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."
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 was essential.
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.