“Separation between church and state!” Not a day goes by in modern America where this now famous (or infamous, depending on how you look at it) phrase by Thomas Jefferson is not used by some anti-Christian group to rid the government of the “evils” of religion.
Whether it’s a Ten Commandment’s display, a Cross at a public cemetery, or the creation/evolution education controversy, you can bet the house (and the farm and the chickens) that these five words will find their way into the discussion.
Common Wisdom Does Us In Again
Modern re–framers of the words and intentions of the Founding Fathers have convinced nearly all Americans that the Constitution forbids any religious influence (in reality, any Christian influence) on Federal, State, or local government, and any mention, display, or acknowledgement of Christianity in any public, government-connected fashion.
Let me borrow Daniel Dreisbach’s words regarding the twisted way in which Jefferson’s phrase is being used today. He writes,
“The wall is the cherished emblem of a strict separationist dogma intolerant of religious influences in the public square. Federal and State courts have used the ‘wall of separation’ concept to justify censoring private religious expression…in public form; stripping public spaces of religious symbols…; denying public benefits…for religious entities; and excluding religious citizens and organizations…from full participation in civic life….” [i]
I used to be one who believed the Constitution demanded that government and religion be totally separate. Like everybody else, I simply accepted what the media and public educational system told me. But, as it turns out, what we are commonly told is not true at all.
The Original Context of These Words
You may be surprised to know (as I was) that the words “separation between church and state” do not appear in the Constitution. The words themselves were written by Thomas Jefferson on January 1, 1802 in a letter to the Danbury Baptists of Connecticut.
In order to give you the full context, let me quote the letter in its entirety.
The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. My duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, and in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing.
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and 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 and 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.
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.
What did Jefferson mean?
So what’s going on here? How can we understand what Jefferson actually meant when he used these words? The key lies in the context.
Jefferson’s reply to the Danbury Baptist Association came less than a year after a bitter election fight with the Federalist Party.[ii] During this campaign, he received tremendous criticism for not enacting national days of religious homage like the presidents before him did.[iii]
The Baptists’ letter itself was actually a plea for help. They were concerned that their religious liberty would be slighted by the Congregationalists, who were the “legally established” church in both Massachusetts and Connecticut.[iv]
The Baptists’ wrote: “What religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights….”[v] In other words, they were asking Jefferson to help them more firmly establish their religious rights in Connecticut.
His letter in reply, including his now famous words, must be understood in that context.
What Jefferson was saying was not that the First Amendment somehow totally separated religion from government (which is what we are told today), but that, because the First Amendment prevented the Federal government from interfering between the states and churches in matters of religion, he had no power to help them.
Mathew Staver of Liberty Counsel wrote, “Jefferson undoubtedly meant that the First Amendment prohibited the federal Congress from enacting any law respecting an establishment of religion…. If Congress had no authority in matters of religion, then neither did the President. Religion was clearly within the jurisdiction of the church and states.”[vi]
To further demonstrate his meaning, consider the first draft of his response to the Baptists. Jefferson’s letter actually went through two revisions. In the first revision, this statement appears, “Congress thus inhibited from acts respecting religion, and the Executive [i.e., the President] authorized only to execute their acts, I have refrained from prescribing even occasional performances of devotion…”[vii] [emphasis mine]
Here Jefferson flatly states his point: because of the First Amendment he had refused, as a member of the federal government, to establish days of prayer, fasting, and religious observance.
These words were taken out and did not appear in the final draft, but they prove that he refused to help the Baptists not because religion had no place in the public square, but because he, as president and part of the federal government, did not have the authority to act, only the states did.
His statement reflected his conviction regarding the limitations of the power of the Federal government, not his desire to root out all religion from state affairs.
Did Jefferson keep religion out of state life?
If Jefferson thought religion should be kept completely out of public life, his other decisions while governing, whether at the state of federal level, should have demonstrated this conviction. The fact is, they don’t.
Jefferson “endorsed the use of federal funds to build churches and to support Christian missionaries working among the Indians.”[viii] Furthermore, as a member of the Virginia state legislature, he helped draft and enact a “Day of Fasting, Humiliation, and Prayer.”[ix] He also wrote “A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom,” and, while governor of Virginia, authorized a day of thanksgiving and prayer to “Almighty God.”[x]
And consider this: he ended his letter to the Baptists—the very letter in which he discussed the separation between church and state—with a prayer to God! “I reciprocate your kind prayers,” he wrote, “for the protection and blessing of the common father and creator of man.”
How could he possibly mean that government should be totally void of religion if he, as president, ended his letter with a prayer?
The Christian Religion Influenced the Entire Government
This theme, that religion—specifically the Christian religion—permeated life, politics, and government in the early days of the American Republic, is seen in other official documents.[xi]
The Northwest Ordinance, for example, enacted by the Congress of the Confederation in 1787[xii], contained these words: “Religion, morality and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind…”
Don’t let that statement go by without giving it its proper weight. The precursor to the Federal government wrote into law the absolute need for religion and morality for a successful government and nation!
Furthermore the Declaration of Independence argues that all men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…” and refers to “God” in the very first sentence!
How could the Founders have intended religion to have no part in government and at the same time build religion into that government through the founding documents?
The answer: They didn’t intend for the government to be separate from the Christian religion.
Separation of Government from Christianity—No Way!
Given the actual context and meaning of Jefferson’s words, his own actions as a legislator, governor, and president, and the clear influence of the Christian religion on many of the foundational documents of the nation, it is inconceivable that Jefferson, or any of the founders, for that matter, imagined any law that would attempt to separate, not only “god” in a general sense from the government, but the God of the Bible in particular.
To the contrary, they saw the principles of the Christian religion as foundational to good government and a happy, prosperous people.
Part Two: In my next article on this subject, I want to address the ramifications of all of this. Why is it important, and what should we do about it? Will the liberals change their tune if they are convinced of the truth about Jefferson’s words? Is a truly “secular” government even possible? What is the real solution to America’s fading morality and power? Click here to read Part Two…
If you’re interested in learning more about this subject, here are a couple of sites/books I recommend:
- The Heritage Foundation
- Liberty Counsel
- The American Patriot’s Bible
- The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History
Wes Moore is a conservative Christian author and speaker, and the founder of Evidence America, an apologetics and evangelism training ministry. Wes is the author of Forcefully Advancing, a book designed to equip the average Christian to engage the lost; The Maker, a futuristic apologetics novel; and The Spiritual Top 50, a non-fiction apologetics book designed to help Christians answer the questions their lost friends are asking. You can learn more about him at www.wesmoorenow.com.
[i] Daniel Dreisbach, “The Mythical ‘Wall of Separation’,” First Principle Series, The Heritage Foundation, 23 June 2006, page 1.
[ii] Ibid, page 7.
[iii] Staver, 2.
[iv] Dreisbach, 2.
[v] “Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists,” First Principle Series, The Heritage Foundation, date not given, page 2.
[vi] Staver, 5.
[vii] Ibid, 3.
[viii] Dreisbach, 2.
[ix] Staver, 5.
[xi] This is not to say that everyone in the new nation or in the government was a biblical Christian. But that the influence of Christianity and the Bible touched everything in the culture at that time, even those decisions made by those who were not formally Christian.
[xii] “Northwest Ordinance,” Wikipedia, accessed 14 May 2012, available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northwest_Ordinance#Establishment_of_Natural_Rights.