The God Squad: ‘We hold these truths to be sacred’

Rabbi Marc Gellman, Tribune Content Agency on

I believe this Independence Day that the way to bring America together now is to remember what brought America together then.

What is not widely known is that the preamble to the Declaration of Independence we think Jefferson wrote is not in fact the preamble he actually wrote. This is what we think he wrote:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Before I share with you the words he did write, let us just pause for a moment and consider why this sentence makes no sense. It may well be true that each of us is endowed by our Creator with rights, but it is in no way a self-evident truth. A self-evident truth is that a bachelor is an unmarried man; or that Plato was a man and all men are mortal, therefore, Plato was mortal; or that the Los Angeles Dodgers have way too much money to spend on player’s salaries. These are all self-evident truths. They do not require belief in a Creator to make them true.

What Jefferson was writing about was a religious belief at the core of the American experiment. It was the belief that our rights derive from our belief that all people are created equal, and that this equality derives from the belief that all of us are made in the image of God. That belief does not derive from a deductive syllogism. It derives from the Bible and our belief that the Bible is a source of truth that transcends the state – any state.

So, because our belief in the equal rights of all people is a religious belief the preamble to the Declaration is wrong. Jefferson, of course, knew this and that is why his first draft said this:

“We hold these truths to be sacred…”

That works! That makes sense. I am not certain who forced Jefferson to change his first draft. I suspect it was Franklin who did not want to let religious beliefs occupy such a primary place in America’s self-understanding. Whoever did it, they were responsible for a radical misunderstanding of who we are and where our rights come from. If our rights come from the government then the government can rescind them. If, however, our rights derive from God then no state can revoke them because no state can change the fact that we are all created in the image of God. The only way to keep our rights secure is to keep them sacred.


What Jefferson was trying to say was that our rights are an attribute not an acquisition. They come from who we are not what we do. Of course, Jefferson himself and the other framers of our Constitution were tragically blind to the fact that slavery violated this foundational belief, but over the centuries the struggle to restore sacred rights to all Americans has made halting but definite progress.

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 or Christianity or Islam or any other sectarian religion. No religion, Jefferson correctly believed, speaks authoritatively for God about political philosophy. Our rights come rather from a universal idea of God that transcends any religion. Jefferson was a Deist not a Christian. Deists believed in a universal God and the Declaration is its perfect statement.

What this means is that there must be what Jefferson famously called, “a wall of separation” between specific religions and the state. In this way being a member of 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. There is a connection between God and America but there must be no politically significant connection between specific religions and America.

Zealots on both sides of this culture war would do well to learn from the other side just enough to achieve humility and respect for the soaring and unifying vision that Jefferson created. The Declaration of Independence was a document poorly edited by a committee, but the Declaration of Independence was also a document initially written by a genius. Thank God for Thomas Jefferson and the sacred truths that created America.

God bless America!

(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including “Religion for Dummies,” co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman. Also, the new God Squad podcast is now available.)

©2024 The God Squad. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.




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