A Political Declaration

February 18, 2015

Some documents gain lofty recognition and even reverence, often due to their significance in historical events. Magna Carta. Gutenberg Bible. U.S. Declaration of Independence. Words that transformed the world.

We must be careful, however, not to elevate historical documents to the point we no longer understand them. 

A couple of recent incidents regarding the U.S. Declaration of Independence signify how we too often forget the nature of the original text. The Declaration was - and still is - a political document. It's a political manifesto filled with political arguments, political rhetoric, and political compromise. 

Although profoundly impactful and inspiring, we must avoid the temptation to treat it as a perfect, holy decree from on high. It's like we're trying to pull a reverse Moses by pushing Thomas Jefferson up the hallowed mount after he's written the Declaration.

Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's mountaintop home.

A state legislator in Missouri, Mike Moon, authored a resolution to encourage the state's U.S. congressional delegation to oppose Obamacare. Although Republicans in Washington, D.C. have literally voted against Obamacare dozens of times, this symbolic resolution seemed designed to give state legislators a chance to have some anti-Obamacare fun as well.

Controversy quickly erupted due to Moon's choice of language. His resolution urged the state's Washington delegation to "endeavor with 'manly firmness' and resolve to totally and completely repeal the Affordable Care Act."

The use of the phrase "manly firmness" sparked news coverage, especially since three members of Missouri's Washington delegation are women. The representative who penned the resolution defended his dirty language by noting he borrowed from the Declaration of Independence. Yet that doesn't sanitize the political potty talk. (He also made the mistake of trying to conflate Obamacare to royal rule, an inaccurate exaggeration common in today's poisoned political discourse.)

Politicians often quote the poetic preamble to the Declaration. But most of the rest of it goes ignored. Much of what we forget is a long list of grievances against King George III. Jefferson and others made their politically-charged case against royal rule with strong language. Rather than an innocent, timeless document, the text includes a petty reference to the colonists' manhood and literally provoked a war. If we see the Declaration as a political document - and not a divine one - we will be more careful in how we quote it. 

Statue of Thomas Jefferson in front of Missouri Capitol.

In Alabama, a similar mistake came as Chief Justice Roy Moore defended his refusal to follow a federal order on same-sex marriage. Moore famously lost his job as Chief Justice back in 2003 after he disobeyed a federal court order to remove a five-ton idol monument of the 10 Commandments he had installed in the state Supreme Court building one night.

I critiqued Moore's rhetoric in the case in my first book (For God's Sake, Shut Up!) and in an academic study. Moore then ran twice for the Republican gubernatorial nomination (being rocked by voters both times) and considered a presidential run before running again for his old seat in 2012. Even though he was thrown out of office for not following the law, voters returned him to the top judicial seat in the state.

Moore returned to his old ways this month, refusing to follow a federal court order. The issue this time is same-sex marriage, but the heart of his action remains the same. He believes he can make his own interpretation of the laws based on his interpretation of God's will. In a debate with CNN's Chris Cuomo, Moore even said he would not follow an order from the U.S. Supreme Court. One of the most interesting parts of the exchange came when Moore invoked the Declaration as his defense.
MOORE: I believe that’s a matter of law because our rights contained in the Bill of Rights do not come from the Constitution, they come from God. It’s clearly stated -

CUOMO: Our laws do not come from God, your honor, and you know that. They come from man.

MOORE: Well, let me ask you one question. Let me ask you one question, Chris. Is the Declaration of Independence law?

CUOMO: You would call it organic law as a basis for future laws off of it.

MOORE: I would call it the organic law because the United States code calls it organic law. It is organic law because the law of this country calls it the organic law of the country means where our rights come from. And if they come from there, men can’t take it away.

CUOMO: Our rights do not come from God. That’s your faith. That’s my faith. But not our country. Our laws come from the collective agreement and compromise.

MOORE: It’s not a matter of faith, sir. It’s a matter of organic law, which states, "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."
Roy Moore during CNN exchange.

Moore made a common mistake in the CNN discussion. He assumes that since Jefferson wrote about our "self-evident" and "unalienable" rights, those statements must be true. What Jefferson did was a nice rhetorical trick. If those rights were self-evident, he didn't need to make an argument for them. Those rights clearly weren't self-evident to King George III. And if those rights were unalienable, there wouldn't have been a Revolution because King George III couldn't have taken them away. But as the rest of the Declaration makes clear (such as the "manly firmness" part), King George III had taken away some of those not-so-inalienable rights.

So even if the Creator "endowed" (not in the "manly firmness" way) those rights to people, Jefferson's overall argument in the Declaration is still that the people must claim those rights and create a government to ensure those rights. Thus, Cuomo's right. Our rights that we have in this nation - and the ones we don't have - are because of "collective agreement and compromise." A political figure like Moore refusing to follow laws and instead imposing his own (religious) interpretation on others is the type of leader that worried Jefferson and other founders. 

It is not belittling to call the Declaration of Independence a political document. It's historically accurate. And it helps us read it more appropriately. Jefferson and other founders made mistakes. They weren't infallible or divine. To conflate their words with God's - as Moore does - is to distort politics, law, and theology.