Behind “The Separation of Church & State”

This week we are hearing this being quoted in social media, mostly as a way to insinuate that it is religion (Christianity) that has improperly influenced the Supreme Court decision on Roe v Wade and Casey, and that Thomas Jefferson believed that religion had no part to play in government and law. I think it is time to rehash the history behind the famous quote.

First, let’s review the first amendment to the Constitution. It reads:

First Amendment

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.

Now, let’s look at the history of “Separation of Church and State”. It was President Thomas Jefferson who famously said in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists that the establishment clause should represent a “wall of separation” between church and state. The provision prevents the government from establishing a state religion and prohibits it from favoring one faith over another. His meaning is quite clear: government should keep their nose out of religion! Here is the text of the letter:

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.

Th Jefferson
Jan. 1. 1802.

To further emphasize the true beliefs of Thomas Jefferson (and other founding fathers), consider this historical reference obtained from The Library Of Congress [emphasis is mine]:

It is no exaggeration to say that on Sundays in Washington during the administrations of Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) and of James Madison (1809-1817) the state became the church. Within a year of his inauguration, Jefferson began attending church services in the House of Representatives. Madison followed Jefferson’s example, although unlike Jefferson, who rode on horseback to church in the Capitol, Madison came in a coach and four. Worship services in the House–a practice that continued until after the Civil War–were acceptable to Jefferson because they were nondiscriminatory and voluntary. Preachers of every Protestant denomination appeared. (Catholic priests began officiating in 1826.) As early as January 1806 a female evangelist, Dorothy Ripley, delivered a camp meeting-style exhortation in the House to Jefferson, Vice President Aaron Burr, and a “crowded audience.” Throughout his administration Jefferson permitted church services in executive branch buildings. The Gospel was also preached in the Supreme Court chambers.

Jefferson’s actions may seem surprising because his attitude toward the relation between religion and government is usually thought to have been embodied in his recommendation that there exist “a wall of separation between church and state.” In that statement, Jefferson was apparently declaring his opposition, as Madison had done in introducing the Bill of Rights, to a “national” religion. In attending church services on public property, Jefferson and Madison consciously and deliberately were offering symbolic support to religion as a prop for republican government.

Contrary to what is thought of as a common understanding of “separation of church and state, it is clear that at least two of our founding fathers – Jefferson and Madison – were not against the practice of religion on public property, and that, in fact, religion had a part to play in government!

As written in the preamble to the Constitution, its purpose is, in part, to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity”. And in the Declaration of Independence (one of whom who drafted it was Thomas Jefferson), it states:

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.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,

As the base of the establishment of our new country, our Creator played a primary role. The founding fathers – including Thomas Jefferson – believed it, and never intended for our government to be Godless. To the contrary, the establishment of our country was based on the freedom of its citizens to practice their religion freely and without interference from government.

This entry was posted in Amendment 1, Bill of Rights, Constitution, History, Supreme Court. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Behind “The Separation of Church & State”

  1. Stella says:

    More from the library of Congress:

    Many of the British North American colonies that eventually formed the United States of America were settled in the seventeenth century by men and women, who, in the face of European persecution, refused to compromise passionately held religious convictions and fled Europe. The New England colonies, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland were conceived and established “as plantations of religion.” Some settlers who arrived in these areas came for secular motives–“to catch fish” as one New Englander put it–but the great majority left Europe to worship God in the way they believed to be correct. They enthusiastically supported the efforts of their leaders to create “a city on a hill” or a “holy experiment,” whose success would prove that God’s plan for his churches could be successfully realized in the American wilderness. Even colonies like Virginia, which were planned as commercial ventures, were led by entrepreneurs who considered themselves “militant Protestants” and who worked diligently to promote the prosperity of the church.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Pa Hermit says:

    What has changed IMHO, what the Deity has become to our people in power. That Deity has swung from our Forefathers work to the almighty buck ($)! Notice how these pols are guided in their directions by the power of the dollar donations? This is why Trump became so unpopular with the pols. He wasn’t swayed by anything monetarily to be in position to be beholden to any entity. In other words, no one could control him! Thus he appealed to the common voter and not to existing politics. Ever wonder why the Lefty crowd ALWAYS back their candidate? That is why they HAVE to rig elections with fraud! The Right has their issues too, but in TRUMP, it seems to not apply so much. To me, the MSM is slicing their own throats! Trump is willing to expose the truth and pols can’t have that! Just my personal opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • weather257 says:

      Absolutely, Pa…the almighty $$… AND POWER! Our America was settled by people wanting to escape power; like us, they just wanted to be left alone to make their lives through work and faith.


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