On the other hand, like a lot of people who came out of my subculture I think I always took it as read that because the Declaration of Independence referred to "their Creator" and the Old Testament God is the Creator God, that these two were the same somehow, a claim tantamount to claiming that everyone who refers to "God" refers to the same God somehow. And this latter claim in recent days makes about as much sense as believing that everybody understands what I mean when I use the word "I."
Anyway, Dershowitz takes on the apparently common claim on the Christian Right that the Declaration of Independence is a peer to the Constitution in defining the United States as a nation, and furthermore that the Creator God who endows people with unalienable rights in that document is somehow the Christian God, and with some success. He sets about doing this in three steps, with mixed success:
- Thomas Jefferson, drafter and primary author of the Declaration of Independence, couldn't have meant the Christian God
- Various contemporary Christian Right leaders know they're misrepresenting Jefferson
- Jefferson's invocation of natural law, including appeals to this Creator God, is no basis for a system of government.
Unfortunately in the second section Dershowitz makes the same mistake many critics of the Christian Right make: he quotes them as if their comments were meant to be statements of fact, where I'd argue that most of them are using aspirational language, or possibly shibboleths, or cultural signifiers: they're not inviting their audience to judge the truth of what they're saying, but rather to believe what they're saying in the face of the facts (supporting or otherwise) as an act of inclusion or exclusion in a faith community. Instead of "this is true," they mean "everyone in my takes this by faith." This doesn't mean that Dershowitz is wrong, per se, but rather that he's just not working from sources of the same quality when he talks about Christian Right leaders as he does when he talks about Thomas Jefferson. And that's a shame, because it leaves him sounding like he hasn't done his homework.
His closing section is kind of a mess: he essentially argues that Jefferson plays fast and loose with natural law, and more or less making up the justification for the Revolutionary War. I have to wonder why he went to all this trouble, but it's his basis for saying essentially that the Declaration of Independence isn't useful for declaring the United States a "Christian Nation."
In the end this isn't an entirely satisfying book, but it leaves Dershowitz in a peculiar position of claiming that people who make "Christian Nation" claims are engaging in a kind of "civil blasphemy" (his term), setting, in a sense, the American civil religion with its various narratives and theology in opposition to Christianity and its God. I don't know what to make of this; in a sense Dershowitz seems to be saying that Jefferson, as a Deist, had a God, and the Declaration of Independence is a religious document, and it's the Christian Right folks who are the blasphemers. Go figure.
I feel obligated to point out that this book is fairly priced at Amazon.com, with both new and used copies being available for less than fifty cents, plus shipping.