The role of religion in America’s founding is more controversial today than ever. The riot at the U.S. Capitol in January 2021 unleashed a flood of acrimony toward Christian nationalists. Critics point to attackers who carried Christian- and Bible-themed signs as they stormed the Capitol building. This attack, they say, is the fruit of decades of white Republican evangelicals clamoring about America as a Christian nation, one which politicized evangelicals say must be “taken back” from the secular left.
We live in an age of cultural extremes. These extremes have damaged our ability to appreciate the complexities of the American past. On every front, polemicists insist that American history must be all one thing, or all the other. For example, fans of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project focus almost exclusively on white supremacy and America’s original sin of slavery, while some partisan critics of the project insist that most of today’s talk about racism and oppression in American history is just the claptrap of critical race theorists.
We’ve had a similar argument about religion in American history. The Capitol attack turned up the volume considerably on that debate. For secularists, the American founding was a pure Enlightenment and non-religious affair driven by deists (or perhaps closet atheists) such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Christian America partisans counter that the Founding Fathers were mostly devout believers. Even if a few weren’t very pious or orthodox, their political culture was still so thoroughly Christian that they might as well have been citing chapter and verse from the Bible when they wrote the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
Where is the truth between these partisan polarities? Let’s take the Declaration of Independence and its lead author Jefferson as an example. There’s no question about the declaration’s iconic status in American history. Virtually every line of the declaration, especially in its famous opening paragraphs, has been thoroughly analyzed. Yet there’s still no agreement about whether it was secular or religious…
As I show in my new biography of Jefferson, the declaration’s author was already skeptical in 1776 about basic Christian doctrines such as the trinity, and the divinity and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus, he was not writing [the declaration’s lines about the creator God] because he was some kind of born-again predecessor to the Christian right.
Throughout his career, Jefferson tried to keep his doubts about biblical revelation quiet. His opponents made a great ruckus about even the slightest hints of his heterodox beliefs. An 1800 Federalist editorial proclaimed that a vote for Jefferson was a vote for “NO GOD!”
Even in retirement, he declined to publish his notorious Jefferson Bible. This was his compilation of the Gospels, from which he literally cut out many miracles with a penknife. In his version, for instance, there was no Resurrection, just an occupied tomb. Jefferson feared the ferocious Christian backlash he would receive if he submitted his naturalistic distillation of the Gospels to public view. In other words, this skeptical founder was not the type of person who would try to sneak biblical references into America’s founding documents.
And yet, the declaration’s argument utterly depended on God himself. Jefferson and Congress fundamentally based the document on the concept of God’s common creation of humankind. Without a creator God, there is no Declaration of Independence. Why would a skeptic like Jefferson make such a profoundly theological statement? Jefferson was a bundle of contradictions on many issues. Most obviously, he was a slaveowner who declared that all men were created equal. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that his uses of religion were complicated, too.
But we can start to unpack the enigma of Jefferson, the declaration, and religion by remembering that the declaration was, first and foremost, a political document… In the declaration he was just trying to reflect the “harmonizing sentiments of the day,” he explained. This was a document meant to unite politically engaged Americans around the cause of independence.
Calling on people to sacrifice lives and treasure in war almost always generates God-talk. Such civil-religious rhetoric might be sincere or cynical, depending on the occasion. Jefferson’s religious sentiments definitely appeared to be heartfelt. Appealing to the “Supreme Judge of the world,” Congress defended the rightness of their cause, pledging to defend independence on their sacred honor. Jefferson understood that independence could not be justified only as a matter of the colonists’ self-interest, or their disinclination to pay taxes. He undoubtedly believed it was a struggle in which the patriots needed God’s blessing, or they would lose.
We may also forget that Jefferson, for all his doubts about basic Christianity, did believe in a creator God. Unlike more rigid deists, he also believed that God sometimes acted in human history, by God’s providence. Jefferson lived in a pre-Darwinian world in which few could imagine human life as anything but the pinnacle of a divinely created order. Perhaps, to Jefferson, humans were not created exactly like the book of Genesis said. But where else could life have come from, aside from God? Naturalistic evolution was barely on the horizon in 1776. If God created people, then God also endowed people with rights, ones which were not justly alienable by any human authority.
In this sense, Jefferson was no traditional Christian, but he was a traditional theist. The declaration says nothing that we would regard as specifically Christian (such as an affirmation of Jesus as Lord), but it is deeply dependent upon belief in a created order. Jefferson’s broadly Christian audience also resonated with what the declaration said about God, creation and rights. Such talk was indeed harmonizing in Jefferson’s world, whether for traditional believers or for skeptics such as himself.
The actual text of the declaration, then, should leave polemicists on both sides of the “Christian nation” debate unsatisfied.
Jefferson was personally skeptical about Christian doctrine. The declaration doesn’t mention the trinity, the resurrection, Christ’s divinity, or other essential Christian tenets. But that hardly makes it secular. The declaration remains a powerfully theological document. It sees our common creation by God as the basis of our equality and rights. Its theological character is precisely what made the declaration the most resounding statement of human equality the world has ever known.