“All men are created equal” was a statement made by Enlightenment Era deists who believed in a non-personal non-acting metaphysical being. It was not a pronouncement that all rights and morality came from a Christian god. The Declaration of Independence is no more of an endorsement or confirmation of the supremacy of Christian morality and theology then is Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals. The fact that some people find a reason to think that this is in fact the case shows more about the ability of conservatives to project their beliefs onto any secular document than anything else.
The founding fathers were certainly not of one mind regarding spirituality or belief (I hardly think that George Washington would have found the need to reedit the Bible as did Jefferson) but the men who had the most influence in shaping and passing the Declaration and the Constitution were in no way men of faith as a conservative Christian of today would understand it. Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and Hamilton were al believers to a degree (with the possible exception of Jefferson) but none of them were fanatical in their belief or an advocate of Christian moral law as a basis for a Constitutional Republic. These men grew up in colonies founded for the most part upon the principle of religious freedom, or at least fear of government interference and partnership with religion. These men were also highly educated in the philosophy of the European Enlightenment thinkers of the past century. Rousseau, Locke, Fichte, Voltaire, Hobbes…none of these men is exactly known for their writings in favor of theocracy as a mode of civil government.
Jefferson in particular feared the pernicious potential of state and church uniting. He helped to guarantee religious freedom in his home state, and he had no intention of betraying his principles when he had a chance to shape the national dialogue. The fact that nearly each and every major delegate to the Constitutional Convention and the Continental Congress had a different religion or different view of religion was not lost on the founders who crafted our foundational documents. The deliberate exclusion of reference to a deity or even to any matters of faith or morality, save for religious freedom protections, from these documents puts the lie to the idea that these men saw America as a potential Christian Republic based upon Biblical precepts.
Many revisionists will have you believe that the private letters and papers of the founders are positively littered with references to the almighty and the Bible. In some regards they are correct: it would be strange if men born in an era and a civilization that took to heart biblical ideas and teaching did not reference such views in their personal lives. This, however, is not a sign that they meant the secular and civil documents and institutions they created should be run or interpreted based on limited biblical conceptions of law and ethics. They would be bad enlightenment thinkers, and indeed bad stewards of the traditions and ideas of their forebears, if they were foolish enough to be led by purely biblical precepts. These men knew in what context the bible was written, and they knew that this context could not be directly fused onto a civil society based around Enlightenment precepts and English common law. Lord knows that the precepts and traditions of common law itself did not adhere strictly to even the most liberal readings of scripture then extant.
“The Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”. This was not the wording of a theology friendly or familiar to traditional Christianity at this place and time. Just imagine a preacher referring to “Nature’s God” in the pulpit of a Catholic Church in Baltimore, or in a Baptist preacher’s sermon. It would have been a scandal! Just ask any evangelical today if they worship “Nature’s God” and they will laugh you out of their Church…and then pray for the redemption of your sinning soul. “Nature’s God” and the rights that derive from it were a deist precept, the belief of a theology of humanistic enlightenment. Jefferson or Adams would be horrified by the idea that their Declaration would be interpreted today by some Christians as a vindication of Biblical prophecy or of the inherency of scripture. “Nature’s God” was not a god of active creation or omniscient interference or will: it was the basis of a humanistic philosophy of nature as the center of all understanding of morality and ethics. Nature provided a world that allowed for the full potential of the human mind and heart to be realized. Look into the Bible. There is no striving for deeper knowledge of creation, there is no guarantee of fair and equal status for all, there is no unalienable right to anything beyond the “right” to worship and obey an unfathomable and inscrutable metaphysical force! Show me anywhere in the Declaration or the Constitution where government procedure, law or ethics is in any way attributed to a deity, let alone a specifically Christian one.
And even if there was, which God would it be? Would it be the God of the Quakers who vouchsafed our liberty? Of the Catholics? Of the Unitarians? But today Christians insist on interpreting the Constitution and the declaration from a Christian perspective that would be as alien to the founders as the founders beliefs would have been to the elder fathers of church doctrine and law! And furthermore, these men who are revered by Conservatives for their unwavering devotion to their ideals, how come none of them ever even made a gesture towards even trying to establish a more “Christian Union”. Jefferson was President, so was Washington and Adams and Madison…None of these men made even the slightest nod towards theocracy or a theological interpretation of the document and government they themselves forged. Were they moral cowards then? Or is it more likely that they never intended for their ideas to be taken as an endorsement of Christian moral theory in government? I think we can all realize the true answer here.
We were indeed “created” equal in the minds of our founders, but not equal within the bosom of a Christian god. Equal in the sense that we all have within us as human beings the potential for good and ill, happiness and sadness, rashness and wisdom and we also all have the responsibility to protect and serve each other equals in a march towards greater prosperity, stability and enlightenment. There is not Christian god to be found within the Declaration or the Constitution because he was never there to begin with. To think otherwise is to grossly misunderstand, and underestimate, the intentions and the wisdom of the founders.