Monday, July 05, 2004

Contra Isaacson: More on God in the Declaration of Independence

John Gallagher sent me this link re: the references to God in the Declaration of Independence.

The author of the piece is Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute and author of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.

Here are some excerpts:

The only direct reference to God in the Declaration of Independence comes in the first paragraph, in which Thomas Jefferson and his fellow drafters of that document-including Benjamin Franklin and John Adams-invoke the "laws of nature and of nature's god." (The absence of capitalization was the way Jefferson wrote it, though the final parchment capitalizes all four nouns.) The phrase "nature's god" reflected Jefferson's deism-his rather vague Enlightenment-era belief, which he shared with Franklin, in a Creator whose divine handiwork is evident in the wonders of nature. Deists like Jefferson did not believe in a personal God who interceded directly in the daily affairs of mankind.

COMMENT ONE: Mr. Isaacson gets off to a rather bad start inasmuch as the first sentence quoted is false. As I proved in yesterday's 4th of July post, there are four direct references to God in the Declaration of Independence. It should be clear that one can refer to God without using the word 'God' just as one can refer to Thomas Jefferson without using the proper name 'Thomas Jefferson.' One may employ the definite description, 'The man whose face appears on the two dollar bill' or the definite description, 'The founder of the University of Virginia.'

Thus in the second paragraph of the Declaration we find 'Creator.' Here God is being referred to via the definite description, 'the Creator of human beings who endows them with certain unalienable Rights.'

COMMENT TWO: There is nothing in the phrase, "nature's God," to support deism. By itself it is neutral as among deism and various more robust conceptions of deity. All the phrase implies is the anti-Spinozist view that God is distinct from nature.

COMMENT THREE: If Isaacson's claim is that Jefferson did not believe in a personal God, then that claim is rendered dubious by the two references to God in the final paragraph of the Declaration. Near the beginning of the paragraph, God is referred to under the description "Supreme Judge of the World for the Rectitude of our Intentions." This implies that God has such attributes as moral discernment and free will -- attributes only a person can have. At the end of the paragraph, we find the phrase "divine Providence." That implies that God is a being possessing foreknowledge, another attribute only a person can have. See my 4th of July post for a fuller explanation of this.

The only other religious reference in the Declaration comes in the last sentence, which notes the signers' "firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence." Most of the founders subscribed to the concept of Providence, but they interpreted it in different ways. Jefferson believed in a rather nebulous sense of "general Providence," the principle that the Creator has a benevolent interest in mankind. Others, most notably those who followed in the Puritan footsteps of Cotton Mather, had faith in a more specific doctrine, sometimes called "special Providence," which held that God has a direct involvement in human lives and intervenes based on personal prayer.

COMMENT FOUR: At first Isaacson claimed that there was only one direct reference to God, but now he seems to be admitting a second reference. He is wrong either way, since an unprejudiced reader will count four references as I showed in yesterday's post.

COMMENT FIVE: However one interprets divine providence, one will have to concede that a providential God is a personal God. The Declaration is committed to a personal God regardless of what the personal views of Mr. Jefferson might have been.

COMMENT SIX: Note the ambiguity in this sentence of Isaacson: "Deists like Jefferson did not believe in a personal God who interceded directly in the daily affairs of mankind." Does that mean that Jefferson did not believe in a personal God period, or that he believed in a personal God all right, but not one who interceded directly in the daily affairs of mankind? Apparently the latter given what Isaacson says in the second excerpt. But then why does Isaacson refer to Jefferson's conception as deistic? To get to the bottom of this, we need to inquire into what exactly deism is -- in a separate post.