Many misunderstand Jefferson’s church and state ‘wall of separation’

Tue, 01/16/2007 - 4:16pm
By: The Citizen

By Dr. Gary Scott Smith

[There is] massive confusion in the United States today about the meaning of the phrase “the separation of church and state.” Many liberals contend the concept requires that religion be completely divorced from government, while countless conservatives counter that the founders simply wanted to prevent the establishment of a national church.

Dee Wampler’s “The Myth of Separation Between Church and State,” D. James Kennedy’s “What If America Were a Christian Nation Again?,” and David Barton’s “The Myth of Separation” all argue that the founders intended almost no separation between church and state. Florida senatorial candidate Katherine Harris called the separation doctrine “a lie.”

In a recent study of 14,000 randomly selected college freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges and universities across the country conducted by the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy, 73 percent of respondents could not correctly identify the source of the expression “a wall of separation” between church and state.

Many Americans undoubtedly think this phrase is in the Constitution, but it is not. The First Amendment simply states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The phrase comes instead from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1802, to the Danbury Baptist Association. Justice Hugo Black cited Jefferson’s words in a landmark Supreme Court case in 1947. “In the words of Jefferson,” wrote Black, the First Amendment clause prohibiting “the establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between church and State.’ ... That wall must be kept high and impregnable.” This decision, along with a number of subsequent ones, has helped push religion out of the public square.

Jefferson should not be considered the final authority on the relationship between church and state, although many magically grant him that authority. His views are very important, however, and those who invoke Jefferson’s phrase need to take a closer look at what he meant by his oft-quoted phrase as well as his actions as president.

In his letter to the Danbury Baptists, Jefferson explained why he, unlike the first two presidents and almost all state governors, did not proclaim days for public prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving. Jefferson argued that the First Amendment prohibited the federal chief magistrate from issuing religious proclamations of any kind. He later explained that both the First Amendment and the Tenth Amendment, which reserved to the states the powers not delegated to the United States, prevented the federal government from “intermeddling with” “the doctrines, discipline, or exercises” of religious institutions.

Historian James H. Hutson maintains that Jefferson consistently supported “the principle of government hospitality to religious activity” as long as it was voluntary and offered equally to all citizens. While the government could not legally establish one church or creed as a national faith and support it financially, Jefferson believed that the state, as long as it remained “within its well appointed limits,” “could provide ‘friendly aids’” to religious denominations. Moreover, he used the term “church” rather than “religion” in restating the First Amendment, stressing that “the constitutional separation was between ecclesiastical institutions and the civil state.”

Throughout his presidency Jefferson attended religious services held on government property. He aided infant congregations in the newly created capital by allowing them to hold services in the Treasury and War Office buildings, and he signed a federal law that provided tax exemption for churches in the District of Columbia. Moreover, in 1779 as governor of Virginia, he appointed “a day of publick and solemn thanksgiving and prayer to Almighty God.”

As president, Jefferson approved the use of federal funds to support a Catholic missionary who worked with the Kashaskia Indians in Illinois. He also extended three times a law that granted federal land to a United Brethren society to assist them in evangelizing Indians in the West.

Thus, to use the words, “high” and “impregnable” to describe Jefferson’s wall is at odds with what he said and contradicts what he did.

The United States was not founded as a Christian nation. Judeo-Christian, Enlightenment, and English Whig principles all provided an ideological foundation for our new nation. Nevertheless, biblical ideals and norms have played a pivotal role in shaping the structure, standards, and practices of our country.

Today, some argue that the separation of church and state necessitates that we divorce all religious voices and values from our government.

Daniel Dreisbach, author of “Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State,” contends that Jefferson’s metaphor, as interpreted by the courts, has been improperly “used to inhibit religion’s ability to inform the public ethic,” to thwart citizens from participating in politics guided by their faith, and to prevent religious communities and institutions from speaking prophetically in the public arena.

The founding fathers spoke eloquently, passionately, and often about the importance of religiously-grounded morality to the success of their new republic and provided governmental aid for religion in a variety of ways.

The current effort to exclude religious perspectives and ideals completely from government and ensure a naked, ideologically “neutral” public square is at odds with the views of the founders, the history of our country, and the well-being of our society.

Gary Scott Smith chairs the History Department at Grove City (Penn.) College and is the author of “Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush” (Oxford University Press, 2006).

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Submitted by jmcmeans on Fri, 01/19/2007 - 3:01pm.

Jefferson did not invent the concept of the Separation of Church and State. And a Wall of Separation does not mean that Christians can not participate in the political process.

However, many Christians today believe it is clear from the New Testament scriptures that Jesus and his apostles intended a sharp demarcation between matters spiritual and secular. Jesus was born into a theocratic society which Christians and Jews believe was founded by God through the instrument of the prophet Moses and his successors. However, Jesus and his apostles and disciples eliminated all theocratic aspects from the new religion, as is clearly evidenced from the New Testament scriptures, the known history of the first two hundred years and other early Christian writings. Unlike Judaism, religious government and the state had no role to play in ancient Christianity. In that sense, Christians could argue that the separation of church and state can be said to be one of Christianity’s founding principles.

In the year 1524, Anabaptists in Zurich advocated the practice of the separation of church and state.
The Moravians in Bohemia in 1457 denounced all unions of church and state.
In 1631 in America, Roger Williams advocated the Puritans "separate church from state in their colony."
These are only few of many examples of the origin of the concept of church and state. email if you wish to read a longer article on the subject.

ArmyMAJretired's picture
Submitted by ArmyMAJretired on Fri, 01/19/2007 - 3:43pm.

or prohibiting the free exercise thereof

I can't believe the ACLU and other people try to restrict the free exercise thereof.

Basmati's picture
Submitted by Basmati on Fri, 01/19/2007 - 5:01pm.

Frank, nobody's prohibiting you from worshiping anything or anyone you like. It's that bit about using public funds to promote your personal beliefs that gets the ACLU folks in a tizzy.

Submitted by bowser on Wed, 01/17/2007 - 2:19pm.

Cal, what's up with the Grove City College connection? I notice you run pieces by the faculty of this obscure Pennsylvannia school quite often. They are invariably arch-conservative. Nothing wrong with that, but you ought to be a little more upfront about the source.

Since you won't be, I will. Here is Grove City's description of itself on its own web site:

"Since its founding in 1876, Grove City College, committed to Christian principles, has striven to be equal in academic quality to the finest four year colleges. It seeks to provide liberal and professional education of the highest quality that is within the reach of families with modest means who desire a college that will strengthen their children's spiritual and moral character.

When the College was chartered, a broad, Christian-based cultural consensus prevailed in America. By charter, the doors of the College were open to qualified students "without regard to religious test or belief." The founders of Grove City College, consciously avoiding narrow sectarianism, held a vision of Christian society transcending denomination, creeds, and confessions. They were committed to the advancement of free enterprise, civil and religious liberty, representative government, arts and letters, and science and technology. Believing that the fruits of civilization would be destroyed if religious and ethical roots were allowed to wither, the founders intended that the claims of Christ as God and Savior and of inspired Scripture be presented to all. They hoped that through its program of intellectual, moral, and spiritual education, Grove City College would produce young leaders, whatever their creed or confession, capable of pushing civilization forward on every frontier.

Grove City College remains true to the vision of its founders. Rejecting relativism and secularism, it fosters intellectual, moral, spiritual, and social development consistent with a commitment to Christian truth, morals, and freedom. Rather than political, ideological, or philosophical agendas, objective truth continues as the goal of liberal learning. The core of the curriculum, particularly in the humanities, consists of books, thinkers, and ideas proven across the ages to be of value in the quest for knowledge. Intellectual inquiry remains open to the questions religion raises and affirms the answers Christianity offers. The ethical absolutes of the Ten Commandments and Christ's moral teachings guide the effort to develop intellect and character in the classroom, chapel, and cocurricular activities. And while many points of view are examined, the College unapologetically advocates preservation of America's religious, political, and economic heritage of individual freedom and responsibility."

Now we all know where these editorials are coming from.

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