A magnanimous friend asked me for advice about how to respond to people who claim that the reference to “Nature’s God” in the American Declaration of Independence is an expression of Deism, implying the primordial involvement of an unmoved mover who set creation on its way, but otherwise takes no interest in its fate. They claim that most of the Founders were Deists at best, if not atheists in the mold of many contemporary scientistic materialists.
I replied to my friend that, in my experience such people cite no credible and consistent evidence for the assertion that the Founders were mostly Deists in their sense of that term. I more than suspect that they are consciously being deceitful, making assertions intended to take advantage of the ignorant.
The understanding that God Created all things, and is, as it were, the programmer responsible for encoding the regularities we observe in Nature, is found in Thomas Aquinas and Augustine, neither of whom can credibly be accused of “deism”. In like fashion, the understanding that natural law is a fully dependent subset of Divine Law, is also found in John Calvin, and other Protestant thinkers, including John Locke, the English political thinker whose writings contributed importantly to the way America’s founders articulated their grievances against the British King. The logic of the Declaration reflects this, as do its references to the Supreme Ruler of the World, and divine Providence. Neither role implies that the Supreme Being referred to is an impersonal, absentee landlord.
As for the Founders themselves, Washington pronounced several of the improbably successful maneuvers of his outmatched military forces to be miracles of God. As such, they would hardly be ascribable to an impersonal, uninvolved abstraction. Washington prayed, and encouraged his troops to pray, frequently. Would frequent prayers be addressed to a Supreme Being assumed to be indifferent to the particulars of human affairs?
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As an incentive to prayer at a critical juncture in the deliberations at the Constitution convention, Ben Franklin reasoned that, since a sparrow does not fall to the ground without God’s notice, it’s unlikely that a nation can rise without His aid. Aside from its direct reliance on the truth of Holy Writ, this reasoning assumes that God is actively and benevolently disposed to take an interest in both the courses of nature and the course of human events.
When Thomas Jefferson wrote– speaking of American slavery– that he trembled for his country at the thought that God is just, and that His Justice would not sleep forever, he hardly did so from a perspective that sees only an absent and indifferent God. To be sure, God’s self-restraint is what makes the semblance of human freedom possible. But Jefferson obviously understood that this restraint does not entail indifference to sin and wrongdoing, since he dreaded God’s forthcoming retribution.
Both John Witherspoon and James Wilson wrote at length about the relationship between God’s law and human law, each of them seeing the Creator as a) benevolent in the foresight with which He framed the natural order to take account of the existence, preservation and good of humanity and b) as a Being directly interested in humanity’s fate, as evidenced by Christ’s mission of salvation and by His role as the ultimate Judge of just and unjust actions. Given such evidence as this, it is likely that, just as those who hate the Godly basis of America’s national identity find things in the Constitution that were and are not there, so they find attributes of God absent from the Declaration, and the thinking and Discourse of the Founders, which obviously were, and are still there.
This weekend I drove down to Texas to speak at a fundraising dinner for the Llano Christian Academy, a fledging institution dedicated to providing and education that makes informing the students’ faithful Christian character and understanding the primary goal. I spoke to them of the special responsibility America’s Christian citizens must bear for the preservation or destruction of America’s just identity and way of life.
In discussing this responsibility, I rely heavily on the fact that the God-acknowledging premises of right and justice set forth in America’s Declaration of Independence constitute the keystone of the purpose and identity of the American people. These days more and more Americans are awakening to the fact that our nation is threatened in it every existence by forces seeking to overthrew the constitutional sovereignty of the America people. The root of that threat is the systematic subversion of our allegiance to the principles of the Declaration, without which the role the U.S. Constitution gives to the American people has no basis that trumps raw power.
At the time of the Founding, and in every generation since then, the mainstay of the nation’s allegiance to the Declaration has been the fact that faithful Christians actively made use of its terms to remind the nation of its ideals, and demand that they be respected in action. The notion that the Founders were not really Christians subtly aims to subvert and discourage the faith actuated citizenship of American Christians, depriving the nation of this critical source of energy in the effort to sustain our liberty.
Being mindful of this attack, when I spoke in Llano I reminded people of logic of the evangelist’s account of Christ’s identity. Christ is the Word made flesh. But the evangelist first makes clear that he is also the Word of Creation, the one through whom all things were made. So the Declaration’s reference to the Creator as the source and substantiator of unalienable right evokes the Person of God whom some men knew in the flesh as Jesus, and whom many of us today know in the Spirit as the Risen Christ. As Christians, our citizen vocation includes a special call to study and apply the truth of the Creator’s role in respect of human activities, for this benevolence toward humanity is, in a uniquely clear way, the ministry of the Incarnate Word.
Thanks to the faithful courage of America’s Founders, the identity of the American people is bound up with the recognition of the Creator’s role in substantiating what is right and just for human beings in their relations with one another. There is, therefore, a Providential harmony between our nation’s understanding of right, and the true understanding of God as its source and guarantor, which the fulfilled mission of Christ forever verified and affirmed. In light of this, must we not be disposed to be the unwavering trumpet that notifies and calls Americans to respond to the subversion of their nation’s founding truths? If the nation fails in this generation, won’t it be because we did not courageously act on this disposition, trusting in our Lord to be our bulwark, shield and only true reward as we do so?
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