Can you agree with the Declaration of Independence if you don’t believe in God?

Danielle Allen raises this question about halfway through her painstaking commentary, when she arrives at “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” in the Declaration’s first sentence. Allen acknowledges that many Americans would rather avoid thinking about the role of theology in the Declaration. But she insists—correctly—that the matter is too important to avoid: references to God are not only obvious features of the text, but also “ground zero for discussion of how religion and politics intertwine.” (115)

Over the next few chapters, Allen argues that the Declaration is open to readings that leave out a deity. Belief in God helps justify its claims about the origin and purpose of government. But it’s not the only way of supporting those conclusions, provided that you strongly endorse the premise of equal basic rights. In Allen’s words, “You do not need to be a theist to accept the argument of the Declaration. You do, however, require an alternative ground for a maximally strong commitment to the right of other people to survive and to govern themselves.” (138)

Allen’s approach reminds of the idea of “overlapping consensus” developed by John Rawls. In Political Liberalism, Rawls uses the term to describe a situation in which citizens endorse the same basic laws for different reasons. In Rawls’ view, overlapping consensus solves the problem of stability in a liberal society characterized by deep disagreements about the nature of reality and meaning of life. Under overlapping consensus, it does not matter why citizens endorse the law—only that they do so.

If I understand her correctly, Allen thinks the Declaration can be the object of a similarly overlapping consensus. She does not deny that some religious doctrines provide strong reasons to endorse the Declaration. To the contrary, she acknowledges that these doctrines have been powerful supports for its authority in the past—and remain so for many people today. On the other hand, Allen wants to convince readers that the Declaration does not depend on religion. “The Declaration…gives us two ways of understanding the source of rights. We can see them as coming from nature and/or we can see them as coming from God. It’s like belt and suspenders.” (134)

This is an ingenious way of defending the Declaration’s relevance to a more pluralistic society than the colonial North America. It is also consistent with strategies used by some giants of early modern philosophy, who offered parallel naturalistic and theological arguments for the conclusions in the hope of convincing readers of different philosophical and religious orientations. In trying to open up the Declaration to resolutely secular audiences, however, I think Allen neutralizes it. The Declaration does not depend on the credo of any organized church, but it loses much of its political and historical significance if God is left out.

The weakness of Allen’s treatment of religion begins with her method. In order to make her case that God is optional, Allen proceeds as if Jefferson were the Declaration’s presiding spirit. For Allen, the God of the Declaration is “Nature’s God” because this is only theological phrase used by Jefferson. She depreciates the other references to God—which are less easily replaced with non-theological claims—as inserted “at later points in the drafter process.” (135)

Allen’s elevation of Jefferson is inconsistent with her own interpretive principle. One of her main arguments is that the Declaration is a work of “democratic writing”, rather than the product of Jefferson’s singular genius. For Allen, the Declaration’s authors include the rest of the five-member committee that drafted it, the Continental Congress that debated and edited the committee’s proposal, the scribe who engrossed the text, and even the printers who reproduced it. Although they are certainly part of the picture, Jefferson’s beliefs intentions are not definitive of the text’s meaning.

If that is the case, there is no good reason to treat “Nature’s God” as the key to the Declaration’s theology. Jefferson avoided references to a personal deity in his draft. But either Franklin or Adams added a reference to the “Creator” in the natural rights section devised by the committee of five. And Congress inserted the phrases “Supreme Judge of the World” and “Divine Providence” in the conclusion. If we read as Allen proposes, these phrases should have equal weight to “Nature’s God”.

Taken together, these statements give a picture of God that is not so easily replaced by “an alternative ground for a maximally strong commitment to the right of other people to survive and to govern themselves.” They depict God as the maker of the universe, who cares for man’s happiness, gives him the resources to pursue it, and judges the manner in which he does so. Despite Allen’s assurances that Jefferson tried to avoid religious commitments, writing in a manner compatible with deism, theism, and everything in between, I do not see how the God that emerges from the entire process of composition, could be reconciled with a mere first cause or cosmic watchmaker. On the level of intention, the Declaration presumes a personal and providential deity.

Allen is right to insist that this is not necessarily the God of Christianity. Even with the various edits and amendments, the Declaration makes no mention of Jesus or resurrection, or other specifically Christian doctrines. On the other hand, the Declaration’s God sounds remarkably like the God of Israel. Whether or he is the source of salvation, he is the ultimate authority for politics and the indirect leader of his people. I don’t think it’s coincidental that the first committee to draw up a seal for the United States—whose members were named on July 4, 1776 and included Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson—proposed a design featuring an image of Moses leading the Israelites across the Red Sea and the motto “Rebellion to Tyrants Is Obedience to God”. That is the kind of God to which the Declaration appeals and that many of its authors had in mind.

Of course, it would not matter that the Declaration contains theistic rhetoric if its conclusions could be sustained on other grounds. It’s here that Allen turns from intention and language to considerations of philosophical coherence. She acknowledges that if you believe in a certain kind of Creator, the conclusions of the Declaration follow rather easily. But she contends that you can get to the same place from a very different starting point, even if it requires a few extra steps.

Specifically, Allen recommends that readers who cannot accept the theistic interpretation treat the “laws of nature” as a way of foreseeing the consequences of one’s actions, given observable patterns of behavior. It can be observed that people want to survive. So you might reason that “…when any given group finds a way to survive that does not endanger the survival of anyone else, we should respect their right to organize their survival for themselves. We ought to respect these forces of nature because, if we try to fight them, we will generally do ourselves more harm than good. If we do not respect the rights of others to organize their survival for themselves…we will bring war on ourselves and so jeopardize our own projects of survival.” (134)

On this interpretation, there’s no normative obligation to respect people’s basic rights. But there are good prudential reasons for doing so. Although Allen doesn’t mention it, this sounds a lot like Spinoza.

For Spinoza, there is no natural law is the sense of moral limits of human behavior. On the contrary, he argues that human beings have an unlimited “right” to try to secure their survival however they see fit. For the same reason, different individuals or peoples have a “right” to try to stop them. But those attempts are likely to fail or even turn against their protagonists. The “natural law” obliging us to respect others efforts to organize their own lives is thus no more than a rule of thumb.

This argument is perfectly coherent, given its premise that oppression is counterproductive. The problem is that this premise is likely false. Assertions of rights are often crushed, without much risk to the oppressors. Because they didn’t produce the forecast bad consequences, a purely naturalistic interpretation of the matter would lead us to conclude that these movements had no “right” to succeed.

That conclusion would probably be acceptable to Spinoza. But I think it would not be acceptable to Allen—or to the signers of the Declaration. Again, this is why “Nature’s God” is not good enough. In addition to the source of natural order, the Declaration’s good has to care how human events turn out—and perhaps to intervene to ensure that the results are compatible with justice. Otherwise, the signer’s pledge of their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor would be no more than a gamble—and a bad one at that. The Declaration’s God both reflects and reinforces hope that their rights were not reducible to their power or chance of immediate success.

Again, Allen does not claim that there’s anything inappropriate or incoherent about a theistic reading of the Declaration. She only argues that it isn’t necessary: you could believe in equal rights even if you don’t believe them to be the endowment of a Creator or destined to be vindicated. And this is almost certain true. There have been many individuals who defended the principles of the Declaration without accepting the kind of theology I’ve outlined here.

Yet that is not quite the issue. Individuals are capable of believing almost anything for almost any reason—and even of acting on that basis. But that is a matter for psychology. The political question is whether groups and peoples can be moved to take risks and make sacrifices if they do not think they are justified by a higher power. I am skeptical that this is the case. Historically, America’s great political movements have made extensive use of religious appeals—often in terms familiar from the Declaration. Several, including the civil rights movement, are unimaginable without such appeals.

So while people can accept the Declaration’s claims about rights for secular reasons, I suspect that those who take its religious elements seriously are more likely to act in the ways necessary to secure them. This is important because the Declaration is not, as Allen claims, “a philosophical argument”. Instead, it is a call to arms. People generally don’t fight for “commitments” and “grounds”. For better or for worse, they do fight for what they believe God demands.

The Declaration’s greatest interpreter, Lincoln, seems to have recognized this. Before the Civil War, Lincoln treated the Declaration as a work of secular reasoning. In a famous letter from 1859, Lincoln compared its argument to Euclidean geometry. According to Lincoln, “[t]he principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society.” To understand politics, all one had to do was draw valid conclusions from certain first principles.

But definitions and axioms are terms of the seminar room, not the battlefield. Although might have been suitable for peacetime, Lincoln’s scholarly account of politics was manifestly inadequate to a war that revolved around the meaning and authority of the Declaration of Independence. So in his second inaugural, he offered a different account of the same principles. This time, he appealed to a “living God” to achieve the right. You do not have to be a Christian to understand what Lincoln was saying. But I do not think you can be an atheist.

It’s on this point that Allen’s reading of the Declaration fails to convince. Although she establishes the possibility of an “alternative ground for a maximally strong commitment to the right of other people to survive and to govern themselves”, she gives no indication what such a ground would be or whether politically significant numbers of people would ever entertain it. By making room in the Declaration for a wider variety of beliefs and worldviews, Allen hopes to make it accessible to us today. In the process, she makes it harder to understand why it was important at some of the darkest moments of the nation’s history—and why it might be so again.

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