the prayers of both could not be answered

In the runup to Independence Day, Sam Goldman argues at Crooked Timber that the Declaration of Independence loses its force if you leave out God:

[T]here is no good reason to treat “Nature’s God” as the key to the Declaration’s theology. Jefferson avoided references to a personal deity in his draft. But either Franklin or Adams added a reference to the “Creator” in the natural rights section devised by the committee of five. And Congress inserted the phrases “Supreme Judge of the World” and “Divine Providence” in the conclusion. If we read as Allen proposes, these phrases should have equal weight to “Nature’s God”.

Taken together, these statements give a picture of God that is not so easily replaced by “an alternative ground for a maximally strong commitment to the right of other people to survive and to govern themselves.” They depict God as the maker of the universe, who cares for man’s happiness, gives him the resources to pursue it, and judges the manner in which he does so. Despite Allen’s assurances that Jefferson tried to avoid religious commitments, writing in a manner compatible with deism, theism, and everything in between, I do not see how the God that emerges from the entire process of composition, could be reconciled with a mere first cause or cosmic watchmaker. On the level of intention, the Declaration presumes a personal and providential deity.

I have always interpreted Congress’s pious insertions as “Flag! Troops!“-style pandering rather than sincere expressions of a belief in a “providential deity” who directs or judges the doings of secular governments. But are they, in fact, philosophically necessary to the project of the Declaration?

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Randy Barnett cites a sermon given on the eve of the constitutional convention that expressed a common view that the time that the laws of government, like the laws of mechanics, chemistry, and astronomy, were immutable principles of nature, established by God:

In his sermon, [Reverend Elizur] Goodrich explained that “the principles of society are the laws, which Almighty God has established in the moral world, and made necessary to be observed by mankind; in order to promote their true happiness, in their transactions and intercourse.” These laws, Goodrich observed, “may be considered as principles, in respect of their fixedness and operation,” and by knowing them, “we discover the rules of conduct, which direct mankind to the highest perfection, and supreme happiness of their nature.” These rules of conduct, he then explained, “are as fixed and unchangeable as the laws which operate in the natural world. Human art in order to produce certain effects, must conform to the principles and laws, which the Almighty Creator has established in the natural world.”

Goodrich goes on to explain that one who attempts to skirt these scientific laws of government “attempts to make a new world; and his aim will prove absurd and his labour lost.”

The Declaration opens by stating that “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle” the colonies to “dissolve the[ir] bonds” with England and “assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station” of independent states. So Reverend Goodrich’s theory of natural laws of government is quite relevant to the Declaration’s purposes.

Of course, even if you think that the Declaration depends on this natural law theory, you don’t need God to make it real. If there are immutable laws of nature, they can, analytically, exist without any “personal and providential deity” — they can be the work of a distant, uncaring God, a malevolent God, or no God at all.

Goodman points out, however, that the history of the world does not seem to actually support a theory that there are (at least straightforward) laws of government mechanics — respect these rights, or your government will fail:

Th[e] argument is perfectly coherent, given its premise that oppression is counterproductive. The problem is that this premise is likely false. Assertions of rights are often crushed, without much risk to the oppressors. Because they didn’t produce the forecast bad consequences, a purely naturalistic interpretation of the matter would lead us to conclude that these movements had no “right” to succeed.

That conclusion . . . would not be acceptable to Allen—or to the signers of the Declaration. Again, this is why “Nature’s God” is not good enough. In addition to the source of natural order, the Declaration’s good has to care how human events turn out—and perhaps to intervene to ensure that the results are compatible with justice. Otherwise, the signer’s pledge of their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor would be no more than a gamble—and a bad one at that.

But this argument, I think, undermines itself. If God is willing to intervene to ensure the successful outcome of legitimate assertions of rights, we should see a clear pattern of that in history. Whether it’s a law of nature, or God’s desire to create good outcomes for His creatures, if it is reliable enough to be depended upon when one is pledging lives, etc., there ought to be evidence of it. If the evidentiary record shows only chaos, then one should not depend on the intervening force, whether natural or supernatural, to secure the success of one’s revolution.

Goodman then turns to the practical effect of religious belief — as a motivation-multiplier — by considering the way Lincoln, during the Civil War, explicitly invoked God’s will to re-cast the “all men” of the Declaration’s most famous passage:

Individuals are capable of believing almost anything for almost any reason—and even of acting on that basis. But that is a matter for psychology. The political question is whether groups and peoples can be moved to take risks and make sacrifices if they do not think they are justified by a higher power. I am skeptical that this is the case . . . .

This is important because the Declaration is not, as Allen claims, “a philosophical argument”. Instead, it is a call to arms. People generally don’t fight for “commitments” and “grounds”. For better or for worse, they do fight for what they believe God demands.

The Declaration’s greatest interpreter, Lincoln, seems to have recognized this. Before the Civil War, Lincoln treated the Declaration as a work of secular reasoning. In a famous letter from 1859, Lincoln compared its argument to Euclidean geometry. According to Lincoln, “[t]he principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society.” To understand politics, all one had to do was draw valid conclusions from certain first principles.

But definitions and axioms are terms of the seminar room, not the battlefield. Although [it] might have been suitable for peacetime, Lincoln’s scholarly account of politics was manifestly inadequate to a war that revolved around the meaning and authority of the Declaration of Independence. So in his second inaugural, he offered a different account of the same principles. This time, he appealed to a “living God” to achieve the right. You do not have to be a Christian to understand what Lincoln was saying. But I do not think you can be an atheist.

I think this is Goodman’s best argument. People don’t like to stick their necks out for uncertain change, and even though, as discussed above, it doesn’t actually make sense to depend on Providence when asserting one’s rights, still, people can be motivated by irrational appeals to a God who, this time, will definitely stretch out His mighty hand and propel your cause to victory.

But before we give too much ground here, let’s note the peculiar theology of Lincoln’s appeal in the Second Inaugural Address:

Both [the Union and the Confederacy] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

This is grim stuff. It is certainly not the “just world” theology of much of the Old Testament, which spends loads of time explaining that the moral ledger always comes out right. As this thoughtful exegesis by Michael Carasik notes, for example, the two most familiar slavery narratives — Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers, and the enslavement of the Israelites in post-Joseph Egypt — depict enslavement as a punishment for wrongdoing: Jacob’s betrayal of Esau and Joseph’s oppressive dealing with the Egyptian people, respectively. Notably, in neither narrative is the oppressed person the actual wrongdoer — Joseph was not involved in Jacob’s swiping of Esau’s birthright, and the latter-generation Israelites had nothing to do with Joseph’s opportunistic enslavement of the Egyptians. They simply inherit the consequences of the original sin. For that reason, perhaps, Joseph and the Israelites both eventually rescue themselves from slavery, albeit with God’s help.

Lincoln’s framing of the issue is rather different. He does not suggest that African slaves are the inheritors of some sin that must be punished. They are innocent victims. It’s just that “slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come.” Nor does he suggest that God would ever have assisted the slaves in freeing themselves — and, indeed, history at the time was littered with the bodies of failed slave revolutionaries.

At best, the focus is on Pharaoh’s redemption — “the woe due to those by whom the offense came,” which is repaid in gold and blood (likely, despite Lincoln’s words, at a heavily discounted rate). But Lincoln’s formulation requires a number of odd turns. God allows slavery, for no good (or at least, no identifiable) reason. Humans make it happen, sure, and so it’s just that humans repay the debt. But that debt seems like a poor motivator to the average Northern foot soldier, who bore little individual responsibility for slavery. If we return to Goodman’s original proposition — that people fight for what God commands, trusting that He will render them victorious — the question is: why now? What has changed? Certainly not the Bible, nor Christian theology — all the Christian arguments for and against slavery existed at the founding of the Republic and remained in effect in 1865. Does God simply lure people and nations into evil and then demand the debt? What is going on with this God, anyway?

Lincoln’s God reminds me of a class taught at the University of Chicago in the 1990s called “The Radicalism of Job and Ecclesiastes.” I never got a chance to take it, but even reading the description in the catalog, I, as a then-religious person, immediately grasped its significance . . . and was afraid:

Both Job and Ecclesiastes dispute a central doctrine of the Hebrew Bible, namely, the doctrine of retributive justice. Each book argues that a person’s fate is not a consequence of his or her religio-moral acts and thus the piety, whatever else it is, must be disinterested. In brief, the authors of Job and Ecclesiates, each in his own way, not only “de-mythologizes,” but “de-moralizes” the world.

Lincoln was not an orthodox Christian, and he may well have felt that pious acts “must be disinterested” — that we must do what is right, utterly independent of reward. Indeed, the Second Inaugural, when read closely, does not promise victory — it promises toil and bloodshed that might last until the end of time. And it does not present any particular reason to trust in God as either a moral arbiter or an ally — God’s motives and sense of timing are utterly inscrutable to man, and hence no more comfort than the chaotic void. Lincoln’s theology is too sophisticated to promise, as the Battle Hymn of the Republic does, that God will “loose[] the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword.” All Lincoln can offer is a resonant reflection that slavery is wrong and that those who fight to end it are in the right. Lincoln’s appeal, ultimately, is not to a “personal and providential god,” but to the internal compass, which demands action.


Anyway, those are this atheist’s thoughts. I don’t know that the Declaration would have convinced me God was on the side of the Revolution, and I’m not sure Lincoln would have convinced me (theologically, at least) that God had moved decisively to end slavery. But I grew up with religion, and my sense of justice is inextricably intertwined with faith. I believe — irrationally, and in my heart — in a kind of platonic Justice that exists even when no one is fully manifesting it. And I want to believe that elegant old metaphor about the moral arc of the universe being long but bending toward justice. On that level, I think, Lincoln could have gotten me.


In that vein, here’s Sister Odetta to sing us out.

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