Can you agree with the Declaration of Independence if you don’t believe in God?

Danielle Allen raises this question about halfway through her painstaking commentary, when she arrives at “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” in the Declaration’s first sentence. Allen acknowledges that many Americans would rather avoid thinking about the role of theology in the Declaration. But she insists—correctly—that the matter is too important to avoid: references to God are not only obvious features of the text, but also “ground zero for discussion of how religion and politics intertwine.” (115)

Over the next few chapters, Allen argues that the Declaration is open to readings that leave out a deity. Belief in God helps justify its claims about the origin and purpose of government. But it’s not the only way of supporting those conclusions, provided that you strongly endorse the premise of equal basic rights. In Allen’s words, “You do not need to be a theist to accept the argument of the Declaration. You do, however, require an alternative ground for a maximally strong commitment to the right of other people to survive and to govern themselves.” (138) [click to continue…]