Jefferson’s Wall of Separation

Thomas Jefferson - photo by David CosandIf dogma isn’t clouding your judgment then a wall of separation between church and state probably seems like a good idea. However, there are Christians in this country who say – and they are correct – the phrase “separation of church and state” is not written in the United States Constitution. They believe that quoting Thomas Jefferson‘s “wall of separation” as rule of law is a misinterpretation of the text of the First Amendment, which reads…

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

As it relates to prayer in public schools, Christians use “prohibiting the free exercise” as the basis of their argument. They state that prohibiting children to pray in public schools violates the First Amendment. The problem with this argument is that it ignores the preceding text of “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”. Some may strictly interpret the scope of that text to legislation passed by congress. Why would the architects of the Constitution feel it was fine for other government institutions to endorse a specific religion? Did they only intend to specify congress or was it shorthand for a larger meaning?

James Madison - public domain - Library of CongressJames Madison – the 4th U.S. President and the principle drafter of the Bill of Rights – wrote, “practical distinction between Religion and Civil Government is essential to the purity of both, and as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.”, in a June 3, 1811 letter to the Baptist Churches in Neal’s Creek and Black Creek, North Carolina.

What is the intended purpose of a constitution for any nation that values personal freedom? I argue that a constitution of any free democracy should establish rights, not deny rights and it should limit the majority’s ability to impose tyranny on a minority.

If you’ve ever read the Constitution you are aware that there are many clauses lacking specificity. The architects of the United States Constitution crafted a framework for our free democracy knowing that much of the specificity would be left up to the judicial branch. With that in mind we can look at decades of precedent where the Supreme Court has stated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment was intended, as Jefferson stated, to form a wall of separation between church and state.

Even if we were to remove overwhelming precedent from the record it should still be obvious – to those not blinded by doctrine – that you cannot have a society that is truly free for all people unless the framework and laws of that society protect the freedoms of all, even the smallest minority group. Any endorsement of religious beliefs – even loosely acknowledged – by state-run institutions like a public school would not pass that litmus test. Those that would argue infringement of rights because praying is not permitted in public school stand on no higher ground than someone arguing infringement of rights because smoking or foul language are not tolerated in the classroom. Again, this is where the framework of our free society lacks specificity. It’s simply not possible to define all situations and all scenarios, nor would it be desirable. I believe most people in this country implicitly understand this and generally accept where free speech rights start and end. But there are others who would like to exploit passages and clauses to impose a narrow vision of the world.

This is not a religion bashing article. This is an advocacy of the free practice of religious beliefs and it is a defense of the First Amendment of the Constitution which protects that freedom, not just for the majority, but for everyone. What mechanism exists to protect a minority religion if not for a wall of separation between church and state?

I want to clarify that not all Christians lack this understanding. President Jimmy Carter – who refers to himself as an evangelical Christian – stated in a recent interview on The Rachel Maddow Show: “I separated my religious beliefs totally from any aspects of statehood or governance”. He went on to say, “we have seen…is what I consider to be an unwarranted intrusion of the religious community into the political campaigns”. Carter understands what makes this country great. His personal and private convictions do not cloud his judgment when it comes to governing a democracy.

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Human Rights

#1st Amendment#Bill of Rights#Christian#congress#constitution#Establishment Clause#evangelical#First Amendment#James Madison#Jimmy Carter#Rachel Maddow#religion#separation of church and state#Supreme Court#Thomas Jefferson#united states

  • Steve Schuler

    Ah… Where to begin? Ok, I’ll just hit 2 quick points (of many possible).
    1. The fact that the United States was not founded as a Christian nation was early stated in the terms of a treaty with Tripoli, drafted in 1796 under George Washington and signed by John Adams in 1797:
    “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Musselmen; and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”
    The opening words of this quotation would cause uproar in today’s Washington ascendancy. Yet it has been convincingly demonstrated that they caused no dissent at the time, among either politicians or public.
    2. People are free to pray whenever they want. This is not the same as saying non-Christians are free to not participate in an organized prayer, when we live in a culture that considers Christianity the de-facto standard, and so dissenters are in danger of being singled out for violence, loss of job, and other discrimination. The playing field needs to be equal for all, so religion shouldn’t even be allowed be visible. Also, because it’s impractical/impossible to include ALL religions in events and proceedings, the only rational response is to include none, to maintain equality for all.
    I could go on….. (But I shouldn’t have to – it’s 2011 people! In an age when we’re surrounded by marvels of technology and more information than ever dreamed of, why does it seem like we’re no further ahead/less enlightened than people just coming out of the renaissance a few hundred years ago?

    • Being impractical or impossible to include all religions is a great point. That is the reason religion has to be removed completely from government.

      Christians that want to believe this country was founded on Christianity and that there is no wall of separation might sing a different tune if this country ever shifted to a different majority. Of course the chances of that are not great but it would be nice if those Christians would take that into consideration before dismissing the wall of separation.

  • Perhaps the Constitution was deliberately framed in ambiguity because the writers did not want certain constraints. In addition, they probably realized that they could not foretell all situations and therefore made more generalized statements. If we could all be like Carter and separate our own beliefs from that which government should impose, we would be a stronger nation.

    • Well said. Because a constitution shouldn’t limit rights adding specificity would have the side-effect of creating constraints. I think they were wise to construct a framework and then leave it to the people to shape the laws as society evolves.