On July Fourth this year, we can do more than venerate the Declaration of Independence, we can learn from its embrace of coalition politics.
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," stated 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 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."
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