Separation of Church and State - Truth or Myth?
Constitution Study with Douglas V. Gibbs
June 3, 2010
Even the textbooks in the public school system reveals that the Pilgrims first came to The New World in search of religious freedom. With this in mind, the Founding Fathers desired to protect religion from the federal government. In today’s political arena, however, it seems that things have been twisted into a strange turn that proclaims that government must be protected from religion.
The first part of the 1st Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . .”
Why was the 1st Amendment written in such a manner? And where does the idea of the Separation of Church and State come in? The concept is obviously not written in the Constitution.
To discover the origination of the idea of Separation of Church and State, one must understand the history of the colonies, and carefully read the writings of the Founding Fathers, including the series of letters between the federal government and the Danbury Baptists of Connecticut, culminating in the letters to Thomas Jefferson after he became President of the United States in 1800.
Tonight in our study of the Constitution we will discuss the early laws in the colonies regarding religion, The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut that the Danbury Baptists were subject to, and the series of letters from the Danbury Baptists with a final reading of the letter Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptists from which the infamous concept of Separation of Church and State was eventually derived from.
The Founding Fathers desired that Americans be free to worship as they wished, without being compelled by government through an established religion. The key, however, is that they not only did not want the federal government compelling a person through laws regarding religion, but that the government shall not “prohibit the free exercise thereof.”
Thomas Jefferson, as indicated in his letter and his other writings, was against the government establishing a “State Church.” However, he also believed that men should be free to exercise their religion as they deem fit, and not to follow a government mandate. The key in the 1st Amendment is “Congress shall make no law.” Court rulings, precedent law in regards to judicial rulings, and proclamations are not law.
The Danbury Baptists were concerned over local religious freedoms, but Jefferson was clear, the federal government could not mandate anything in regards to religion. It is a State issue, and the Danbury Baptists needed to address the issue themselves. Jefferson’s reference to a wall of separation, however, did not give the federal government the right to prohibit the free exercise of religion for any reason, including on public grounds.
The Virginia Act For Establishing Religious Freedom
Thomas Jefferson, 1786
Well aware that Almighty God hath created the mind freeÖ
Be it therefore enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.
Ö the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.
Letter to Thomas Jefferson
Danbury Baptist Association's letter to Thomas Jefferson, October 7, 1801.
Sir, — Among the many millions in America and Europe who rejoice in your Election to office; we embrace the first opportunity which we have enjoyd in our collective capacity, since your Inauguration, to express our great satisfaction, in your appointment to the chief Majestracy in the United States; And though our mode of expression may be less courtly and pompious than what many others clothe their addresses with, we beg you, Sir to believe, that none are more sincere.
Our Sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty — That Religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals — That no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious Opinions - That the legitimate Power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor: But Sir our constitution of government is not specific. Our ancient charter together with the Laws made coincident therewith, were adopted on the Basis of our government, at the time of our revolution; and such had been our Laws & usages, and such still are; that Religion is considered as the first object of Legislation; and therefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights: and these favors we receive at the expense of such degradingacknowledgements, as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen. It is not to be wondered at therefore; if those, who seek after power & gain under the pretense of government & Religion should reproach their fellow men — should reproach their chief Magistrate, as an enemy of religion Law & good order because he will not, dare not assume the prerogatives of Jehovah and make Laws to govern the Kingdom of Christ.
Sir, we are sensible that the President of the United States, is not the national legislator, and also sensible that the national government cannot destroy the Laws of each State; but our hopes are strong that the sentiments of our beloved President, which have had such genial affect already, like the radiant beams of the Sun, will shine and prevail through all these States and all the world till Hierarchy and Tyranny be destroyed from the Earth. Sir, when we reflect on your past services, and see a glow of philanthropy and good will shining forth in a course of more than thirty years we have reason to believe that America's God has raised you up to fill the chair of State out of that good will which he bears to the Millions which you preside over. May God strengthen you for the arduous task which providence & the voice of the people have cald you to sustain and support you in your Administration against all the predetermined opposition of those who wish to rise to wealth & importance on the poverty and subjection of the people
And may the Lord preserve you safe from every evil and bring you at last to his Heavenly Kingdom through Jesus Christ our Glorious Mediator.
Signed in behalf of the Association.
Ephram Robbins The Committee
Stephen S. Nelson
Jefferson's Letter to the Danbury Baptists
The Final Letter, as Sent
To messers. Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson, a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut.
The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. my duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, & in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing.
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & 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.
I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem.
Jan. 1. 1802.