Why the Left Is Wrong About Jefferson’s ‘Wall of Separation Between Church and State’

Thomas Jefferson church stateApril 13 marked the 275th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. A renaissance man with a long and accomplished legacy, Jefferson played a major role in the founding of the United States of America—and establishing its strong protections for religious freedom for all.

There can be no better way to celebrate one of America’s greatest statesmen than by reclaiming his legacy of religious liberty and living as boldly as he did in freedom’s defense.

It is sadly ironic that a few select words of Jefferson—the “wall of separation between church and state”—have been abused and distorted today by those seeking to dismantle the foundations of our republic.

Those words appeared in Jefferson’s now infamous letter to the Danbury Baptists, a religious group in Connecticut concerned with its state government’s weak religious liberty protections.

Shortly following his election to the presidency in 1802, Jefferson wrote:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature would ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and state. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

“Thus building a wall of separation between church and state” is arguably the most abused phrase in American history. This one sentence from Jefferson’s personal correspondence has been uprooted from its original context, used to bludgeon people of faith into civic silence, and even advance government intrusion into the homes of the faithful.

Groups like the ACLU, Freedom From Religion Foundation, and the American Humanist Association, among others have used this phrase as a call to arms in a never-ending litigious assault. Hell bent on exorcising religion from American life, they have no shortage of plaintiffs from sea to shining sea—all faithful congregants at “Our Blessed Mother of the Perpetually Offended.”

Consider a few of the most recent examples in this disturbing trend. These cases are a mere sampling of the hundreds of legal matters First Liberty Institute engages in each year, documented annually in our index on hostility to religion in America, “Undeniable.”

Prayer in Local Government

Two county commissioners—one in Jackson County, Michigan, the other in Rowan County, North Carolina—regularly open their sessions with an invocation led by one of the commissioners. In 2013, an individual activist and the ACLU, respectively, sued the commissioners for supposedly violating the separation of church and state.

Would Jefferson agree with those lawsuits? I doubt it.

As president, Jefferson not only signed bills that appropriated financial support for chaplains in Congress and the military, but he himself attended church services held on the floor of the House of Representatives.

Prayer on the Job

Toni Richardson is an educational technician who works with students with special needs at a public high school in Augusta, Maine. In a conversation at school, she told a co-worker and fellow church member, “I’ll pray for you.”

Her employer, citing the “separation of church and state,” threatened her with disciplinary action up to termination if she continued using such “unprofessional language.”

What would Jefferson think?

While president, Jefferson also served as the chairman of the school board for the District of Columbia, where he authored the first plan of education adopted by the city. His plan used the Bible and Isaac Watts’ hymnal as the principle books to teach reading.

Saying ‘God’ at a Retirement Ceremony

Oscar Rodriguez is a decorated Air Force veteran. While giving a patriotic flag folding speech at a retirement ceremony for fellow airman Chuck Roberson, uniformed airmen assaulted and physically removed Rodriguez from the room because he dared mention the word “God” in his speech.

What was Jefferson’s approach to the role of religion in the military?

In addition to the bills he signed appropriating funds for chaplains in the military, he also signed the Articles of War on April 10, 1806, in which he “earnestly recommended to all officers and soldiers, diligently to attend divine services.”

A Pioneer for Religious Freedom

In perhaps his most famous written work, the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson exemplified his deep commitment to the divine origin of the rights of each individual in the famous line, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

In essence, America’s “birth certificate,” as penned by Jefferson, declared that God existed, and that his existence is the basis for all personal, political, and economic rights.

Those who seek to hijack the phrase “separation of church and state” to impose secular humanism on our political life can only do so by willfully turning a blind eye to the volumes of Jefferson’s other writings, as well as his own actions as president. Those actions speak louder than any words.

But even apart from abusing the phrase “separation of church and state,” the left will undoubtedly continue to target people of faith by seeking to undermine their rights of conscience and free exercise of religion.

Jefferson’s victories for religious freedom are our cherished inheritance, and his fight for liberty is now our fight. Now is a time for all Americans—religious or not—to stand up for our first freedom as the bedrock upon which all liberty stands. No better inspiration can be found than Jefferson’s own personal seal, which read, “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”

Those who courageously stand against oppression can do so secure in the knowledge that the author of the Declaration of Independence—and more importantly, the author of our liberty itself—are not neutral in the contest.

From - The Daily Signal - by Lathan Watts

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4 years ago

The context of this abused phrase came from our founding father’s recent experience as a colony of Great Britain. There, the official religion is Anglicanism since Henry VIII made himself the head of the Church of England. Remember when he wanted to change wives as often as he changed underwear? He petitioned the Pope, the legitimate religious leader, for an annulment of his marriage with Catherine of Aragon. When the pope upheld the indissolubility of a legitimate marriage, he made himself the religious head and separated the English people from church authority. Thus began a 300 year bloody persecution of any English subject who wanted to practice the “faith of our fathers”, usually by being hanged by the neck until half dead, drawn (disemboweled), and quartered.
This is what our founding fathers wanted to avoid. An “official” state sponsored religion, supported by tax money, persecuting anyone believing differently.
This is usually used to defend the position of maintaining atheism as the official state religion. Jefferson would have recognized the necessity of the virtue of religion throughout the populace, even the duty of religion in official state matters. So not only do individuals have a religious duty to God, which the state protects, but the state has a similar religious duty as a nation or corporate body. That is what the atheism enforcers have removed from America. Are we better as a nation today than in earlier generations in this matter?

4 years ago

“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature would ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”

I interpret it as the state can’t endorse any one religion. But I guess he never foresaw the liberalization of the mores of the populous away from Christian basic beliefs. So now we have the Muslim invasion that threaten takeover by their aggressive birth rate. He never saw the invasion of progressive socialists who have propagandized against the constitution and the founders of this country aided by a liberal sector of the press. They copped on the revolution of the 60’s.

These socialists have flipped the Jewdeo- Christian Heritage on it’s head with their liberal agendas. Perhaps Christians need to get past the dogma of their religion and into the deeper meanings of it’s origins. I always had some conflicts with what the established churches taught on the interpretation of Jesus teachings. So today I am a Deist. I could not take the religion I was raised with at face value. But I never fell for the propaganda of the socialists nor the Muslims.

Judy Cziprian
4 years ago

this is a great article but what can we actually do to stop the progressive secular left from dismantling our religious freedoms?

4 years ago

Members of the God denying, in “Saint” Darwin’s scientifically unproven theories of macro evolution (development of one major species out of another, the “missing link”) believing Church of Atheism need to understand that their capacity to play offended has no bearing on my right to be free in my choice of religion, to display my religion, or the free exercise thereof, even in public. If Antifa and BLM can display in public, no one can deny a public display of faith. Our Constitution guarantees the freedom of religion not from religion, it doesn’t give government the right to regulate, to streamline, or eliminate it; also in reference to aforementioned Antifa and BLM, I don’t see any right to public hooliganism, and looting mentioned anywhere in the Constitution.

Linda Wolffe
4 years ago

Wonderful article! Now I have some ammunition to blow away some of the ridiculous things I’ve heard from co-workers! Keep ’em coming!

4 years ago

When I think of the “wall” I see it as it as a means to keep those in government (power)from imposing their religion on others. That religion could be any religion…including secular humanism.

Marcia Standifer
4 years ago
Reply to  Peter LOCKE

-As well as those who subscribe to atheism, and constantly deride and denigrate the beliefs of those people of faith who express their faith in offers of prayers for victims of violence. These people are not content to believe as they will and allow others to believe, but are hell bent on ascribing all kinds of psychological aberrations to people of faith (as Joy Behar did with regard to VP Pence recently), using any reference to God, faith or beliefs to accuse and attack.
I realize that the Evil One controls them, and he is increasingly fearful that people of faith are speaking out against the attacks to our exercise of our faith and the loss of our civil and religious liberties. Truly “…our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms,” as the Apostle Paul said in exhorting the Ephesians to press on in righteousness. (Ephesians 6:12)

Louis H
4 years ago

“…the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions”

The same people who quote Jefferson’s statement on the “wall of separation” never quote his statement above that can be found in the same paragraph. Instead, they insist that only politically correct opinions be allowed. If you do not share their opinions on gay marriage, white privilege, or even climate change, you are to be ostracized and should never be allowed to serve in government. You can see this attack against opinion at work whenever the Senate holds confirmation hearings. They do not just ask you about your past “actions.” They want to know about your private opinions and beliefs, as well. And if you agree with the Bible, for example, that gay sex is a perversion, you are not considered qualified by these people to be confirmed for a government position. It doesn’t matter that you do not act on your opinion to discriminate against anyone. It only matters to them that you hold such an opinion. When the legislative powers of government reach beyond actions to the realm of opinions and beliefs, you know that tyranny is already at the door.

Donald King
4 years ago

Ever notice how the separation of church and state suddenly becomes a non-issue when the likes of Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton want to run for public office.

Marc S
4 years ago

Great book out there called “The Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States” by Benjamin F. Morris. I believe it was put together in the mid-1800’s. It is a collection of letters, documents, declarations by government officials (including governors and Presidents) showing the strong Christian foundation of the United States.

Leon Moses
4 years ago

Thank you for this enlightening article. It shines a bright light onto the snake that is creeping into our God-fearing country. Just like a snake, the organizations you mentioned are no better than the communists of yesteryear who detested the idea that there is a creator who guides us all. They become vehement by the idea that the common man/woman my live their lives according to the dictates of their righteous upbringing and Love of a law abiding society. Those organizations are just the speartip of thos who would seek to enslave us all. They just are trying to do so in a stealthy manner, like any other snake.

Bob Ross
4 years ago

This separation of church and state is not misunderstood by the left! The present liberal Congress of this nation and past regimes are not desirous of understanding. They want to control our Christian influence to suit their purposes. We are still one nation under God and that is not a choice. It is a fact.

Donald Mccormick
4 years ago

The CONSTITUTION says our government can NOT start a religion om their own and can NOT control a religion, they can ONLY watch a religion to see that they NOT try to influence congress into destroying a religion they do not like even if it is their own.

Linda D
4 years ago

I am a person who wants to be able to practice my religious faith and I perfectly understand Thomas Jefferson’s meaning when he wrote his letter to the Baptists regarding separating Church and State. However, since this author is writing to uphold religious freedom and conscience, I hope he will understand, that I am calling this to his attention in charity. My conscience bids me to uphold the dignity of the very revered and honored Blessed Mother. The use of the words “the Perpetually Offended” as a title tag associated with her revered title “Blessed Mother” is uncalled for. The holy name of Our Blessed Mother, mother of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, should not be used flippantly to make a point. I’m absolutely sure the author never meant to insult Holy Mary, and those who hold her in high esteem, by tagging her with a title that is unworthy of her. I’m not thinned skinned, and I can take insult regarding my person, but the author of this article by using such a flippant phrase regarding someone I love, bids I must speak up. I must call this to the author’s attention because it has been released publicly as this article will be viewed by many people. The author is to be commended for the rest of the article.

Steve Miller
4 years ago
Reply to  Linda D

???? I reread the article I’m missing your point. Help me out where is this offence at?

Ivan Berry
4 years ago
Reply to  Steve Miller

Steve, what Linda was referring to is the play on the Blessed Mother of sorrows, or of other renditions of similar theme as Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Our Mother of Perpetual Sorrows, etc. This in reference to the Virgin Mary, Mother of God. By conflating those with “Our Blessed Mother of the Perpetually Offended,” the author offered offense to certain religious persons.
The Perpetually Offended might be those who bring a lawsuit in opposition to a baker who will not bake for a homosexual wedding, or one who opposes school prayer against a school district, or any other perpetual whiner who wishes to have their way with what had been the cultural base of America until Progressives regressed into the dark ages of perpetual mob rule democracy that doesn’t even need a majority to vote since they have the judges and the deep State in their pockets, leading the U.S. ever closer to becomming a failed Socialist/Comminist Nation.
Now, how is that as a guess as to where Linda was coming from?

Ivan Berry
4 years ago

Well, despite what anyone else says about it, Jefferson said it best. All one need do is read the letter and the First Amendment per the rules of language, not making anything up, but reading as it was written in the first place. Everyone seems to want to make it complicated; it’s not.
The “Wall of Separation” per Jefferson’s letter was to prevent the government from encroaching or trespassing upon the individuals’ right to religious freedom. That is also what the Amendment said, Not intended to limit man, but rather to limit government by not allowing the government to establish a national religion and then, not to interfere in the individuals choice nor practice. And that is all the letter said as referenced by the First Amendment.
The intentional misinterpretation of words’ meanings has always supported the nefarious actions of those wishing to discard liberty. Can you see how this intentional misinterpretation and others concerning our form of government continually allows encroachment and trespass upon all our liberties, and how this grows steadily over time?

old crank
4 years ago

Why should we not take the words “Congress shall make no law…” literally? They are very clear and raise no question as to their meaning. Does it say government shall not promote religion? No. Does it say government cannot found a church? Yes. I don’t remember the grounds upon which the O’Hare case was decided (disallowing prayer in schools), but I have the impression it was First Amendment grounds, and I believe it was wrongly decided. “Congress shall make no law…” does not prohibit churches from practicing religion, or from making demands on government – e.g., allowing communal prayer in school every day. We could have saved ourselves a lot of wrangling if we had inspected the putative establishment clause cases to see whether they involved any law by Congress.

Brian B
4 years ago

Our Founding Fathers carefully dissected history, specifically the Bible as they formed our Founding Documents. The Constitution’s very survival is dependent upon a moral society that reverences the proven wisdom of the 10 Commandments.
Jefferson’s statement: “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man” should be carved in stone on every public building in America.

Gretchen C.
4 years ago
Reply to  Brian B

I completely agree.

Rich O.
4 years ago
Reply to  Brian B

That’s a statement in opposition to the liberal/progressive/Marxist mindset if there ever was one. The progressive credo could be: “I have sworn upon the altar of government, eternal hostility to every form of individual liberty over the needs of the collective”.

Brian B
4 years ago
Reply to  Rich O.

I loved your parody of Jefferson’s statement, Rich O.
Made me laugh. I would only change “needs” with “desires.”

Arthur Illiano, Jr.
4 years ago

The first amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. (Emphasis mine.)
This statement has been interpreted to mean that there should be a separation between church and state. The problem with this interpretation is what is meant by separation? One interpretation is that the government should be antipathetic and not allow any reference to religion on any public property by any public employee or, for that matter, anyone else.
Another is that there should be no official religion codified by law. This is in response to the fact that most European countries at the time had official religions. If you did not practice the official religion there were consequences that reduced your civic standing. British Recusancy laws are an example.
The justification for the former position is one phrase by Thomas Jefferson, one of our founders, in one letter. As prolific a writer as Thomas Jefferson was, nothing can be found to support the argument that he supported the first interpretation.
To the contrary: Thomas Jefferson created the (so called) Jefferson Bible by translating scripture as written in Latin, Greek, French and English, intending to distribute it among the Indians “…thinking this simple form would suit them best.” Such a project hardly seems like the act of someone who rejected the spread of religion.
We hear much about Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists in which he used the metaphor “wall of separation” which has been misinterpreted by secularists. But we hear nothing about his letter to James Fishback in which he said:
“The practice of morality being necessary for the well being of society, He [God] has taken care to impress its precepts so indelibly on our hearts that they shall not be effaced by the subtleties of our brain. We all agree in the obligation of the moral principles of Jesus and nowhere will they be found delivered in greater purity than in His discourses.”–Letter to James Fishback, September 27, 1808. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 1904, V.12, p.315
Religion is concerned with the effect of our behavior on our immortal soul. Judgment for violating religious tenets takes place before God in the afterlife. The only penalty in this life is excommunication or denial of sacrament, neither of which harms our body or purse. Government is concerned with our temporal existence. Judgment for violating civic authority (man-made law) takes place on earth during our lifetime and results in penalties against our person.
Some of the greatest tyrannies in history resulted from violations of misstated religious law being judged and punished in this life by man using the power of the state. One example is the afore mentioned Recusancy Laws in England between 1593 and1829 which persecuted Catholics. Another is the Spanish Inquisition which persecuted Jews.
As students of history, our founders understood that. That is the situation that they wished to avoid with the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Any reasoned examination of their words and behavior would show that they supported the influence of the Judeo-Christian bible on our culture and that there was no exclusion of God or religion from the public square. Their concern was combining religious leadership and governmental power into one body (Jefferson referred to the Altar and the Throne) invoking God’s name to justify punishment for breaking man’s law. That is why, “…or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” is part of the first amendment.
So what needs to be kept separate is authority not knowledge. Religion has authority over our soul, the state has authority over our flesh.

4 years ago

“So what needs to be kept separate is authority not knowledge. Religion has authority over our soul, the state has authority over our flesh.” I believe your last sentence sums up my idea of the “wall”.

Sick Santucci
4 years ago

I believe the meaning of that statement may have been not to have the establishment of a STATE run religion a la the church of England.

4 years ago

Hear, hear! … I am currently preparing to complain to my City Manager because our local city Senior Center is run by a homosexual Executive Director. This individual “chooses” the weekly movie to be shown. This April 24ths movie is entitled: “Call Me By Your Name”. In describing the movie and I quote: “Amid the sun drenched splendor of their surroundings Elio and Oliver discover the heady beauty of awakening desire over the course of a summer that will alter their lives forever.” Rated R for sexual conduct, nudity and some language. This is a disgusting homosexual movie that I guarantee will offend 90% of the senior attendees. Just another example of the Progressively Communist Democrats forcing their politically incorrect agenda against the common sense and decency of Christian morals and the natural progression of the human species. This Executive Director is probably unknown to 90% of the seniors, because he NEVER mingles or seems concerned with our complaints, since the complaint form doesn’t ask for the complainee’s name or telephone number or email. And this individual has a salary of over $90,000 per year. Just another example of a non-elected public official who has conveniently forgotten that We the People DON’T SERVE HIM, HE IS SUPPOSED TO SERVE US!!!

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