Saturday, June 16, 2018

The "Supreme Judge" and "Divine Providence" in the Declaration of Independence

There are four references to a deity in the Declaration of Independence.  At the beginning of the document, the first two references are to "the laws of Nature and of Nature's God" and to the "Creator."  Then, at the end, in the penultimate sentence, there is a third reference in the formal declaration of independence: "We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name, and by the authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states."  The final reference is in the last sentence: "And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor."

Thus, God's government of the world has three branches: the legislative (the laws of Nature's God), the executive (Creator and Providence), and the judicial (Supreme Judge).

"Appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions" suggests the need for divine judgment as a sanction for law and morality.  Does human law and morality require belief in divine rewards and punishments?  Does that belief include a belief in the immortality of the soul in an afterlife where God can mete out eternal rewards in Heaven and eternal punishments in Hell?  And if so, does a Darwinian science of human evolution support or subvert those religious beliefs?

And if we must appeal to the Supreme Judge, how does He promulgate His judgments?  If the Supreme Judge is Nature's God, then we might have to rely on our human rational understanding of nature, in which case we would not need any supernatural revelation.

But if nature is not enough, and we do need some special revelation of God's supernatural message, we might look to the Bible, although the Declaration never refers to the Bible or any other holy book. So, for example, recently Attorney General Jeff Sessions has quoted from the Bible as supporting the controversial policy of the Trump administration for taking children away from parents who have entered the United States illegally.  Many Christians, including evangelical Christians who have supported Trump, have denounced this policy as immoral.  Sessions quoted from the thirteenth chapter of Romans where Paul apparently declares that the powers of government are ordained by God, and thus Christians have a duty to obey the government: "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.  For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.  Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation" (Romans 13:1-2).  Since this policy of taking children away from parents who have crossed the borders illegally is a legal order of the government, Sessions indicates, those who resist this policy are resisting an ordinance of God, and they will be punished with damnation.

In response to Sessions, some Christians have pointed out that this same thirteenth chapter of Romans commands "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" (13:9), and kidnapping children seems contrary to this commandment.

Some Christians have also pointed out that the 13th chapter of Romans was quoted by proslavery Christians to support obedience to the laws enforcing slavery.  In Slavery Ordained of God (1857J), the Reverend Fred Ross, a prominent Presbyterian minister in Alabama, cited Romans 13 and many other biblical teachings as supporting slavery.  Moreover, he argued, Romans 13 shows that the Declaration of Independence is a work of infidelity contrary to God's revelation in the Bible, because if government is ordained of God, then it is wrong to teach that government's authority comes from the consent of the people.  I will say more about Ross's argument in a future post on slavery and the Declaration.

This indicates the problem in appealing to the divine revelation of the Bible as a guide to the judgments of the Supreme Judge:  we often cannot agree on how to interpret the Bible and how to apply it to our lives.  As with any book, the language of the Bible is open to conflicting interpretations, as manifest in the history of Judaism and Christianity.  The American founders certainly saw this problem.  In The Federalist (no. 37), James Madison observed: "When the Almighty himself condescends to address mankind in their own language, his meaning, luminous as it must be, is rendered dim and doubtful by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated."

Nevertheless, many of the American colonists settling in the New World in the seventeenth century thought the legal language of the Bible was clear enough to incorporate the Mosaic laws of the Old Testament into their colonial constitutions.  For example, the "Laws and Liberties of Massachusetts" of 1647 functioned as a constitution for Massachusetts, and it included many Mosaic laws in addition to English common law and what was considered natural law.  Part of this was a legally established Church that could punish heretics and infidels (Lutz, 1998, 95-135).

After the Declaration of Independence, however, those framing new state constitutions and the Articles of Confederation relied hardly at all on the divinely revealed laws of the Bible.  In his Defense of the Constitutions of the United States of America (1786-1787), John Adams explained: "The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history."  Those who formed these new American governments did not claim "interviews with the gods" or "the inspiration of Heaven."  These thirteen governments were contrived "merely by the use of reason and the senses," and founded "on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretense of miracle or mystery."  This experiment has succeeded so well, Adams concluded, that "it can no longer be called in question, whether authority in magistrates and obedience of citizens can be grounded on reason, morality, and the Christian religion, without the monkery of priests, or the knavery of politicians" (Adams, 2000, 117-19).

But notice that even as Adams scorns the pretense of grounding governmental authority on "the monkery of priests" who might claim "interviews with the gods," he still appeals to "the Christian religion" as important for enforcing political authority and obedience to the laws.  So if it doesn't mean legally enforcing the Mosaic laws and a politically established Church, what does it mean for government to be grounded on "the Christian religion"?

In an often-quoted passage of George Washington's Farewell Address, Washington insisted that religion was necessary for popular morality:
"And let us indulge with caution the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.  Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."
And yet we can't help noticing that while stressing the importance of religion for the "national morality" of most people, Washington suggests that a few people with "minds of peculiar structure" don't need religion for their moral education.

Similarly, while Thomas Jefferson thought the Christian religion could support morality, religious belief was not absolutely necessary for moral conduct, because there was a natural moral sense inherent in human nature that could be known by natural human experience even without religious belief.   In a letter to Peter Carr (August 10, 1787), Jefferson laid out a plan of education for him, including the study of moral philosophy and religion.  He advised:
"Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of it's consequences.  If it ends in a belief that there is no god, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort & pleasantness you feel in it's exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you.  If you find reason to believe there is a god, a consciousness that you are acting under his eye, & that he approves you, will be a vast additional incitement; if that there be a future state, the hope of a happy existence in that increases the appetite to deserve it" (Jefferson 1984, 903).
Jefferson refused to speak in public about his religious beliefs, because he insisted that religion was a private matter of conscience between oneself and God, and that freedom of conscience meant that no one should be forced into a public confession of one's faith or lack of faith.  Even in the presidential election of 1800, when ministers sermonized against him as an infidel or atheist, Jefferson refused to respond to this charge in public.

In private, however, in conversations and correspondence with his friends, he professed to believe in the purely moral teachings of Jesus, once they were cleansed of the corruptions coming from Platonic Christianity.  He thought that Jesus taught "the principles of pure deism."  "To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other" (letter to Benjamin Rush, April 21, 1803).  In the same letter where he identified himself as an Epicurean, Jefferson also identified Jesus as a "benevolent moralist," whose moral teaching needed to be rescued from the "artificial systems" of Christian sects, which included "the immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, etc." (letter to William Short, October 31, 1819).  In other words, the corruptions of true Christianity included most of the fundamental doctrines of orthodox Christianity!

Jefferson's account of the moral teaching of Jesus striped of all the "artificial systems" looks like what Spinoza identified as "the dogmas of universal faith"--"that there exists a supreme being who loves justice and charity, and that, to be saved, all people must obey and venerate Him by practicing justice and charity towards their neighbor . . . or love of one's neighbor" (Theological-Political Treatise, 14.10).

To extract this pure moral teaching of Jesus from the Bible, Jefferson prepared his own revised version of the Bible.  He went through some Greek, Latin, French, and English translations of the Bible; he read the four gospels--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--and cut out those passages that represented the true life and teachings of Jesus; and he then pasted these excerpts on pages with four columns so that the Greek, Latin, French, and English texts were parallel.  He arranged them in the chronological order of the life of Jesus from birth to death.  He cut out all the references to miracles--including the incarnation of Jesus as the Son of God, the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, the water being turned into wine, the multitudes being fed on five loaves of bread and two fishes, and so on.  He gave it the title of The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French & English.  He kept this for his private use.  It was never seen outside his family until it was sold to the Smithsonian Institution in 1895.  It was later published under the title Jefferson's Bible.  In 2011, the Smithsonian Institution published a beautiful facsimile edition of the original book.

Like Jefferson and the other deists among the American founders, Charles Darwin found it hard to believe in the miracles of the Bible: "the more we know of the fixed laws of nature, the more incredible do miracles become."  He finally concluded that the Bible could not be a divine revelation. And yet he saw "the morality of the New Testament" as "beautiful" (Autobiography, 86).  In particular, he quoted Jesus' statement of the golden rule--"As ye would that men should do to you, do ye to them likewise" (Matthew 7:12)--as "the foundation of morality" (Descent of Man, 151).

Darwin thought that "the conviction of the existence of an all-seeing Deity has had a potent influence on the advance of morality," although the idea of "a universal and beneficent Creator" was not instinctive but arose only at the end of a long history of cultural evolution (Descent, 682).

Darwin believed that morality could be explained as rooted in the natural evolution of a moral sense or the moral sentiments, as understood by David Hume and Adam Smith.  "Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man" (Descent, 121).  "Ultimately our moral sense or conscience becomes a highly complex sentiment--originating in the social instincts, largely guided by the approbation of our fellow-men, ruled by reason, self-interest, and in later times by deep religious feelings, and confirmed by instruction and habit" (Descent, 157).

For this moral sense, Darwin believed, the "reverence or fear of the Gods or Spirits" is "most important, although not necessary."  For example, we can reject the belief that "the abhorrence of incest is due to our possessing a special God-implanted conscience," because we can explain the incest taboo as rooted in an evolved instinctive disgust towards sexual mating with close relatives (Descent, 138-39, 688; Variation of Animals and Plants, 2:104).

Darwin's evolutionary theory of morality has been deepened and confirmed by recent research in the evolutionary psychology of morality by those like Edward Wilson, Jonathan Haidt, and Joshua Greene.  (I have written about this herehere, and here.)

The importance of religious belief in moralistic "Big Gods" for the enforcement of morality in large agrarian states has been shown by Ara Norenzayan and his colleagues.  But they have also shown that with moral progress in cultural evolution, it is now possible in modern societies for people to be moral without religion--or good without God--although there is still some culturally evolved popular suspicion of atheists as less moral than religious believers.  (I have written about this here and here.)


Adams, John. 2000. The Political Writings of John Adams. Ed. George W. Carey. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing.

Darwin, Charles. 1959. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882. Ed. Nora Barlow. New York: W. W. Norton.

Darwin, Charles. 1998. The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. 2 vols. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Darwin, Charles. 2004. The Descent of Man. New York: Penguin Classics.

Jefferson, Thomas. 1984. Writings. Ed. Merrill D. Peterson. New York: Library of America.

Jefferson, Thomas. 2011. The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French & English. With essays by Harry R. Rubenstein, Barbara Clark Smith & Janice Stagnitto Ellis. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books.

Lutz, Donald, ed. 1998. Colonial Origins of the American Constitution: A Documentary History. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

Ross, Fred. 1857. Slavery Ordained of God. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott.

Spinoza, Benedict de. 2016. Collected Works of Spinoza. Ed. & trans. Edwin Curley. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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