Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Wall of Separation

As frequent BDM visitors already know, church-state issues are a favorite topic of mine. Indeed, my second post as a blogger hammered the topic right between the eyes. So, since I already rant on this topic regularly, and since I have a lazy streak in me a mile wide, my contribution to the blogswarm will be a blogger-cop-out-linkfest. Click here and here and here to read previous BDM entries on the topic.

Sometimes, when a debate topic gets batted back and forth for a century or so like this church-state issue has, it’s easy to lose sight of who said what and what did they really mean when they said it and so forth. Luckily for us, those ponytail-sporting radicals we refer to as the Founding Fathers were pretty good writers and not as lazy as yours truly. The ringleader of these proto-Yippies, Tommy J., clarified the separation clause thusly:

To messers. Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson, a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut.
The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. My duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, & in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing.
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. (emphasis mine) 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.
I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem.
Th Jefferson Jan. 1. 1802.

Many religious zealots claim that Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists Association doesn’t count because he dashed it off quickly in a shameless attempt to pander to a political bloc. But as this site demonstrates, Jefferson put a great deal of effort into the letter, composing multiple drafts, editing, removing, adding and replacing lines. He clearly intended it as a political statement clarifying his wishes for the future of Americans’ approach to religion.

It is interesting to note that Jefferson was addressing his remarks to Baptists, who at that time feared the emergence of the Church of England as a national religion. Jefferson’s predecessors, Washington and Adams, had declared days of fasting and thanksgiving to commemorate various events. As president, Jefferson put an end to this tradition.

Thank God.

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