Former war criminal Allen West is joining the chorus of right wing inanity about the Kim Davis situation, and he’s adding in a pile of historical nonsense about Thomas Jefferson and separation of church and state. He flatly declares, but doesn’t even attempt to support, that Jefferson’s wall of separation was only designed to prevent having a king that was both head of state and head of the church.
And so it begins. Sadly, it seems America has truly forgotten the intent of Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury (CT) Baptist Convention on the subject of separation of church and state. It was Jefferson’s intent to not have in America a head of state who was also head of church, ala King Henry VIII and the establishment of the Church of England.
Jefferson didn’t want the state to establish religion that would lead to state persecution of religious freedom — the reason why the Pilgrims came to America. That’s why the First Amendment to our US Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In America, the citizen has the freedom of religion; the state can’t institute an atmosphere of freedom from religion.
Absolute nonsense. Jefferson did not believe or say that the First Amendment only forbid an actual religious establishment of the sort seen throughout Europe up to that point. In fact, he believed that it forbid the government from taking any position at all about religion. When he was president, he refused to issue even purely advisory declarations of prayer and thanksgiving, something both of his predecessors had done. In a letter to Rev. Samuel Miller, he explained why:
Sir, — I have duly received your favor of the 18th and am thankful to you for having written it, because it is more agreeable to prevent than to refuse what I do not think myself authorized to comply with. I consider the government of the U S. as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. This results not only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment, or free exercise, of religion, but from that also which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the U.S. Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. It must then rest with the states, as far as it can be in any human authority. But it is only proposed that I should recommend, not prescribe a day of fasting & prayer. That is, that I should indirectly assume to the U.S. an authority over religious exercises which the Constitution has directly precluded them from. It must be meant too that this recommendation is to carry some authority, and to be sanctioned by some penalty on those who disregard it; not indeed of fine and imprisonment, but of some degree of proscription perhaps in public opinion. And does the change in the nature of the penalty make the recommendation the less a law of conduct for those to whom it is directed? I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct it’s exercises, it’s discipline, or it’s doctrines; nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting & prayer are religious exercises. The enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, & the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it.
I am aware that the practice of my predecessors may be quoted. But I have ever believed that the example of state executives led to the assumption of that authority by the general government, without due examination, which would have discovered that what might be a right in a state government, was a violation of that right when assumed by another. Be this as it may, every one must act according to the dictates of his own reason, & mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the U S. and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.
James Madison was even more adamant that the separation should remain absolutely strict. He opposed having chaplains in the military, a position that even the ACLU does not take today.