Thomas Jefferson on the separation of church and state

Via reader Greg, I read this article by Lathan Watts who’s bio states that he is “director of community relations for First Liberty Institute, a nationwide religious liberty law firm dedicated to protecting religious liberty for all.” That alone set off alarm bells in my mind because the phrase ‘religious liberty’ is now the sword brandished by those who would seek to have Christianity be everywhere in the public square. I have a similar reaction when an organization has ‘family’ or ‘values’ in its name, because that is a pretty good indicator that it is a bigoted right-wing group.

Anyway, what Watts is arguing is that those of us who have been arguing for a strictly secular public sphere have been misusing Thomas Jefferson’s famous quote in 1802 of the need to create a “wall of separation between church and state’ to justify our case, and that Jefferson was not nearly as hostile to religion in the public sphere as we are or claim him to be. He points to several cases where Jefferson seemed to be accommodating of religion. He also brings up the frequently-heard argument that that famous phrase was contained in a letter Jefferson wrote to a Baptist group and was not part of any official pronouncement and thus should carry less weight

It is noteworthy that Watts does not cite Jefferson’s support and strong advocacy, while a legislator in his home of state of Virginia, for the Bill for Religious Freedom that failed to pass. As a result of James Madison’s later powerful arguments in favor of it, the bill was finally passed in 1786 and led to the disestablishment of the official church in that state.

There are two things wrong with Watts’s argument. The first is that Jefferson was a complex and contradictory figure in many ways, not just in religion. For starters, his personal attitude to slaves was directly opposed to his high-flown rhetoric about human freedom and equality. So it is not surprising that he said and did different things at different times when it came to religion.

But the second and major issue is that Watts is completely missing the point. The case for a secular public sphere did not originate in, nor does it depend upon, Jefferson’s wall of separation quote. It should be noted that Jefferson was not a member of the constitutional convention that met in Philadelphia in 1787 to draft the US constitution, 15 years before Jefferson wrote those words. In fact Jefferson was out of the country, serving as the ambassador to France in the years 1784 to 1789, during the period of debate over the constitution.

Discussions involving the relationship of church and state took on a new life with the 1947 case of Everson v. Board Of Education that involved reimbursing parents for the cost of bus transportation for their children to attend parochial schools. It was here, long after Jefferson had died, that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment began its journey to its current understanding, In his majority opinion, justice Hugo Black introduced that phrase for the first time in Supreme Court opinions.

The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church-attendance or non-attendance. No tax, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause…was intended to erect “a wall of separation between church and State.”

Thus, rather than Jefferson’s quote being the foundation for separation, it was used as a rhetorical flourish by Black, an evocative metaphor to add support for an idea that predated that quote and was arrived at independently of it.


  1. jrkrideau says

    “director of community relations for First Liberty Institute, a nationwide religious liberty law firm dedicated to protecting religious liberty for all.”

    Does this include worshipers of various Aztec god when they practice human sacrifice or the more conservative Hindus who advocate suttee?

    Somehow I suspect that Lathan Watts really knows little or nothing about world religions. He reminds me of the hilarious time when Louisiana passed some kind of law that was clearly intended to fund Xian schools and suddenly the idiot representives discovered that the first applicant for the funding was a Muslim madrassa.

  2. lanir says

    This is policy change by magic wand.

    When your sole point is that magically everyone has misunderstood the entire basis for something for ages, and you’re the only one/group who really gets it, you’re basically arguing that the policy was different all along. That now, everyone who supported or enforced what you’re claiming is the incorrect reading must invest at least as much into supporting your true reading. It’s also a shady way to duck out of dealing with literally everything that has come from or supported the policy from the beginning.

    While tradition is a lousy argument for keeping things the same when strong arguments for change arise, the idea that one should chuck everything out the window based on a claimed misreading of a quote is a much worse argument. I feel secure in my knowledge that they would scoff at the very idea and hide behind tradition should the tables be reversed. You can even test this by pointing out that Jesus thought this sort of grandstanding religious nonsense was worthless (Matthew 6:1-6). The quote far predates anything Jefferson said but they will not listen even as they mouth the words to the prayer that follows in the same passage.

  3. says

    The satanists have been doing good work, judo-flipping the christians belief system to challenge thier stealth supremacy.

    They can’t even respect the beliefs of their fellow christians, who just worship the other side.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    lanir @ # 2: When your sole point is that magically everyone has misunderstood the entire basis for something for ages, and you’re the only one/group who really gets it, you’re basically arguing that the policy was different all along.

    Of course, such argumentation does have the weight of ancient tradition as well -- get thee to II Kings & II Chronicles and read up on the theological adventures of King Josiah and Hilkiah the priest.

  5. Bruce says

    It should also be noted that Jefferson DID consult with at least one of his cabinet members before drafting the reply to the Baptists of Danbury. And if Jefferson’s letter’s point of view were reversed, that would essentially allow the established main-line Protestant church in each state to prohibit fringe religions such as Baptists and other evangelicals. Do they want to retreat to 1776, and let most states be run by the Episcopal church?
    Also, many somewhat-pro-religious-sounding quotes of Jefferson that evangelicals cite will often turn out to be incorrect or badly taken out of context or misconstrued. Read, for example, “Liars For Jesus.”

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