Mark Charles, a speaker at last weekend’s Justice Conference, called the Declaration of Independence “systemically racist.” (The Justice Conference describes itself as an event “for Christ-followers to gather, engage with, and better understand how to address major justice issues.”) This prompted a reply from the Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Mark Tooley, who chastised Charles for “smugly denouncing the whole American project as a wicked sham.”

How should Christians think about the Declaration? It depends which part of the Declaration we mean. The most famous part of the Declaration, in which Thomas Jefferson proclaimed, “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”? What about the details later on, which mention both “savage” Indians and slave insurrections? And what of Jefferson’s own background as a slave owner?

John Trumbull, “The Declaration of Independence,” U.S. Capitol, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Regarding that best-known passage of the Declaration, there is much for Christians to celebrate. The greatest ideal animating the American experiment is here: the notion of equality by creation. In other words, whatever our social standing, we all stand equal before God as created beings. Earlier statements like the Virginia Declaration of Rights had spoken more vaguely of people as being “by nature” equal, but here Jefferson and his committee put a finer point on the action of God in creation, and in the endowment of rights. In spite of Jefferson’s well-known skepticism about Christian doctrine, he knew that our common standing before God was the most compelling basis on which to put equality.

Yet Jefferson’s standing as a slave owner immediately raises a question: If people are equal before God, then how can you justify slavery? Some African Americans like American soldier and evangelical pastor Lemuel Haynes asked this question within weeks of the promulgation of the Declaration. We’re not being revisionists by wondering about this issue, too.

Moreover, when you dig into the details of Jefferson’s list of grievances (the long section that few of us read) there are a couple of alarming passages. In one, Jefferson complains that the British had “endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” As Mark Tooley notes, Native American warfare against European settlers and against enemy Indians could be quite vicious. White colonists could be shockingly vicious toward Indians, too. (Colonial governments routinely put out scalp bounties against hostile tribes, for instance.) But since American civil religion often treats the Declaration like a kind of American Scripture, that note about “merciless Indian Savages” is jarring.

Another problematic passage in the Declaration immediately precedes this one, and it is really easy to miss. It says that the king had “excited domestic insurrections amongst us.” Scholars agree that this refers to the British offer in Virginia to grant freedom to slaves who ran away from their masters and enlisted to fight in the British army or navy. Jefferson and George Washington were among the many plantation owners who lost runaway slaves during the war. The British offer of freedom made many African Americans wonder which side cared more about freedom for all people. No wonder that, when given the choice, Africans in America tended to support the British side of the war.

As Tooley notes, great advocates for African American rights including Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr., have cited the Declaration as the source of America’s greatest principles. Likewise, the brilliance of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was in its assertion that America had been “conceived in liberty” and that slavery ran contrary to its founding principles. So we can surely say that the Declaration has been used as one of the world’s best resources for articulating human rights and equality.

In its original framing and subsequent uses, then, the Declaration was not “systemically racist.” But we should never forget the troubling references to Indians and African Americans held within it, either. As inspiring as it is, the Declaration was a very human document, written in a very different historical context from ours.