The culprits are Tim Pawlenty, governor of Minnesota, Dan Kennedy, assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University, and David Limbaugh, writer, author, attorney, and brother of Rush.
First, at CPAC, Pawlenty declared:
"... God is in charge ... In the Declaration of Independence it says we are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights. It doesn't say we're endowed by Washington, DC, or endowed by the bureaucrats or endowed by state government. It's by our creator that we are given these rights."
Pawlenty misused because he is a conservative evangelical Christian and the God of the Declaration of Independence is arguably not that of evangelicals and doesn’t vindicate their ideal vision for society. That document doesn't mention Jesus Christ or quote verses and chapters of scripture. Its call to revolution is arguably in tension with Romans 13. And it's not clear that other central principles enunciated in the Declaration have anything to do with the Bible.
Further, this speech was given at CPAC. God is not a member of CPAC or the conservative movement. Apparently, Pawlenty doesn't realize God is a libertarian. :)
Next we have Dan Kennedy's article on Pawlenty speech featured in the British newspaper The Guardian.
After making a number of good points, Kennedy finishes his article by quoting James Madison and writes:
"While we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess, and to observe, the religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to them whose minds have not yielded to the evidence which has convinced us," wrote James Madison.
In contrast to Madison, the Republicans propose a theocracy of believers. It is an assault not just on anyone who isn't one of them, but on the American idea, and on liberal democracies everywhere.
Kennedy's misuse is characterized by the phrase "overstating your case" or "hyperbole."
Finally, Limbaugh's misuse:
Kennedy responds that Pawlenty misrepresented the founders' "intent" because Jefferson, the "primary author" of the Declaration, deleted all references to Jesus' deity from his personal Bible.
Jefferson's Christianity may be subject to debate, but it is clear that he didn't view himself as expressing his own views in the Declaration; rather, "it was intended to be an expression of the American mind." (The American mind, it should be noted, was decidedly Christian.) Plus, a congressional committee led by the devout John Adams made more than 80 changes, deleting nearly 500 words and adding two references to a providential God. The Declaration was a corporate statement of Congress. Also, Jefferson was not present at the Constitutional Convention. So Kennedy's reference to Jefferson is at best misleading, as is his convenient omission of many other relevant facts – including that 52 of the 56 signers of the Declaration and 50 to 52 of the 55 signers of the Constitution were orthodox Trinitarian Christians.
First, Jefferson may well have believed the DOI an "expression of the American mind." But nothing suggests Jefferson believed in an "expression" that at all contradicted his personal political theological convictions. Jefferson -- that unitarian rationalist he -- thought such an "expression of the American mind" entirely compatible with his personal theology that rejected every single tenet of Christian orthodoxy, the infallibility of the Bible, eternal damnation, etc.
Jefferson so embraced the final version of the DOI that he lists his authorship of it as one of his three proudest accomplishments on his tombstone.
Second, Limbaugh falsely contrasts John Adams' "devout" nature with Jefferson's. In reality, the two possessed the same unitarian rationalistic creed that rejected orthodox Christian doctrine, the infallibility of the Bible, eternal damnation, etc.
Finally, Limbaugh passes phony statistics about the "orthodox" nature of the signers of the Declaration and signers [sic] of the Constitution.
The notion that 50-52 of the men who attended to Constitution Convention (only 39 singed!) were "orthodox Christians" is bunk. A scholar -- the late ME Bradford -- asserted this and he based it entirely on some kind of formal or nominal connection to a Christian Church that professed "orthodoxy."
The three of Bradford's "Deists" -- Ben Franklin, James Wilson, and Hugh Williamson -- likewise possessed the same formal/nominal connections to Christian churches with an orthodox creed. As did Jefferson, and J. Adams (who weren't at the CC). And Washington, Hamilton, G. Morris, James Madison and a plethora of other Founders who are not provably "orthodox Trinitarian Christians." (Hamilton, in fact had NO connection to a Church that professed orthodoxy during the Framing of the Constitution.)
The 52 of the 56 figure that relates to the Declaration of Independence results (likely) from a mistake some activist made, confusing Bradford's "52 out of 55," that was meant to discuss the US Constitution, with the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
The truth is, we know a handful of very important Founders (Jefferson, J. Adams, Franklin,) explicitly rejected orthodox Christian doctrines, a handful of important Founders (Washington, Madison, G. Morris, Wilson, Hamilton before the end of his life) were, after meticulous study, not provably orthodox Christians during the time in which they founded America; they went out of their way not to give rope to hang their good reputations with (which leads me to believe they were close to the heterodox rationalist camp than the orthodox camp). And a handful of second tier Founders (Jay, Henry, Witherspoon, Boudinot, Sherman) were provably orthodox Christians (but even they flirted with heterodoxy and rejected Sola Scriptura). There were a number of important second tier Founders like Paine, Allen and Palmer who were strict Deists.
And with the great many of other lesser Founders, we just don't know enough to be certain. Proving they had some kind of connection to an orthodox Church -- as Bradford did to prove the Founders' "orthodoxy" -- shows nothing more than they could have been as orthodox as Patrick Henry or heterodox as Thomas Jefferson.