What Did Jefferson Mean By "Wall of Separation"?

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Thomas S. Kidd teaches history and is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, and the author of God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (Basic Books, 2010).

The media cannot seem to get enough of Delaware’s Republican Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell.  For better or worse, she embodies an energized populist Christian wave, the core of the Tea Party movement, seemingly poised to crash against the Obama administration and the secular left on Election Day.  (Admittedly, her prominence obscures the fact that among this cycle’s formidable group of evangelical Republican women candidates, O’Donnell is least likely to win.)  O’Donnell’s recent comments about separation of church and state not being in the First Amendment sent the political Left into a frenzy, even as they quietly admitted that she was correct in a technical sense:  the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” appears nowhere in the Constitution.  Thomas Jefferson wrote it in an 1802 letter to a group of evangelical Baptists in Connecticut.  Conservative Christians from O’Donnell to those on the Texas State Board of Education’s textbook committee have recently downplayed or even excised the phrase “wall of separation” as unrepresentative of the founders’ views on church-state relations.  Better to focus on the First Amendment, they say, and especially its guarantee of the “free exercise of religion.”

Distinguished Yale historian Jon Butler offered a gloss on the meaning of the First Amendment’s free exercise and establishment clauses last week on the History News Network, but now I’d like to take a look at Jefferson’s “wall of separation” letter itself.  A close historical examination reveals that Jefferson offers a middle way of church-state relations between the current poles of the secular Left and Christian Right.  Jefferson and his evangelical Baptist supporters certainly believed in separation of church and state, particularly the ending of tax-supported denominations, which Connecticut and Massachusetts maintained well into the nineteenth century.  This kind of religious establishment was the primary grievance of Jefferson’s correspondents, the Danbury Baptists.  But neither they nor Jefferson envisioned church-state separation as meaning the total elimination of religion from American public life, the preference of some on the modern secular Left.

In October 1801 the Danbury Baptists wrote to Jefferson, lamenting Connecticut’s state-supported Congregationalist Church.  The state offered them religious freedoms only “as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights,” they told the president.  Jefferson wrote back sympathetically.  He knew that as president he could not change Connecticut’s laws on the subject, but he reminded them that at least the national Congress could never make a law respecting an establishment of religion.  The First Amendment, then, erected “a wall of separation between church and state.”  Jefferson and James Madison thought separation of church and state entailed more than just the banning of official denominations (Jefferson, for example, refused to call for national days of prayer and fasting), but state-backed churches were clearly the core concern for both Jefferson and the Danbury Baptists.

Jefferson sent the “wall of separation” letter on New Year’s Day weekend of 1802.  These were a busy few days for Jefferson, and a time he chose to highlight his ideals of religious liberty.  That weekend, he received a prodigious gift from another New England Baptist, his staunch supporter Elder John Leland.  On New Year’s Day, Leland ceremoniously delivered to the president a 1200-pound block of cheese, sent by the Baptists of Cheshire, Massachusetts.  Inscribed on the cheese’s red crust was the motto “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”  Then, that Sunday morning, Jefferson sat in the audience as Leland preached before a joint session of Congress.  The signal Jefferson meant to send by attending this service was that he believed in real religious liberty, but not the purging of religion from the public sphere.  To be sure, he didn’t approve of calling national days of prayer and fasting, but he did attend church services in the House chambers and routinely allowed such services in a variety of government buildings, too.

So what does Jefferson’s example tell us about the separation of church and state in the founding era?  He believed in maximizing religious liberty, and getting the government to stop promoting specific denominations and policing people’s personal beliefs.  But Jefferson was no modern-day secularist, either, as he could at least stomach attending church services in government buildings (especially when one of his devoted evangelical supporters was preaching!).  Jefferson represents a kind of political animal we would never see today:  a person skeptical about Jesus’s divinity and resurrection, yet backed by evangelical supporters who loved his deep commitment to religious liberty.  He wanted to end sectarian religious preferences in law, but he generously honored a public role for religion.  Despite his own doubts about Christianity, Jefferson realized that America was a place of both religious diversity and religious strength.  His vision of church-state separation would protect these conditions under the expansive canopy of religious liberty.  Maybe activists on both extremes of the debate over church-state relations today could learn something from his example.

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Stephen Barber - 11/1/2010

Finally, we get the words of an objective historian instead of the prevalent presentism from both sides these days. Thank you.


George Shriver - 11/1/2010

Good statement. There is no religious liberty unless there is the kind of separation you describe. Perhaps the best way of putting it today is " separation of religious bodies and government" due to unreal pluralism. Also, Madison's phrase "the line of separation" is more descriptive for the line is forever being redrawn whereas a wall is in one solid place. Most of the political talk about this presently is really foolish because the idea of separation has little to do with the practice of religion in the daily market place which has always been around. This argument about "specific words" is really absurd . There are so many items of truth which do not literally appear in the Constitution or Bill of Rights. Thanks for your fair presentation in this context of political foolishness !!


Angelika Preston - 11/1/2010

Your article illuminates a number of salient points to me. First is the distinction between Freedom of Religion as an individual right and Freedom of Religion as a collective enforcement. Church taxes are an example of the latter. Second, are the personal beliefs of Jefferson as a free thinking religious man. His is a healthy manifestation of true Freedom of Religion.

In the context of the times it is interesting to note that evangelical political influence had already taken hold. The struggle for religious supremacy seemed well underway in the 19th century. It is staggering to me that it has not moved forward in two hundred years but instead slid backwards given that a man like Jefferson could never run for office today because of his beliefs. It is a sad comment of the state of affairs regarding freedom in its broader sense.

Selective memory was popular then as it is now. The country was populated be people who fled persecution and abuse by a system that for pure political power reasons denied the freedom of religion publicly and privately. It was the fragmentation of the protestant faith that drove those people to migrate to America, South Africa and other places so they could establish their own version under the leadership of a few. In modern times we have seen this fragmentation continue under religious headings. James Warren or "Jim Jones" as he is better known as, being the worst example. I cite this not as an extreme but as a case in point of any individual leading a collective group that enforces compliance.

The debate cannot reach a peaceful conclusion unless the Jefferson principle prevails. It simply means there cannot be one dominant religion that is practiced in public places by law as in schools for example. It is an invitation to resistance and ultimately violence because it is so emotionally loaded. Collective religion practiced in public places is a reversal of the First Amendment. We can’t even agree on a private location for private practice of a religion like the mosque location at ground zero. To modify the meaning of the First Amendment is to compromise the religious freedom of the individual. Like Jefferson we should all be able to believe if Christ was the savior or not. Enforcement of that belief is called oppression. Is there a planet nearby that can sustain life?


Deepak Tripathi - 11/1/2010

Second paragraph:

So while the Indian Constitution in its Preamble declares the country "secular," early emphasise was ON state aversion to, not state rejection of, religion; rather Indian secularism embraced all faiths, in a predominently Hindu nation, with big enough minority religious faiths that could not be ignored. Of course, India today has it own versions of the Tea Party movement and its own religious Right.




Deepak Tripathi - 11/1/2010

Thank you for an enlightening article on a matter of current importance.

It occurs to me that the founders of modern India, which became independent in 1947, appear to have taken a leaf or two from the US Constitution and other guiding documents to define "Indian secularism." Mahatma Gandhi (father of the nation), Jawaharlal Nehru (first prime minister) and BR Ambedker (lead author of the Constitution) were extremely learned people with great depth.

So while the Indian Constitution in its Preamble declares the country "secular", early emphasise was not state aversion to, not rejection of, religion; rather Indian secularism embraced all faiths, in a predominently Hindu nation. Of course, India today has its own versions of the Tea Party movement and its own religious Right.