01/30/2012 12:17 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2012

Republican Misreading of the Declaration of Independence

Asked by Suzanne Bass, an attorney in Jacksonville, Florida, "How would your religious beliefs, if you're elected, impact the decisions that you make in the office of the presidency ?" two presidential candidates, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum offered strange, faulty readings of the Declaration of Independence, which do not fit the facts or for that matter the historical record. The Declaration of Independence, as claimed by Mitt Romney, is not a document based on "Judeo-Christian values and ethics." It is a secular document, written by an XVIIIth century deist (Jefferson was its principal author) who acknowleged the existence of a "Creator" who endowed "all men... with certain unalienable rights." Who is this Creator? Did He, in the Declaration of Independence, as Mitt Romney argues, establish a special, unique "relationship between God and Man ?" This is most doubtful. The Creator of the Declaration of Independence is a typical Enlightenment fiction, a "Great Legislator" who gives rights and then disappears. He is not, as Walter Berns convincingly demonstrated in "Making Patriots" (University of Chicago Press, 2001) the "jealous God" of the Old Testament who gives rights, defines them, controls them and then punishes offenders with eternal sanctions. The rights listed by Jefferson -- "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" -- are not secured by God or some ecclesiastical authority. They are literally secured by "governments... instituted among men." What does Jefferson mean by that? He is very clear about it: governments derive their "just powers from the consent of the governed," that is to say, the ultimate protector of rights in a democracy is the Sovereign People and no one else.

What is revolutionary about the Declaration of Independence is that it institutes the principle of a Sovereign People, a principle which is reaffirmed in the Preamble of the US constitution. And it is not by chance that the Constitution is literally "Godless," as described by two great American political scientists, Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore ("The Godless Constitution: The Case against Religious Correctness," Norton, 1996). It is pointless to refer to a God or a Creator in the founding document of the American democracy, since the only source of all legitimate authority is "We the People" and this is why the oath of allegiance of a President (Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution) is a secular oath -- an oath to defend the Constitution as the supreme expression of the people'sovereignty. Article 2 does not refer to God or a deist Supreme Being. And when a newly elected President swears to defend the Constitution with his right hand on a Bible, it is not because the Constitution requires it (the Constitution doesn't mention the Bible). In doing so, he is simply following an old British parliamentary tradition, inaugurated by George Washington in 1789.

When, in responding to the same question Rick Santorum claims that "the why of America, who we are as a people, is in the Declaration of Independence," adding that "the Constitution is there to do one thing: protect God-given rights. That's what makes America different than every other country in the world, he subverts the constitutional order established by the Framers. There is only one supreme law of the land; it is the federal Constitution, the most sophisticated expression of the people's sovereignty, the result of a long, elaborate process of ratification. The Declaration of independence is not a constitutional document; it is not part of the Constitution, nor is it the source of America's constitutional order. It matters first and foremost because it cuts off all links with the British monarchy and announces a future event: the creation of a Republican government "instituted among men."

In contrast to what Romney and Santorum said in the Jan. 26 Florida debate, there is little evidence that faith has anything to do with the foundation of the American Republic.