Jefferson’s “Wall of Separation”

Perhaps the most unintentional Constitutional argument in history was initiated this week (Jan. 1) in 1802 when President Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptists in Connecticut proclaiming that there was “a wall of separation between Church and State.”  Ever since, those who argue that, Constitutionally, religion and politics must never mix have used Jefferson’s “wall” to support their argument.

Yet Jefferson’s letter to the Baptists was less a discourse on the First Amendment’s religious establishment clause (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”) and more a campaign letter meant to boost the Republican Jefferson’s political standing in an area dominated by the rival Federalist party.  Jefferson had hoped his letter would score political points with the Baptists, who thought there was too much state support of the rival Congregationalists in New England. Instead, Jefferson wound up angering Baptist leaders by seeming to advocate total separation of religion from public life, something the Baptists — who had asked Jefferson to declare a national day of “fasting” — would not support.

What’s more, Jefferson’s hallowed reputation notwithstanding, connecting his “wall” to the First Amendment is a stretch given that Jefferson had nothing to do with the writing, passage or ratification of that amendment, or any of the other nine that comprise our Bill of Rights. This accomplishment belongs to (my hero) James Madison, and during the time Madison was writing the Bill of Rights and shepherding it through a recalcitrant Congress, Jefferson wasn’t even in the country. He was serving as America’s minister to France.

For that reason, Jefferson always deferred to his great friend Madison on constitutional questions, and Madison’s attitude toward religion in public life might best be put, “The more the merrier.”  As early as 1785, while observing a dispute between Episcopalians and Presbyterians in his home state of Virginia, Madison made the point that he preferred them in conflict rather than in coalition because religious freedom was furthered when differing religious groups were all competing for adherents—what today we might call “competing in the marketplace of ideas.”

What Madison, Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers feared was not a mix of religion and politics—indeed, while in the midst of their most important politicking they held daily prayer services. Rather, they feared the “establishment” of one government-sponsored religion that would inevitably inhibit the practice of all others, which is exactly what had happened with the state-sponsored Anglican Church in England, a nation from which many of their forebears had emigrated for exactly that reason.

That is one reason why the First Amendment, in addition to preventing Congress from making laws with respect to the “establishment” of a religion, also prevents Congress from “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”