Wall of Separation

At the Jefferson Memorial, quotations from our third president are carved into the wall. One of them reads: "I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." Lovely words, but what was their context? Professor Philip Hamburger, in his book Separation of Church and State, gives us some much needed insights. Among Jefferson's opponents in the election of 1800, none were as fervent as the clergy of New England, especially Connecticut where Congregationalism was a state-established church. These clergymen, by and large, were solidly biblical in their theology and solidly Federalist -- which is to say, anti-Jeffersonian -- in their politics. Jefferson's "eternal hostility" line occurs in a letter written in the midst of that bitter 1800 campaign. The established clergy, Jefferson wrote, "believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe right: for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." The "tyranny," you see, that he had in mind was that of the New England clergy. Was Jefferson just protesting the state establishment of religion? Well, in a letter to the Unitarian leader Joseph Priestley in January of 1800, Jefferson condemned the notion that we should rely on our beliefs in religion. And seventeen years later, rejoicing in his party's victories in Connecticut, he wrote to John Adams that these victories had brought "light and liberality" to this "last retreat of monkish darkness," this "den of the priesthood," this "Protestant Popedom." There's no way around it: Despite his many great qualities, Thomas Jefferson was as vigorous a critic of traditional Christianity as the Enlightenment ever produced. It is in this context -- his overt hostility to Christians -- that we must evaluate his famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, the sole source of the metaphor, the "wall of separation." The Danbury Baptists wrote to Jefferson in 1801 seeking his support for its efforts to disestablish Connecticut's Congregationalist Church. In response, Jefferson upped the ante in the debate, both by creating the "wall" metaphor and by insisting that this metaphor is the true key to understanding the Establishment Clause. As Professor Daniel Dreisbach, author of Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State, has written, "Jefferson's Baptist correspondents, who agitated for disestablishment but not for separation, were apparently discomfited by the figurative phrase. They, like many Americans, feared that the erection of a 'wall' would separate religious influences from public life and policy" -- just what it has done. We have just celebrated our independence, and that's a good time to remember that the "wall of separation" is not in the Constitution. It's a phrase written by a president who was upset with Christians. I say it's time to put it all in perspective and end the radical separationism that keeps Christianity out of public life. We should be honoring Jefferson, not for his sour view of historic Christianity in 1801, but for the eloquent and moving words he wrote in 1776 in the Declaration of Independence. For further reading and information: You can read the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives and Records Administration website. Visit the Thomas Jefferson Memorial website, maintained by the National Park Service. Click on "inscriptions" to read some of President Jefferson's quotations and writings. Philip Hamburger, Separation of Church and State (Harvard University Press, 2002). Daniel L. Dreisbach, "A Godless Constitution?: Religion and the American Experiment," BreakPoint Online, April 2000. Daniel L. Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State (New York University Press, 2002). BreakPoint Commentary No. 030708, "Historic Preservation: The 'Wall of Separation.'" John J. DiIulio, Jr., "Faith, Hope and Government," Boston Globe, 22 June 2003, D1. Ginny Mooney, "Just 'One Nation'?: Or 'One Nation under God'?" BREAKPOINT ONLINE, 1 July 2002. "Christian America: Faith and Government" -- In this "BreakPoint This Week" special Managing Editor Jim Tonkowich speaks with Mark Noll of Wheaton College and Marvin Olasky of the University of Texas and WORLD magazine. They discuss the idea of our country being a "Christian" nation -- exploring what American history reveals about this topic. You can also purchase a CD of this broadcast which also includes a speech, "Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State," that American University professor Daniel L. Dreisbach delivered recently at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. Michael Novak, On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding (Encounter, 2002).


Chuck Colson


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