Random Book Blogging: The Declaration of Independence Did Not Establish a Christian Nation

I am continuing my “Random Book Blogging” posts this week with another excerpt from John Fea’s “Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction,” with this section focusing on the Religious Right’s false claim that Declaration of Independence was a Christian document rooted in Christian principles because it contains four references to God, including the famous proclamation that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

Fea explains that those who cite the mentions of God the Declaration as evidence that America is a “Christian nation” are completely ignoring the document’s “original intent”:

Focusing too heavily on these passages, however, neglects the eighteenth-century motivation behind the writing of the Declaration. In other words, it misses the “original intent” of the document. For all the effort that Christian conservatives place on discerning and interpreting the “original intent” of the U.S. Constitution, there has been little effort to understand the meaning and purpose of the Declaration of Independence as the founders intended it.

Most would agree that the Declaration of Independence was not a theological or religious document, but neither was it designed primarily to teach Americans and the world about human rights. Americans have become so taken by the second paragraph of the document that they miss the purpose of the Declaration as understood by the Continental Congress, its team of authors, and its chief writer, Thomas Jefferson. In the context of the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence was just what it claimed to be – a “declaration” of “independence” from England and an assertion of American sovereignty in the world.

Historian David Armitage has argued convincingly that the Declaration of Independence was written primarily as a document asserting American political sovereignty in the hopes that the newly created United States would secure a place in the international community of nations. In fact, Armitage asserts, the Declaration was discussed abroad more than it was at home. This meant that the Declaration was “decidedly un-revolutionary. It would affirm the maxims of European statecraft, not affront them.” To put this differently, the “self-evident truths” and “unalienable rights” of the Declaration’s second paragraph would not have been particularly new or groundbreaking in the context of the eighteenth-century British world. These were ideals that all members of the British Empire valued regardless or whether they supported or opposed the American Revolution. The writers of the Declaration of Independence and the members of the Second Continental Congress who endorsed and signed it did not believe that they were advancing, as historian Pauline Maier has put it, “a classic statement of American political principles.” This was a foreign policy document.

The writers of the Declaration viewed the document this way. In an 1825 letter to fellow Virginian Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson explained his motivation behind writing it:

“When forced, therefore, to resort to arms for redress, an appeal to the tribunal of the world was deemed proper for our jurisdiction. This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles or new arguments, never before thought of … but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take.”

Tomorrow, Fea examines the tension between today’s Christian conservatives who claim that the Constitution established a Christian nation and the fact that the Anti-Federalists vehemently opposed the ratification of Constitution on the grounds that it was wickedly godless.