Exploring Jefferson’s “Wall of Separation”

There are some things that I suppose I take for granted knowing about and just assume most Americans know it as well. Yeah, I’ve been told what happens when we assume. I had a conversation the other day with a friend and to make a long story short the topic of “separation of church and state” came up while we were talking and it made me realize just how common it is for our children to go through a K-12 education then often 4 more years of a college education and at the end of it still take for granted that these things we hear everyone reference must be accurate and in context.

Even more rare than those who know the origin of this phrase is those who have actually read the letter that prompted it. Are you lost? Read on and I’ll explain.

First and foremost you have to understand that Great Britain had long had a state religion. First Catholicism, then the protestant Church of England, then back to Catholicism, then protestant… ANYWAY, if you weren’t a member of the religious group in control at that particular moment you might face prejudice or worse over your beliefs. This part is fairly straight forward and most people (I think? I hope?) are familiar with this as the reason that some early American colonists traveled to the New World.

Due to these experiences and knowledge of their own history, those citizens of the newly formed United States of America were cautious about allowing a state religion that might interfere with their freedom to pursue their own religious beliefs in their day to day lives. This is NOT to say they wanted the government to be completely separate from religion but rather than they didn’t want the government to mandate that only one set of religious beliefs were acceptable under the law.

Now the Danbury Baptist Association was a group of representatives of Baptist churches in Connecticut and New York. In their area they were vastly outnumbered by Congregationalists and the laws had been interpreted in practice as setting up the Congregationalist views as having the government’s support. This had them concerned — hadn’t they just fought a war over freedom, only to have it once again threatened? With this in mind they wrote a letter to the recently elected President Thomas Jefferson. The key paragraph of their letter read as follows:

Our Sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty—That Religion is at all times and places a Matter between God and Individuals—That no man aught to suffer in Name, person or effects on account of his religious Opinions—That the legetimate Power of civil Goverment extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbour: But Sir, our constitution of goverment is not specific. Our antient charter, together with the Laws made coincident therewith, were adopted as the Basis of our goverment, At the time of our revolution; and such had been our Laws & usages, & such still are; that religion is consider’d as the first object of Legislation; & therefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights: and these favors we receive at the expence of such degrading acknowledgements as are inconsistant with the rights of freemen. It is not to be wondred at therefore; if those, who seek after power & gain under the pretence of goverment & Religion should reproach their fellow men—should reproach their chief Magistrate, as an enemy of religion Law & good order because he will not, dares not assume the prerogative of Jehovah and make Laws to govern the Kingdom of Christ. (1)

I believe it’s important to read the letter of the Danbury Baptist Association first because it gives that background for understanding what exactly Jefferson is responding to. Yes, Thomas Jefferson’s response is the entire basis of the “wall of separation between church and state.” It is not a phrase in our Constitution, our Bill of Rights, in a law passed by Congress and then signed into law by a president. It is just personal correspondence of a newly elected president who helped with the formation of this country and therefore has insight into the intentions of those founders.

In his response, Jefferson wrote:

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. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties. (2)

That “wall of separation” refers to how our founding fathers meant to directly prevent mandates that you must adhere to a certain religion or that you can’t exercise freely the religion you’ve chosen for yourself. It doesn’t mean that you can’t bring up God in government, it doesn’t mean that you must bring up God in government. It means that citizens are free to believe whatever they want, worship in accordance to those beliefs, and acknowledge those beliefs freely.

Too often people hear about the separation of church and state and think that means we can’t have a shred of religious anything anywhere near a government building or mentioned in government papers or whatever else. No, all it means is exactly what the First Amendment states, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

That’s it! The early United States did plenty that supported religion and churches so to say that the founding fathers didn’t intend any overlap whatsoever, or in the words of the Supreme Court that this wall of church and state “must be kept high and impregnable,” is preposterous. That’s plan and simple not how the young nation was treating religion. So for all that is holy (in whatever your religious beliefs are), stop reading more into it than that. It’s not there except in modern interpretations.


(1) https://jeffersonpapers.princeton.edu/selected-documents/danbury-baptist-association

(2) http://www.heritage.org/initiatives/first-principles/primary-sources/jefferson-s-letter-to-the-danbury-baptists

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