We were born as a nation on the fourth of July 229 years ago. We celebrate this beginning annually with fireworks and flag displays and a faithful re-telling of the story. We pay homage to our founders—to their vision and courage.
We do this even though we know our founders struggled with their own vision. The opening words of the Declaration of Independence state plainly that “all men are created equal.” However, when the words were written, African slaves, American natives and women in general were not regarded as equal.
Now we believe that “all men are created equal” means “all persons.” Unfortunately, there were many losses before the lesson was learned. Where equality is denied suffering is not far behind.
There are other words. The “men” were “created.” Thomas Jefferson, author of most if not all the Declaration of Independence, wrote that all men are created equal and that human rights are derived from “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” Who is this creator-God in Jefferson’s theology?
Christians believe it is none other than the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” But there is considerable evidence that Jefferson and many others among the founders did not embrace the idea of God in the New Testament. They viewed God more as a watchmaker who wound the universe and then let it run on its own.
Obviously there were some who believed the creator God of the Declaration was the very God and Father of Jesus. And these would have gladly established a Christian America. But the final draft of the Constitution ratified by the states does not allow for an official religion. Instead, what our founding documents provide is a constitutional commitment to the equality of all religious expression.
Revisionist historians want to argue that the references to God and creator in the Declaration are indeed the “God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.” But even if that were so, that alone does not establish Christianity as our official faith. The scant references to God in our founding documents may have been flavored by Protestantism, but they hardly rise to the level of a traditional Christian statement of faith. And they certainly do not establish America as a Christian nation. After all, God is not mentioned explicitly anywhere in the U.S. Constitution, and there is no mention of Jesus at all.
How can you have a Christian anything without Jesus?
When the founding documents were written, Christianity was the dominant faith—it still is today. The difference now is that in the free market place of religious ideas, Christianity competes with a host of spiritual options. As a result, Americans today face a challenge similar to the one we confronted with the words “all men are created equal.” Are we prepared to embrace all religions as equal under the law?
Our founding documents make it clear that it is not the role of the state to establish or promote a particular confession of faith. To do so would only set one faith group against another—as is true in so many places in world.
What we have instead is a hopeful possibility. We have a chance to participate in a form of government that embraces all persons and their various religious as equal. That commitment to equality, born on the fourth of July, creates the freedom that makes it possible for us to pursue God in any manner we choose.
Let us celebrate that freedom and be glad.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.