Jefferson’s response, which many know because of the emphasis of the “separation of church and state” actually discusses more than the summary often given in even the most basic college or high school history or civics course:
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.(2)
It is rather interesting that the current interpretation of Jefferson’s response leaves out the essence of what he was attempting to explain. In his explanation of the First Amendment, particularly the portion dealing with the establishment of a state religion, his answer is clear – the wall of separation exists to protect the fundamental right of the citizen to worship God according to the “rights of conscious” rather than to have the government force the citizen to do anything against their conscious and the Supreme Being they choose to worship. Currently, we hear that any recognition in even the most general way towards a Supreme Being is a violation of the doctrine of separation of church and state. Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a conscious effort to remove references to Christianity and its impact on American history, American legal practice, and society. Any acknowledgment of the existence of the neutral concept of “Supreme Being” as used by the founding fathers is seen wholesale as an endorsement of Christianity and is decidedly removed from the public forum. In a very real sense, the thing that Jefferson said that the separation of church and state should never do – create an undue burden and and in some cases, a prohibition on the right of conscious.
In casual discussions, I have had some people respond that its finally about time that Christians in this country “learn their place”. Benjamin Franklin, born into the Anglican faith, actually came to hate orthodox Christianity as it was being practiced. He sought to find a purer understanding of what faith in a Supreme Being actually meant. During one of the meetings of the Second Continental Congress, Benjamin Franklin stated, “He who shall introduce into public affairs the principles of Christianity, will revolutionize the world,” and in his work, Poor Richard’s Almanac, he stated: “I think vital religion has always suffered when orthodoxy is more regarded than virtue. The scriptures assure me that at the last day we shall not be examined on what we thought but what we did.” A far cry from a man that has been studied and considered as an atheist by modern scholars.
At the heart of this first limitation on the powers of the federal government is the summation offered by again, Franklin: “Without Freedom of thought, there can be no such Thing as Wisdom; and no such thing as public Liberty, without Freedom of speech.” Freedom of religion, free from government interference, must be protected. The concept of personal freedom of religion for the citizen must be defended in order to preserve a free thinking society; those who do hold religious beliefs must be able to enjoy the freedom of conscious. They must be able to openly practice their faith, must be able to express the tenants of their religion and its teachings without fear of government retribution or reprisal for being deemed intolerant when compared to mainstream society.
From the standpoint of those that wrote the First Amendment, it is clear that they did not see any recognition by the national or state governments in a Supreme Being as being an infringement of any individual right. The term, God, was used as an ambiguous term – had they chose to use the language of the day, they could have referred to Christ Jesus, Allah, or any other name used for deities – but chose to leave it as “God”. Because of Enlightenment thought and the philosophes such as Voltaire, the concepts of Atheism, Agnosticism, Stoicism, and Cynicism were well known and at this time, it was considered that those who do not believe in a Supreme or Divine Being should not be offended by those who do. This generation of men were not sacrificing the rights of the minority to appease the majority but were trying to create a system that would allow for the ultimate expression of individuality – the ability to worship (or not worship) according to our own understanding and dictates of our own heart.
It is essential that freedom of worship be defended by the citizenry. With what has occurred in the Middle East – the so called “Arab Spring” – we are seeing the rise of a more radical, extreme form of Islam that has determined to expand Islam to the rest of the world. In its wake is religious intolerance, especially in Egypt where Coptic Christians are killed, their churches burned, and the survivors in fear for their lives. In Europe, intolerance towards Christianity and Judaism is on the rise and is often justified under the mindset of being tolerant of religious beliefs or humanist teachings that are in contrast to what has been considered the religious traditions of Europe. This same thing is beginning to happen within our own nation as efforts to limit religious liberty are passed at the local, state, and national level under the guise of promoting tolerance for all.
- Dodge, Nehemiah, Ephraim Robbins, et al. (1801) Letter to Thomas Jefferson from the Danbury Baptists, dated October 7, 1801. Internet. Accessed on September 30, 2013. Complete text available at: http://candst.tripod.com/tnppage/baptist.htm
- Jefferson, Thomas. (1801) Letter to the Danbury Baptists, dated January 1, 1802. Internet. Accessed September 30, 2013. Complete text available at: http://loc.gov/loc/lcib/9806/danpre.html