The conventional wisdom reinforced by our public schools and universities is that Thomas Jefferson and the founders of this Republic were Deists and Enlightenment humanists whose philosophy was secular and rationalist. According to modern thinking, these ideas, traced further into the past, originated with the Greeks and Romans; and when the founders used religious terms or referred to a deity, their terms were generic at best, and at worst, were cynical attempts to dupe and win over the common Christian colonist. It is not Christianity, say the skeptics, but Enlightenment humanism that generated the ideas articulated in the Declaration of Independence.
It is hardly surprising that many people accept this secularist view of our founding, since it has been aggressively trumpeted at least as far back as 1922, when the intellectual Carl Becker released his work on the Declaration. Becker was an admirer of Hegel and Marx and theorized that the American Revolution and French Revolutions were mere links in an evolutionary chain of history that would culminate in Communism as its purest expression. This was the worldview through which Becker perceived history and which influenced his seminal work on the Declaration, which planted the seeds of the belief that our system of government is secularly based. Becker's view has been dominant more or less since the 1920s and remains so today.
But modern scholarship has exposed it as a fallacy. The French scholar Michel Villey, himself a humanist, and other scholars, such as Richard Tuck of England, have shown that Greek and Roman ideas concerning "rights" did not form the philosophical underpinnings of the American (or English) system as secularists insist. Author Gary Amos explained that the concept of inalienable rights couldn't have come from the Greeks or Romans, but is traceable to the Scriptures. The Greeks, said Amos, were polytheists who would never have subscribed to the notion that "all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator (singular) with certain unalienable rights." Moreover, according to Amos, the Greeks believed the universe originated from an impersonal divine force, not a personal God as revealed in the Bible. Human beings were an extension of that divine force; there was virtually no distinction between humans and the divine, so the Declaration's concept of men being endowed by their creator would never have occurred to the Greeks. Only in the Bible are the components of the Declaration's phrase, "all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator (singular) with certain unalienable rights" present. It is a biblical concept (Genesis) that God created man in His image and likeness. Only because of this are all men entitled to equal treatment and inalienable rights. The Greeks, apparently, did not subscribe to a doctrine of equality or equal rights, and neither did the Romans. Had Thomas Jefferson chosen to do so, he could have endorsed secularism in his draft of the Declaration, but instead chose language compatible with a biblical worldview. Even had he chosen secularist language, it likely would have been cut from the edited document, as we'll see.
Indeed, many who cling to the theory of the secularist origin of our founding rely heavily on the supposed Deism and even Enlightenment skepticism of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and others. Aside from Jefferson and Franklin and perhaps a few others, this is demonstrably untrue. The late scholar M. E. Bradford of the University of Dallas, who studied the religious backgrounds of the signers of the Declaration and the Constitution, concluded that the overwhelming majority of them were strong, practicing Christians. Bradford found that fifty-two of the fifty-six signers of the Declaration were Trinitarian Christians. Similarly, of the fifty-five signers of the Constitution, fifty to fifty-two were orthodox Christians. As for the denominational affiliations of the signers of the Constitution, "twenty-nine were Anglicans, sixteen to eighteen were Calvinists, two were Methodists, two were Lutherans, two were Roman Catholic, one lapsed Quaker and sometimes Anglican, and one was open Deist. The Deist was Benjamin Franklin, who attended every kind of Christian worship, called for public prayer, and contributed to all denominations"13 These affiliations are not surprising, given the Christian upbringing and education of these men.14 M. Stanton Evans observed that colonial Americans "generally were raised on Scripture, accustomed to institutions that embodied Christian precept, and instructed by pastors attentive to the political meaning of religious doctrine." British parliamentarian Edmund Burke said of the American colonists in 1770, "The people are Protestants; and of that kind which is the most adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion This is a persuasion not only favorable to Liberty, but built upon it."
It would be a mistake to conclude that, because the founders were not Enlightenment skeptics, they were therefore somehow enemies of science or reason. In fact, quite the opposite is the case, as Michael Novak observed:
The most important thing is this: the founders saw themselves laboring within a long community of inquiry, at home simultaneously in the world of biblical and classical examples and in the practical world of the eighteenth century. For most of them, the Bible and plain reason went hand in hand, moral example for moral example. ... Far from being contrary to reason, faith strengthens reason. To employ a poor analogy, faith is a little like a telescope that magnifies what the naked eye of reason sees unaided. For the founders, it was evident that faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob magnifies human reason, encourages virtue, and sharpens a zest for liberty Moreover, a free society demands a higher level of virtue than a tyranny, which no other moral energy has heretofore proven capable of inspiring except Judaism and Christianity.
But what about Jefferson? The consensus seems to be that he was a Deist, but as M. Stanton Evans noted, Jefferson clearly "believed in the creative, sovereign, and superintending God of Scripture" but also thought that Platonic doctrine had corrupted the original monotheism of the Bible. He was probably a Unitarian rather than a Deist." David Barton points out that Jefferson
William J. Federer, America's God and Country: Encyclopedia of Quotations (St. Louis, MO: Amerisearch, Inc., 1994/2000), 180. Another source, W .W. Sweet, compiled a different list of affiliations, but it still shows the predominance of the Christian influence among the signers of the Constitution. According to Sweet, there were 19 Episcopalians, 8 Congregationalists, 7 Presbyterians, 2 Roman Catholics, 2 Quakers, 1 Methodist, 1 Dutch Reformed, and 1 Deist, Edmund Randolph, who later became a Christian convert. William Warren Sweet, Religion in the Development of American Culture, 1765-1840 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1952), 85, quoted in Vincent Carroll & David Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, Arguments AgainstAntiReligious Bigotry (San Francisco, CA: Encounter Books, 2002), 185.
D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe report that "Virtually all the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights ... had received a strong, well-integrated education. In the lower grades, the Bible was the chief textbook, and the church or home the classroom." D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe, What if the Bible Had Never Been Written, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998), 88.
called himself a Christian: "I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus."15 But even if we assume that Jefferson was not a believing Christian, the question remains what kind of influence he exerted on the Declaration as its original drafter (he was not a signer of the Constitution).
Despite Jefferson's absence from Congress during the period (February-May 1776) when most of the debate over independence occurred, John Adams believed that Jefferson's "peculiar felicity of expression" made him the right candidate to pen the original draft of the Declaration. But as M. Stanton Evans explained, it is incorrect to assume that because Jefferson wrote the first draft, the document is a product of his individual beliefs. Jefferson himself dispelled this notion. "Neither aiming at originality of principles or sentiments, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was an intended to be an expression of the American mind."
Jefferson's draft, said Evans, was vetted by a congressional committee led by the devout John Adams, and Congress itself took an active role in editing and rewriting it, including two references to a providential God. Congress made over eighty changes and deleted nearly five hundred words. The Declaration was thus a "corporate statement" of Congress. Evans rejects the claim that the ideas incorporated into the Declaration were the same as those expressed in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. The differences in their themes come precisely in their attitude toward religion. The French "rights" did not originate from God, but were "simply asserted as self-justifying concepts" The Declaration's "inalienable rights" were a product of "biblical theism."
Admittedly, the founders didn't rely solely on the Bible. They didn't create their ideas in a political science vacuum. They were scholars of government and history who borrowed from the ideas of great thinkers after conducting enormous research. At the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin made this very point, saying, "We have gone back to ancient history for models of government, and examined the different forms of those Republics And we have viewed modern states all round Europe."
Just what were the sources the founders tapped? A group of contemporary political scientists engaged in a ten-year study, examining over fifteen thousand political writings of the Founding Era (1760-1805), to answer that question. The research revealed that the most frequently cited authorities of the 180 names examined (listed in the order of declining frequency, with the corresponding percentages representing the frequency of citations from that author in relation to the total number of citations examined) were: Montesquieu 8.3%, Blackstone 7.9%, Locke 2.9%, Hume 2.7%, Plutarch 1.5%, Beccaria 1.5%, Cato 1.4%, De Lolme 1.4%, and Puffendorf 1.3% 56 Although these writers profoundly influenced the founders' thinking and writings, the researchers concluded that the founders cited the Bible vastly more often than any other source. They cited scripture four times more than Montesquieu or Blackstone and twelve times more than Locke. Indeed, thirty-four percent of the direct source quotations were from the Bibles'
David Barton amply demonstrated the strong Christian credentials of all these men upon whom the founders relied, except for Hume. Even Locke, who many have argued was a Deist, was in fact a Christian, according to Barton. Barton noted that the same charge was made against Locke during the Founding Era, and refuted by James Wilson, one of the original U.S. Supreme
15 David Barton, "The Founding Fathers and Deism," Wallbuilders, 2002. More controversially, Barton disputes the charge that Jefferson deleted from his Bible references to Jesus' miracles. According to Barton, Jefferson made it clear that his little Bible was not intended for his own purposes, but to be used to teach the Indians. He simply brought to the Indians the "red letter" portions of the New Testament, says Barton, in order to introduce them to Jesus' moral teachings.
Court justices and a signer of the Declaration. "I am equally far from believing Mr. Locke was a friend to infidelity [a disbelief in the Bible and Christianity]," said Wilson. "The consequence has been that the writings of Mr. Locke, one of the most able, most sincere, and most amiable assertors of Christianity and true philosophy, have been perverted to purposes which he would have deprecated and prevented had he discovered or foreseen them. In addition, though the founders had access to the works of the great secular thinkers, like Voltaire and Rousseau, they cited them much less frequently and often critically.
The two most highly quoted secular writers were the Frenchman Montesquieu and the Englishman Blackstone. They were both strong Christians. Montesquieu's signature work in political science was The Spirit of Laws. He believed that God is the source of all law: "Men make their own laws, but these laws must conform to the eternal laws of God " Interestingly, he compared Christianity with Islam and concluded that Judeo-Christian theism was better suited to good government. "A moderate government is most agreeable to the Christian religion;' he said, "and a despotic government to the Mahommedan." He wrote that Christianity, which directs people to love one another, would bless every nation with the best political laws. Christianity, he said, "is a stranger to mere despotic power." Blackstone's voluminous Commentaries on the Laws of England was the primary legal sourcebook for American lawyers during the early days of the republic. Blackstone also believed that all law is derived from God-the God of the Bible. "The doctrines thus delivered we call the revealed or divine law, and they are to be found only in the Holy Scriptures Upon these two foundations, the law of nature and law of [biblical] revelation, depend all human laws; that is to say, no human law should be suffered to contradict these."
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