Separation of Church and State: Real or Not Real?

Note: This article should have appeared here yesterday but missed the posting schedule due to the storm. Once power is fully restored, all of Allen’s posts will be up to date.

As I sit here on a Sunday morning, getting ready for Church, I find myself wondering what kind of a country we’re going to leave my grandson Robert.

Robert turns 4 years old today, and my family’s coming over for cake and ice cream this afternoon.

Every Sunday morning, Robert’s in Sunday School, whether he’s with us, or his other set of grandparents.  However, it is not his Sunday morning activities that concern me.

It’s whether he’ll be able to express his Christianity in public the rest of the week.

As I have been writing about the last two days, and in my Battleground series of posts, there are those who would pigeonhole and constrain Christian Americans from expressing our faith in  public, under the false assertions of prejudice, hurt feelings, and, hold on for it…”The Separation of Church and State”.

Have you ever wondered where the expression “separation of church and state” came from?

David Barton, writing at wallbuilders.com, presents the following explanation:

In 1947, in the case Everson v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court declared, “The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.” The “separation of church and state” phrase which they invoked, and which has today become so familiar, was taken from an exchange of letters between President Thomas Jefferson and the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut, shortly after Jefferson became President.

…Jefferson had committed himself as President to pursuing the purpose of the First Amendment: preventing the “establishment of a particular form of Christianity” by the Episcopalians, Congregationalists, or any other denomination.

Since this was Jefferson’s view concerning religious expression, in his short and polite reply to the Danbury Baptists on January 1, 1802, he assured them that they need not fear; that the free exercise of religion would never be interfered with by the federal government. As he explained:

Gentlemen, – 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. . . . 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 legislative 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.

Jefferson’s reference to “natural rights” invoked an important legal phrase which was part of the rhetoric of that day and which reaffirmed his belief that religious liberties were inalienable rights. While the phrase “natural rights” communicated much to people then, to most citizens today those words mean little.

By definition, “natural rights” included “that which the Books of the Law and the Gospel do contain.” That is, “natural rights” incorporated what God Himself had guaranteed to man in the Scriptures. Thus, when Jefferson assured the Baptists that by following their “natural rights” they would violate no social duty, he was affirming to them that the free exercise of religion was their inalienable God-given right and therefore was protected from federal regulation or interference.

So clearly did Jefferson understand the Source of America’s inalienable rights that he even doubted whether America could survive if we ever lost that knowledge. He queried:

And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure if we have lost the only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath?

Jefferson believed that God, not government, was the Author and Source of our rights and that the government, therefore, was to be prevented from interference with those rights. Very simply, the “fence” of the Webster letter and the “wall” of the Danbury letter were not to limit religious activities in public; rather they were to limit the power of the government to prohibit or interfere with those expressions.

Now, as I sit back and wait for the inevitable wailing and gnashing of teeth, allow me to leave you with this thought:

Our laws and our institutions must necessarily be based upon and embody the teachings of the Redeemer of mankind. It is impossible that it should be otherwise. In this sense and to this extent, our civilizations and our institutions are emphatically Christian.” — Illinois Supreme Court, Richmond v. Moore, 1883

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2 Responses to Separation of Church and State: Real or Not Real?

  1. dougindeap says:

    Barton again? This zealot’s “work” has been so thoroughly, repeatedly, and authoritatively debunked by so many who have demonstrated it to be riddled with slipshod research, shoddy analysis, and downright dishonestly that I can but wonder how you can admit to have read his stuff, let alone resort to him as an “authority” on this subject, without turning red from embarrassment. I earlier referred you to Chris Rodda’s book, Liars for Jesus: The Religious Right’s Alternate Version of American History (2006) (available free on line http://www.liarsforjesus.com/), because she conveniently collects and directly refutes his many mistakes and lies. You looked down your nose at her, it seems, simply because she does not believe in god(s) and not because her exposé of Barton’s false assertions is wrong in any respect. Okay, if prejudice against atheists blinds you to her explanations, plenty of others you may regard more kindly have also shown Barton for what he is. (Here is a small sampling: http://www.bjconline.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2377&Itemid=110; http://www.tfn.org/site/DocServer/DriveThru_Review.pdf?docID=2901; http://scienceblogs.com/dispatches/2011/05/what_real_historians_think_of.php.)

    Barton’s readings of the Supreme Court’s Everson decision and Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists are fundamentally flawed. With respect to Everson, he implies that the Court based its decision solely or primarily on Jefferson’s letter, which is simply false (as is readily ascertained simply by reading the decision). Rather, the Court discussed at length the historical context in which the Constitution and First Amendment were drafted, noting the expressed understanding of Madison perhaps even more than Jefferson, and after concluding its analysis referred to Jefferson’s letter largely to borrow his famous metaphor as a clever label or summary of its conclusion. Madison, as I noted in another comment, plainly confirmed that he understood the Constitution and First Amendment to “[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government.” Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820). He made plain, too, that they guarded against more than just laws creating state sponsored churches or imposing a state religion. Mindful that even as new principles are proclaimed, old habits die hard and citizens and politicians could tend to entangle government and religion (e.g., “the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress” and “for the army and navy” and “[r]eligious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts”), he considered the question whether these actions were “consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom” and responded: “In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion.”

    With respect to Jefferson’s letter, Barton suggests that Jefferson meant his “wall of separation” metaphor to refer solely to the constraint against government interference with the free exercise of religion and not to the constraint against government establishment of religion. This is Barton’s silly one-way wall idea. How anyone can take this nonsense seriously is beyond me. Again, simply reading Jefferson’s letter dispels any such notion as but wishful thinking. The very reason the Danbury Baptists wrote to Jefferson was that they feared their free exercise of religion might be compromised by Connecticut’s established Congregationalism. In his reply, Jefferson (1) “contemplated with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their [i.e., the federal] 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” and (2), while acknowledging that he lacked any authority to change state law, expressed his support for the then growing political disestablishment movement (which ultimately succeeded in disestablishing Connecticut’s religion in 1818 and all other state religions by the 1830s), saying that “[a]dhering 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 . . . .” The entire letter, thus, concerned the ills of government establishment of religion, and Jefferson spoke of the First Amendment’s constraint on federal laws respecting an establishment of religion in the same breath he noted the Amendment thus built a wall of separation between church and state. Jefferson’s wall cannot be relegated to the little box in which Barton would confine it.

  2. owleyepundit says:

    In simple words, it’s a wall around the government, not a wall around religion.