Excerpts from Founding Documents on Religion

Excerpts from Founding Documents on Religion

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Introduction

The following excerpts express some of the contending views of religion and politics characteristic of the Founding. Jefferson, who thought a great deal about the relationship between politics and religion, even contended with himself. In Notes on the State of Virginia, the only book that Jefferson published, when speaking of nature, Jefferson stressed its law abiding, unvarying character; yet when speaking of morality and politics (the issue of slavery), he called upon divine intervention, that is, for God to intervene in the ordinary, orderly workings of the world. The Declaration of Independence also contains both views of God’s relationship to the world and politics, referring to the Creator, the Supreme Judge, as well as to Providence, but also to the laws of nature and of Nature’s God. Again, in Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson wrote that the only firm basis for liberty was the belief that it was a gift of God. This is a view echoed in Washington’s Farewell Address, the Northwest Ordinance and Benjamin Rush’s[1] discussion of education in the new republic. The Declaration, on the other hand, derives liberty by a rational argument from the premise of human equality. It is possible to overstress this difference, of course, since if God created men equal and gave them a capacity to reason, then we might say that the Declaration also presents liberty as the gift of God. Differences among the Founders appear sharpest, perhaps, in what Jefferson and Rush had to say about education. While Rush thought the Bible and religion should be the basis of a republican education, Jefferson argued to exclude the Bible in favor of the study of history and secular authors. All agreed that religious liberty was essential to free government (see Washington’s letter to the Touro Synagogue, Document 6), but Jefferson’s views represented those who were most inclined to separate religion and politics.

Declaration of Independence

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,— That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. —Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States….

…We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Footnotes
  1. 1. Rush (1746–1813) signed the Declaration of Independence and was a political leader, social reformer and educator.
  2. 2. The region of Greece centered around Athens.
  3. 3. Mythological king of ancient Greece whose name is associated with Greek accounts of the Great Flood.
  4. 4. On February 5, 1783, an earthquake of an estimated magnitude of 7.5 or 8 devastated the southeastern portion of Italy called Calabria. This and aftershocks in the month following dramatically changed the topography of the region.
  5. 5. The entry on “Shells” in Voltaire’s Questions on the Encyclopedia.
  6. 6. Censor of morals