Conservatism, Constitution, Cultural Conservatives, God, Rights, Social Contract, The Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, U.S. Constitution
Have you ever had anyone cite the following words from the “Constitution?”
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…
Did this strike you as odd?
It should have, because that paragraph is not in the Constitution. It’s in the Declaration of Independence.
To be fair, I have seen people on both the left and the right make this mistake.
Some in the middle too!
Also, to be fair, the left, the middle, and the right are not equally invested in the mistake.
When the left confuses this passage from the Declaration with the U.S. Constitution, they are generally aiming at a point not altogether different from that of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution.
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Lefties confusing the passage from the Declaration with the U.S. Constitution are trying to establish the importance of rights in the formation of government. Whether these rights are best thought of as ‘individual rights,’ ‘human rights,’ ‘civil rights,’ or even ‘natural rights’ is a rather more complicated question. The left and the right differ on that one, but most will find rights of some kind to be at issue in the nature of American government. Suffice to say the Declaration is content to describe them as ‘inalienable,’ which was enough to put them on the table in 1776. I have yet to see anyone on the left misquote this passage for any reason other than to establish the importance of our rights to the formation of the U.S. Government.
Perhaps, people can be excused for confusing the two passages, at least insofar as they both evoke the importance of government in facilitating the happiness of human beings (ignoring for the moment the gender politics of the passages in question). If there is any difference between the two passages, it lies in the agency involved. The Declaration is a little bit ambiguous as to who creates the governments ‘among men,’ but it does mention a ‘Creator’ as the source of inalienable rights. God is not mentioned in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution; it lays the responsibility for creation of the new government squarely at the feet of the people.
…which is where we get the biggest difference between the left and the right on the misreading of the passage from the Declaration.
When the right mistakes the Declaration for the Constitution, they are generally trying to tell us that the passage in question establishes the importance of God in our Constitution. Cultural conservatives will often tell us that God is mentioned in the actual Constitution. The only actual reference to God in the Constitution would be found in the date of its signatures wherein the document says;
done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independance of the United States of America the Twelfth In witness whereof We have hereunto subscribed our Name
That reference isn’t much to hang your hat on.
Those simply telling us that God is mentioned in the Constitution are most likely thinking about that passage from the Declaration of Independence, which they have confused with the Constitution itself. In their imagination, and that of other confused Americans, the second paragraph of the Declaration is also the Constitution. The two documents are one in the same.
We might even call that document the ‘Declastution!’
When cultural conservatives confuse this passage with the Constitution, they are working a very particular angle. Their point is not the existence of rights (individual, civil, natural, or human); it is the existence of God. What they are trying to show us is that belief in God (or more specifically; belief in Jesus) is essential to the founder’s vision of American government. They wish to instill in American government (and by extension American law) an explicit homage to God in some official or quasi-official form. They like having Him on our money and in our pledge, and they like prayer in public schools and in public meetings, and many will happily seek additional entanglements between religion and government when and where they can get it. To them, the establishment clause of the Constitution is a narrow principle that prevents little more than explicitly sectarian policies (if it prevents even that). A general acknowledgement of God [or the Judeo Christian God (or, frankly; …Jesus)] in the official policies of the U.S. government is to them quite consistent with the Constitution, even required by it.
How do they know it is required?
Because that is how Jefferson wrote it.
Simply put, because the Declastution derives our rights from God, so conservative thinking goes, everything else that follows must hinge on the existence of God. Take away God and we have no rights and hence no government, and no ice-cream for desert, dammit, just go to bed!
(Sorry. I get carried away sometimes.)
Simply put; when the right confuses these two documents, they do so with a purpose.
Now the argument in question doesn’t always begin with a confusion of documents. Another common approach is to tell us that the Declaration is actually the ‘foundation’ of our government, and that everything about the U.S., including the Constitution itself is built upon that foundation. Over-used architectural metaphors aside, the point is to read the Constitution in light of the Declaration. We take the principles from the Declaration, as these guys understand them, and we apply them to the Constitution, so if God is mentioned the in Declaration, then he is implied in the Constitution, right?
Even if the Constitution itself says very clearly that the authority upon which our government rests derives from the people!
Anyway, that seems to be the point.
There are a couple problems with this, of course, and probably a couple more. These include the following:
1: Jefferson is the main author of the Declaration, and his own views on God are far from straight forward. He is often described as a Deist, though this might be a bit strong; he certainly was not an orthodox Christian. It is my understanding that he stopped short of denying the possibility of miracles outright (though he was sufficiently uncomfortable with the idea of miracles to remove them from his own account of the life of Jesus). So, what does the term ‘Creator’ mean in this passage? What could it have meant to Jefferson when he wrote it? There is little reason to believe Jefferson was talking about Jesus. Had he been referring to Jesus, there is still less reason to believe he would have had anything in mind like the present-day Christian understanding of their Lord and Savior.
2) More to the point, this is a political document, not a theological tract. Hell, it’s a propaganda piece! In writing it, Jefferson is committing an act of treason and trying to get enough support to survive the consequences of his own actions. He wants and needs to reach every colonist he can get to support the cause of separation from England. “Creator” is a nice way to reach Christians, Jews, Unitarians, and even the most strident of Deists without inviting any real cause for disagreement between them. I reckon, a few other beliefs could be read into that reference too, but I suspect Jefferson was more interested in reaching people in that range. Simply put, Jefferson wasn’t trying to separate the believers from the unbelievers with that reference, not by a long shot. What today’s Christians are doing when they read this document as an explicitly Christian (or Judeo-Christian) tract is to turn a document aimed at appealing to a broad range of religious views into an instrument for narrowing the range of views relevant to contemporary American politics.
Their fight was not Jefferson’s.
Far from it!
3) Finally, did I mention that this was a political document?
Cause its a political document.
Really, it is a political document!
The point of the passage in question is not to prove that God exists or even that belief in God, or subservience to God (or a Creator of any kind) is essential for public life. No, the point of the passage in question to establish the existence of rights, and from there to explain the existence of government as an expression of those rights and an instrument for satisfying them. This of course stands in stark contrast to the “divine right of kings,” which was still very influential in the merry Motherland. Jefferson’s point is not that God exists; it is that rights exist. God (or more importantly, a ‘Creator’) in this passage is merely a premise used to arrive at his political conclusions. Really, it isn’t all that clear that this Creator is all that essential to the premise anyway. Hobbes does a pretty good job of making a similar argument without giving a central role to such an entity. Jefferson’s begins with the assumption that people have rights. That they get them from a Creator is not entirely critical to the argument at hand; the point is that they have rights, and that these rights are the foundation of government.
…a theory of government in direct contrast to the notion that God himself had put the King of England in charge of the British people. The Divine Right of Kings, as James had espoused it, placed the authority for government authority on God, just as modern Christians would have it, whereas both the Declaration and the Constitution set the people up as the source of authority for government power. If God plays any role in this under the narrative contained in the Declaration, it is largely theoretical. Even that is missing from the Constitution.
Irony of ironies then that conservative Christians wish to read the Declaration as an effort to place God at the center of American government.
Not just ironic.
It is no accident that cultural conservatives would wish to base their case for theocracy on the Declaration rather than the Constitution. The Declaration gives them foot in the door, at least if you don’t read it all that carefully. The Constitution doesn’t even give them that much.
The Declastution was born out of the need to ignore the difference.
I suppose the Declastution will live on in American politics for some time to come. People will continue to cite the Declaration while calling it the Constitution, and red the Declaration which they read as though it were a Baptist prayer book, but none of this has much to do with the meaning of the documents in question. It’s a kind of shell game the right wing likes to play with themselves, and with the rest of us.
They aren’t playing this shell game because they are interested in what either document has to say.
Far from it!