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Declaration of Secularism

July 4, 2009

Inspired by the nation’s birthday, Larry Arnhart at Darwinian Conservatism has a few thoughts about the term “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” as it appears in the Declaration of Independence:

That phrase provokes questions. Do the “Laws of Nature” depend on some religious belief in “Nature’s God”? Does “Nature’s God” suggest some kind of natural theology–some conception of the divine that is manifest in nature without need for revelation? Could “Nature’s God” suggest a deistic notion of God as the uncaused cause of Nature? Or do we need a more biblical conception of God as a divine person who intervenes in nature miraculously? Does the very idea of “Laws of Nature” imply a lawgiver, who must be God? If natural law requires religious belief, does that mean that a regime based on the principles of the Declaration of Independence must enforce religious belief–at least the minimal religious beliefs suggested by the Declaration with its invocation of God as Creator, Legislator, and Judge? If so, why is the United States Constitution silent about these religious beliefs, even as it declares that there shall be “no religious test” for public office, and no congressional “establishment of religion”?

As is well known, Thomas Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence and his stamp was strongly felt at the Constitutional Convention (during which he was Ambassador to France). This begs the question, what were Jefferson’s views on religion?

The clergy, by getting themselves established by law and ingrafted into the machine of government, have been a very formidable engine against the civil and religious rights of man.
— Thomas Jefferson, to Jeremiah Moor, 1800
History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.
— Thomas Jefferson, to Alexander von Humboldt, December 6, 1813
Christianity neither is, nor ever was, a part of the common law.
— Thomas Jefferson, letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, February 10, 1814, responding to the claim that Chritianity was part of the Common Law of England, as the United States Constitution defaults to the Common Law regarding matters that it does not address.
Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person’s life, freedom of religion affects every individual. Religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of an established religion tends to make the clergy unresponsive to their own people, and leads to corruption within religion itself. Erecting the “wall of separation between church and state,” therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.
— Thomas Jefferson, to the Virginia Baptists (1808) ME 16:320. This is his second known use of the term “wall of separation,” here quoting his own use in the Danbury Baptist letter. This wording of the original was several times upheld by the Supreme Court as an accurate description of the Establishment Clause: Reynolds (98 US at 164, 1879); Everson (330 US at 59, 1947); McCollum (333 US at 232, 1948)
Jefferson quotes via Positive Atheism.

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 5, 2009 2:04 am

    It does not “beg” the question! It raises the question. To beg the question is to commit the fallacy of petitio principii.
    Smart guy, that Jefferson fellow.

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