On Declaring Ourselves Independent of Christianity

By Ed Buckner | 17 March 2023
Letters to a Free Country

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About the Friday Freethought Perennials in general: This subset of my blog is to answer questions, nearly always already answered by me and by many others but posed again and again—over many years and in many places—on freethought, atheism, secular humanism, secularism/church-state/”This is a Christian Nation,” and similar topics. These answers are mostly not intended to be original analyses, breaths of fresh air, so much as just putting a whole series of things on the record (I’d say “forever,” except I know better). One source for many of these answers is the 2012 Prometheus Books book by me and my son (Michael E. Buckner), In Freedom We Trust: An Atheist Guide to Religious Liberty. It’s available in many libraries and pretty readily in the used book after-market. I’ll cite writings of others that answer these things in more depth if I’m aware of them when I post these.

I have seen many Christian nation mythologists assert quite confidently that the US Declaration of Independence, agreed to in July 1776, is strong evidence that the US is a Christian nation. My son Michael E. Buckner is more of an expert on this than I am. He was the primary author of our chapter, “The Unchristian Roots of the Fourth of July” in our book, In Freedom We Trust. I’m pasting in, at the bottom of this post, that entire chapter, including the footnotes, for any who want much more detail. But first I’ll give the basic response:

“The Declaration of Independence famously and prominently invokes our Creator and refers to God in several places. What stronger evidence of the founders’ devotion to God could you ask for?”

1.     The Declaration, while quite important historically and emotionally for all US citizens and many millions of others world-wide, is not our governing charter—that is the US Constitution, written and ratified over a decade later.

2.     The Declaration, written primarily by Thomas Jefferson (provably not a Christian in any modern, orthodox sense) includes references only to a more deistic version of God; “Nature’s God” or “Creator,” and not to anything seriously Christian.

3. The Declaration is directly contradictory to biblical principles as it declares rebellion against a Christian king, George III.

It’s  worth noting that it is the New Testament, not the Old, that commands Christians as follows:

Romans 13 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.

For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:

For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.

Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.

For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.

Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.

These verses from Romans 13 (reportedly a letter from the Apostle Paul) clearly declare that human governments are instituted by God. Hence the alleged “divine right of kings” that George III relied on and that the colonial patriots rebelled against. The core essence of the Declaration of Independence is anti-biblical, and nothing in the Declaration is pro-Christian. See the chapter, below, for much more detail.

Our (mostly Michael Buckner’s) chapter, including at the end, the footnotes—

Chapter 7. The Unchristian Roots of the Fourth of July

The United States Constitution is, of course, literally a “godless” document: the word “God” (like the words “Jesus,” “Christ,” “Christianity,” or “Bible”) simply does not appear anywhere in our country’s fundamental legal document.1 If the Founders of the United States meant to establish this as a “Christian Nation” in any constitutional, legal, or political sense, they neglected to mention it in the document from which our federal government derives its authority. See the next chapter for more on the Constitution.

Often, though, supporters of the “Christian Nation” ideology claim that the Declaration of Independence is the document that establishes this country as distinctively Christian. Leaving aside the fact that the Declaration, however important it may be in our history, technically has no legal standing in our government, this is at least superficially a more convincing claim. After all, the Declaration does at least use the word “God” and uses synonyms thereof three more times later in the Declaration.2 To be sure, none of these words or phrases (“Nature’s God,” “Creator,” “Supreme Judge of the World,” “Divine Providence”) is specifically Christian—there are no references to Jesus Christ or the Holy Trinity—but none of them is necessarily incompatible with Christianity either.

It should be pointed out that Thomas Jefferson, the principal drafter of the Declaration, declared “I am a Christian”3 but did not accept the doctrines of the virgin birth, the resurrection of Jesus, the divinity of Jesus, or any miraculous powers ascribed to Jesus, nor did he believe in original sin or justification by faith. Although Jefferson often referred to himself as a “Christian,” he viewed Jesus of Nazareth as a great man and a moral and religious reformer, and not as the Christ or Messiah. In a letter to William Short, October 31, 1819, Jefferson listed doctrines which he explicitly rejected: “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 the Hierarchy, etc.”4 In a later letter to Short, in April 1820, Jefferson clarified further: “It is not to be understood that I am with him [Jesus Christ] in all his doctrines. I am a Materialist; he takes the side of Spiritualism; he preaches the efficacy of repentance toward forgiveness of sin; I require a counterpoise of good works to redeem it. . . .”5

Given Jefferson’s religious beliefs and the lack of any distinctively Christian language in the Declaration, many have argued that the theism of the Declaration is the religion of deism and not the religion of Christianity. (Deism was a rationalist, monotheistic faith associated with the eighteenth century Enlightenment in Europe; deism had no creeds or dogmas, but in general deists, while believing in God as Creator of the Universe and even as author of moral laws, rejected belief in miracles and considered reason and experience rather than revelation and faith to be the proper sources of religious truth. The modern Unitarians are probably the closest heirs to the deists of Jefferson’s day.) It is also true that the Declaration contains no scriptural citations or even any obvious allusions to the Christian Bible, which is certainly peculiar for an ostensibly Christian document. However, what is most important to look at in the Declaration of Independence are the basic ideas it embodies, rather than the rhetoric with which they are presented.

In addition to numerous condemnations of the policies of King George III (explicitly identified as “the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain” and attacked for supporting the slave trade in Jefferson’s draft6), which need not further concern us here, the Declaration of Independence is most famous for setting forth a basic philosophy of government: people have certain natural rights deriving from their Creator; in order to preserve those rights, people establish governments; since governments derive their power from the establishment of the people, the people therefore retain an inherent right to change or even overthrow any government that no longer carries out its original purpose of protecting the rights of the people. This is far from an entirely atheistic or materialist philosophy—the Declaration does derive those natural rights from an endowment by a Creator—but it is far from being a Christian or Judeo-Christian view of government either. In the Old Testament, the ideal form of government is literally a theocracy. The laws of the ancient Israelites are handed down directly by God, not written by human legislators answerable to the people at large. The purpose of the laws is not to protect the inalienable rights of the people but to ensure that the Israelites would remain “a people holy to the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 14:2). The leaders of the people—Moses, Aaron, Joshua—are selected by the deity, not elected (Exodus 2:14, 3:11–12, 4:14; Numbers 27:15–21; Joshua 1:1–2). When Israel first became a kingdom, the Bible teaches that Samuel—a prophet chosen by God and not responsible to any human constitution or institution—selected a king on divine instruction (I Samuel, chapter 8; this chapter also reveals the ambivalence of the biblical writers towards the whole institution of human kingship, which in the Old Testament is at times portrayed as tyrannical and even an affront to God; clearly, though, what is being preferred over monarchy is not a democratic republic but a continued theocracy in which divinely chosen priests, prophets, or “judges” rule by God’s power.) Later, when the first king (Saul) is abandoned by God, a new king (David) is again chosen by direct, divine intervention (1 Samuel 16:1–2). When kings of Europe claimed that the proper form of Christian government was a monarch who ruled by “divine right” as the “Lord’s anointed,” they were putting forth a view of government that is genuinely in accord with biblical, Judeo-Christian values.

The New Testament also upholds the view that government is an institution of God, not of the people. Romans 13:1–2, already cited in an earlier chapter but worth re-quoting here, clearly forbids rebellion against the established authorities and was, moreover, written about the pagan government of the Roman Empire, which actively persecuted Christians:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgement on themselves.

George III, it should be noted, was a Christian monarch; if Paul commanded obedience by Christians to the pagan and tyrannical Roman emperors, surely he would have demanded equal obedience by Christians to the avowedly Christian (and far less cruel or oppressive) British king and parliament. The New Testament does, of course, present a major shift in viewpoint from the Old; now, obedience to secular authorities is commanded not so much because they rule over a divinely ordained theocracy as it is because secular authorities, along with everything else in the world, will soon be swept away by the Second Coming. Christians should act morally—which to Paul included obedience to a corrupt and tyrannical state—in preparation for judgement day, which he preached was quite near at hand in the first century CE (Romans 13:7-14).

The theory of government presented in the Declaration of Independence, then, represents a radical break with Judeo-Christian traditions that went back thousands of years. Government, it asserts, derives its powers not from the will of God but from the consent of the governed. From being an instrument of God’s wrath, government is demoted to an invention of human beings, to be altered at the will of its creators. As Pauline Maier noted, “. . . indeed, separation of church and state was one of the most radical innovations of the American Revolution.”7

Our Constitution goes even further than the Declaration in its godlessness, not even bothering with a ceremonial invocation of God or “Divine Providence” in vesting ultimate authority in “We, the people.”8 What James Madison and John Adams, both quoted in the previous chapter, wrote is directly relevant here. As Madison, principal drafter of the Constitution, said, “religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”9  And to reiterate what John Adams, second President of the United States, wrote (quoted at much greater length in our earlier chapter)

Although the detail of the formation of the American governments is at present little known or regarded either in Europe or in America.  .  .  . [i]t will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven . . . ; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.10

The leaders of this country went on not only to found what is likely the first entirely secular government in human history but also to guarantee religious liberty for all in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Article VI of the Constitution, in barring any religious test or oath for federal office, and the First Amendment, in protecting freedom of religion and the separation of church and state that guarantees that freedom, ended the long “Judeo-Christian” tradition of persecution, torture, and death for differences of opinion in matters of religion—a tradition that began with the Bible itself, which calls on the faithful worshippers of God to denounce even their own parents and children and to cast the first stone in putting them to death if they deviate from the “true” religion (Deuteronomy, 13:6–11). That we do not have a government based on the Bible—or “God’s law”—or “Judeo-Christian values”—is something that all Americans can be grateful for every Fourth of July: grateful not to any god, but to the human beings who established this country as a free country, and not a Christian nation.

Footnotes for Chapter 7. The Unchristian Roots of the Fourth of July

1. Mortimer J. Adler (ed.), “The Constitution of the United States,” in Volume 3: 1784 – 1796, Organizing the New Nation; The Annals of America (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1968), pp. 122–129.

2. Mortimer J. Adler (ed.), “The Declaration of Independence,” in Volume 2: 1755 – 1783, Resistance and Revolution; The Annals of America (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1968), pp. 447–449.

3. Thomas Jefferson, ed. Merrill D. Peterson, “The Morals of Jesus; Letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, with a Syllabus, Apr. 21, 1803,” in Writings: Autobiography; Notes on the State of Virginia; Public Papers; Addresses, Messages, and Replies; Miscellany; Letters (New York: The Library of America, 1984), p. 1122.

4. Jefferson, “I Too am an Epicurean, Letter to William Short, October 31, 1819,” in Writings, p. 1431.

5. George Seldes (compiler/ed.), The Great Quotations (Secaucus, NJ: The Citadel Press, 1983), p. 373.

6. Jefferson, “A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress Assembled,” in Writings, p. 22.

7. Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), p. xix.

8. Adler, “Preamble, The Constitution of the United States,” in Annals, Volume 3, p. 122.

9. James Madison (Saul K. Padover, ed.), “Letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822,” The Complete Madison: His Basic Writings (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1953; Kraus Reprint Co., 1971), pp. 308–309.

10. Adams, John, A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America. Vol. 1 (New York: Da Capo Press Reprint, 1971), 1787–1788, Preface.

Ed Buckner is an American atheist activist who served as president of the organization American Atheists from 2008 to 2010. He served as executive director for the Council for Secular Humanism from 2001 to 2003 and was once the Council’s southern director. He is the author (with Michael E. Buckner) of In Freedom We Trust: An Atheist Guide to Religious Liberty (Prometheus Books, 2012).

Harmonic Atheist – Interview with Dr. Ed Buckner

The Founding Fathers on Religion – In Their Own Words

The Right’s Fight to Make America a Christian Nation | CBS Reports

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  1. I disagree slightly. The Declaration IS one of our “foundation documents.” There is also some pretty decent evidence that Thomas Paine actually penned it, then allowed Jefferson to take credit for it. Still, these two men WERE, at best, deists, and there is no good argument that the USA is a “Christian Nation.” I might add that, upon careful examination, it becomes clear that Christian doctrine/dogma (strongly Pauline in character) contains some deeply problematic elements. Perhaps worst is that there is the assumption that a fairy-tale based fall from grace (in the book of Genesis) long-ago determined thateach member of humankind is a “fallen” creature. Then, there is massive junk about sin (and even “God’s supposed nemesis,” Satan)…and another fairy-tale, about Paradise. And, there is the fact that what was included in the Christian “canon” were only certain books (with many, more Gnostic in flavor having been omitted)…and that this religion is actually a kind of “rinky-dink” hodge-podge of elements present in the ancient world…and one which supports government and the status quo…which Jesus (actually, Yesheshua, the Annointed) would probably have taken issue.

    • The D of I can certainly be viewed, quite reasonably, as a "founding document" of the US. What it cannot reasonably be construed as is as a "governing document." The Declaration is important historically and even emotionally, but it does not set forth rules for the government/society.


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