No Breach in the Wall of Separation

No Breach in the Wall of Separation July 2, 2016

Thomas Jefferson state room portrait

Okay, so I’ve established that Thomas Jefferson was no Christian. And given the intemperance of so many of his private comments, I could fill countless posts with his anti-Christian and anti-clerical statements.

But in this post, I will let the Virginia Voltaire speak for himself on the subject of the subject for which he’s best beloved in the atheist community: The wall of separation between Church and State.  The following is an excerpt from a letter to the the Danbury Baptist association of Connecticut. courtesy of the National Archives. It is this letter from which the phrase is derived.

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, 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. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

The Religious Right likes to claim that Jefferson never used the phrase “wall of separation between Church & State.” Such lies are getting harder and harder in this Age of Google. It took me all of half a second to find the entire letter online. Perhaps that’s why the line of argument it changing to, well, Jefferson didn’t really mean it the way we interpret the phrase.

They expect that people won’t really bother to do more digging. But Jefferson, a co-founder of the University of Virginia, opposed installing a Chair of Divinity. He was the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a foundation for the concept of separation of Church and State in the country at large. And as we’ve seen, he was hardly a fan of Christianity.

Furthermore, during his presidency, Jefferson refused to declare days of prayer, fasting, or thanksgiving, despite the fact that his two predecessors had.

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.*

And how about this from the bard of bad-mouthing.

In every country and in every age the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in dalliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.

Yup,  Tom didn’t really intend to keep religion out of politics.

Here is Part One, Part Two, Part Three of this continuing Founding Fathers series.

*Quotes drawn from Brooke Allen’s Moral Minority.

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