Evangelicals must blame or thank the Baptists. I’m referring to the “wall of separation between church and state.” After all, those free-church dissenters are why the phrase was concocted. It’s ironic that the spiritual ancestors of today’s religious conservatives are responsible for what most vexes my co-religionists.
When I was a Washington, DC, religious right activist in the 1990s and early 2000s, we called that metaphorical wall “the Supreme Court’s atheistic brick wall.” Plenty of us banged our heads against it in our efforts to re-establish America as a “Christian nation.”
What I’ve come to realize since leaving the religious right is that the wall is there for a good reason–and we have early American evangelicals to thank for it!
How We Got The Wall Of Separation
On New Year’s Day, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson dictated these words to his correspondence secretary:
“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.”
Jefferson’s assurance was part of a letter in response to one he had received a few months earlier from the Danbury Baptist Association in the state of Connecticut. Its officers had written him to express their support in the face of withering criticism for Jefferson’s not declaring a national day of prayer. The Baptists found it scandalous that Christian leaders “should reproach their chief Magistrate, as an enemy of religion Law & good order because he will not, dares not assume the prerogative of Jehovah and make Laws to govern the Kingdom of Christ.”
Supreme Court Adopts The Wall
In 1947, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black referenced Jefferson’s “wall of separation” in his authored majority opinion in favor of the Ewing Township, New Jersey school board. The board argued that reimbursing parents for their transportation costs to get their kids to private schools–many of them Catholic–did not violate the Constitution’s religious establishment clause. In other words, the case affirmed religious liberty. This is how the phrase “separation of church and state” entered the talk of constitutional rights. Religious conservatives have considered “the wall” as code for anti-Christian bias. The phrase came to represent what most vexed them.
The Wall Protects The Persecuted
Back to that letter, though. Jefferson assured the Connecticut Baptists that the First Amendment erected this protective wall because some were apprehensive about his church membership. He was affiliated with the Church of Virginia, a vestige of the old Church of England–the one-time only official, legal church of Thomas’s home state, the Commonwealth of Virginia. Baptists had been arrested and jailed in Virginia for ministering without a proper Church of Virginia license. Even after disestablishment in 1786, Baptists and other religious minorities were routinely harassed. Sometimes, tensions rose to violence, and a few Baptists had even been drowned in a mockery of their practice of total immersion. Not only so, but Connecticut still had an established church, Congregationalism. Though slightly more congenial to their immersing residents than Virginia’s establishmentarians were, the Congregationalists still treated Baptists as second-class Connecticuters.
Jefferson’s Views On Church And State
In his letter, Jefferson made clear he did not believe the government had any authority to tell citizens what they may or may not think, especially regarding religious belief. He also affirmed his support of the Establishment Clause, forbidding the federal government from declaring an official religion for the populace. That would rule out what some MAGA voices advocate, like former Trump Security Advisor and retired Army lieutenant general Michael Flynn. Flynn told a large, primarily evangelical audience at a quasi-revival meeting, “If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion.” Of course, Flynn has also urged Trump to suspend the Constitution, which would have allowed the breach of the legal prohibition.
Conservative Christians have always been somewhat suspicious of Jefferson due to the Third President’s production of a redacted New Testament entitled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. The story goes that Jefferson used a razor blade to cut out references to miracles, other non-scientific content, and what he believed were spurious additions by the authors of the four gospels. If he were here today, my coreligionists would likely call Jefferson a “godless liberal.”
Notwithstanding Jefferson’s religious skepticism–or perhaps because of it–he was the one who authored the famous 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which laid the groundwork for that relevant First Amendment clause–and protected persecuted evangelical Christians.
The Fruit Of An Unlikely Marriage
Americans should not forget the Baptist-Jeffersonian alliance. It’s why so many religions and their related communities have flourished in the United States. Passionate Bible believers partnered with a religious skeptic to ensure both were free to follow the dictates of their respective consciences.
As a result of that unlikely alliance of 1802, this country is one of the freest in the world regarding faith. We evangelicals owe a debt of gratitude to our Baptist forbearers.
I Bless The Baptists For The Wall
Thank you, Baptists of yore, for taking a bold leap in appealing to your non-believing president. Your wise actions left a rich legacy of personal freedom for your descendants and all Americans to enjoy!
To my fellow evangelicals: When you grouse about that “wall” and are tempted to violate it in the spirit of Christian nationalism, remember your progenitors and their doubting chief executive–as well as the Supreme Court justice who reinforced their shared resolve to keep this country free from an imposed religion. Instead of griping, be thankful that liberalism guarantees you your God-given rights!