Why does exploring the founders’ reliance on God in the Declaration matter today? Because it is the most fundamental matter at the root of every political question. Why are humans equal? Because God created them so. Why do all humans have dignity? Because they are created in the image of God. Why can government not solve every problem? Because it is not God.
Mike Johnson opened his tenure as Speaker of the House with a speech citing the creator God mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. The speech drew criticism from columnists in the Washington Post, Time, PBS, and the New York Times, among others. Much of it shifted between Johnson’s support of Trump, his church affiliations, and his penchant for employing biblical language.
Each of the columns raced to the accusation that Johnson is a Christian nationalist. Yet none of them offered a counterargument to the fact that the Declaration of Independence actually does reference God in the course of justifying America’s separation from the British. The Declaration in fact makes four references to God, using the parlance of the 18th century.
The first reference is in its opening paragraph, which appeals to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” thus grounding the legitimacy of the new “thirteen united States of America” in natural law and its divine author. This nation endeavors to conform to God’s moral order from its inception.
The second reference comes in the first sentence of the next paragraph and is the most famous: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” The securing of these rights concisely expresses the American understanding of government’s purpose. Government derives its “just powers from the consent of the governed.” But both government and the people are subordinate to the Creator, who stands outside the material world and brought all things into existence.
Thomas Jefferson and the Second Continental Congress presumed a common (although not coerced) belief in God. Without God, the fight for independence was unjust. Without God, the new nation had no duty to protect life and liberty. Without God the people’s right to pursue happiness, understood by the founders as the classical pursuit of goodness and virtue, would deserve no mention. Without God, the Declaration’s claims become sophistry, because the very concepts of justice, goodness, and truth are subject to constant redefinition based on the whims of the moment.