Jefferson On Seperation Of Church And State

Thomas Jefferson in 1802 wrote a letter to the Banbury Baptist Association in response to their overture. They were concerned Congress might do as some states had already done and name a specific denomination as the official national denomination. The Baptists in Connecticut were chaffing over having to pay to support the Congregationalist church which was the official state church in their state.

Jefferson was a masterful politician. His opponents, the Federalists, accused him of being an atheist. He was at best a deist, perhaps an agnostic, and suspicioned of being an atheist. To counter the claims of him being an atheist he used pious tones assuring them of his prayers: “I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and Creator of man, and tender you for yourselves and your religious association, assurances of my high respect and esteem.”

The Baptists were his supporters and primarily voted Democratic-Republican. He wrote to appease and console them. Some states had state supported church like Connecticut. Some wanted an official national denomination.

The issue really was not Christianity, it was denominationalism. Jefferson’s position did not entail hostility toward religion in government. He even invited people to join him in prayer at his second inauguration.

He negotiated a treaty with the Kaskaskia Indians designating federal money to build a church and provide ministers. Weigh that against today’s interpretation of the establishment clause.

Foreign to Jefferson’s concept today’s application of the principle of separation undercuts the idea of freedom of religion. If all freedoms noted in the First Amendment were interpreted to be restricted like the part related to religion, we would lose our freedom of speech, the press, the right of assembly and the right to petition Government for a redress of grievances. They are all grouped together in the First Amendment. Take for example the freedom of the press. Our free press is protected by the amendment from government interference. Banning the free press is a frightening thought. How would the public respond today if the right to petition the Government were prohibited?

Why Jefferson ever got involved in this debate is puzzling. He never used the phrase related to a wall of separation again. He was out of the country when the Constitution was adopted and the First Amendment debated. He never sat on the Supreme Court. Yet, one misunderstood statement in his letter to the Banbury Baptists is the dominant issue in the debate of separation of church and state. His metaphor, “a wall of separation” is the basis of today’s law on the subject.

Justice Hugo Black, a member of the Ku Klux Klan and arch anti-Christian issued the ruling in 1947 in the Everson v. Board of Education. In an amicus brief filed by Everson  he warned against turning the wall into an iron curtain.

It is worth hearing the great detective Sherlock Holmes again. He got it right when he said, “We are suffering from a plethora of surmise, conjecture, and hypothesis. The difficulty is to detach the framework of facts — of absolute fact — from the embellishment of theorists.”