Monday, April 4, 2016

Thomas Jefferson: What he meant by 'Wall of Separation'

The statement "wall of separation between Church & State" is a vastly repeated statement by those who believe the federal government should have no influence over religion. These words by Thomas Jefferson are taken out of context more so than any other words by a founding father.
Jefferson became our third president in March 1801, following one of the dirtiest presidential campaigns in American history. Among others, he was called a weakling, a libertine, a coward, an infidel, a deist and an atheist. The later two probably stemmed from his own words, such as ones he wrote to his nephew Peter Car 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."
Jefferson was brought up as an Anglican, which was a Christian religion associated with the Church of England.  He was later influenced by men like Bolingbroke and Shaftesbury, who were deists. They believed that God created the earth and that evidence of this can be found by reason alone, not by supernatural events.

Jefferson was also a strong supporter of the French Revolution, and reports made their way to American homes that the French were violently disrespecting religious structures and symbols. So when word got out that Jefferson was "an atheist," many housewives "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," said Daniel L. Dreisbach of the American Heritage.

Dreisbach explains that New England politics in 1800 were generally dominated by Federalists.  However, New England Baptists tended to support Jefferson, making them a minority political and religious faction in New England.

In October of 1801, the Baptist Association at Danbury wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson Congratulating him on his victory and letting him know that they shared his ideas of religious liberty, and criticized those who called him an atheist for his views.  They said he was not, as his enemies said, "an enemy of religion... because he will not, dares not assume the prerogative of Jehovah and make Laws to govern the Kingdom of Christ."

So, on January 1, 1802, it only made sense that Jefferson would sit down and write a return letter to them. He wrote, in part:
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.
In essence, the letter from Jefferson was meant to affirm that he supported the Constitution, and would not push for laws that would take away Bibles and Churches.  In essence, his letter was meant to allay fears that the government planned to interfere with how the Baptist Church went about its business.

He essentially reaffirms the first amendment.  It is often referred to as the establishment clause, whereas Congress shall make no law...
  • Respecting an establishment of religion
  • Impeding the free exercise of religion
  • Infringing on the freedom of speech
  • Infringing on the freedom of the press
  • Interfering with the right to peaceably assemble
  • Interfering or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances.
Basically, the establishment clause prevents the government from denying the natural right of practicing faith, speaking out against the government, writing about the government, assembling in protest against the government, and petitioning the government.

This is important, because in Britain the Government had forced people to be a part of certain religions, such as the Church of England, and punished those who did not do as they were told. The people of the young nation feared that their new government leaders might take actions that would deny their natural right to worship as they chose, and this explained the fear of a Jefferson Presidency among the Baptist community.

So Jefferson's "Wall of Separation Letter" was nothing more than an affirmation of the establishment clause, and nothing more. And the establishment clause says the government cannot endorse a religion, it does not say that people working for the government (i.e. teachers, legislators, judges, etc. ) can't endorse a religion. It does not say that schools and teachers cannot endorse religion.

Further reading: