It took 158 years from the ratification of the Constitution for America’s esteemed Supreme Court to find a “wall of separation between church and state” in the Constitution. In Everson v. Board of Education, 1947, in a 5-4 decision, those five “kings in black robes” said, “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.”
Oddly, for over 158 years, no one had been aware of this “wall” – at least not as it is understood today. Where did this “wall” come from and what does it mean?
The phrase actually comes from an 1802 letter written by President Thomas Jefferson to an association of Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut. The Baptists had heard that the federal government was planning to establish a national church. Since freedom of religion was one of the primary reasons the colonists had fought the British, it is understandable why the Baptists were terrified at the prospect of a “national church” in their new nation.
Of course, things were different in England; they did have an “established” church – the Anglican Church. The King was not only the ruler of the land but was also the head of the church and had the power to force the people to belong to the state Church. It’s this type of tyranny the colonists had fought a war to free themselves from. This is why the phrase “respecting an establishment of religion” was placed in the First Amendment. Our Founders did not want an “established” church in America.
So when Jefferson told the Danbury Baptists that congress did not have the constitutional authority to “establish” a national church, they were relieved. When Jefferson said that the Constitution restricted Congress from meddling in religion, “thus building a wall of separation between Church and State,”
he was saying that the Constitution protected religion from government, not government from religion. Interestingly, three days after writing the “wall” letter, President Jefferson listened to Baptist preacher John Leland in a worship service in the capitol, the likes of which was held there every Sunday. Jefferson also appropriated a military band to provide the music in these services – all at government expense.
Ironically, Jefferson was not even among the ninety men who framed the First Amendment. Debate about the First Amendment transpired between June 7 and September 25, 1789. According to the Congressional Records, not one of those ninety men ever even mentioned the phrase “separation of church and state.” Historian David Barton says, “It seems logical that if this had been the intent for the First Amendment, as is so frequently asserted, then at least one of those ninety would have mentioned that phrase; none did.”
Additionally, Jefferson said that when trying to determine the exact meaning of the Constitution, we should determine the original intent of the framers:
“On every question of construction, [we must] carry ourselves back to the time when the constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the test, or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was a part.”
In other words, Jefferson did not believe the Constitution was a “living, breathing” document that must be reinterpreted with each new generation.
If Jefferson was such a “strict separationist,” he wouldn’t have written or said the following:
- 1801, “[The] liberty to worship our Creator in the way we think most agreeable to His will [is] a liberty deemed in other countries incompatible with good government and yet proved by our experience to be its best support. … No nation has ever existed or been governed without religion. Nor can be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has been given to man and I, as Chief Magistrate of this nation, am bound to give it the sanction of my example.”
- 1805, “In matters of religion, I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the Constitution independent of the powers of the general [federal] government.”
- 1808, “[O]ur excellent Constitution . . . has not placed our religious rights under the power of any public functionary.”
Additionally, it’s very telling to see how Jefferson governed during his life:
- As a member of the House of Burgesses, on May 24, 1774, he participated in drafting & enacting a resolution designating a “Day of Fasting, Humiliation, & Prayer.”
- On June 12, 1779, he wrote “A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom.”
- In 1779, as Governor of Virginia, he issued a proclamation decreeing a day “of public and solemn thanksgiving and prayer to Almighty God.”
- As chair of the Virginia Committee of Revisers, he was the chief architect of “A Bill for Appointing Days of Public Fasting and Thanksgiving.”
- This bill, stated: “… [e]very minister of the gospel shall on each day so to be appointed, attend and perform divine service and preach a sermon, or discourse, suited to the occasion, in his church, on pain of forfeiting fifty pounds for every failure, not having a reasonable excuse.”
- In 1803, Jefferson provided $300 to “assist an Indian tribe in the erection of a church” and $100 annually for seven years to support minister.
- He signed three acts setting aside government lands for the sole use of religious groups and to assist missionaries in “promoting Christianity.”
Jefferson believed that the state, not the federal government, had jurisdiction over religion. He said at his second inauguration:
“In matters of religion, I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the Constitution independent of the powers of the General [federal] Government. I have therefore undertaken, on no occasion, to prescribe the religious exercises suited to it; but have left them, as the Constitution found them, under the direction and discipline of State or Church authorities acknowledged by the several religious societies.”
In an 1808 letter, Jefferson wrote:
“I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. … Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the General [federal] Government. It must then rest with the States, as far as it can be in any human authority.”
Not only did Jefferson not believe in the “wall of separation” as it is understood today, but neither did the other Founders. Consider the actions of the same men who framed the First Amendment:
- In 1777, Congress voted to import 20,000 Bibles.
- In 1789, Congress appropriated federal funds to pay chaplains to pray at the opening of all sessions of Congress.
- In 1789, Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance which said, “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government …”
In light of all this evidence, why is it that people continue to promote the “separation of church and state” myth? Although the reasons are complicated, I believe they can be boiled down to two. First, this is what the political progressives in our country want us to believe; therefore they have removed much of the true history from our schools and universities so all that is ever heard is “their” version of history. Second, if something is repeated over and over, it becomes fact – whether it is or not. Dr. William James, the “Father of Modern Psychology,” said, “There is nothing so absurd but that if you repeat it often enough people will believe it.” Commenting on this, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “It is one of the misfortunes of the law that ideas become encysted in phrases, and thereafter for a long time cease to provoke further analysis.”
In other words, once people begin to believe something, no matter how incorrect, they normally “codify” it and cease to question its accuracy.
I believe this is exactly what has happened the “separation of church and state” myth. It is obvious, at least to me that our Founders never intended religious expression to be eradicated from the public square. They would be appalled to learn that the Constitution is used to forbid: prayer and the Ten Commandments in our public schools or other “government” facilities, prayer at public school graduations and sporting events, nativities on court house lawns, etc.
If there is a “wall of separation” in the First Amendment, it guarantees freedom “of” religion, not freedom “from” religion. The “wall” has a door but its lock is on the people’s side, not the government’s.