of men would bother with providing for the organization of society. 

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 abolish it, and to institute a new government . . . . 

We already know from the first passage that Americans of the founding generation believed God had created the universe with set laws of nature and part of those laws involved the establishment of government.  In this second passage we see that Americans also believed that God created mankind and endowed him with certain basic rights.  Noah Webster said the word “endow” meant (http://1828 NULL.mshaffer,endow) “to enrich or furnish with any gift, quality or faculty.”  These rights are a gift of God.  Gifts are special and are meant by the giver to be enjoyed to the fullest.  Note that they are not just rights, but rather “unalienable rights”—rights that cannot be taken away.  They cannot be taken precisely because they were given by God and not by “the Powers of the Earth,” i.e., government.  In fact, God had given the people the right to change or abolish the government if it failed to respect these vital rights.  Also notice that these are not merely opinions or beliefs; they are “self-evident truths.”  They are self-evident because they were made apparent by God to man through the laws of nature so that no person or government can claim to be ignorant of the responsibility to respect the rights of others.  The laws of nature are, as Paul says in Romans 1:20 (http://www NULL.biblegateway, written on the hearts of men “so that they are without excuse.”  They are “truths” because they come directly from the Creator of everything—including truth—and they are written into the fabric of the laws of nature.

So Americans believed that God had given them irrevocable rights, chief among them being the rights to live, to be free, and to pursue whatever they wished within the limits of the laws of nature and the laws of society.  They also believed that government power is limited by these rights because they were endowed by God.  Systematic violation of these rights is a moral wrong so grave that it justifies revolution.  This is a vision of a God who loves and cares about His creation: He cares about the happiness of mankind, desiring people to live and to be free, and not to abide tyrannical government.  It also presents a picture of an eternal God who defines for all-time what is true and right as well as what is immoral and wrong.  Americans of that generation believed in the goodness of God and in absolute right and wrong. In the Declaration, they were holding the government of Great Britain accountable for its wrongdoing.  This is language describing a God with a personal creation relationship to mankind.  It is also a document that describes Britain’s wrongs with moral indignation.  These characteristics are unthinkable for the believer in a “philosopher’s God.” 

We, therefore, the representatives of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, in GENERAL CONGRESS, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the rectitude of our intentions . . . do, in the name, and by the authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States; . . . .

This language essentially amounts to the representatives of the Continental Congress swearing before God that they had the right motives in declaring independence.  They were not just seeking their own self-interest, but the interests of all Americans.  For this appeal to carry any weight, it had to mean that Americans believed in the concept of an eternal judgment, “a future state of rewards and punishments,” as Jefferson put it.  The title “the Supreme Judge of the World” illustrates that Americans believed in a God who is the impartial and ultimate judge of human actions.  They did not just appeal to the record of grievances against the king, to common sense, or to reason for their authority to declare independence or their rightness in so doing.  They appealed to God because of their belief in a higher law: an absolute moral standard that dictates consequences beyond the grave for thoughts and actions in this life.  In the Declaration, Americans wanted it to be known that they were not just politically justified in claiming independence, but, more important to them, they were morally justified in doing so.  To be truly moral requires not just upright conduct but also pure motives.  Only God could search and know the mind and the heart to judge ”the rectitude of our intentions” because it is ”Almighty God [who] hath created the mind free,” as Jefferson stated in his Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (http://press-pubs NULL.uchicago NULL.html).  Yet again, the God referenced here is a personal God who intimately knows the both the thoughts and actions of His creations, a God who cares enough about His creations to make their lives count now and in eternity.  It is a far cry from the distant God of the philosophers.

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

If it was not obvious before, the Declaration makes it crystal clear in this concluding line that Americans of the revolutionary era believed in a God who entered into human affairs.  Only a God who plays an active role in the affairs of men could offer protection for the American cause.  As Webster said (http://1828 NULL.mshaffer,providence), “providence” is “the care and superintendence which God exercises over his creatures.  He that acknowledges a creation and denies a providence, involves himself in a palpable contradiction; for the same power which caused a thing to exist is necessary to continue its existence. . . . By divine providence is often understood God himself.”  Such is exactly what the Founding Fathers and Americans at large believed.  They knew that God could intervene on their behalf and often attested to his doing so after the war concluded.  For example, Benjamin Franklin remarked in his famous oration of June 28, 1787 (http://www NULL.americanrhetoric NULL.htm) before the Constitutional Convention that, ”All of us who were engaged in the struggle [for independence] must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor.  To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity.” George Washington noted in his First Inaugural Address on April 30, 1789 (http://www NULL.nationalcenter NULL.html) that, “No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than the people of the United States.  Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.”  This was not a weak faith, but rather a “firm reliance” on which those of the revolutionary generation were willing to bet everything they held dear: their wealth, their lives, and their good names.  They steadfastly believed that God would protect this endeavor for independence because they were vindicating rights He had bestowed upon them and were acting with clear consciences on the world stage.  Including this strong statement of faith in the Declaration’s conclusion emphasized God’s importance to their lives and to the American cause. 

All of this emphatically illustrates that the God of the Declaration of Independence was not the generic “philosopher’s God” that ACLU-types (and apparently Mr. Hasson) like to claim it is in an effort to diminish the role of religion in America’s founding.  It must be admitted that the language used in the Declaration is not sufficient to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the God referred to is the Christian God because there is no mention of the Trinity, Jesus, or specific Biblical references.  But given that the Declaration’s secondary audience was Enlightenment Europe, and especially France with whom America wanted to form a military alliance, this is hardly surprising.  An Enlightenment rationalist could cursorily read the Declaration’s invocations of the Divine and not become too alarmed because the document was not evangelizing for a particular faith.  On the other hand, a typical American who attended church regularly and held the Bible to be the sacred word of God could read the Declaration and catch its philosophical—even theological—nuances, and be proud of the statement it made.  This dual voice of the Declaration is part of its genius and it does not diminish in any way its references to God.  If the Enlightenment and reason were all that concerned the Founders or the American people at large they could have easily left out the specific references to God or used terms that did not carry the implications of those terms actually employed.  They certainly did not need to add more references than Jefferson’s original draft, but they did.  The most obvious and historically accurate reason they included these references is simply because they truly believed in an all-powerful, personal Creator whose favor they wished to implore in their grand statement of nationhood.  To most Americans, this Creator was the God of Christianity, the religion James Madison called “the best & purest religion.”  (Letter to Rev. Jasper Adams, September 1833).

Why Mr. Hasson would deny this before a tribunal of federal judges is somewhat of a mystery.  Indeed, the Becket Fund’s press release (http://www NULL.becketfund NULL.php/article/726 NULL.html?PHPSESSID=9afb71526c9cd736d49c52faef937798) regarding the oral argument makes no mention of Mr. Hasson’s “philosopher’s God” argument, which is not surprising given that more than a few of the Fund’s donors would likely be displeased with such an argument.  Giving Mr. Hasson the benefit of the doubt, he was probably making this “generic God argument” in an effort to make the Pledge comport with the Establishment Clause opinions of Justice O’Connor, who popularized the phrase “ceremonial deism” when discussing government references to God in our nation’s history.  Justice O’Connor liked to say that certain phrases like “In God We Trust,” “God save the United States and this honorable court,” and “under God” in the Pledge had become so rote that the religious meaning had been driven out of them.  They are now more customary than substantive, she reasoned, and so any endorsement of religion that could be attributed to them at one time has disappeared.  According to Justice O’Connor, this is why these references to God survive constitutional scrutiny.  Apparently the thought never occurred to Justice O’Connor that perhaps references to God by themselves do not “respect[] an establishment of religion” and therefore they do not violate the First Amendment. 

However, even if Mr. Hasson was attempting to reconcile “under God” with a Supreme Court justice’s opinions, I do not see how it is a victory to keep “under God” in the Pledge or “In God We Trust” as the national motto if the federal courts proclaim they are fine simply because they do not mean anything, i.e., they are devoid of religious content.  Mr. Hasson certainly seemed to think “under God” meant something when he said in his press release that, “This is about a lot more than just how school kids start their day. It’s about where the next generation thinks its rights come from—the creator or the state.” 

Either these statements say something about this country, its history, and our beliefs or they are meaningless platitudes.  If they are the former, then we ought to be honest and fight for them on that basis, being proud of our history, our blessings, and our God, because these have distinguished us from other nations.  If they are the latter, then we should stop making a fuss about the Pledge and the motto and let them be what Newdow and other atheists want them to be: mere patriotic slogans.  In traveling the Newdow path, however, let there be no doubt that we would be forsaking the beliefs and practices of the Founding generation.

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  1. Positive Liberty » Pledging Allegiance to the Philosophers’ God (http://positiveliberty NULL.html) says:

    [...] It’s amusing to see one of Roy Moore’s cronies struggle with this conception. He the New York Sun article: [T]he God in the pledge is the same God referred to in the Declaration of Independence, but is not the deity in the Bible. “It wasn’t the Christian God. It wasn’t the Jewish God. It was the philosopher’s God,” Mr. Hasson said. He said the “under God” reference refers to a creator early philosophers and scientists like Aristotle concluded “could be known by reason alone.” [...]

  2. Lary Nine says:

    Fortunately, the language of the foundational documents cannot be made to conform to your views even if Jesus of Nazareth himself sat on the Supreme Court. It says what it says and clearly as crystal. Be satisfied with your 1st Amendment protections to practice your religion. Why do you need so much to force it down the collective American throat? I understand your feverish compulsion to evangelize but must you be so annoyingly eisegetical about it?

  3. Albert Nygren says:

    Reading comments from people trying to take God out of the Declaration of Independence gives me a chuckle. The Declaration says that we are endowed by our “Creator” certain “unalienable” rights. It doesn’t say we are endowed by Evolution or some other nonsence, it says our Creator, that means God. It says we are endowed by our Creator with certaing unalienable rights. Part of the definition of “unalienable” is that it cannot be taken away; it is something not granted by the government because anything the government grants it can take away.

    Without God we do not have any unalienable rights. The powerful can take what they want and the weak get nothing. During the Constitutional convention the framers of the Constitution wanted to be quick about writing it and get on to other things as soon as possible. One of them said that it did not make much difference what they wrote as they believed the country would write a completely different Constitution within 2 years any way.

    George Washington stood up and spoke to the framers of the Constitution and said, “No.” He told them that their tiny army could have defeated a world power such as Britain was unless Providence had been on our side and that God had plans for this country. By the force of George’s will, charisma, and presence; he held the framers there until they had completed such a great Constitution that it is the envy of all the world. It has been amended but never scrapped and a new one written.

    I have an 1880 silver dollar that says as plain as day on it, “In God we trust.”. No sir, this country was founded as a Judeo/Christian country. It’s laws were based on the Bible. My saying these things is not “pushing anything down anyones throat”. It amazes me that Atheists say that any person just stating their religeous viws are, “pushing their religeous views down their throat” If I say that chocolate is sold in both it’s white form and a dark form, that is not pushing anything down anyone’s throat. It doesn’t require anyone to eat either white chocolate or brown chocolate. It is the same with saying that God is real and that He is both the Creator and the Ruler of the Universe. It does not require anyone to believe me or do what I say.

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