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The God Squad: From Founding Fathers to brave firefighters

July 05, 2013|By Rabbi Marc Gellman

This July 4, I thought of three important events in our history. The first occurred 237 years ago, the second 150 years ago, and the third just a few days ago. These three events explain what America means to me now.

An edited version of Thomas Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence was published 237 years ago with these words in the second paragraph: "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."

However, these were not Jefferson's words. He originally wrote, "We hold these truths to be sacred..." The difference between a sacred truth and a self-evident truth is immense.

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The idea that God endows people with their freedom because of their equal creation in the image of God is many things, but one thing it surely is not is "self-evident." The idea that our rights come from God is, I believe, true, but it is not self-evidently true.

The statement "A bachelor is an unmarried man" is self-evidently true, but the statement that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights is not. It is true the way faith is true, and America is based on faith, not self-evidence. If our rights come from the state, then the state can revoke them, but if our rights come from God, no power on earth can revoke them. Take that, King George!

The only way to keep our rights secure is to keep them sacred. However, and this is critical, the belief that our rights come from God is not at all the same as believing that our rights come from Judaism, Christianity, Islam or any other religion.

No religion, Jefferson correctly believed, speaks authoritatively for God with regard to political philosophy. Our rights come rather from a universal idea of God that transcends any particular religion. Jefferson was a deist, not a Christian. Deists believed in a God of reason, and the Declaration of Independence is its perfect statement.

What this means is that there must be what Jefferson famously called "a wall of separation" between religion and the state. In this way, practicing any religion — or no religion at all — did not compromise a citizen's rights. America is founded on the belief that our rights come from God, but our own private and personal lives do not have to be founded on such a belief.

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