‘Faith is a very, very important part of my life,” presidential candidate Rick Santorum said in 2012, “but it’s a very, very important part of this country. The foundational documents of our country—everybody talks about the Constitution, very, very important. But the Constitution is the ‘how’ of America. It’s the operator’s manual. The ‘why’ of America, who we are as a people, is in the Declaration of Independence: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.’”

Many social conservatives, like Sen. Santorum, believe that the central principle asserted in the Declaration of Independence is undeniable. As Jeffrey Bell claims in his book The Case for Polarized Politics, this is one of the key points of division in America between social conservatives and their opponents. “Most—not all—social conservatives believe the words in that sentence are literally true,” Bell writes. “Most—not all—opponents of social conservatism do not believe those words are literally true.”

The idea behind this claim is that most self-identified social conservatives, especially those who are Christian, literally believe: that men and women were divinely created; that they have equal dignity; that rights are given by a personal God; that the right to “Life”—from conception to natural death—is an irrevocable gift to all humanity; that the right to “Liberty” comes with corresponding duties; and that the “pursuit of Happiness” is the means to seek human flourishing, a teleological end to liberty that is ordained, ordered, and constrained in purpose by God.

Were the Founders Christians or Deists?

Bell argues, “We have a social-conservative movement because many Americans still believe that the words of the Declaration—that all men are created equal—are literally true. This is the defining battle of our politics.” While he may be overstating the point, it is not much of an exaggeration. When a majority of Americans believed “the words in that sentence are literally true” there was not much of a “social conservative” movement. There was no need for one. Now, though, there is a struggle to regain that consensus.

This division over the meaning of the “We hold these truths” line has lead to a heated debate about authorial intent. What were the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers, specifically the leading committee members who drafted the Declaration? What did Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin intend by including that line?

That question is also at the heart of many of the most contentious debates about the role of religion in the American public square. Countless arguments are centered on claims that the founders were either God-fearing Christians or Deistically inclined secularists.

But what if they were neither?

Theistic Rationalism of the Founding Fathers

In his book The Religious Beliefs of America's Founders, Gregg L. Frazer says, “The Declaration is an honest expression of the political theology undergirding the American experiment—theistic rationalism.” He adds, “Understanding that the authors were theistic rationalists could resolve the age-old debate over the language of the Declaration.”

So what is a “theistic rationalist”? As Frazer explains, theistic rationalism was a sort of mean between two dominant belief systems of the 18th century: Christianity and Deism. “Theistic rationalists held some beliefs in common with deists, some beliefs in common with Christians, and some beliefs that were inconsistent with both Deism and Christianity,” Frazer says.

A few notable distinctions of theistic rationalism are:

  • A belief in a personal God above nature, about whom believers had well-formed and well-defined ideas.
  • A belief in reason as the ultimate standard and divine revelation (e.g., the Bible) as a supplement to reason. (If there was a discrepancy between reason and revelation, they considered the revelation to be flawed or illegitimate.)
  • A belief that prayers were heard and effectual.
  • A belief that the issues that divided various religious groups (such as between Baptists and Anglicans or between Christians and Muslims) had no ultimate importance. God, as they pictured him, was concerned only with man’s behavior.
  • A belief that (contra Christians) Jesus was not divine, but that he was (contra Deists) a great moral teacher who should be held in high regard.
  • A belief in a personal afterlife in which the wicked would be temporarily punished and the good would experience happiness forever.
  • A denial of every fundamental doctrine of Christianity as it was defined and understood in their day (e.g., the divinity of Christ).
  • A rejection of two elements that were fundamental to Deism: the effective absence of God and the denial of written revelation.

Declaration as a Theistic Rationalist Text

Frazer makes an overwhelmingly convincing case using their own words that the key founders–George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton—were all “theistic rationalists.” (Hamilton was a theistic rationalist at the time of the founding but converted to orthodox Christianity prior to his untimely murder. He is likely to be the only one of these six Founding Fathers we’ll meet in heaven.)

In wording the Declaration, Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin were, as Frazer notes, using religious references that stress the rationalism part of the authors’ theistic rationalism. In doing so, they wrote in a way that would appeal not only to other theistic rationalists, but also to Christians and Deists.

We should not, however, mistake their motive: the words were never intended by the drafters to have a biblical or Christian meaning. The founders may have meant the words to be “literally true,” but they are not literally true in the same way that Christian social conservatives believe them to be.

But does that even matter for our debates today? I don’t believe it has to.

We (Christian Social Conservatives) Still (Literally) Hold These Truths

Those of us who identify as Christians should never fear admitting the truth, even when it means letting go of the myth of a “Christian America.” And those of us who identify as both Christian and social conservative should not fear that admitting this particular truth means abandoning what we believe the “We hold these truths” line to mean. Unlike with the Constitution, the “original intent” of the authors shouldn’t necessarily be our guide. If it really is a truth—and a “self-evident” one—it is only because it was revealed to us by Jesus Christ.

In an age when even many Christians are hostile to religiously informed public philosophy, it’s understandable that social conservatives would turn to the past for examples and look to the founding documents for affirmation. But such an effort is likely to be as unproductive as it is unpersuasive.

If Christians wish to build a polis informed by Christian convictions, if we want the truths we hold to be seen once again as “literally true,” we must look to the future, thick with possibility, rather than to the thin material left over from the religious sentiments of our Founding Fathers.