We (Do Not) Hold These Truths to Be Self-Evident


In late June of 1776, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Benjamin Franklin asking him to edit the Declaration of Independence in time for a meeting the following morning. “The inclosed paper has been read and with some small alterations approved of by the committee,” Jefferson explained. “Will Doctr. Franklyn be so good as to peruse it and suggest such alterations as his more enlarged view of the subject will dictate?”1

Franklin was at home recovering from gout and made very few changes. But one of them would have epochal significance. Jefferson had originally written that “we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.”

Franklin crossed out the last three words and replaced them with one: “self-evident.”2

Remaking the World

Andrew Wilson

In this skillfully researched book, Andrew Wilson explains how 7 historic events in 1776 shaped today’s post-Christian West and equips believers to share God’s truth in the current social landscape.

It was a portentous edit. Jefferson’s version, despite his theological skepticism, presented the equality of men and the rights they held as grounded in religion: they are “undeniable” because they are “sacred” truths that originate with the Creator. By contrast, Franklin’s version grounded them in reason. They are “self-evident” truths, which are not dependent on any particular religious tradition but can easily be grasped as logically necessary by anyone who thinks about them for long enough.3

To which the obvious response is: no, they are not. There are plenty of cultures in which it is not remotely self-evident to people that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, let alone that these rights include life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the prerogative to abolish any government that does not preserve them. Most human beings in 1776 did not believe that at all, which is partly why the Declaration was required in the first place.* (This accounts for the otherwise inexplicable phrase “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” as opposed to saying simply “these truths are self-evident.”) Some of the founders had not quite believed it themselves just fifteen years earlier. Billions of people today still don’t.

The fundamental equality of human beings, and their endowment with inalienable rights by their Creator, are essentially theological beliefs. They are neither innately obvious axioms nor universally accepted empirical truths nor rational deductions from things that are. There is no logical syllogism that begins with undeniable premises and concludes with “all people are equal” or “humans have God-given rights.” The Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov expressed the non sequitur at the heart of Western civilization with a deliciously sarcastic aphorism: “Man descended from apes, therefore we must love one another.”4

Many of us find this unsettling. We are inclined to see equality and human rights as universal norms, obvious to everyone who can think for themselves. But in reality they are culturally conditioned beliefs that depend on fundamentally Christian assumptions about the world. Friedrich Nietzsche made this point with angry brilliance: the obsession with alleviating the suffering of the weak and marginalized, within an ethical framework that valorizes humility, fairness, charity, equality, and freedom (as opposed to nobility, pride, courage, and power), is the result of the “slave morality” introduced by Christianity, with its crucified Savior and its claims about weak things being chosen to shame the strong.5Coming from a very different angle, Yuval Noah Harari shows how human rights, likewise, have no foundation if they are not rooted in Christian anthropology. “There are no such things as rights in biology,” he explains. Expressed in biological terms, the Declaration of Independence would read very differently: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men evolved differently, that they are born with certain mutable characteristics, and that among these are life and the pursuit of pleasure.”6

Jefferson was right the first time.7 Equality and human rights are “sacred” truths, not “self-evident” ones. They are irreducibly theological, grounded in specifically Judeo-Christian beliefs about God and his creation of humans in his image, and there is no particular reason why societies with different theological foundations should not reach very different conclusions. Many have.

We can see this even if we limit ourselves to the language used in the paragraph Franklin was editing. The Declaration’s famous preamble depends heavily on Algernon Sidney and especially John Locke, who argued that there was “nothing more evident” than the equality of human beings and that “being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”8 In saying this, Locke was not innovating. He made it very explicit that he was also borrowing, in his case from a passage in the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity by the Reformed theologian Richard Hooker (1554–1600): “This equality of men by nature, the judicious Hooker looks upon as so evident in itself, and beyond all question, that he makes it the foundation of that obligation to mutual love amongst men, on which he builds the duties they owe one another, and from whence he derives the great maxims of justice and charity.”9 And Hooker was not being original either. He was standing in a rich tradition of Christian reflection on theology and government stretching back to the church fathers and beyond; in the passage cited by Locke, Hooker was quoting directly from the Code of Justinian and Christ’s words in Matthew’s Gospel.10 So yes, the equality of all humans seemed staringly obvious (at least in theory) to Franklin and Jefferson. But that was because their culture was saturated with Christian assumptions—so much so that the concepts and phrases they used were taken from Locke, who had got them from Hooker, who had got them from Scripture.11

Christianity . . . became a victim of its own success. It baked its moral norms so deeply into Western culture that people eventually forgot where they came from.

Franklin’s brief, scribbled correction is a marvelous metaphor for the ex-Christian West. His replacement of the words “sacred and undeniable” with “self-evident” echoes what was happening across European society as a whole in 1776, at least among elites. It was an attempt to retain Christianity’s moral conclusions while scrubbing out its theological foundations: keeping the fruits while severing the roots, if you will. And it resulted in the insistence that Judeo-Christian convictions on anthropology and ethics were now to be regarded as universal norms on which all reasonable people would agree.

The last two centuries have provided plenty of other metaphors for postChristianity. Consider the common academic practice of replacing BC and AD with BCE and CE, as if the Common Era was grounded in “selfevident” truth rather than “sacred” belief. Or take the 9/11 wars, in which Western nations were so convinced of the universality and “self-evidence” of their values that they cheerfully deposed foreign governments, on the assumption that equality, democracy, and human rights would flourish naturally in their place. We could look at Communist Russia, a murderous state committed to doctrinaire atheism, yet motivated by a desire to inaugurate a new world of peace and justice, according to the teaching of its founding Jewish prophet in which the first shall be last and the last shall be first. (“The measure of how Christian we as a society remain,” suggests Tom Holland, “is that mass murder precipitated by racism tends to be seen as vastly more abhorrent than mass murder precipitated by an ambition to usher in a classless paradise.”)12 Even the Beatles, announcing themselves to be bigger than Jesus while singing songs about the ultimacy of love and peace that could only have been written, let alone sold millions of copies, within a thoroughly Christianized culture, embody the irony.13

But for sheer directness, and indeed chutzpah, Ben Franklin’s deletion takes pride of place. His edit is a lasting witness to the fact that the modern West is not so much ex-Christian, in the sense of having renounced Christ and all his works, as it is abidingly and distinctively ex-Christian. Contingent religious beliefs now sound like self-evident secular truths. The year of our Lord has been universalized, the rights of humanity have been standardized, the redistribution of wealth has been normalized, and all you need is love.

Christianity, in that sense, became a victim of its own success. It baked its moral norms so deeply into Western culture that people eventually forgot where they came from. The Enlightenment adapted the thoroughly Christian imagery of conversion from darkness to light through a moment of rebirth, and the emancipation of the whole world from slavery into a future of hope and justice. The rise of science was powered by the belief in an all-powerful Creator whose world follows predictable laws. Industrialization and enrichment both depended on the centrality of written texts, literacy, and diligence to godly living, alongside the eschatological belief that history is progressing rather than stagnating or declining. No matter how self-evident it seemed to Franklin, modern democracy would never have developed in the way it did without the cocktail of equality, rights, and freedom it inherited from medieval theologians, church fathers, and biblical texts from Genesis to Galatians. Even the Romantic movement would have been inconceivable without the Christian virtues of compassion and charity, the self-understanding of Paul and Augustine, and the “inward turn” of first Protestantism and then German Pietism.

And here is the great irony. In many ways, the transition to a WEIRDER14 world—Enlightenment, industrialization, enrichment, democracy, pluralism, Romanticism, and so forth—has made practicing Christianity harder. Increases in wealth, power, sexual permissiveness, independence, and individualism have generally been associated with smaller families, lower church attendance, and weaker religious observance, for a variety of (very contested) reasons. Yet the WEIRDER transition is itself a product of Christian influence. It would never have happened without it.

Christendom, in effect, was hoisted by its own petard.15 And at the same time, the philosophes were making war on the institutional church using rhetorical weapons they had stolen from the church’s own arsenal: light, hope, rights, liberté, égalité, fraternité. It was a powerful one-two punch. Simultaneously, Christianity was being edited out of elite discourse because its values were “self-evident,” and condemned for not living up to them.


  1. Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Franklin, June 21, 1776, Founders Online, National Archives, accessed December 21, 2022, https://founders.archives.gov/documents /Jefferson/01-01-02-0168.
  2. Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Franklin, June 21, 1776, Founders Online, National Archives, accessed December 21, 2022, https://founders.archives.gov/documents /Jefferson/01-01-02-0168.
  3. For a reconstruction of the draft and how it became the final version, see Julian P. Boyd, The Declaration of Independence: The Evolution of the Text as Shown in Facsimiles of Various Drafts by Its Author, Thomas Jefferson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1945). For a shorter account see Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin, 309–13.
  4. There is plenty of literature on the meaning of “self-evident” in the Declaration and how it differs from other eighteenth-century (and twenty-first-century) uses; a good survey is provided in C. Bradley Thompson, America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration That Defined It (New York: Encounter, 2019), 69–95.
  5. Quoted in Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 596.
  6. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Michael A. Scarpitti (London: Penguin, 2013).
  7. Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (London: Vintage, 2011), 123. For a fuller argument, see Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).
  8. Thomas S. Kidd, Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2022), 50–56, shows how Jefferson reworked George Mason’s wording in the Virginia Declaration of Rights to make it more explicit that these rights derive from their Creator.
  9. John Locke, Two Treatises on Civil Government(1689; repr., London: Routledge, 1884), 193–94; cf. Algernon Sidney, Discourses concerning Government (London: Millar, 1763), 17–18: “Nothing can be more evident, than that if many had been created, they had been all equal, unless God had given a preference to one.”
  10. Locke, Two Treatises, 193; at least part of Locke’s motive in quoting Hooker here was to embarrass his Tory opponents by citing one of the Church of England’s most influential theologians.
  11. Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, ed. Arthur Stephen McGrade (1597; repr., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 80 (quoting Code 3.28.11 and Matt. 22:37–40); cf. Alan Cromartie, “Theology and Politics in Richard Hooker’s Thought,” History of Political Thought 21, no. 1 (2000): 41–66.
  12. The same is true of Algernon Sidney, who derived his statement about equality from the stories of Adam and Abraham in Genesis (Discourses concerning Government, 17–18). We could make a similar case for the development of individual rights and the rule of law; see, e.g., Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (London: Penguin, 2015), esp. 192–251; Nick Spencer, The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values (London: SPCK, 2016), 38–50, 125–37; more pungently, Christian Smith, Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can’t Deliver (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 45–86.
  13. Tom Holland, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (London: Little Brown, 2019), 524.
  14. Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic, Ex-Christian, and Romantic. The acronym WEIRD was first coined by Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine, and Ara Norenzayan, “The Weirdest People in the World?,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33 (2010), 61–83. There are numerous other ways of referring to this world, but all of them suffer from significant limitations. Some—the First World or the civilized world or the free world—are patronizing and inaccurate. Geographical descriptors like the Western hemisphere make little or no sense to anyone who has consulted a globe and seen where “Western” countries actually are. Chronological terms like modern, late modern, or postmodern are complicated by heated disagreements over what exactly “modernity” is and whether we are still in it. Some terms highlight ideas and values (secular, liberal, or pluralist), or institutions and systems (capitalist, democratic), to the exclusion of material circumstances. Others do the reverse and focus on material or technological development, like industrialized, rich, developed, urban, bourgeois, postindustrial, or digital, although these terms are too broad to stand on their own, since they apply just as much to Shanghai and Dubai as they do to Paris or Chicago. By contrast the term WEIRDER, in bundling seven adjectives into one, combines geographical, material, ideological, historical, and even emotional features of the world it describes, which gives it a range and nuance that other terms lack.
  15. See Holland, Dominion, 470–98

This article is adapted from Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West by Andrew Wilson.

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