Separation of Church and State: Jefferson Got It All Wrong

bibleI have been a firm believer in the idea of “separation of church and state.”  As I have read, and studied, and experienced, and read again, separation of church and state seems, to me, to be a necessity.  I do not want our government establishing an “official” church or theology.  Nor do I want them to keep me from gathering in a building to worship.  I want the freedom that the First Amendment guarantees.  It states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

For the purposes of this post, I’m more interested in the first idea regarding religion.  The phrases “establishment of religion” and “prohibiting the free exercise thereof” are the two concepts that are key here.  Lest you think this is not an issue, think again.  Our nation has dealt with establishment and free exercise more than you think.

History tells us so.

In the 17th & early 18th centuries, “established” religion existed.  The Congregational Churches in New England, whose roots were borne from our Puritan ancestors, prohibited any worship or gathering by those who professed beliefs otherwise.  Theirs was a tentative mix of government and religion, since the laws in their community were enacted and enforced by church leaders.  In other words, the government officials were church leaders.

The same could be said for the colonies in the south, where Anglican churches flourished.  If you were a Baptist, or a Quaker, or, heaven forbid, a Catholic, you best prepare yourself for time in the stockade in the public square.  Roger Williams, an early Baptist leader, experienced this first-hand, fleeing to the safety of Rhode Island where he established a community where religious liberty was a hallmark.

Baptists, who preached believer’s baptism – the belief that baptism follows conversion (as opposed to infant Thomas_Jefferson_by_Rembrandt_Peale,_1800baptism) were among those most often persecuted.  As a result, they wrote a letter to then president Thomas Jefferson, expressing concern that their state constitution did not provide the tenets of religious liberty.  These Baptists, from Danbury, Connecticut, asked Jefferson to intervene.

Jefferson’s response was, and still is, historic.  In his response, he says,

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature would “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

There it is – “a wall of separation between Church and State” – the phrase that has since been used to interpret laws and establish policy.  The problem is, that’s not what the First Amendment sought to accomplish.

We can all agree that our nation should not establish an official religion.  We live in a nation that establishes itself as a democracy, not a theocracy.  Nor does our nation prohibit anyone from worshipping on any given day or place in a manner that they see fit.  Baptist, Presbyterians, Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists – all worship freely without fear.

Yet, over the years, our nation has misinterpreted the First Amendment, like Jefferson, as a law that prohibits not only the the influence of government on religion, but vice versa – the influence of religion on government.  Philip Hamburger, in his book  Separation of Church and State, says

…there is reason to wonder why the religion clauses of the First Amendment differ from the words with which these clauses are most commonly interpreted…Yet, the phrase “separation between church and state” has also pointed to something more dramatic – a distance, segregation, or absence of contact between church and state.

While the First Amendment had no intention of building “a wall of separation”, it has been replaced by a legal interpretation that found its birth in Jefferson, and others.  The First Amendment does not prohibit the disassociation of religion and government, it only prohibits the establishment.  Religion must be free to express itself in every corner of this nation – from our schools to our courthouses to council meetings to congress.  The free exercise of religion should abound “from sea to shining sea.”

In this time, when culture and society are moving away from God and a biblical morality, the First Amendment allows for those whose religion calls for them to “go and make disciples.”  There is no separation.  There is freedom.

And, always remember, love.




Filed under Commentary, History

4 responses to “Separation of Church and State: Jefferson Got It All Wrong

  1. Betty Padgett

    I believe Jefferson’s words have been misused. Read the inscriptions inside the Jefferson Memorial.. ( Google them) It is well known that Jefferson participated in worship services in the Capitol ( at that time the largest church in DC), and personally gave money to buy Bibles. Also, the Congress of the United States ordered a Bible to be printed in the US, as they were hard to get from overseas. And Jefferson’s own philosophical version of the New Testament ( a guide for living) was given to all incoming Congressmen for years

    • Betty:

      I appreciate your comment. There is much that surrounds Jefferson’s use of the words “wall of separation.” It’s not original to him, but he felt the need to incorporate that phrase as he responded to the Danbury Baptists. While I believe his interpretation of the First Amendment is wrong, I do believe Jefferson did much for a young nation, the effects of which we still feel today. For that, we are indebted.

      However, his actions regarding his faith are suspect. His Bible, which you mention, was not the Bible as we know it. After he went through and eliminated passages he disagreed with, including the resurrection, we are left with only a remnant of God’s Word.

      So, as a statesman, Jefferson can be exalted. I’m much more skeptical of his faith, though, and would not consider him a positive figure in Christianity in the earlt years of our nation.

  2. Hamburgers’ fundamental error is his largely unspoken and unexamined presumption that the Constitution’s separation of church and state is merely a First Amendment textual matter. It is rather a bedrock principle of our Constitution, much like the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances. In the first place, the Supreme Court has thoughtfully, authoritatively, and repeatedly decided as much; it is long since established law. In the second place, the Court is right. In the Constitution, the founders did not simply say in so many words that there should be separation of powers and checks and balances; rather, they actually separated the powers of government among three branches and established checks and balances. Similarly, they did not merely say there should be separation of church and state; rather, they actually separated them by (1) establishing a secular government on the power of “We the people” (not a deity), (2) according that government limited, enumerated powers, (3) saying nothing to connect that government to god(s) or religion, (4) saying nothing to give that government power over matters of god(s) or religion, and (5), indeed, saying nothing substantive about god(s) or religion at all except in a provision precluding any religious test for public office. Given the norms of the day (by which governments generally were grounded in some appeal to god(s)), the founders’ avoidance of any expression in the Constitution suggesting that the government is somehow based on any religious belief was quite a remarkable and plainly intentional choice. They later buttressed this separation of government and religion with the First Amendment, which affirmatively constrains the government from undertaking to establish religion or prohibit individuals from freely exercising their religions. The basic principle, thus, rests on much more than just the First Amendment.

    That the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the text of the Constitution assumes much importance, it seems, to some who mistakenly supposed it was there and, upon learning of their error, reckon they’ve solved a Constitutional mystery. To those familiar with the Constitution, the absence of the metaphor commonly used to name one of its principles is no more consequential than the absence of other phrases (e.g., Bill of Rights, separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism) used to describe other undoubted Constitutional principles.

    To the extent that some nonetheless would like confirmation–in those very words–of the founders’ intent to separate government and religion, Madison and Jefferson supplied it. Some try to pass off the Supreme Court’s decision in Everson v. Board of Education as simply a misreading of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists–as if that were the only basis of the Court’s decision. Instructive as that letter is, it played but a small part in the Court’s decision. Rather, the Court discussed the historical context in which the Constitution and First Amendment were drafted, noting the expressed understanding of Madison perhaps even more than Jefferson, and only after concluding its analysis and stating its conclusion did the Court refer–once–to Jefferson’s letter, largely to borrow his famous metaphor as a clever label or summary of its conclusion. The notion, often heard, that the Court rested its decision solely or largely on that letter is a red herring.

    Madison, who had a central role in drafting the Constitution and the First Amendment, confirmed that he understood them to “[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government.” Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820). Indeed, he understood the original Constitution–without the First Amendment–to separate religion and government. He made plain, too, that they guarded against more than just laws creating state sponsored churches or imposing a state religion. Mindful that even as new principles are proclaimed, old habits die hard and citizens and politicians could tend to entangle government and religion (e.g., “the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress” and “for the army and navy” and “[r]eligious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts”), he considered the question whether these actions were “consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom” and responded: “In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion.”

    Hamburger also exaggerates the “absence of contact between church and state” supposedly resulting from the principle. It is important to distinguish between “individual” and “government” speech about religion. The constitutional principle of separation of church and state does not, as is sometimes complained, purge religion from the public square–far from it. Indeed, the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause assures that each individual is free to exercise and express his or her religious views–publicly as well as privately. The Amendment constrains only the government not to promote or otherwise take steps toward establishment of religion. Nor does the constitutional separation of church and state prevent citizens from making decisions based on principles derived from their religions. Moreover, the religious beliefs of government officials naturally may inform their decisions on policies. The principle, in this context, merely constrains government officials not to make decisions with the predominant purpose or primary effect of advancing religion; in other words, the predominant purpose and primary effect must be nonreligious or secular in nature. A decision coinciding with religious views is not invalid for that reason as long as it has a secular purpose and effect.
    Wake Forest University has published a short, objective Q&A primer on the current law of separation of church and state–as applied by the courts rather than as caricatured in the blogosphere. I commend it to you.

  3. Pingback: Separation of Church and State: a response to David Ivester | Mark Moore

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