[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.