Jefferson’s Letter Creating a Wall Of Separation Between Liberals and Conservatives

November 17, 2010

Now that the election is over I’m going to try to get to the bottom of the whole Christine O’Donnell debate controversy involving the First Amendment’s establishment clause.  Liberal media pundits excoriated her for being a fool, and conservatives like Rush Limbaugh claimed she was right. I’m fully aware that my two cents won’t resolve anything, but I think it makes sense to look at Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists, written in 1802. As everyone reading this is probably aware by now, this letter is believed to have first articulated the concept of separation of church and state.

Here is 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, & 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 & 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.

I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem.

Th Jefferson
Jan. 1. 1802.

So, Christine O’Donnell was correct in stating that the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the First Amendment. There is a common conservative argument about the meaning of the establishment clause, but by now it should be apparent to everyone that Christine O’Donnell shouldn’t be the one to make it. No matter how conservatives try to spin it, she was confused,inarticulate, and appeared unaware that the establishment clause is even part of the First Amendment.

Here’s a more coherent  defense of what I think her position is from the Human Events web site. Mr. Evans states the conservative opinion well, but he ignores the plain meaning of Jefferson’s words. First of all, Jefferson was undeniably speaking of the meaning of the establishment clause in the letter. In fact, he quotes it verbatim. He also writes 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. Government. He doesn’t say national government. He doesn’t say it’s O.K. for state governments to get between man and his God. The fact that he chose the words “church” and “state” would seem to end any argument right there.

Mr. Evans does make some valid arguments about references to God among the founding fathers, but how he finds support for his opinion in Jefferson’s letter is beyond me. Jefferson’s belief that government should not be involved in religion is made clear elsewhere. For instance, he was an early proponent of public education, but opposed religious instruction in public schools. Here is a quote from a letter he wrote to Thomas Cooper in 1822:

“After stating the constitutional reasons against a public establishment of any religious instruction, we suggest the expediency of encouraging the different religious sects to establish, each for itself, a professorship of their own tenets on the confines of the university, so near as that their students may attend the lectures there and have the free use of our library and every other accommodation we can give them; preserving, however, their independence of us and of each other. This fills the chasm objected to ours, as a defect in an institution professing to give instruction in all useful sciences… And by bringing the sects together, and mixing them with the mass of other students, we shall soften their asperities, liberalize and neutralize their prejudices, and make the general religion a religion of peace, reason, and morality.”

For conservatives looking for original intent, it’s tough to argue with Thomas Jefferson’s opinion (from 1802) about what the establishment clause means.

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