Separation of Church and State. I know of very few statements that carry so much emotion and so much misconception at the same time. Our education system stifles religious expression with this phrase. Our court systems have failed America with their rulings misapplying this phrase. Our churches have been negligent to their responsibilities because of this phrase. The culmination of all this wrong doing has led this nation down a road that, may I boldly say, our founders never intended. And now, even our government has attempted to deny our wounded warriors their very fundamental principles of faith; all because we have failed to understand the history that motivated Thomas Jefferson to make this statement to the Danbury Baptists in 1802.
What would we do as a nation if we owned the truth about Jefferson’s statements in this letter? Would we have the courage to change things? Would we have the courage to stand against the false premises and give truth the victory? Well, let’s see, because here is the truth.
When the first settler’s came to the continent in the name of religious liberty, they established charter governments. Each new settlement had a new charter. These charters wanted to make sure that they would never be prevented from practicing their religion again, so the charters contained provisions that ensured that ability. Each charter established the religion of the colony. They also contained provisions called “test acts”. Test acts were oaths that each person had to take before they were eligible to hold any governmental office. These oaths required a sworn allegiance to the religion of that charter. Additionally, part of the laws of these charters established means for persons of this religion to receive a license from the charter government to build a church or preach the established religion. So, if you were not of the faith of the charter, you were not able to obtain a license to preach or build a church. If you were not of the faith of the charter, you were not able to hold office to change the law so you could build a church or preach from a pulpit. Not a great advancement in religious liberty, but the charter worked for those of like faith and practice.
The problem came when a religious denomination was not represented in any of the charters of the new colonies. This was a particular problem for the pastors and preachers of the Baptist denomination. Men like Obadiah Holmes could not take a license to preach. Even if they would, they could not profess a denomination they did not support, so they could not have an official church, and could not legally preach in any charter. History tells us that this did not stop these men from preaching. However, it did hold some dire consequences. If you doubt me, go ahead and research these men. They were arrested, fined, imprisoned, and tortured for refusing to take a license to preach. And yes, that happened right here, in the new American Colonies.
Several states, most prominently Virginia, refused to ratify the proposed Constitution because they felt:
“Whether the new Federal Constitution, which had now lately made its appearance in public, made sufficient provision for the secure enjoyment of religious liberty; on which it was agreed unanimously that, in the opinion of the General Committee, it did not.”
Virginia was led in this stand by the Virginia Baptist General Convention. A Baptist Pastor, by the name of John Leland was the head of this group. Virginia wanted Pastor Leland to be the delegate for Virginia in the Constitutional Convention. Pastor Leland did not want to be a delegate; he wanted to remain a pastor. However, John Leland was a strong advocate for religious liberty. He said,
“Every man must give account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in that way that he can best reconcile it to his conscience. If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise let me be free.”
John Leland met with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and struck a deal. He offered James Madison his position as delegate for the state of Virginia as long as Madison promised he would make sure there was sufficient protections for religious liberty; namely a Bill of Rights. Madison made his promise and held to it, being not only an ardent proponent for religious liberty, but for the entire Bill of Rights. If you are interested in a fairly good account of this agreement, you can find this story in movie titled, Magnificent Heritage.
Once the Constitution was ratified and the Bill of Rights adopted, several founders tried to pass a bill to establish a tax to pay for Christian Teachers. Many of the founders, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to mention two, were adamantly opposed to this taxation. They felt this taxation was a direct assault on the religious liberty they had fought so hard to protect. They felt that:
“…it is believed to be repugnant to the spirit of the gospel for the legislature thus to proceed in matters of religion; that the holy author of our religion needs no such compulsive measures for the promotion of his cause; that the gospel wants not the feeble arm of man for its support; that it has made and will again through divine power make its way against all opposition; and that should the legislature assume the right of taxing the people for the support of the gospel it will be destructive to religious liberty.”
They knew that where the government taxed they had an obligation to regulate. If Christian Teachers were to be paid, even in part by taxes collected from the people they would become employees of the government. Where the government employs, they will also, dictate. (Precisely why vouchers are dangerous for Christian schools) The supporters of religious liberty prevailed and the bill was defeated.
What most fail to see is that religious liberty is a Judeo-Christian view. In the Letters from a Federal Farmer, the author stated,
“It is true, we are not disposed to differ much, at present, about religion; but when we are making a constitution it is to be hoped for ages and millions yet unborn, why not establish the free exercise of religion, as a part of the national compact.”
Our founders were fighting for a nation where, in the words of John Leland all would be “equally free – Jews, Turks, Pagans, AND Christians”. They knew from history that an attack on anyone’s religious liberty would be destructive to everyone’s religious liberty; for, where the government, through power or sword can dictate, there is no liberty. So, when Thomas Jefferson was elected president, the Danbury Baptists wanted to encourage their new president to continue to fight to maintain religious liberty. In a letter to President Jefferson they congratulated him on being elected and encouraged him to stand firm on this issue. President Jefferson responded to this letter in 1802 with the following words:
“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 and State.”
Now combine that explanation with the clarification offered by Jefferson in the second Session of Congress, regarding the adoption of the act for “establishing religious freedom”:
“…that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion, and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on their supposition of ill tendency, is a dangerous fallacy which at once destroys all liberty, it is declared, that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government for its officers to interfere when its principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order.”
Thomas Jefferson was making a statement that the Government has no business in the affairs of the church – period. If you take into account the very words of Jefferson and even those of Ben Franklin it is clear that they never intended for the people’s Government to attempt to eradicate every evidence or mention of God from any arena of society. The intent of the founders was not to establish the government as a God-free zone, but to ensure that matters of religious conscience and practice was a government free-zone, except where “its principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order.”
Thomas Jefferson said , “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift from God?”
Benjamin Franklin said this at the Constitutional Convention: “In the beginning of the Contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayer in this room for Divine protection…. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of Superintending Providence in our favor…have we now forgotten that powerful Friend? or do we imagine we no longer need His assistance?…. God Governs in the affairs of men And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?”
Unfortunately for America the courts have not taken the time to understand this text in its historical context. I find it ironic really that we finally have the judges recognizing that to truly and correctly interpret a provision in the Constitution it is vital to refer to the intentions of the Founders. Yet, in the one instance where they do quote a founder, they get it entirely wrong. Is that a sign of judicial activism: the courts using whatever they can lay their hands on conveniently to propel their agenda? Or is it simply ignorance of history and misapplication of principles? I can’t help but think that if some attorney had taken the time to present an historically correct argument the courts would have never have been able to take Jefferson’s quote completely out of context and create a ruling that has changed the face of Liberty.
Jefferson’s words ‘separation of church and state’ were a declaration that the government has no business in the affairs of the church. He did not invent that principle, he inherited it from his fathers. Henry I declared in the 1100 Charter of Liberties, a promise that Kings would no longer be evil and oppressive, that the Church would be FREE from government intrusion. This principle is the very foundation for the 1st Amendment protection of Freedom of Religion believed and incorporated by our founders into our Constitution through the Bill of Rights.
By Jefferson’s own words, this was never to imply that God had no place in government. Now you have the truth and to whom much is given, much is required. The responsibility remains with the people to make a difference. WE must force the truth to be heard. WE must continue to let this lamp of experience guide us into the future. WE must elect people who understand the true foundation of America. We must bring Liberty back to America, for our children.