by Edd Doerr
Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne had an excellent column on July 4, "Duel over a declaration: The real Tea Party didn't hate government and taxes", that should be clipped out or printed out and saved, perhaps to be used as a bookmark in your copy of Tom Paine's "Common Sense" or a book about Jefferson.
By mid-afternoon on the fourth over 2500 comments had been posted on the WaPo's blog, some of them worse than merely inane, among them some blasting "liberals" for denigrating belief in a deity. Yes, reference is made in the Declaration of Independence to "Nature's God", a "Creator", the "Supreme Judge of the World", and "divine Providence", but what do they mean? As a student of history, I offer this.
In the early summer of 1776 we were at war with the greatest military power on the planet and the prospects did not look very good. (In the end, it was largely due to British mistakes and French aid that we prevailed.) Only a third of our population was keen on independence, another fifth or so strongly opposed independence, and the remainder were indifferent. The very idea of independence was fairly fresh, certainly not on very many people's agendas at the time of the battles of Lexington and Concord in the spring of 1775, and only articulated brilliantly early in 1776 by liberal/Deist Tom Paine in his widely circulated "Common Sense".
Thomas Jefferson (liberal, Deist and Unitarian), who headed the three person team assigned by the Continental Congress to draft the Declaration of Independence, not only set out to succinctly sum up a democratic philosophy of government but also to point to a list of grievances against the British crown that would stir as many Americans as possible to support the independence movement. He succeeded brilliantly.
As for the religious references, remember that we were at war with the most powerful military in the world and that the notion of the "divine right of kings" was strong in England and Europe. So, what better way to trump that idea than that of the "divine rights of the people" and of appealing to "Providence" for protection, language that would evoke a certain resonance among the American people. It worked.
By 1787, with independence more or less assured, the Articles of Confederation had proven inadequate and our political class drafted a constitution that was soon ratified by conventions in the states. There was no longer a need for appeals to a deity, so the new charter of government, needing none, simply starts out with "We the People . . . " for its authority, and its only mentions of religion are the Article VI prohibitions on religious tests for public office and mandatory oaths of office.
The Bill of Rights adopted shortly thereafter contains the First Amendment prohibition of laws "respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof", intended by constitutional architect James Madison to institute the principle of separation of church and state, as Madison and Jefferson had already done in Virginia law. After the Civil War the Fourteenth Amendment made the Bill of Rights applicable to state and local government.
Our rights and our democracy are never secure, so we need to keep before us the ideals barticulated by Paine, Jefferson and Madison as we move toward the elections of 2012.