Editor's Note: Although this column originally appeared in WORLD Magazine during the summer of 1995, it is still relevant to our current debates.
The Virginia Republican Party split wide apart last month, and the same will happen in other states if the Grand Old Party's old-line leaders do not treat evangelicals as honored partners. On July Fourth this year we can do more than venerate the Declaration of Independence; we can learn from its embrace of non-compromising coalition politics.
American leaders favoring the Revolution almost 220 years ago were split into two theological camps. Some were theists, believing in a God who both created the world and was still active in it. Others were deists, willing to acknowledge a Prime Mover as long as they could move Him far away from current concerns.
Since the American Revolution was in part a religious war, the founders needed to make a theological as well as a political case for independence. Thomas Jefferson, a deist, was charged with finding language that would satisfy theists as well as partisans within his own camp. He succeeded remarkably well in at least three instances.
Jefferson's first artful sentence declared that Americans were basing their case on the "laws of nature and of nature's God." Deists could sign onto a document that emphasized the course of human events without explicit reference to Jesus Christ; the expression "nature's God" even made it seem that nature had created God.
But John Calvin in the 16th century had equated "the law of God" with the "testimony of natural law and of that conscience which God has engraved upon the minds of men." Legal scholars long had argued that "the law of nature means . . . the law of God." The standard law book in the 1770s, William Blackstone's Commentaries, stated that "the will of [man's] maker is called the law of nature." Christians could embrace Jefferson's phrase.
Jefferson's second coup was his assertion that all people are "endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights," including the famous triad of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Mention of "the Creator" was popular among theists but satisfactory to deists, and each side also saw "liberty" in a different light.
For libertarian deists, the political meaning was key, and playing with theological language could heighten it: "Liberty is salvation in politics," one said. For Christians, the word conveyed theological as well as political meaning: Connecticut minister Levi Hart declared man a slave to sin, with Christ "procuring, preaching, and bestowing liberty to the captives."
Jefferson's third mellifluous phrase for a multitude of ears came at the end of the Declaration: "a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence." For deists, "providence" was the general motion of natural forces implanted in a world created by God but left to run on its own. The deistic use of the word "providence" downplayed God's current role.
But the Christian understanding was summarized well in the Westminster Confession: "God, the great Creator of all things, doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence." For Christians, the word indicated a heightened awareness of God's power and even ruled out a deistic concept.
Deists such as Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin could have tried to ground their argument in man's will rather than God's. Christian signers of the Declaration such as Samuel Adams and John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister, could have insisted on explicit recognition of Christ in the document. But either attempt would have provoked divisive debate at a time when unity in facing London's aggression was essential.
Today, the question Adams hurled at British lords equally challenges the goals of Beltway bureaucrats: "Were the talents and virtues which Heaven has bestowed on men given merely to make them more obedient drudges, to be sacrificed to the follies and ambition of a few?" Today, conservative evangelicals and conservative secularists need to coalesce against arrogant Clintonians who, like their 18th century British counterparts, are wedded to higher taxes and lower vices.
To work in coalition, old-line Republicans need to treat evangelicals as colleagues, not aliens. Virginia evangelicals last year loyally backed George Allen successful gubernatorial bid, and wise old-liners this year will support their party's victor in a fair fight, Oliver North. On the national level, Republicans in 1996 who follow the Declaration's example will support life and liberty, and attack imperial Washington, in a way that promotes coalition rather than exclusion.