Americans of all political stripes invoked the Declaration of Independence this Fourth of July week. Some read the document and found, as Harvard Prof. Alan Dershowitz has, that it “rejected Christianity, along with other organized religions, as a basis for governance.” Others saw the same language proving the opposite, that our nation was founded on “Judeo- Christian values.” Such definitive statements do not tell the full story. The American Framers, in their desire to unite a nation, were theologically bilingual—not only in the Declaration of Independence but beyond.
That document was the work of many hands. As is well known, the first draft was written by Thomas Jefferson. That version began with a religious reference that largely remained in the final version, stating that the United States were assuming the independent status, “to which the laws of nature and of nature’s god entitle them.”
The phrase “Nature’s God” is not a product of traditional religious denominations, but is generally associated with 18th-century Deism. That philosophy centered on what has been called “natural theology,” a belief that while a “Creator” started the universe and established the laws of nature, the modern world saw no divine intervention or miracles.
The most famous religious phrase in the Declaration—that people are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights”—was not included in Jefferson’s original draft. He had written that people derive inherent rights form their “equal Creation.” The iconic language was added by a small committee, including Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.
“Creator” was a theologically ambiguous word. Most Deists used it, but it was also commonly spoken by the most orthodox religions of the day. Timothy Dwight, a Congregational minister who served as president of Yale College from 1795-1817, delivered a sermon stating that the Bible contained “as full a proof, that Christ is the Creator, as that . . . the Creator is God.”
Often overlooked in discussing the Declaration of Independence are two more religious references, both added to its closing paragraph by other delegates in the Continental Congress. The delegates described themselves as “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions,” and they affirmed their “firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.”
These phrases were widely regarded as being far more traditionally religious than the earlier language. Ashbel Green, a Presbyterian minister and Jefferson critic who served as chaplain of the House of Representatives in the 1790s, cited these sections to assert that had they not been added, Jefferson would have permitted the American call for independence to be “made without any recognition of the superintending and all disposing providence of God.”
But even after the congressional editing, the language of the Declaration wasn’t limited to a particular faith. Deliberately designed to be as inclusive as possible, it was a quintessentially American achievement—specific enough to be embraceable by those with orthodox religious views but broad enough to permit each American to feel fully included and equally respected.
George Washington maintained this adroit balance when he became president. In his first inaugural address, written with the assistance of James Madison, Washington declared that it would be “peculiarly improper to omit in this first official Act, my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the Universe.”
Even Jefferson and Madison, often described as believing in a total separation of religion and government, continued the practice of using inclusive religious language. Jefferson urged in his first inaugural, “May that infinite power, which rules the destinies of the universe, lead our councils to what is best,” while Madison stated that, “my confidence will under every difficulty be best placed . . . in the guardianship and guidance of that Almighty Being whose power regulates the destiny of nations.”
The Framers didn’t see such nondenominational language as divisive. They believed it was possible—in fact desirable—to have a public expression of religion that is devout, as long as it recognizes and affirms the variety of belief systems that exist in our pluralistic nation. – Michael Meyerson, professor of law at the University of Baltimore School of Law, is author of “Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America,” recently published by Yale University Press.
HOUSES OF WORSHIP, July 5, 2012, 7:00 p.m. ET, The Wall Street Journal Online, Copyright 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved