Jefferson’s Wall of Separation Is Not What The Secularists Say It Is

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In fighting to restore our religious heritage, the battle with Secularists and Atheists almost always ends up having Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists in 1802 tossed up in my face as the end-all proof that America was meant to be religion-free.

In studying the reasons and intents of why Jefferson penned that letter – it is interesting to discover that in uncovering the redacted portions of the original draft along with the historical political situation Jefferson was facing at the time – helps shed even greater understanding behind the reasons for the letter, and how it’s application by Secularists and Atheists today to strip America of any public acknowlegement of God is totally false.

The “Wall of Separation” Exhibits and Facts

Secrets of Jefferson’s Danbury Letter

Thomas Jefferson’s reply on Jan. 1, 1802, to an address from the Danbury (Conn.) Baptist Association, congratulating him upon his election as president, contains a phrase that is as familiar in today’s political and judicial circles as the lyrics of a hit tune: “a wall of separation between church and state.” This phrase has become well known because it is considered to explain (many would say, distort) the “religion clause” of the First Amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion …,” a clause whose meaning has been the subject of passionate dispute for the past 50 years.

….The high court …asserting in…McCollum v. Board of Education, that, “in the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between church and state.'” Since McCollum forbade religious instruction in public schools, it appeared that the court had used Jefferson’s “wall” metaphor as a sword to sever religion from public life…

Some Supreme Court justices did not like what their colleagues had done. In 1962, Justice Potter Stewart complained that jurisprudence was not “aided by the uncritical invocation of metaphors like the ‘wall of separation,’ a phrase nowhere to be found in the Constitution.”

In uncovering the redacted original draft of Jefferson’s letter – and reviewing that with the political situation at the time – one comes to a better understanding of why Jefferson even wrote the letter in the first place:

The edited draft of the letter reveals that, far from being dashed off as a “short note of courtesy,” as some have called it, Jefferson labored over its composition. For reasons unknown, the address of the Danbury Baptists, dated Oct. 7, 1801, did not reach Jefferson until Dec. 30, 1801. Jefferson drafted his response forthwith and submitted it to the two New England Republican politicians in his Cabinet, Postmaster General Gideon Granger of Connecticut and Attorney General Levi Lincoln of Massachusetts. Granger responded to Jefferson on Dec. 31.

The next day, New Year’s Day, was a busy one for the president, who received and entertained various groups of well-wishers, but so eager was he to complete his answer to the Danbury Baptists that, amid the hubbub, he sent his draft to Lincoln with a cover note explaining his reasons for writing it. Lincoln responded immediately; just as quickly, Jefferson edited the draft to conform to Lincoln’s suggestions, signed the letter and released it, all on New Year’s Day, 1802.

That Jefferson consulted two New England politicians about his messages indicated that he regarded his reply to the Danbury Baptists as a political letter, not as a dispassionate theoretical pronouncement on the relations between government and religion. His letter, he told Lincoln in his New Year’s Day note, was meant to gratify public opinion in Republican strongholds like Virginia, “being seasoned to the Southern taste only.”

In his New Year’s note to Lincoln, Jefferson revealed that he hoped to accomplish two things by replying to the Danbury Baptists. One was to issue a “condemnation of the alliance between church and state.” This he accomplished in the first, printed, part of the draft. Jefferson’s strictures on church-state entanglement were little more than rewarmed phrases and ideas from his Statute Establishing Religious Freedom (1786) and from other, similar statements. To needle his political opponents, Jefferson paraphrased a passage, that “the legitimate powers of government extend to … acts only” and not to opinions, from the Notes on the State of Virginia, which the Federalists had shamelessly distorted in the election of 1800 in an effort to stigmatize him as an atheist. So politicized had church-state issues become by 1802 that Jefferson told Lincoln that he considered the articulation of his views on the subject, in messages like the Danbury Baptist letter, as ways to fix his supporters’ “political tenets.”

Airing the Republican position on church-state relations was not, however, Jefferson’s principal reason for writing the Danbury Baptist letter. He was looking, he told Lincoln, for an opportunity for “saying why I do not proclaim fastings & thanksgivings, as my predecessors did” and latched onto the Danbury address as the best way to broadcast his views on the subject. Although using the Danbury address was “awkward” — it did not mention fasts and thanksgivings — Jefferson pressed it into service to counter what he saw as an emerging Federalist plan to exploit the thanksgiving day issue to smear him, once again, as an infidel.

During the presidential campaign of 1800, Jefferson had suffered in silence the relentless and deeply offensive Federalist charges that he was an atheist. Now he decided to strike back, using the most serviceable weapon at hand, the address of the Danbury Baptists.

Jefferson’s counterattack is contained in the circled section of his draft and in the inked-out lines. He declared that he had “refrained from prescribing even those occasional performances of devotion,” i.e., thanksgivings and fasts, because they were “religious exercises.” …he asserted that the proclamations of thanksgivings and fasts were “practiced indeed by the Executive of another nation as the legal head of its church,” i.e., by George III, King of England. By identifying the proclamation of thanksgivings and fasts as “British,” Jefferson damned them, for in the Republican lexicon British was a dirty word, a synonym for “Anglomane,” “Monocrat,” “Tory,” terms with which the Republicans had demonized the Federalists for a decade for their alleged plans to reverse the Revolution by reimposing a British-style monarchy on the United States.

Do we understand this? Jefferson’s impetus was to counter the what he saw as a subtle encroachment towards reverting America back to popery: where the opposition to the British system whereby declarations were absolute because they were assigned as proclomations and decrees by a pope. Jefferson saw Religious proclomations as a throwback to British Monarchism – and he sought to end that trend, along with silencing his political opponents for declaring him an Atheist – which he was not.

The unedited draft of the Danbury Baptist letter makes it clear why Jefferson drafted it: He wanted his political partisans to know that he opposed proclaiming fasts and thanksgivings, not because he was irreligious, but because he refused to continue a British practice that was an offense to republicanism. To emphasize his resolve in this matter, Jefferson inserted two phrases with a clenched-teeth, defiant ring: “wall of eternal separation between church and state” and “the duties of my station, which are merely temporal.” These last words — “merely temporal” — revealed Jefferson’s preoccupation with British practice. Temporal, a strong word meaning secular, was a British appellation for the lay members of the House of Lords, the Lords Temporal, as opposed to the ecclesiastical members, the Lords Spiritual. “Eternal separation” and “merely temporal” — here was language as plain as Jefferson could make it to assure the Republican faithful that their “religious rights shall never be infringed by any act of mine.”

…One of the nation’s best known advocates of religious liberty, [John] Leland had accepted an invitation to preach in the House of Representatives on Sunday, Jan. 3, and Jefferson evidently concluded that, if Leland found nothing objectionable about officiating at worship on public property, he could not be criticized for attending a service at which his friend was preaching. Consequently, “contrary to all former practice,” Jefferson appeared at church services in the House on Sunday, Jan. 3, two days after recommending in his reply to the Danbury Baptists “a wall of separation between church and state”; during the remainder of his two administrations he attended these services “constantly.”

Jefferson’s participation in House church services and his granting of permission to various denominations to worship in executive office buildings, where four-hour communion services were held…What can be said is that going to church solved Jefferson’s public relations problems, for he correctly anticipated that his participation in public worship would be reported in newspapers throughout the country. A Philadelphia newspaper, for example, informed its readers on Jan. 23, 1802, that “Mr. Jefferson has been seen at church, and has assisted in singing the hundredth psalm.” In presenting Jefferson to the nation as a churchgoer, this publicity offset whatever negative impressions might be created by his refusal to proclaim thanksgiving and fasts and prevented the erosion of his political base in God-fearing areas like New England.

Jefferson’s public support for religion appears, however, to have been more than a cynical political gesture. Scholars have recently argued that in the 1790s Jefferson developed a more favorable view of Christianity that led him to endorse the position of his fellow Founders that religion was necessary for the welfare of a republican government, that it was, as Washington proclaimed in his Farewell Address, indispensable for the happiness and prosperity of the people. Jefferson had, in fact, said as much in his First Inaugural Address. His attendance at church services in the House was, then, his way of offering symbolic support for religious faith and for its beneficent role in republican government.

Read more at the links. It is indeed, an education – and once again pours water all over the arguments that Jefferson wanted religion separated from the culture.

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Filed under Chrisitan Viewpoint, Culture War

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