Magazine | August 15, 2016, Issue


Jefferson’s Wall

I was disturbed to see Donald Critchlow abandon to the hard Left Jefferson’s “Letter to the Danbury Baptists” (“The Assault on Christians,” July 11).

Out of context, one can read “wall of separation between Church & State” as indicating that the church and one’s conscience are tightly circumscribed by an all-powerful state. In context, Jefferson was promoting rights of conscience and restricting the authority of a small government of limited powers. Jefferson specifically said that one “owes account to none other for his faith or his worship.” He wrote that religion is more than going to church on Sunday; it’s the impetus for everything we do. The First Amendment protects far more than worship; it protects us when we put our faith into works.

Moreover, Jefferson said that the First Amendment is the “expression of the supreme will of the nation” and codifies “the rights of conscience.” Those are not the words of a secularist.

Jefferson’s letter is a powerful defense of religious liberty. As small-government conservatives respectful of the religion of others, we cannot allow it to be taken out of context and used against religious practice in America.

Ken Jansen

Flushing, Mich.

Donald Critchlow responds: Mr. Jansen should take a close look at the history and consequences of Jefferson’s concept of a high wall separating church and state. This concept, articulated by Jefferson and endorsed by James Madison, was a minority position at the time of the Founding. It was not written or intended in the First Amendment, which required only that there be no federally established church. 

That the First Amendment was intended to protect religious expression from a nationally established government, and not government from religious influence, was evident when Congress sent back Madison’s first draft of the First Amendment because it feared that the amendment might be read to prohibit state-sponsored churches, which many in Congress were willing to accept. The Congregationalist Church in Massachusetts received public funding into the 1830s. Even dissenting ministers, for the large part, did not accept the concept of erecting a high wall separating church and state. Instead, they believed that religion, specifically Christianity, remained fundamental to maintaining a well-ordered republic.

It was nativists in the 19th century and the secular Left in the 20th century who used the concept of a high wall of separation to minimize the power of organized religion in America.

As legal scholar Philip Hamburger shows in Separation of Church and State (2002), in the late 19th century, the concept of a high wall of separation was revived to attack Catholics. So-called Blaine amendments were enacted in many states to exclude state funding and assistance to Catholic schools.

After the Second World War, progressive secularists took the concept further through a series of Supreme Court decisions that ended state aid to Catholic schools, banned prayer in school, and removed religious symbols from public buildings. We have now reached a point where valedictorians cannot thank their Lord, high-school football coaches cannot voluntarily pray with their teams, and teachers, military personnel, and government officials cannot discuss their religious views or wear symbols of their Christian faith while exercising their official functions.

Jefferson, albeit a deist and anti-clerical in sentiment, might not have envisioned the consequences of his views, but these were the results. His concept of erecting a high wall of separation between church and state has enabled a war on religious liberty, which Mary Eberstadt writes about in her new book (It’s Dangerous to Believe).

NR Editors includes members of the editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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