The Declaration of Independence and God:

A conversation I had today reminded me of something I meant to blog about: The Declaration of Independence, many argue, contemplates a Creator God, not a God who sets forth rules for human behavior, who judges such behavior, or who intercedes in human events, whether directly or subtly. And this, the argument goes, reflects the general attitudes of the Framers or at least of the political system they wished to establish.

But I don't think this is a sound way of reading the Declaration. It's true that the opening paragraphs refer to "Nature's God" and a "Creator":

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

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.

But even this Creator of course is seen as endowing people with "unalienable Rights," which seems to suggest a Creator as arbiter of morality and rights. And, more importantly, consider the closing paragraph:

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. -- And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

God is thus not just Nature's God and the Creator, but also the "Supreme Judge of the world," to whom people may appeal to judge or witness "the rectitude of [their] intentions," and whose "Divine Providence" is said to "protect[]" them."

To be sure, one can only draw so much from a single historical document; for instance, it's possible that particular references in the document were seen as largely rhetorical flourishes (though I'm not sure that this is so, since my sense is that very many educated Americans of the Framing generation did indeed have a pretty conventional understanding of God as creator, judge, and source of protection). But those who focus on the Creator and Nature's God language in the document do often try to draw something from that one document. And if we look to the document, we see it discussing God as judge and protector, and not just God as creator.

I should note that I say all this as a secular person; it's not that I want the Declaration to reflect this sort of religious sensibility -- I'm just reporting on the sensibility that it appears to me to in fact reflect.