11/1/2006 - November 2006 Educational Update - What Was the Real Meaning of Thomas Jefferson's "Wall of Separation?"
AN EDUCATIONAL UPDATE FROM
THE SOUTHEAST LAW INSTITUTE™, INC.
To: SLI Supporters
Date: November 2006
From: A. Eric Johnston
Re: What Was The Real Meaning of Thomas Jefferson’s “Wall of Separation?”
How long has it been since you thought about the real meaning of religious freedom in America? Have you thought about what Thomas Jefferson really meant by the phrase “wall of separation?” On January 1, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut. In that letter he said:
“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 and state.”
In 1947, U.S. Supreme Court Hugo Black, an Alabama native, in Everson v. Board of Education, explained this “wall of separation” must be high and impregnable and that “neither a state nor the federal government can openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa.” That is to say, neither the federal government nor any state government, could establish a church, but neither could any church participate in the affairs of government. That phrase has been construed by the federal courts in numerous court decisions since to prohibit virtually any religious activity on federal or state property, by any official, or with the use of state funds.
Many view Thomas Jefferson as being an agnostic, deist, or even an atheist. It is probably true that prior to the time he was president, he was a secular thinker. At the time he wrote the Danbury letter, what were his religious views? If he was a secularist at the time, then he probably meant what Justice Black said. But, if he was a Christian at the time, would he have meant the same? It is probable Jefferson’s personal views on religion would be the meaning of this turn of phrase to the Danbury Baptists.
In 1998, James H. Hutson published Religion and the Founding of the American Republic. Mr. Hutson gives a thorough review of American history, explaining that the search for religious freedom was one of the most significant events that brought people here. As he reviewed history, he came forward to the time of Thomas Jefferson. Since Jefferson is used as the reason for removing religion from the public square, he closely analyzed that history. He says “The description of Jefferson’s presidency as a rebuke to Christianity is a caricature that disregards conflicting evidence that has long been accessible.” He points out that sometime in the late 1700s Jefferson converted to Christianity, writing in 1803 to Benjamin Rush “I am a Christian” and in 1816 to Charles Thompson “I am a real Christian, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.” Jefferson authorized the use of the House of Representatives chamber as a church in early Washington, which continued until the late 1800s. During the time of his seven years in Washington, he attended church regularly and was a financial supporter of many Christian efforts.
Mr. Hutson analyzed the politics and reports from 1802 and found that Jefferson’s expression in the letter was in accordance with the beliefs of Washington and Madison, protecting the free exercise of religion and not permitting the state to regulate religion as England had. Further confirming this was information that did not become available until after the book was published. FBI analysis of interlined portions of the Danbury letter, that had theretofore not been decipherable, confirmed Mr. Hutson’s findings. Jefferson had included language that he would not proclaim days of fasting because the U.S. president had only “temporal powers” and there was a “wall of eternal separation” between church and state. Jefferson said a unity of church and state was the policy of potentates such as King George, III of England, whom Americans reviled. Jefferson’s counselors suggested this language was too strong and might offend Christian voters in New England, so he deleted the words “temporal power” and “eternal” along with the reference to the “Executive of another nation.” This discovery rendered the political nature of the letter clear.
Jefferson was trying to say the federal government would not dictate the terms of religion, such as England had. The combination of the language in the letter, with his use of government property for and regular attendance in church services, was to send to the nation the strongest symbol possible that he was a friend of religion. Hutson says:
“In his view, the government could not be a party to any attempt to impose upon the country a uniform religious exercise or observance; it could, on the other hand, support as being in the public interest, voluntary, non-discriminatory religious activity, including church services, by putting at its disposal public property, public facilities, and public personnel, including the president himself.”
Maybe at some point the United States Supreme Court will revisit Jefferson’s correspondence and find its true meaning. The evidence Mr. Hutson cites is compelling and, if for no other purpose, demonstrates the error in Justice Black’s interpretation of the “wall of separation.” If we are to determine what America is based on her history, we must be accurate in that analysis. Appropriate analysis has been rendered in many dissenting opinions by justices who recognize, just as Jefferson did, the true place of religion in America. You do not have to be a Christian to live here, but America is based on Christian principles freely expressed in the public square.
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