The media cannot seem to get enough of Delaware’s Republican Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell. For better or worse, she embodies an energized populist Christian wave, the core of the Tea Party movement, seemingly poised to crash against the Obama administration and the secular left on Election Day. (Admittedly, her prominence obscures the fact that among this cycle’s formidable group of evangelical Republican women candidates, O’Donnell is least likely to win.) O’Donnell’s recent comments about separation of church and state not being in the First Amendment sent the political Left into a frenzy, even as they quietly admitted that she was correct in a technical sense: the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” appears nowhere in the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson wrote it in an 1802 letter to a group of evangelical Baptists in Connecticut. Conservative Christians from O’Donnell to those on the Texas State Board of Education’s textbook committee have recently downplayed or even excised the phrase “wall of separation” as unrepresentative of the founders’ views on church-state relations. Better to focus on the First Amendment, they say, and especially its guarantee of the “free exercise of religion.”
Distinguished Yale historian Jon Butler offered a gloss on the meaning of the First Amendment’s free exercise and establishment clauses last week on the History News Network, but now I’d like to take a look at Jefferson’s “wall of separation” letter itself. A close historical examination reveals that Jefferson offers a middle way of church-state relations between the current poles of the secular Left and Christian Right. Jefferson and his evangelical Baptist supporters certainly believed in separation of church and state, particularly the ending of tax-supported denominations, which Connecticut and Massachusetts maintained well into the nineteenth century. This kind of religious establishment was the primary grievance of Jefferson’s correspondents, the Danbury Baptists. But neither they nor Jefferson envisioned church-state separation as meaning the total elimination of religion from American public life, the preference of some on the modern secular Left.
In October 1801 the Danbury Baptists wrote to Jefferson, lamenting Connecticut’s state-supported Congregationalist Church. The state offered them religious freedoms only “as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights,” they told the president. Jefferson wrote back sympathetically. He knew that as president he could not change Connecticut’s laws on the subject, but he reminded them that at least the national Congress could never make a law respecting an establishment of religion. The First Amendment, then, erected “a wall of separation between church and state.” Jefferson and James Madison thought separation of church and state entailed more than just the banning of official denominations (Jefferson, for example, refused to call for national days of prayer and fasting), but state-backed churches were clearly the core concern for both Jefferson and the Danbury Baptists.
Jefferson sent the “wall of separation” letter on New Year’s Day weekend of 1802. These were a busy few days for Jefferson, and a time he chose to highlight his ideals of religious liberty. That weekend, he received a prodigious gift from another New England Baptist, his staunch supporter Elder John Leland. On New Year’s Day, Leland ceremoniously delivered to the president a 1200-pound block of cheese, sent by the Baptists of Cheshire, Massachusetts. Inscribed on the cheese’s red crust was the motto “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” Then, that Sunday morning, Jefferson sat in the audience as Leland preached before a joint session of Congress. The signal Jefferson meant to send by attending this service was that he believed in real religious liberty, but not the purging of religion from the public sphere. To be sure, he didn’t approve of calling national days of prayer and fasting, but he did attend church services in the House chambers and routinely allowed such services in a variety of government buildings, too.
So what does Jefferson’s example tell us about the separation of church and state in the founding era? He believed in maximizing religious liberty, and getting the government to stop promoting specific denominations and policing people’s personal beliefs. But Jefferson was no modern-day secularist, either, as he could at least stomach attending church services in government buildings (especially when one of his devoted evangelical supporters was preaching!). Jefferson represents a kind of political animal we would never see today: a person skeptical about Jesus’s divinity and resurrection, yet backed by evangelical supporters who loved his deep commitment to religious liberty. He wanted to end sectarian religious preferences in law, but he generously honored a public role for religion. Despite his own doubts about Christianity, Jefferson realized that America was a place of both religious diversity and religious strength. His vision of church-state separation would protect these conditions under the expansive canopy of religious liberty. Maybe activists on both extremes of the debate over church-state relations today could learn something from his example.