On July Fourth this year, we can do more than venerate the
Declaration of Independence; we can learn from its embrace of coalition
American leaders favoring the Revolution almost 230 years ago
were split into two theological camps. Most were theists, believing in a God
who both created the world and was still active in it. But some scoffed at
biblical claims. One of the latter, Thomas Jefferson, was charged with
finding language that would satisfy theists as well as partisans within his
own camp. He succeeded remarkably well in at least three instances.
Jefferson's first artful sentence declared that Americans were
basing their case on the "laws of nature and of nature's God." Those
critical of Christianity could sign onto a document that emphasized the
course of human events without explicit reference to Jesus Christ; the
expression "nature's God" even made it seem that nature had created God.
Christian legal scholars, though, long had argued that "the law
of nature means ... the law of God." The standard law book in the 1770s,
William Blackstone's "Commentaries," states that "the will of (man's) maker
is called the law of nature." Theists could embrace Jefferson's phrase.
Jefferson's second coup was his assertion that all people are
"endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights," including the
famous triad of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Mention of
"the Creator" was popular among theists but satisfactory to those who said
God had created the world but had quickly gone on vacation.
Each side also saw "liberty" in a different light. For
libertarians, the political meaning was key, and it could be heightened by
playing with theological language: "Liberty is salvation in politics," one
said. For Christians, the word conveyed theological as well as political
meaning: Connecticut minister Levi Hart declared man a slave to sin, with
Christ "procuring, preaching and bestowing liberty to the captives."
Jefferson's third mellifluous phrase for a multitude of ears
came at the end of the Declaration: "a firm reliance on the protection of
divine Providence." For those with little use for the Bible, "providence"
was the general motion of natural forces implanted in a world created by God
but left to run on its own. Theists, though, had an understanding summarized
well in the Westminster Confession, which spoke of how God governed
everything "by his most wise and holy providence."
Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, both critical of Christian
patriots such as Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry, could have tried to ground
their argument in man's will rather than God's. Adams, Henry or John
Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister, could have insisted on explicit
recognition of Christ in the document. Either attempt, however, would have
provoked divisive debate at a time when unity in facing London's aggression
Today, the question Adams hurled at British lords equally
challenges the goals of Beltway bureaucrats: "Were the talents and virtues
which Heaven has bestowed on men given merely to make them more obedient
drudges, to be sacrificed to the follies and ambition of a few?" Today,
conservative evangelicals and conservative secularists need to coalesce
against liberals who, like their 18th century British counterparts, are
wedded to higher taxes and lower vices.
To work in coalition, old-line Republicans and evangelicals need
to see each other as colleagues, not aliens. Republicans who follow the
Declaration's example will support life and liberty, and attack imperial
Washington, in a way that promotes coalition rather than exclusion.
Evangelicals who work for such commitments will be showing their
understanding of what Witherspoon and Adams knew: Coalition is not the same
as compromise. For example, we need to honor prophetic voices and at the
same time find ways to save lives now from abortionists. As Franklin said,
if we do not hang together we will all hang separately.