Thomas Jefferson and the Separation of Church and State

The current mid-term elections accentuate the massive confusion that exists 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 calls 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.