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Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Wall of Separation Between Church and State -- Blame It On Jefferson and Baptists

It may surprise many hardcore fundamentalists that good old Thomas Jefferson was responsible for building the "wall of separation" between church and state -- not by authoring the Declaration or giving input on drafting the Constitution, but by writing a letter to the Danbury Baptists on January 1, 1802, in which he coined the famous phrase "wall of separation between the church and the state." His purpose in this letter was to assuage the fears of the Danbury, Connecticut Baptists, and so he told them that this metaphorical "wall" had been erected to protect them.

Historians such as Dr. Daniel L. Dreisback, professor of Justice, Law and Society in the School of Public Affairs at American University, say that Jefferson was inaugurated the third President of the United States on March 4, 1801, following one of the most bitterly contested elections in history. His religion, or the alleged lack thereof, was a critical issue in the campaign.

(Daniel L. Dreisback. "The Mythical "Wall of Separation: How a Misused Metaphor Changed Church–State Law, Policy, and Discourse." The Heritage Foundation. June 23, 2006.)

In fact, Jefferson's Federalist Party foes, led by John Adams, vilified him as an infidel and atheist. The story has it that the campaign rhetoric was so bitter that, when news of Jefferson's election swept across the country, housewives in New England were seen burying family Bibles in their gardens or hiding them in wells because they expected the Holy Scriptures to be confiscated and burned by the new Administration in Washington.

(Dreisback claims these fears resonated with Americans who had received alarming reports of the French Revolution, which Jefferson was said to support, and the widespread desecration of religious sanctuaries and symbols in France.)

But, the Jeffersonian Republicans in Federalist New England were supported among the Baptists. At the dawn of the 19th century, Federalists dominated New England politics, and the Congregationalist church was legally established in Massachusetts and Connecticut. The Baptists, who supported Jefferson, were outsiders -- a political minority in a region where a Congregationalist-Federalists dominated political life.

In order to be precise, allow me to let Dr. Dreisback relate the following important history:

"On New Year's Day, 1802, President Jefferson penned a missive to the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut. The Baptists had written the President a 'fan' letter in October 1801, congratulating him on his election to the 'chief Magistracy in the United States. They celebrated Jefferson's zealous advocacy for religious liberty and chastised those who had criticized him 'as an enemy of religion, Law & good order because he will not, dares not assume the prerogative of Jehovah and make Laws to govern the Kingdom of Christ.'

"In a carefully crafted reply, Jefferson endorsed the persecuted Baptists' aspirations for religious liberty:

"'Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State."


(Letter from Jefferson to Messrs. Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins,
and Stephen S. Nelson, a committee of the Danbury Baptist association
in the state of Connecticut, 1 January 1802. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson
Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. December 2, 1801-January 1, 1802.)

So, it seems Jefferson's Danbury letter, a principled statement on the prudential and constitutional relationship between church and state, was, in fact a political statement written to reassure pious Baptist constituents that Jefferson was indeed "a friend of religion and to strike back at the Federalist-Congregationalist establishment in Connecticut for shamelessly vilifying him as an infidel and atheist in the recent campaign."

(James Hutson. "‘A Wall of Separation': FBI Helps Restore Jefferson's Obliterated Draft," Library of Congress Information Bulletin, Vol. 57, No. 6. June 1998.)

Throughout his public career, including two terms as President, Jefferson pursued policies incompatible with the "high and impregnable" wall the modern Supreme Court has erroneously attributed to him. For example, he endorsed the use of federal funds to build churches and to support Christian missionaries working among the Indians.

Dreisback concludes ...

"Jefferson's wall, as a matter of federalism, was erected between the national and state governments on matters pertaining to religion and not, more generally, between the church and all civil government.

"In other words, Jefferson placed the federal government on one side of his wall and state governments and churches on the other. The wall's primary function was to delineate the constitutional jurisdictions of the national and state governments, respectively, on religious concerns, such as setting aside days in the public calendar for prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving. Evidence for this jurisdictional or structural understanding of the wall can be found in both the texts and the context of the correspondence between Jefferson and the Danbury Baptist Association."

(Daniel L. Dreisback. "The Mythical "Wall of Separation: How a Misused Metaphor Changed Church–State Law, Policy, and Discourse." The Heritage Foundation. June 23, 2006.)

So, What's the "Big Deal"?

The Supreme Court has consistently held that there is a wall of separation between Church and State. Yet, it is, indeed, ironic that Thomas Jefferson coined a phrase that has held such historical significance in arguments concerning separation in a political letter, and it is even more ironic that Jefferson did so while defending his Baptist supporters -- a move the Baptists supported because they, at the time, were a much-hassled religious minority.  

Granted, Jefferson was always reluctant to reveal his religious beliefs to the public. In the spirit of the Enlightenment, he made the following recommendation to his nephew Peter Carr in 1787: "Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear."

And, Jefferson's views played a leading role in the first campaigns to separate church and state, which a student of history can see in his writing that became the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom. Jefferson stated:

"The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg ... Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error."

(Edited by William Peden. Notes on the State of Virginia.
University of North Carolina Press. 1955.)


It seems nothing about Thomas Jefferson was easily understood from his ownership of slaves to his religious convictions. Some say he was decidedly Unitarian and held no specific creeds concerning Christianity, God, or God's unitary nature while choosing to perceive Christ as human rather than divine.

As time went on, Jefferson confessed to believe that the Government's relationship with the Church should be indifferent, religion being neither persecuted nor given any special status. In Jefferson's March 4, 1805, Drafts of Address of Second Inaugural he stated:


(John P. Foley, ed. The Jeffersonian Cyclopedia: a Comprehensive Collection
of the Views of Thomas Jefferson1900.)

Yet, many hold onto the simplistic, edited views of Founding Fathers they read in grade school history texts. People are under many illusions that have resulted from the spread of lack of detailed accounts and misinformation. Many historical figures such as Jefferson have been lifted to iconic status without much regard to their real persona.

There is nothing necessarily subversive about this, but somewhere along the line it would seem that learning the truth is essential to modern revision. Thus, to set the record straight, it must be understood that separation is not Constitutional. In fact, the early Republic welcomed public worship. Church services were held in the U.S. Capitol and Treasury buildings every Sunday.

The language of separation was birthed by Thomas Jefferson after the ratification of the Constitution, and, perhaps, a more correct phrase for Jefferson's initial intention of division would be the "separation of state FROM church."

Since then, the highest court in the land has used Jefferson's Danbury letter to expand the meaning for this important but controversial phrase. The Supreme Court not only prohibits any government from adopting a particular denomination or religion as official, but requires government to avoid excessive involvement in religion.

In Reynolds v. United States (1879) the U.S. Supreme Court wrote that Jefferson's comments "may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the [First] Amendment." In Everson v. Board of Education (1947), Justice Hugo Black wrote: "In the words of Thomas Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect a wall of separation between church and state."

(Robert Boston. Why The Religious Right is Wrong About Separation of Church & State. 1993.)

Still, the Court does not always interpret the constitutional principle as absolute, and the proper extent of separation between government and religion in the U.S. remains an ongoing subject of impassioned debate.


So, to all of those who say ...

"America has become a Godless country."

Or those who say ...

"There must be an absolute wall of separation between church and state."

I say ...

"I bet you don't remember that the third President of the United States, who was not a professed Christian, wrote a letter to defend Baptists, his loyal political friends, that stated 'American people declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.'"

And, this confusing situation is what started all the fuss about the controls in the United States of America of what "walls" prohibit religions from entering government and what "openings" allow religions to access government.

Enough of arguing total exclusion from government concerning everything religious! And, enough of arguing total inclusion of biblical interpretation in the laws of mankind! I believe there are two kingdoms -- one earthly and one heavenly -- that both possess significant differences, and people have their hands full just trying to maintain justice and order with equal measures of concern for God and for country. 


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