Christianity and The Declaration of Independence
Thursday, February 15, 2007
by James T. Smith
Just a few quick comments about your 9 February 2007 Commentary:
You spend so much time on a treaty and overlook The Declaration of Independence, while only referring to The Constitution and this treaty seem to work for you. That was convenient. Your article has a very narrow focus with very broad conclusions. Let me give you a few excerpts from The Declaration of Independence...
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 of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation...
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...
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.
Many of the Founding Fathers were God-fearing Christian men. Do some more research on this and learn about them, and about their intentions for a free country, with freedom to worship or not worship, and how they sought God to give them insight and direction in their leadership.
Another problem with your article is your lack of a clear definition of "Christian Nation." Our Founding Fathers, many, not all, were Christians. They had Christian beliefs and Christian values, and their Christianity was a spiritual way of life which affected decisions they made.
Did they want everyone to be Christians? No. Did they want people to have the freedom to worship who and what they wanted to, or nothing at all? Yes. Freedom is a key component of Christianity. And therein lies the answer to your question. Think about it. All of the writers of the Declaration signed it, and in signing it, they stated that with "...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." They all relied firmly on the protection of Divine Providence. Would they continue to lead their nation any differently than already stated in The Declaration of Independence?
James T. Smith
jtimsmith at juno dot com
Mr. Berg-Andersson responds:
First of all, you needn't have lectured me on the importance of the Declaration of Independence. I have, in many a Commentary or response to a 'vox Populi' on this very website in the past, quite often pointed out that the Declaration of Independence- like the Preamble of the Constitution of the United States itself- is a key to fully understanding the philosophical underpinning of the Republic/Union, known as the United States of America, which was- in truth- only first created by that very Constitution (for the "confederacy" of States established by the Articles of Confederation proved hardly "united"- hence the very need for that "more perfect Union" provided by the Constitution).
I am also perfectly aware of just what this relationship between Declaration and Constitution so strongly implies. To illustrate my awareness, I will here note that, as regarded a Commentary I wrote back in May 2004, entitled 'WE ANSWER TO A HIGHER AUTHORITY: Why America can't afford to emulate Barbarism', I purposely used the slogan once used in commercial advertising for a brand of kosher meats in that Commentary's title to most clearly make the relationship between what you yourself point out- that, as you so well put it, "All of the writers of the Declaration... relied firmly on the protection of Divine Providence" and the necessary values of the modern, early 21st Century American political, legal and governmental system that lineally derives its overall political philosophy from that very Declaration. (And, if only to give my May 2004 Commentary some context here now nearly three years later, I want it to be understood that I was, at the time, writing this piece in the immediate wake of people- including people in rather high places- openly defending what American military personnel at Abu Ghraib Prison had wrongly done to Iraqi prisoners in their custody in relationship to the horrific beheading of Nick Berg by extremist insurgents in Iraq not all that long after the Abu Ghraib story had broken [the argument to which I was opposed in my May 2004 piece was that, because the Berg beheading was, yes, far more horrific a deed than those deeds which made up what has become known as the Abu Ghraib incident, the Abu Ghraib incident was largely excusable).
I got no little e-mailed flak over the ensuing month or so for my use of that title itself- as well as the underlying statement (in support of my use of that title) I had made in the piece itself, to wit- that:
We Americans are held to a higher standard of conduct because we (to quote the old Hebrew National television ad) have to answer to a higher authority. For we are the very People who once declared, as a self-evident truth, that all "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights" and we, these same People, once ordained- and continue to maintain- a Constitution intended to, among other things, "establish Justice" and "secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity". The simple fact is that we Americans can't deny Justice, Liberty and unalienable Rights to others, even if they happen to be the most scurrilous malcontents picked up by our troops halfway around the globe.
It wasn't my sentiment that "we Americans can't deny Justice, Liberty and unalienable Rights to others..." that caused most of this flak, mind you!
(though, yes, I did get at least one 'vox Populi' in response to the aforementioned Commentary as well as one I had written less than a week earlier [in which I had addressed the Abu Ghraib prison incident itself and referred to it as horrifying-- revolting--- sickening] accusing me as follows:
"You do not speak for this American regarding the prison issue. This American views that as just what it is. Photos of potential and/or verifiable enemies of our nation being humiliated. In contrast, the video of Mr. Berg's murder is an out and out war crime that does rise to the level an atrocity equal in deed, though not quantity, as the gassing of civilians in Nazi Germany. Murder is murder, killing happens in war, humiliation happens in war. Thanks to commentary such as yours, and the exaggerated misuse of negative terms such as the media deluge the airwaves with, we now have so expended the meaning of the words that there are no words left to describe a truly heinous and abhorrent action such as a beheading of a civilian by an enemy with which we are at war. You and those who abuse such terms have in my view been duped into aiding and comforting the enemies of our Nation during a time of war. I am of the view that you, and others who abuse and overuse such terms, are at the least abusing a public trust and at worst seditious. I further hold that those who abuse the public trust must be held to account for their abuses."
In fact, I had found both the Abu Ghraib incident and the beheading of Nick Berg [as well as the earlier killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl- along with a whole host of other incidents I could waste the reader's time by here citing, including what happened back on 11 September 2001] "horrifying-- revolting-- sickening"-- so, sue me! [;-)])
but I actually got far more e-mailed flak much along the lines of a 'vox Populi' which we at 'The Green Papers' felt was most representative of the more usual negative responses to my 'WE ANSWER TO A HIGHER AUTHORITY' Commentary (hence its being posted on our site), where the writer of same wrote:
"What principle underlies the Higher Authority argument? Is the American acclaimed Creator greater than the Muslim acclaimed Allah? That sounds like religious bigotry. Has American civilization achieved a superior sense of rights, of which Middle East savages are ignorant? That reeks of racism.
Is it that Americans have declared that all people are endowed with unalienable rights (life, liberty, justice) therefore Americans must respect those rights, while people who haven't acknowledged the rights can ignore them? If we, by declaration, created the Higher Authority and extended the endowed rights, can't we likewise revoke that authority and retract those rights? If we cannot, is it because the rights were acknowledged, not created, by our declaration and are true for all people everywhere whether we acknowledge them or not? If the rights exist without acknowledgment, have a common source and are held in common, isn't any violator accountable to the source of the rights; the same authority Americans answer to?
The answer is YES. Human rights extend to all humans, and all humans are accountable for their violations of human rights. No national deity or level of civilization puts a special obligation on some people to answer to a Higher Authority."
Of course, my statement was not at all steeped in either religious bigotry or racism as the writer of that particular 'vox Populi' so clearly implied (and I so answered the 'vox Pop'-er in question in my response to him which was posted directly underneath this writer's comments). My point, instead, was that, if we Americans were going to claim a Higher Authority ( that is: "[all men's] Creator" as the source of "certain unalienable Rights") as the politicophilosophical underpinning of the governmental and legal system of Our Nation (perhaps, yes, but one of many Nations also doing this or similar; then again- perhaps- the only Nation so doing: which is all just a matter of perspective at a particular moment in time throughout American [and World] History- past, present and yet to come), then we'd better be well practicing that which we preach.
I was not at all claiming that what we Americans preach in our continuing reverence, if you will, for the Declaration of Independence or Our Constitution was necessarily inherently superior to any other similar "preaching" about the necessity for respect for Human Rights; rather, I was saying that America's failure to adhere to those very principles which we generally claim to so hold dear was nothing short of abject hypocrisy.
In other words: I was not, as the 'vox Pop'-er quoted immediately above seemed to claim, arguing that Americans alone had the responsibility (and- by an implication he perceived, but which I myself never intended- the sole ability) to recognize and enforce such Human Rights; I was, however, arguing that- as Americans claim to have made a rather succinct statement of Human Rights and its source (for them) as that found in their own Declaration of Independence (a statement on which they historically have continued to rely as an important, underlying basis of the American political and legal, constitutional and governmental, system)- they'd better well be living that statement, not merely engaging in "Do as I say- not as I do". (I honestly felt that the Abu Ghraib incident- compounded by the downplaying of it in the course of reaction to the Nick Berg beheading- was already serving as an excuse- at a time when Americans in Iraq were, supposedly, trying to set up a constitutional, where not also democratic, government in that country- for any new post-Saddam Iraqi regime to ignore Human Rights as an important underpinning of any such constitutional system on the grounds that we Americans were already so well ignoring them).
Thus, I want you to know that- in the larger sense- I actually agree with much of what you have written, Mr. Smith (which is precisely why I just went through this "trip down memory lane" re: nearly three year old Commentaries of mine and associated 'vox Populi'). And you do make a very good point when you write about the "lack of a clear definition of 'Christian Nation' "-
though it is not my lack; rather it is a lacking on the part of those who so bandy about this term in their own defense of their notion of America having been intended to be a "Christian Nation". I purposely left the concept undefined precisely because those who so claim seemingly have no coherent definition on which most, if not all, of them might agree.
But you yourself also further bolstered my point in my 9 February Commentary for me, where you then wrote:
"Our Founding Fathers, many, not all, were Christians. They had Christian beliefs and Christian values, and their Christianity was a spiritual way of life which affected decisions they made.
Did they want everyone to be Christians? No. Did they want people to have the freedom to worship who and what they wanted to, or nothing at all? Yes. Freedom is a key component of Christianity. And therein lies the answer to your question."
Because, Mr. Smith, if this be the question as to whether the United States of America was, or was not, intended to be a "Christian Nation", your own words clearly show the answer must be 'No'. For, if the Founding Fathers did not want everyone to be Christians (and I also don't think they did) and, indeed, did want people to be free to worship- or not worship- pretty much as they pleased (subject to reasonable and minimal restrictions relating to the maintainance of the good order of society and the community), then they could not have intended that the United States of America be a "Christian Nation".
Instead, the Founding Fathers most fervently wished for a Republic of Civic Virtue- in which people could freely go about their daily lives, worshipping- or not worshipping- as they pleased, reading whatever Sacred Scripture or equivalent philosophy of life they wished, while- at the same time- respecting the source(s) of spiritual and ethical truth of others in the greater community with whom they might not necessarily agree as to what these source(s) should, in fact, actually be.
Yes, indeed- as you have said, Mr. Smith, Freedom is a key component of Christianity... but it is also a key component of, for example Judaism (Passover- Pesach- is, indeed, celebrated by Jews as "the Festival of Freedom")- and would this fact at all mean that the USofA was, therefore, intended to be a "Jewish Nation"?
Of course not!
Freedom is, in fact, a key component of any number of religions, denominations within religions and sects within denominations: thus, no religion- not even the Christianity which is predominant here in the United States- has a monopoly on an ethic of Freedom.
You are correct, Mr. Smith, when you assert- in the form of a question- that, as the signers of the Declaration of Independence "relied firmly on the protection of Divine Providence. Would they continue to lead their nation any differently than already stated in The Declaration of Independence?" Your answer to this question is, quite obviously, the same as my own: a resounding 'No!'
But it is not the Founding Fathers who signed the Declaration and/or fought the American Revolution, nor the Framers of the Constitution or the members of the First Congress who reported out what we call the Bill of Rights, who concerned me in my 9 February Commentary; the words of these Founders live on but they themselves, of course, do not: neither Alex Hamilton nor Ben Franklin nor George Washington himself, nor any of their contemporaries, will be "running the show" here in the USofA nowadays or on into the future. Therefore, how they continued to lead their Nation is no longer the issue- insofar as current political attitudes are concerned- now more than a century and a half after the very last of that generation of Patriots has passed away.
Rather, my concern in my Commentary was with the far too many- politicians, as well as pundits- who, although claiming the mantle of the Founding Fathers within the context of contemporary America, do not- in fact- wish to lead their nation in the manner you have correctly ascribed to the Founders; these are the many who agree with, for example, Dennis Prager's assertion that an American citizen freely elected to Congress should- by the mere fact that more Americans today identify themselves as Christians than as members of any other religion, combined with the fact that the Founders happened to have, as you've noted, "had Christian beliefs and Christian values"- be not only prevented from taking an Oath of Office with his hand resting on what the oath-taker himself considers Sacred Scripture- a scriptural source with which Mr. Prager, and these others, do not happen to consider at all worthy- but, in addition, forced to take his Oath of Office on a Sacred Scripture with which Mr. Prager holds- along with, yes, a majority of Americans- to be the Word of God (as well as the principal source of the core values underpinning the American politicolegal system), yet a book which the oath-taker himself does not so hold to be sacred or necessarily such a principal source.
It is these people- those who not only wanted to try and prevent a duly elected officeholder from practicing his own religion but, further, wanted this non-Christian to be forced to acknowledge the Christian Bible as inherently superior to the officeholder's own Qur'an (when such a determination is, indeed, a personal, religious decision supposed to be left, in a society that is not- for the reasons I have already stated, herein as well as in my 9 February Commentary- a "Christian Nation", to the individual believer)- whom I strongly decried and rightfully scored as 'Christian Fascists', for that is precisely what they are (and I've already fully backed up this contention in that 9 February Commentary).
But I hope it can clearly be seen that I have no real beef with most of what you, Mr. Smith, have written: again, I acknowledge- as I have already consistently acknowledged on this website (and so demonstrated in this response)- the importance of the Declaration of Independence; in addition, I am well aware that many, if not most, of the Founders were- as you've so correctly said- "God-fearing Christian men"...
but I also acknowledge that- while they, indeed, "sought God to give them insight and direction in their leadership"- they did, in fact, also have "intentions for a free country, with freedom to worship or not worship", a freedom that included freedom for a Congressman Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) to, should he so desire, seek Allah in order to gain such insight and direction in his leadership re: his constituents as their duly elected Representative in Congress!
The one area where I will take strongest issue with what you have written, Mr. Smith, is in your opening statement, where you wrote "You spend so much time on a treaty and overlook The Declaration of Independence, while only referring to The Constitution and this treaty seem to work for you. That was convenient. Your article has a very narrow focus with very broad conclusions."
Besides the fact that I have already demonstrated my familiarity with the Declaration of Independence earlier in this response, I will- in my own defense- note that my reliance on the 1796 Treaty with Tripoli and the Constitution alone was hardly merely "convenient":
The Declaration of Independence may well be important... but it is not Law.
The Constitution of the United States (excepting the Preamble), however, is Law and, as I pointed out, the 1796 Treaty with Tripoli itself became the Supreme Law of the Land, as much the Supreme Law of the United States of America as the Constitution itself, under that Constitution's own Article VI, clause 2 . At least at the time the Treaty was in force, the provision of its Article XI- that the Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion- was, per that very same Article VI, section 2 of the Constitution, something to which "the Judges in every State shall be bound... any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding". This is hardly a "broad conclusion" based on "a very narrow focus", for- at the time the Treaty was ratified by the United States Senate and subsequently proclaimed by President John Adams in June 1797- it became the Law in the United States, not because *I* might think so now nearly 210 years later, but because the Constitution itself actually said it did.
President John Adams had, himself, once been one of those who had, yes, "with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence" so pledged his Life, Fortune and Sacred Honor by signing the Declaration itself. Should we assume that he, in the little over two decades between his pledging and his proclamation of the Treaty, fully forgotten that to which he had so pledged?
As I've said above, I do agree with your contention that those- including John Adams himself- who, in signing the Declaration, so "relied firmly on the protection of Divine Providence" would not so willingly "lead their nation any differently than already stated in The Declaration of Independence". Thus, one cannot so easily ignore a statement to the effect that "the Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion" in a treaty, the provisions of which became the Law of the Land at the very time this same John Adams was then serving as the head of the Executive Branch which had, upon receiving the final text of that treaty as "concluded", sent it on to the Senate for ratification (one would think that had the John Adams Administration had any objection to the language of this treaty, the President would never have asked the Senate to even consider its ratification)...
Because of things such as the above, I opined (and with good reason) that- as I wrote in my 9 February Commentary:
Article XI of the 1796 Treaty with Tripoli is, therefore, a quite extraordinary artifact within the annals of United States History. In light of more recent struggles against terrorism engendered by extreme Islamic Jihadism, it is even the more intriguing!...
If this is not the clearest of indications that the United States of America was not specifically and inherently intended to be a Christian Nation by its Founders, then I don't know what would be!
Where's the "broad conclusion" of which you complain?
Or might a better- at least somewhat less "broad"- conclusion on my part be based on what you, Mr. Smith, have yourself written where you wrote: "Did they [Our Founding Fathers] want everyone to be Christians? No. Did they want people to have the freedom to worship who and what they wanted to, or nothing at all? Yes."-- which would also, as I've already noted, only go to show that the United States of America was not specifically and inherently intended to be a Christian Nation by its Founders.
There is a great deal of difference between long-ago Christians- such as the Founders of Our Nation- allowing for all, whether Christian or non-Christian (religious or secularist) alike, to freely believe that which they wish to believe (even if this "allowance" be largely based on Christian ethics surrounding the concept of Freedom) and at least some present-day Christians- on the theory that the United States can only be (because it was ever intended to be) a "Christian Nation" (whatever that means!)- requiring even non-Christians (again, whether religious or secularist) to adhere to their own religious and spiritual ethos. Please know that it was this latter view about which I most vehemently complained in my 9 February Commentary.