John Garvey, the president of Catholic University, has written an op-ed piece in which he explains why his institution is joining scores of other Catholic groups in filing a lawsuit against the contraceptive & abortifacient mandate in Obamacare. In the course of his essay (in which he mentions also the Hossana-Tabor case involving the LCMS school), Garvey discusses the “wall of separation of church and state,” finding the metaphor’s origins not in Thomas Jefferson (who wanted to protect the state from the church) but, earlier, in Roger Williams (who wanted to protect the church from the state):
When the Supreme Court first considered the issue of aid to parochial schools in the 1947 case Everson v. Board of Education , it invoked separation as a limiting principle. The court quoted Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Conn.: “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.”
Jefferson was a child of the Enlightenment, suspicious of organized religion. He believed that efforts to establish an official religion led to persecution and civil war.
The metaphor was not original to Jefferson, though. Roger Williams, who founded the colony of Rhode Island on principles of religious tolerance, used it in 1644. History has shown, he observed, that when churches “have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall . . . and made his garden a wilderness.”
Williams had different reasons than Jefferson for preaching separation. Jefferson thought that religion was bad for government. Williams thought that mixing church and state was bad for the church.
These two perspectives often give us the same results. They both warn against tax support for churches and against prayers composed by public school boards. But Williams’s theological metaphor may have been more influential than Jefferson’s political one in the adoption of the First Amendment.
Not just a “wall” of separation but a “hedge” of separation. The church is a garden. The world is a wilderness. Making a hole in the hedge is punished by God who turns the garden into a wilderness. Powerful metaphors. Apply them to current issues.
And yet, is Rogers’ formulation adequate? He was a Baptist, so we see here elements of the doctrine of separation from the world. Is the secular arena more than just a wilderness?