Magazine | August 15, 2016, Issue

Letters

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.

In This Issue

Articles

Features

Books, Arts & Manners

Sections

Politics & Policy

Poetry

ANTE MERIDIEM for Ivy What I desire in the morning is the music of guitar, its pottery-dull notes knocking knees in the lower strings and in the upper notes a skittering like the black-capped chickadee that ...
Politics & Policy

Letters

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 ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ Maybe the Democrats should just go back to using fax machines. ‐ A lot of Republicans got very mad at Ted Cruz for pointedly declining to endorse Donald Trump at ...

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

Fox News Anchor Shepard Smith Resigns

Fox News Channel's chief anchor, Shepard Smith, announced on air Friday that he would be resigning from his post after 23 years with the network. “This is my last newscast here,” said Smith. “Recently, I asked the company to allow me to leave Fox News. After requesting that I stay, they obliged.” He ... Read More
NR Webathon

Don’t Let Michael Mann Succeed

I  enjoyed the running joke of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce in the great Dickens novel Bleak House, back when I first read it. Little did I know that one day I and the magazine that I love would effectively be caught up in a version of that interminable case, courtesy of a litigious climate scientist with zero regard ... Read More
White House

What Is Impeachment For?

W hat is impeachment for? Seems like a simple question. Constitutionally speaking, it also appears to have a simple answer: to cite and remove from power a president guilty of wrongdoing. Aye, there’s the rub. What sort of wrongdoing warrants removal from power? I’d wager that the flames of ... Read More
Elections

Beto Proposes to Oppress Church with State

Beto O’Rourke’s presidential campaign is within the margin of error of non-existence, but in his failure he has found a purpose: expressing the Democratic id. His latest bid for left-wing love came at a CNN forum on gay rights, where he said that churches that oppose same-sex marriage should have to pay ... Read More