I agree with a great deal of what Jonathan writes in his latest installment. It seems to me that the difference between our positions concerning the Founding and its principles largely lies in this: I see Jonathan as drawing a boundary too constrictive and impermeable around the Founding ideas. I cannot dispute that Jefferson and other deists (or whatever they all were--that's another ongoing debate in this space) viewed the Declaration of Independence—to use one important, concrete example—through the lens of their particular worldview. But does that mean that the text itself is not open, to some extent, to other interpretations through the lenses of other worldviews? To return to an earlier example, the Catholic signer of the Declaration, Charles Carroll, was not a theologian, but I'm not aware that anyone has questioned in general his Catholic orthodoxy. How could he sign the Declaration if it were simply, case open and shut, an expression of principles rooted in a worldview hostile to or at least inconsistent with a Catholic one? Did he misunderstand it? Was he dishonest? My own view is that he was neither and that he, like me some years later, can in good conscience fully subscribe to the principles articulated by the Declaration, even if he (like me) would want to qualify and clarify its meaning in a way that rendered it consistent with the Catholic tradition. That is not to say that the parameters of meaning are utterly amorphous: there are limits to how the words "inalienable rights" can be legitimately interpreted. Jonathan wants to set those limits relatively more narrowly; I want them to be more expansive.
This is not a problem unique to the Founding, by the way. The UN Declaration of Human Rights was subscribed to by people from an even wider variety of religious/political/philosophical points of view. And its meaning and value have similarly been debated at length. The example is relevant: Catholic proponent Jacques Maritain said that it is possible to "establish a common formulation" of human rights even if we will not find a "common rational justification of these...rights."
Jonathan's intriguing statement here is a seed for further discussion:
However, we don't necessarily need the traditional, orthodox understanding of the Deity to serve the role of the ultimate guarantor of liberty and equality rights (one could argue that society needs the orthodox God for other reasons, but that's a discussion topic for another day). The God of Jefferson, J. Adams, and Franklin (the men who actually wrote the Declaration of Independence) serves that role just fine. Indeed some might argue, given this was the God in whom the formulators of liberal democracy believed -- the God who inspired them -- this God is a better guarantor of political rights than the orthodox biblical God.
It's a very interesting claim, which can be founded on a strong argument. But in the end I don't agree. Reasons forthcoming in a post some other time.