Sunday, January 1, 2012

Thomas Jefferson and the separation of church and state

(image from Beltway Atheists)

It was 209 years ago today, on January 1, 1802, that President Thomas Jefferson wrote his famous letter to the Baptists of Banbury, CT, about the "wall of separation between Church & State."

The Danbury Baptist Association was worried about religious persecution, because they were a minority sect in Connecticut. Baptists back then had long supported the separation of church and state (I guess things tend to look different when you're a minority, yourself), and they were worried about the Connecticut constitution, which had no guarantee of freedom of religion.

Note that the U.S. Bill of Rights had already been ratified - more than ten years previously - so there was no question of the United States government mandating any particular religious beliefs. Also, note that it wasn't until the 14th Amendment was adopted, in 1868, that these rights clearly applied to the states, too. So many state constitutions did not guarantee freedom of religion at this time.

Here's their letter to Jefferson. Skipping the salutation and the valediction, this is what it says:
Our Sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty — That Religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals — That no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious Opinions - That the legitimate Power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor: But Sir our constitution of government [in Connecticut, he means] is not specific. Our ancient charter together with the Laws made coincident therewith, were adopted on the Basis of our government, at the time of our revolution; and such had been our Laws & usages, and such still are; that Religion is considered as the first object of Legislation; and therefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights: and these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgements, as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen. It is not to be wondered at therefore; if those, who seek after power & gain under the pretense of government & Religion should reproach their fellow men — should reproach their chief Magistrate, as an enemy of religion Law & good order because he will not, dare not assume the prerogatives of Jehovah and make Laws to govern the Kingdom of Christ.

Sir, we are sensible that the President of the United States, is not the national legislator, and also sensible that the national government cannot destroy the Laws of each State [again, it's clear that he's talking about his state's laws]; but our hopes are strong that the sentiments of our beloved President, which have had such genial affect already, like the radiant beams of the Sun, will shine and prevail through all these States and all the world till Hierarchy and Tyranny be destroyed from the Earth. Sir, when we reflect on your past services, and see a glow of philanthropy and good will shining forth in a course of more than thirty years we have reason to believe that America's God has raised you up to fill the chair of State out of that good will which he bears to the Millions which you preside over. May God strengthen you for the arduous task which providence & the voice of the people have cald you to sustain and support you in your Administration against all the predetermined opposition of those who wish to rise to wealth & importance on the poverty and subjection of the people.

This letter was dated October 7, 1801, but didn't reach the President until December 30th. He wrote a reply immediately, sending the draft to two members of his cabinet for comment, finishing the final draft on New Year's Day. (The details are here. I'll get to some of that in a bit.)

Here is Jefferson's final draft. Again, skipping just the salutation and valediction, this is all of it:
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.

Note that Jefferson is "contemplating" the First Amendment in the U.S. Bill of Rights, which had been ratified more than ten years previously. None of this is new. It was a long established position which Jefferson had first written into Virginia's laws and then into the U.S. Constitution.

But it was that phrase about a "wall of separation," so clear, so unmistakable, which caught the attention of Americans in future generations - and which has been noted in the many court cases which have reaffirmed religious liberty in America since then.

President Jefferson thought that this was important enough to reply immediately, even over the New Year. And he worked on that reply. Through modern forensic methods, we can see his earlier drafts, too. This wasn't a casual note, not at all.

But it was also a political document. Our Founding Fathers, whatever else they were, were skilled politicians. They needed to be. Well, in a democracy, that's how we resolve our differences. That's a good thing.

"Politician" has become a dirty word in America, because there are many interests which would prefer that fewer people vote, that fewer people pay attention to our political process at all. Oligarchs can generally get their own way if ordinary people just throw up their hands in disgust. So it's to their advantage to destroy America's faith in our own political institutions.

At any rate, I thought that this article by James Hutson, a curator at the Library of Congress, was quite interesting, in part because it explains Jefferson's political interests in writing this letter (not that he didn't mean it, of course, but he was a politician).

An excerpt:
The edited draft of the letter reveals that, far from being dashed off as a "short note of courtesy," as some have called it, Jefferson labored over its composition. For reasons unknown, the address of the Danbury Baptists, dated Oct. 7, 1801, did not reach Jefferson until Dec. 30, 1801. Jefferson drafted his response forthwith and submitted it to the two New England Republican politicians in his Cabinet, Postmaster General Gideon Granger of Connecticut and Attorney General Levi Lincoln of Massachusetts. Granger responded to Jefferson on Dec. 31.

The next day, New Year's Day, was a busy one for the president, who received and entertained various groups of well-wishers, but so eager was he to complete his answer to the Danbury Baptists that, amid the hubbub, he sent his draft to Lincoln with a cover note explaining his reasons for writing it. Lincoln responded immediately; just as quickly, Jefferson edited the draft to conform to Lincoln's suggestions, signed the letter and released it, all on New Year's Day, 1802.

That Jefferson consulted two New England politicians about his messages indicated that he regarded his reply to the Danbury Baptists as a political letter, not as a dispassionate theoretical pronouncement on the relations between government and religion. His letter, he told Lincoln in his New Year's Day note, was meant to gratify public opinion in Republican strongholds like Virginia, "being seasoned to the Southern taste only."

Expressing his views in a reply to a public address also indicated that Jefferson saw himself operating in a political mode, for by 1802 Americans had come to consider replies to addresses, first exploited as political pep talks by John Adams in 1798, as the prime vehicles for the dissemination of partisan views. A few weeks earlier, on Nov. 20, 1801, Jefferson had, in fact, used a reply to an address from the Vermont legislature to signal his intention to redeem a campaign promise by proposing a tax reduction at the beginning of the new session of Congress in December.

In his New Year's note to Lincoln, Jefferson revealed that he hoped to accomplish two things by replying to the Danbury Baptists. One was to issue a "condemnation of the alliance between church and state." [my emphasis] This he accomplished in the first, printed, part of the draft. Jefferson's strictures on church-state entanglement were little more than rewarmed phrases and ideas from his Statute Establishing Religious Freedom (1786) and from other, similar statements. To needle his political opponents, Jefferson paraphrased a passage, that "the legitimate powers of government extend to ... acts only" and not to opinions, from the Notes on the State of Virginia, which the Federalists had shamelessly distorted in the election of 1800 in an effort to stigmatize him as an atheist. So politicized had church-state issues become by 1802 [not so different from today, huh?] that Jefferson told Lincoln that he considered the articulation of his views on the subject, in messages like the Danbury Baptist letter, as ways to fix his supporters' "political tenets."

Airing the Republican position on church-state relations was not, however, Jefferson's principal reason for writing the Danbury Baptist letter. He was looking, he told Lincoln, for an opportunity for "saying why I do not proclaim fastings & thanksgivings, as my predecessors did" and latched onto the Danbury address as the best way to broadcast his views on the subject. Although using the Danbury address was "awkward" -- it did not mention fasts and thanksgivings -- Jefferson pressed it into service to counter what he saw as an emerging Federalist plan to exploit the thanksgiving day issue to smear him, once again, as an infidel.

Jefferson's hand was forced by the arrival in the United States in the last week of November 1801 of what the nation's newspapers called the "momentous news" of the conclusion between Britain and France of the Treaty of Amiens, which relieved the young American republic of the danger that had threatened it for years of being drawn into a devastating European war. Washington had proclaimed a national thanksgiving in 1796 to commemorate a much more ambiguous foreign policy achievement, the ratification of Jay's Treaty that attempted to adjust outstanding differences with Great Britain. Would Jefferson, the Federalists archly asked, not imitate the example of his illustrious predecessor and bid the nation to thank God for its delivery from danger by the Treaty of Amiens? The voice of New England Federalism, the Boston Columbian Centinel, cynically challenged Jefferson to act. "It is highly probable," said the Centinel on Nov. 28, 1801, "that on the receipt of the news of Peace in Europe, the President will issue a Proclamation recommending a General Thanksgiving. The measure, it is hoped, will not be denounced by the democrats as unconstitutional, as previous Proclamations have been." [Note that Jefferson's political party was the "Democratic-Republican Party," so the terminology can be confusing.]

The Centinel and its Federalist readers knew that Jefferson would never issue a Thanksgiving proclamation, for to him and the Republican faithful in the middle and southern states, presidential thanksgivings and fasts were anathema, an egregious example of the Federalists' political exploitation of religion. Federalist preachers had routinely used fast and thanksgiving days to revile Jefferson and his followers, going so far in 1799 as to suggest that a Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic was a divine punishment for Republican godlessness.

Funny, huh? Of course, that wasn't today's Republican Party. But it's still pretty funny, I'd say. And not only were our Founding Fathers politicians, but they had to contend with many of the same issues we do today.

Hutson goes on to say that Thomas Jefferson's views of Christianity changed:
Jefferson's public support for religion appears, however, to have been more than a cynical political gesture. Scholars have recently argued that in the 1790s Jefferson developed a more favorable view of Christianity that led him to endorse the position of his fellow Founders that religion was necessary for the welfare of a republican government, that it was, as Washington proclaimed in his Farewell Address, indispensable for the happiness and prosperity of the people. Jefferson had, in fact, said as much in his First Inaugural Address. His attendance at church services in the House was, then, his way of offering symbolic support for religious faith and for its beneficent role in republican government.

Well,... maybe, maybe not. He was, after all, a politician in an overwhelmingly Christian country. It's hard to say what Jefferson really thought. As Hutson points out, Jefferson's attendance at church services in the House was "contrary to all former practice."

In fact, he started it just two days after his letter to the Baptists of Banbury.
What can be said is that going to church solved Jefferson's public relations problems, for he correctly anticipated that his participation in public worship would be reported in newspapers throughout the country.

Whatever Jefferson's own religious beliefs might have been - which doesn't matter to me in the slightest - he was always a strong supporter of freedom of religion and the strict separation of church and state.

And this anniversary of his famous letter is a good time to remember that. Even back then, there were many opponents of freedom of religion. Religious minorities, like the Baptists (ironic, huh?), favored the separation of church and state, but many Christians of majority sects, then as now, would have preferred the right to dictate to everyone else.

You know, just because you're in the majority now doesn't mean that will always be the case. Atheism is growing very quickly in America. and there's the example of Europe - which has become very secular - to consider. Or maybe it will be some other religion which becomes the majority in our country. The separation of church and state protects everyone, believer and non-believer alike.

We should all be celebrating Thomas Jefferson's letter today - and every day. It's greatly to the benefit of all of us Americans and a great example to the rest of the world, too.

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