Wall of separation

Posted in: Jefferson Today, Thomas Jefferson

Guest commentary

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. --Thomas Jefferson to Danbury Baptists, January 1, 1802

To our detriment, Jefferson's "wall of separation" concept has often been grossly misapplied to individual speech that references religion.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the public schools where the concept tends to be used as justification for censoring, silencing and discriminating against religious individuals.

But Jefferson held a balanced view in that he did not intend his "wall of separation" metaphor to seal religion off hermetically from governmental functions or public life.  Jefferson referred to the First Amendment religion clauses as an "expression of the supreme will of the nation on behalf of the rights of conscience."  Jefferson was apparently more concerned about governmental control over religious persons and institutions than he was about any influence that religious persons and institutions might exert upon government.

Furthermore, Jefferson's actions as President, as well as the bills concerning religion he had written earlier for the Virginia House of Delegates, demonstrated that he did not espouse the strict separationism often attributed to him.  Rather, he was a champion of free speech, including religious free speech and religious freedom in general.

In the ongoing struggle for religious freedom, we must be mindful of maintaining "the wall of separation" while protecting the right of individuals to freely exercise their religion in an increasingly secular society, both in and out of government as well as public places.

John W. Whitehead is president of the Rutherford Institute in Charlottesville, Va.


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Thank you so much for the link. I had searched, but hadn't found it. I especially enjoyed the lecture on Jefferson's religion at William & Mary!



We did do a blog post on Jefferson Today about the Texas Vote. The url is http://www.jeffersontoday.org/2010/03/15/jefferson-cut-from-texas-curric...

However, the real discussion took place on our Facebook page, and I think the board ultimately decided to keep Jefferson in that particular part of its curriculum.

P.S. you may also enjoy this image from May, just before the vote:



I am very astonished to discover, even here, no outcry over the fact that Jefferson is currently being erased from our upcoming textbooks (as reported in the NY Times articles "Texas Conservatives Win Curriculum Changes", March 12 and "How Christian Were the Founders" in February). The February article makes the reason clearer, as do some comments here - the point is to show the founders 'intended a Christian nation'. Jefferson, who openly fought for freedom of beliefs ('a matter between each man' conscience and God only'), wrote the bill and who states clearly in his Autobiography that our freedoms were meant to include 'the Jew, the Christian, the Mahometan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every domination' has to go to, to foist this "Truth" upon the next generation of children and their parents. Two recurrent ploys used: 'It's nowhere in the Constitution!' (No, it's in The Bill of Rights, I believe, with all our other rights) and citing The Mayflower Compact as the "proof" of our founders intentions 180 years later. These were the very laws the founders fought to repeal, as Jefferson makes clear in Query XVII of his Notes on Virginia and in various letters - the laws punishing 'heresy' ('the crime of disagreeing with us', Voltaire called it) with burning, and by which Quakers were executed in New England.

Comments about Jefferson being Episcopalian or loving the Baptists are highly misleading. All the founders were indeed raised in one Christian sect or another. Most were also highly aware of the 'ecclesiastical strifes of Protestant Popedom in America','who would all pillory and roast if they could' as Adams put it in a letter to Jefferson on May 18, 1817. The oceans of blood spilled by Christian sects at each others' throats throughout The Protestant Reformation, The Thirty Year War, the burnings of heretics, witches and books, the genocide of some 12 million 'heathens',
Crusades, Inquisitions, etc., had turned most of them into deists (in its original sense - to believe in God, but not religion). This is why both Jefferson and Voltaire hoped that education (including science and real history) would one day free religion from 'miracles' and nonsense to salvage only what should be retained - morality and love of God. This is also why Jefferson rewrote the New Testament (twice) in what's misleadingly called The Jefferson Bible. He preferred to attribute the superstitious, fanatical bits to later 'authors', whose 'feeble minds' had been unable to grasp the purer morals (humility,simplicity, neglect of worldly ambitions and honors) he felt were truly taught
by Jesus. (See his letters to William Short and Van der Kemp during his revision of 1820.)

It was also rightly stated here that this deistic, less tribal vision of God does not work for many. This is why Jefferson never dreamed of imposing his own views. I'm not at all sure they were even published during his lifetime. But that he and Voltaire were both right about teaching real history in schools (whatever people want to hear in churches), I have seen in Europe. Though every country, naturally, is a bit egocentric towards its own history, there is a large body of objectively true knowledge every child is taught - history that includes the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Jews, the Muslims and other countries (including America). I was embarrassed when I first moved here to discover that most Europeans knew more about American history, in fact, than I did. 'Catholic' France still teaches all their kids about The Protestant Reformation, The Enlightenment, The Crusades, The Inquisition with no religious bias, and a sixth-grader here just shakes his head when listening to a George Bush or Sarah Palin. They retain the right to homeschool, if they like, but there is a National Curriculum their children still pass the same exams on, if they hope for any diplomas, and no one would be considered for any halfway serious type of job without those diplomas. Much less political office, or even to lead a religious congregation.

I forgot to mention earlier than in the reform of our curriculum (for publishers kowtow to Texas, as the call-ins to the npr program shows), Jefferson is not only to be erased, he is to be replaced by Calvin and Thomas Aquinas as those who 'influenced our freedoms'. But as a religious scholar quipped, Calvin, who burned Servitus at the stake, would probably also be appalled!


I visited Jefferson's Montpelier two years ago and was struck by level of participation of its previous owner. It is upon that idea that I base my comments. Following the logic of Rick Wellbeloved-Stone, no confessed believer of any religion has any place in public life. I do not think that is what Jefferson had in mind. There are, in fact, other key points to remember.

The government to which Jefferson referred was the federal government. The State governments of the time already had State religions (e.g. Massachusetts Bay Colony, The Quaker State, etc). Still, other States outright forbade religious freedom. New Jersey, for example, did not allow Catholics to hold office until around 1844. This is all said to show the obvious: the government to which Jefferson referred was the federal government. There was no need to write that States could not have State (capital "S") religions because to do so would have been political suicide.

So, taking into account that the government to which he referred was federal, what is the best understanding of his meaning? Undoubtedly, Jefferson knew about the various (S)tate religions. He therefore was likely concerned with avoiding a corresponding (s)tate religion. The variation in capitalization is meant to show the difference between sovereign States (e.g. Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee) and sovereign States (e.g. Canada, Mexico, and Bolivia). At the time, the States were considered sovereign. Virginia was a sovereign State and state. As a State, she was subject to the jurisdiction of the federal government on its enumerated powers notwithstanding the secession argument to the contrary. As a state, she retained all other powers not specifically delegated to the federal government, including the power to have a state religion.

Taken in this light, Jefferson wanted to convey the importance of the idea that no such state religion should exist on a federal level. Why? Because under such a system, people could be excluded from government participation based on their religion (as was the case with New Jersey). This would be tantamount to "taxation without representation" as espoused by Johnathan Mayhew. This was something Jefferson - along with his colonist compatriots - would not tolerate.

It is also important to note that government established religion and religious expression by people in government are analytically distinct. The former precludes the state from passing laws of a particular religious set; for example, passing laws that force a person to adhere to a particular religion like praying while facing Mecca or attending confession. Conversely, the former (religious expression in the government) was totally acceptable as evinced by the customs of the day. For example, while the colonists were yet fighting for their independence, they passed the congressional prayer proclamation of 1779. Jefferson himself referred to rights endowed upon man by his Creator in the Declaration of Independence. It seems to be the acme of foolishness to suggest that only a few years later he would undergo a radical paradigm shift; namely, the idea that religious expression has no place in government.

Next, the expression of religion in the halls of government is clearly implied in the 1st Amendment to the Constitution. Many naysayers love to point out the language that reads "make no law respecting an establishment of religion" but they forget the rest of the sentence that reads "or the free exercise thereof." To be certain, people, in the name of religion, are not allowed to do absolutely anything they choose (thankfully). But the second part of the sentence should be construed to convey the greatest - and not the least - amount of latitude when dealing with questions of church and state. Should the amendment be so narrowly construed as to mean that you can practice the free exercise of religion as long as it is not on government property, in government buildings, on government streets, in government housing, in government funded schools, or near government in general? I don't think that line of reasoning is logical. For the question would be: where, then, can I exercise my religion? The answer: not many places.

Finally, to those who hold that allowing religious iconography or symbolism on public property is an affront, I propose there are at least two very good reasons for allowing these. First, as Judge Roy Moore stated, western-jurisprudence was built upon the foundation of Judeo/Christian principles (i.e. the Ten Commandments). So under current law, to allow a display of the Ten Commandments is not promoting a religion so much as a tip of the hat to the corresponding factual history. There are those who would like to be revisionist and claim that religion played only a minor role in the formation of our laws but any such claim is wholly disingenuous. Secondly, if we hold that the government is supposed to be representative of the people, then to allow such symbolism is fully in line with that mission. The government is to be by, for, and of the people. Such displays, then, are only a reflection of the citizens who imbue the government with power for as Jefferson opined, “Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” That is one of the distinguishing characteristics of our country; popular sovereignty means the people rule. Within the constitutional framework, it is entirely permissible to allow the "ruling people" the ability to have their beliefs reflected/expressed on government property. This is true freedom of expression. Of course, the sword cuts both ways. Any religion, so inclined, should be able to have their symbolism allowed on public property. The only way for the government to step across the proverbial line would be to allow one display of a particular religious type and not allow another. There may be disagreement of what constitutes a religion but that is incidental to such a policy.


I wonder what Mr. Wellbeloved-Stone would think of President Thomas Jefferson chairing the D.C. school board and authoring the first plan of education that was adopted by the city, in which this plan used the Bible and Isaac Watt's "Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs" as reading primers?


Tiger Woods love life is his private matter. People reserve the right to have private lives. Regardless of your sentiments to Tiger's Morality your trashing his love life is regressing our society.

Kingdoms of the Earth, that have changed the treatment of Men and Women hold one item in high regard, and that is the Individuals Rights to Privacy. These rights were imitated from Solomon through other Kingdoms from Suleiman, to America itself. King Solomon is one of the central Biblical figures in Jewish heritage that have lasting religious, national and political aspects "golden age" of the independent Israel. As Suleiman stabilized his European frontiers and slave could break his chains to attain Senator or Grand Vizier. Suleiman the Magnificent[1] and in the East, as the Lawmaker (in Turkish Kanuni; Arabic: ), for his complete reconstruction of the Ottoman legal system where private lives had regard.

America touted an even a more liberal and progressive Republic where Natural Rights became their Citizens Civil Rights. These Rights to Privacy became American values and character when dealing with The King and His Moral Order of the Church. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Paine.. delivered us from a Tyrant who claimed responsibility meant to be obedient to his moral order and philosophy of man. Franklin more notably was ridiculed in Philadelphia and London as a womanizer with loose morals. The differentiation between their Political Service and Private Lives distinguished them as Notable Statesman who would Rebel against the Church of England and its King the State. Leaving America with a clear Separation of Powers. Good Day.

With appreciation and best wishes,

Steven D. Cords


Mr. Whitehead’s statement “To our detriment, Jefferson’s “wall of separation” concept has often been grossly misapplied to individual speech that references religion. Nowhere is this more evident than in the public schools where the concept tends to be used as justification for censoring, silencing and discriminating against religious individuals,” is an example of rhetorical mendacity calculated to impose “his” religious belief and his alone on our children.

He begins by misstating the issue. It should be kept in mind that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence to establish the individual as the political equal of any other, regardless of his station, and as such, the repository of all his rights with the authority to determine their nature and extent, and in a phrase that is too often overlooked, said; “… to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.”

He later penned the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom to deny to any sect the imprimatur of official government approval with all of it’s attendant coercive authority. It’s particularly instructive to recall that the statute was first rejected by the prevailing religious establishment, [Anglican] and later by the rest of the sects all of which wanted to be established as the “church in charge”. The result was that it took James Madison over six years to manage it through the assembly.

Thus, Mr. Whitehead’s charge that Jefferson’s metaphorical wall of separation [which flows a fortiori from the words of the First Amendment] is being used to deny Americans their religious freedom is mendacious, in that its application in fact protects the rights of all Americans to exercise his or her religion as he pleases, without civil disability or penalty; which suggests to me that his interest in religious freedom is limited to his alone.

Indeed, were it not for the “Wall” Jefferson spoke of in his letter, all religious sects would be entitled to equal time in the school room by application of the 14th Amendment.


Listening to Thomas 'Kip' McKean grandson of Thomas McKean(an American lawyer and politician from New Castle, in New Castle County, Delaware, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania during the American Revolution) 6 December 2009 in Los Angeles, CA. He related how Paul of Tarsus, Pharisee, was reasoning every Shabbath in the Corinth Synagogue trying to persuade Jews and Greeks. Beginning in Act 18:7-16
7 Then Paul left the synagogue and went next door to the house of Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. 8Crispus, the synagogue ruler, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard him believed and were baptized.

9One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: "Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. 10For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city." 11So Paul stayed for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God.

12While Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him into court. 13"This man," they charged, "is persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law."

14Just as Paul was about to speak, Gallio said to the Jews, "If you Jews were making a complaint about some misdemeanor or serious crime, it would be reasonable for me to listen to you. 15But since it involves questions about words and names and your own law—settle the matter yourselves. I will not be a judge of such things." 16So he had them ejected from the court.


Judging by his picture the author takes himself way too seriously


I would like to respectfullypoint out in response to the post about students being prohibited from praying in a public K-12 school -- children certainly have a right to pray in school, it's called the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. What is prohibited under the establishment clause is the government mandating or even encouraging religious observances -- the state must remain completely impartial.

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