Does the Constitution Incorporate the Declaration of Independence? Why Does It Matter?

[This is a piece I wrote that I never reproduced here; though I have written similar pieces. This fits well with James Hanley’s piece on utilitarianism.]

A culture war battle looms in Texas. The New York Times Magazine, in a piece entitled How Christian Were the Founders?, reports at great length on the State Board of Education’s plans to revise the social studies curriculum.

Controversy surrounds the involvement of David Barton and Rev. Peter Marshall – activists (not credentialed historians) who stress devout Christians founded America on biblical principles. And they want that “history” taught to children in the public schools.

Critics of Barton and Marshall have named their movement, “Christian Nationalism.” Christian Nationalists seek to “reclaim” American institutions generally, of which public schools are just one. While libertarians don’t have a stake in whether the religious right or secular left owns American history, we should care when they distort history in an attempt to impede Liberty. Especially when they attempt to claim ownership of the Declaration of Independence in the process.

The New York Times’ piece reports on how Christian Nationalists seek to “connect[] the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution” to establish the Christian character of the US Constitution. A Christian Nationalist attorney and law professor is quoted asserting, “When you have in one legal document reference to another, it pulls them together, so that they can’t be viewed as separate and distinct….” David Barton endorsed guidelines that textbooks “should stipulate (but currently do not) that the Declaration of Independence is symbiotic with the Constitution rather than a separate unrelated document.”

Christian Nationalists stress the unity of the Declaration and US Constitution in an attempt to rebut The Godless Constitution thesis – the title of a book written by two Cornell professors. God was left out of the US Constitution, the two professors argue, to establish firmly America’s political order on a secular foundation. By tying the US Constitution back to the Declaration, Christian Nationalists shift the American Founding back to its proper Godly foundation.

Or so they think.

Political scientists, historians, and legal scholars of liberal, conservative and libertarian stripes vigorously dispute how the Declaration and US Constitution properly relate to one another.

The problem with the Christian Nationalist understanding is the Declaration is arguably not a Christian/biblical document and doesn’t vindicate their ideal vision for society. It doesn’t mention Jesus Christ or quote verses and chapters of scripture. Its call to revolution is arguably in tension with Romans 13. And it’s not clear that other central principles enunciated in the Declaration have anything to do with the Bible. Moreover, its drafter and principle authors – Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Ben Franklin – flunk Christian Nationalists’ “orthodox” qualifications required for believing Christians.

The Declaration is a Providential or theistic document (not necessarily a Christian or a biblical document). It mentions a God of some sort in four different places.

8 out of 9 members of the current Supreme Court (insofar as I correctly understand the newish Justices Alito’s, Roberts’ and Sotomayor’s views) don’t believe the Declaration of Independence is “Law.” Justice Thomas is the only one who does.

Interestingly, most scholars with religious conservative sympathies do not endorse that the Declaration is Law or that the US Constitution should be viewed in light its principles. Among others, Justice Scalia and the late Chief Justice Rehnquist have written against this notion, as have former Judge Robert Bork, law professor Lino Graglia, and the late traditionalist Russell Kirk (who notably argued the Declaration was a wink towards France to win their support in the Revolutionary War).

These social conservatives recognize calling for political revolt on the grounds that God gives us the “right” (along with unalienable rights to political liberty and to pursue happiness) isn’t settled orthodoxy in Christendom and also may not foster the kind of orderly, traditionalist society they desire.

Yes, a “revolutionary” current exists in Christendom. It’s just not clear that revolutionary thought harmonizes better with conservative Christianity, than for instance, liberation theology. Or, for that matter, a libertarian Christian political theology that posits government should give conservative Christians and those who live differently the equal freedom to pursue happiness.

Lino Graglia well sums up how the Declaration’s call for revolt arguably conflicts with conservatism’s moral traditionalism and vision for an orderly, lawful society:

… What [the Declaration] is, of course, is a document meant to justify revolution — that is, illegal action. Having no human law to rely on — being in defiance of authority — revolutionaries necessarily come to rely on the law of God, who, happily, rarely issues a protest.

Similarly, in his tome against social liberalism, Slouching Towards Gomorrah, Robert Bork, after noting “[e]quality and liberty are of course, what America said it was about from the beginning,” derides the ideals of the Declaration of Independence stating they “are hardly useful, indeed may be pernicious, if taken, as they commonly are, as a guide to action, governmental or private.”

In short, the Declaration of Independence, properly understood, does not vindicate the Christian Nationalists’ ideal vision for how America “ought to be.” Libertarians, at the very least, should understand that.

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8 Responses to Does the Constitution Incorporate the Declaration of Independence? Why Does It Matter?

  1. tom van dyke says:

    One hates to get within spitting distance of Barton because one gets spat upon himself, but the real scandal—“controversy,” at least in Texas—was what the academic establishment did to the curriculum, eviscerating vital stuff like Washington’s Farewell Address in favor of

    Why is “poetry, songs, and artwork” presented to students 11 times more often
    than the documents creating the country whose history is being studied?
    ➢ Why is knowing “folktales, myths, and legends” apparently four times more
    important than knowing the Declaration or the Constitution?
    ➢ Why is there such an emphasis on sources recording the subjective feelings of
    specific individuals and so little emphasis on official state papers, organic
    documents, and governing laws that reflect the will of the nation?

    If one disagrees with Barton’s link of the declaration to the Constitution, at least he supports his argument with Samuel and John Quincy Adams, to me better witnesses than law professors or even judges like Bork.

    The reportage in the media has been abominable, especially using the advocacy group Texas Freedom Network as a source.

    But now the battle’s over, the new curriculum’s done.

    The “folktales, myths, and legends” are out; the “founding documents” of the republic are in. “Ordinary people” are out bigtime as they were all over the last curriculum, “historical figures, patriots, and good citizens” are in. John Smith is out, Jose Antonio Navarro is in; Juan de Onote is in, Lewis & Clark are out. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is in.

    Some of these figures may have been moved to the curriculum of later grades. Tellya the truth, it’s simply not worth the time to roll up my sleeves on it—the culture war will continue unabated regardless of the facts, as we saw in the initial flurry of perjorative pieces from the press.

    If a fair and thorough analysis of the results is ever done in the media, I’d like to see it. I like being surprised, for it seldom happens. I least of all expect it on this issue, for every piece I’ve read has been a polemic against and caricature of the proposed changes and not a single analysis of the existing curriculum.

    Now the story can be truly told, in its own words, not by folktales, myths and legends, but by its own “founding documents,” as it were.

  2. I read through it and it is not that much different than the standards I had in D.C. seem like most of the changes were minimum. I do have to wonder how Peter Muhlenberg, whom I had never heard of, is studied and Thomas Jefferson is not? I think they added some stuff about missionaries in there that seemed out of place too. All in all I do not think it should have caused such an uproar as it stands now. Though it is a shame politics got into it. I am a firm believer in give the kids all angles and let them evaluated it for themselves. Seems impossible in this culture war battle though.

  3. tom van dyke says:

    Though it is a shame politics got into it.

    Until there’s an honest evaluation of the curriculum as it was, we cannot know if the changes are bad or good on the whole.

    I doubt if Thomas Jefferson is actually “out.”

    seems like a stretch; however, if one reads the new standards carefully, the word “including” means such folks must be taught, “such as” are merely suggestions.

    I look forward to the heregathered and estimable brainpower to analyze the new Texas standards on all fronts by color-code: what was added, deleted, corrected or emphasized. Perhaps I’ll be surprised by the fairness and accuracy. I love to be surprised.

  4. The problem with Jefferson not being mentioned is that many teachers go by the exact standards. With the new reform movement you almost have to. The ones in DC were pretty solid so I stuck pretty close to them. It all really comes down to the teacher. But all and all the standards at about the same as DC which is borrowed right from California. I would change a few things but they are solid. At least the American History high school ones that I looked at. That is at first glance.

    A lot of this is moot because a good teacher is going to get Jefferson in there anyway.

  5. With all that stated above, the trouble with Muhlenberg is that this is the type of stuff you would see in a home school cirriculum. Many holes in those that I have seen personally. We most assuredly do not want to go there. Trust me.

  6. Jon,

    The link to “libertarian Christianity” was interesting. They alluded to Aquinas and Augustine. The former’s view of rights is much different than today’s. He, from my reading that could be wrong for sure, basically states that rights are not a thing to claim selfishly for one’s self but to selflessly respect the rights of others.

    In other words, I recognize your right to live your life, own your property, and have freedom or liberty to do that in whatever manner you wish as long as it does not infringe on my right to do the same. Goes kind of well with love your neighbor as yourself in that you respect your neighbor and also can defend the same right for yourself.

    The best point he had is when he asked why we should limit people from doing things that God permits but does not condone. It all comes down to choice. Good link Jon. I think you should focus on this avenue and beat the moralists on their own field.

  7. Pingback: Is the DOI a “Christian” Document?

  8. Cary Cox says:


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