Hijacking the Declaration of Independence

While you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can judge it by those who endorse it. Consider Alan Dershowitz’s Blasphemy: How the Religious Right is Hijacking our Declaration of Independence.1 The book is endorsed by at least two high-profile published atheists (Steven Pinker and Sam Harris), the president of the ACLU (Nadine Strossen, who speaks to atheist groups and may be an atheist herself), an anti-Christian and self-avowed atheistic Congressman (Pete Stark, D-CA), and the Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (Barry W. Lynn) who rarely has anything good to say about religion and the public square and whose organization takes the atheist position in court battles.

Their endorsement of Blasphemy and its defense of the Declaration of Independence over against its Christian interpreters made me laugh out loud. How can any of these critics denounce the “Christian Right” and its use of the Declaration when the Declaration asserts that our “inalienable rights” are an endowment from the Creator?

“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.”

Dershowitz and his atheistic supporters are hypocrites. Their attack should be on the Declaration itself since it not only grounds our nation’s most fundamental rights in a Creator, but it also acknowledges that this Creator is “the Supreme Judge of the world.”

Dershowitz describes the God of the Declaration as “deistic.” I want to know if the atheists who endorse Blasphemy believe in a Creator of any kind, deistic or not. Of course they don’t. They’re atheists! The very definition of an atheist is that there is no God. Pulling out the deist card to save his argument does not lend credibility to Dershowitz’s claim that the Declaration is a purely secular document. No deist would ever describe God as “the Supreme Judge of the World” or rely “on the Protection of Divine Providence” for anything. Protection and Providence are not in the deist’s deck.

Let’s ask Mr. Dershowtiz and his atheist supporters if it would be legitimate to refer to God in public schools each morning as the “Supreme Judge of the world” or teach in a biology class that God is the Creator. There would be howls of protestation with Barry Lynn leading the way to the nearest judge to threaten a lawsuit against any school that began the day with a statement that the Creator is the Supreme Judge of the world. Logic would lead one to believe that this Creator was the Supreme Judge of the school, the teachers, and the students. This will not do.

In his chapter titled “The Christian Right’s Strategy,” Dershowitz attacks “serious scholars” who argue that the Declaration includes Christian elements.

Anson Phelps Stoke [sic], author of a three-volume study of church and state in America, published in 1950, argues that Christian values “permeate” the Declaration of Independence. “The ideal of the Declaration is of course a definitely Christian one,” especially when “considered along with the references to the Deity.” He believes the Declaration is based on “fundamental Christian teachings,” including “our duties toward God.”2

 Stokes was not a part of the Christian Right since it didn’t exist in 1950. So it seems that Dershowitz’s Christian conspiracy theory is just like so many other conspiracy theories—contrived to obscure the truth. If a non-Christian like Stokes believed the “Declaration may be accepted as evidence that the founders of the country . . . were sympathetic with the fundamental theistic belief and with the moral and social teachings of the Gospels,”3 then it seems that Christian Right defenders of the Declaration can’t be too far off the mark if they believe something similar.

What would be Dershowitz’s substitute for the God-language of the Declaration and countless other official government documents that mention God and Jesus Christ? Evolution. Dershowitz’s dilemma is that he has no way to account for science, logic, and morality given his materialistic assumptions. At least Jefferson had enough sense to recognize he needed a god, even if it was a god of his own invention, to make his worldview work. Dershowitz, writing in his book Shouting Fire, admits that “the diverse components of nature” cannot “be translated into morality, legality, or rights.”4 Without God as the grantor of rights, as the Declaration declares, Mr. Dershowitz cannot account for any rights or legitimately how to secure them.

One additional point needs to be made. Not only is a book known by those who endorse it, but it is also known by the books it does not cite. You have not adequately defended your position unless you have answered your most vociferous critic. The most comprehensive study of the Christian character of the Declaration is Gary T. Amos’ Defending the Declaration: How the Bible and Christianity Influenced the Writing of the Declaration of Independence (1989). If Dershowitz is going to make charges against the “Christian Right” and the way some of its spokesmen articulate their views on the Declaration, then it is incumbent upon him to deal with the one critic who makes the strongest case against his position. This single omission makes his book suspect. It’s not that he is not familiar with Amos. He quotes from Amos’ book, co-authored with Richard Gardiner, Never Before in History.

As a law professor and defense attorney, Dershowitz knows that to fail to cross examine the strongest witness against your case is a major mistake that no good lawyer would make. In addition to not mentioning the book by Amos, there is no reference to Daniel Dreisbach’s response to The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness (1996), by Cornell University professors Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore.5 These and other omissions taint the historical reliability of Blasphemy.

Blasphemy is a poorly argued book, not worthy of an attorney who is a distinguished Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. Constitutional scholar Dershowitz’s style of historical argumentation is best described as “law office history,” selectively recounting facts, “emphasizing data that support” an arguer’s “own prepossessions and minimizing significant facts that complicate or conflict with [his] biases.”6 Claus von Bülow should thank his lucky stars that Dershowitz did a better job arguing to overturn his conviction for the attempted murder of his wife “Sunny” von Bülow then he’s done in defending a secular Declaration.

  1. Alan Dershowitz, Blasphemy: How the Religious Right is Hijacking our Declaration of Independence (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2007). []
  2. Dershowitz’s Blasphemy, 85. []
  3. Anson Phelps Stokes and Leo Pfeffer, Church and State in the United States, rev. one-volume ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 85. []
  4. Alan Dershowitz, Shouting Fire: Civil Liberties in a Turbulent Age (Boston: Little, Brown, 2002), 11. Quoted in Dershowitz, Blasphemy, 37. []
  5. Daniel L. Dreisbach, “A Godless Constitution?: A Response to Krammick and Moore” []
  6. Dreisbach, “A Godless Constitution?” []