Jefferson's Philosophical Wall of Separation.
In his interpretation of a recent FBI study, James Hutson, chief of manuscripts at the Library of Congress, makes three conclusions about Jefferson. First, Jefferson's famous "wall of separation between Church and State" letter to the Baptists of Danbury, written in 1802, was based solely on politics, not philosophy. Second, he came to believe that traditional religion was important in the sense of essential to the morals of a republic. Third, he was not serious about separating church and state.
All of Hutson's conclusions are erroneous.
In the first, although Hutson correctly states Jefferson's letter served a political purpose, simultaneously it states a philosophical principle that was a basis of John Locke's concept of toleration put to use in American law by Jefferson and James Madison. Prior to and during Locke's time, it was difficult to determine where religion or church left off and government or state began. The powers of both were often combined. As a result, churches frequently used the force of the state to promote and enforce their interests and doctrines. This caused horrendous atrocities against Jews and heretics, as well as the European religious wars between Catholics and Protestants of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that resulted in the deaths of millions of people.
In order to prevent such bloodshed, Locke attacked the combination of church and state that caused it in his Letter Concerning Toleration. Jefferson read this work carefully. In it is found the philosophical basis of Jefferson's "wall of separation" comment made as respects the First Amendment's language: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
Locke argued in his Letter that church and state had separate interests and functions. The church's interest was "the salvation of souls" and therefore sacred. Its function was to provide a system of beliefs and a form of worship conducive to salvation.
The interest of the state, on the other hand, was secular, having to do with "life, liberty, health ... and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like." The state's, or state magistrate's, function was "to secure unto all the people in general, and to every one of his subjects in particular, the just possession of these things belonging to this life."
Locke believed force was necessary to perform the state's function that included "the punishment of those that violated any other man's rights." Force, however, was alien to salvation--the church's interest and function. Locke maintained that "true religion consists in the inward and full persuasion of the mind" as respects profession of beliefs and what we are "fully satisfied in our mind ... is well pleasing unto God" as respects worship. If force was used to compel humans to profess what they did not believe in their minds and to worship in a form they deemed unacceptable to God, they were adding to their "other sins those also of hypocrisy," which prevents salvation.
In the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, written by Jefferson in 1777, Locke's idea that the functions of church and state were separate, and that the use of force in religion or church was no part of either of those functions, was made law. Significantly, James Madison was instrumental in the passage of that statute and well aware of its Lockean separation of church and state philosophical foundation.
Just as significantly, it was Jefferson who persuaded Madison to add the Bill of Rights to the Constitution, which included the right of religious freedom, finally made law in 1791. In the First Amendment's religious freedom provisions, Madison used language that keeps the force of governmental law out of religion and religion supported by the laws of the state out of the state.
It was in this philosophical context, not just the immediate political situation of 1802, that Jefferson praised the First Amendment for building a "wall of separation between Church and State."
Jefferson made two other separations related to church and state: governmental law from church or religious sources and public education from church influence. He was firmly committed to the rule of human-made law and opposed to that of scripture or God's revealed law in government. He got this idea from Lord Bolingbroke's writings. Rule by God's law meant theocracy, whereas human-made law meant democracy--and Jefferson was a thoroughgoing advocate of democracy in the form of a republic.
As for public education, one of its principal purposes, according to Jefferson, was to develop the independent reason of children so that when they matured they could make independent rational judgments on what was best for the state. He wished to keep such education free from the clergy's influence, which, he maintained, brainwashed students and thereby produced citizens dependent on church, scripture, or clergy for knowledge of what was best to, the state. This in effect resulted in an oligarchy of the clergy, since they controlled the churches and scriptural interpretations that, in turn, gave them control of the doctrinal and moral thinking of their congregations--a control or authority that often extended to political decisions. This control defeated the democratic principle that each individual should make his or her own decisions in political matters.
Hutson's second conclusion--that Jefferson came to believe that traditional religion was important in the sense of essential to the morals of a republic--is also erroneous because of Jefferson's commitment to Lockean ideas, except that this time those ideas came from the Second Treatise on Government. The Second Treatise, a source of the political philosophy Jefferson placed in the Declaration of Independence, in effect denied the fallen person concept of human nature.
The fallen person was tainted or morally defective and therefore could not be relied upon to obtain uncorrupt moral knowledge independent of God, scripture, church, or clergy. This was the premise of medieval politics, which maintained that only the church and kings anointed or deputized by God via the church were deemed capable of determining the moral direction of the state, since the fall left the people morally incompetent for this task.
In the Second Treatise, Locke turned these elements of medieval politics upside down. There he said in effect that people are not morally incompetent. They can find right and wrong on their own, independent of any church, scripture, clergy, king anointed by God, or noble. Therefore, the people are and should be the final judge of the moral direction of the state and its rulers.
Easy individual access to uncorrupt moral knowledge independent of religion and the ruler of the state is the cornerstone of Lockean political philosophy put forth in the Second Treatise to which Jefferson subscribed all his life. Jefferson, however, rejected Locke's views and adopted those of the Scottish thinker Lord Kames on how individuals easily attained moral knowledge that made traditional religion superfluous as a source of moral knowledge in a republic.
In his third error, Hutson concludes that Jefferson's attending weekly worship services in the House of Representatives, beginning just a few days after his "wall" letter, plus his allowing worship in federal buildings, means he was not serious about church and state separation. However, Jefferson, then president, had powers equal but not superior to those of the House. As a result, he could not terminate worship in the legislative chamber approved by the legislative body. He could only condone such worship, which he no doubt attended because of his strong, although unorthodox, religious instinct. Jefferson loved worship and attended services all his life, mostly at churches whose doctrines he rejected.
There are, of course, those in America who would destroy Jefferson and Madison's Lockean wall by chipping away at it little by little. They would bring God and religion into the state and its institutions, including its schools. But if there were no wall, whose God or religion would it be? Catholic or Protestant, Jewish or Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist? And who would decide this question? The majority? The courts? And would the minority religions that lost out go down without a fight? Or if they did not fight, would they support their government in times of crisis?
History teaches us that men and women have fought and died when their religion was repressed or overwhelmed by their government--or if they did not fight, they did not support their government in times of crises. Locke knew this and wrote about it. So did Jefferson and Madison, and this is why they implemented Locke's ideal of separating church and state with the laws of our land--an ideal that was Locke's plan to preserve religious peace and foster broad support of government within a state.
This plan has worked in the United States. Jefferson stated in 1808 that it brought us "quiet" and "comfort" or religious peace. Since its inception, the United States has never had a religious war despite divisive sectarian differences. And in times of crisis, minority religions have supported the government because it has, for the most part, maintained a position of neutrality among its many religions and denominations. This is because the "wall" or religious freedom law causes all religious groups to be seen and treated equally in the eyes of that law--or, as Jefferson put it, has the effect of "putting all on equal footing."
It is precisely this egalitarian aspect of American law, however, that rankles some of our most prominent religious groups, since they believe they are superior to all others. Indeed, virtually all religions and denominations in the United States have the feeling and consciousness of superiority. Yet only some of the prominent ones, which think they have or can get enough political power to force the government to give them some form of legalized special privilege they believe they deserve because of their claimed superiority, seek such privilege.
Any law, however, that has the effect of providing special privilege or advantage to any religion or denomination causes the beneficiaries to fall within the broad definition of an established or government-sponsored religion outlawed by the First Amendment's language, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." Such law, whether passed through legislation or the result of Supreme Court rulings, would knock down that wall of separation.
And once down, there would surely be a struggle among the major sectarian denominations to win the greatest support of government and its laws and thereby become dominant. Historically such competition has almost always produced violent conflict, not to mention resentment against government by minority religions bound to lose out in such struggles for religious preeminence within a state.
The wall, therefore, protects the United States from religious strife among competing majority religions and denominations, as well as religious minorities from being repressed by those majorities. Religious strife and repression, with all their bloody consequences, have been present in the West where there was no wall and are still present throughout the world where it does not exist.
Isn't it time, therefore, we stop trying to breach or knock down our philosophical-legal wall of separation, or to claim that it does not exist--either outright, as does Pat Robertson, or by inference, as does James H. Hutson? And isn't it time we say, "Thank you, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison" for our wall and the religious peace and tolerance it has brought to our land?
Allen Jayne holds a Ph.D. in the history of ideas from Cambridge University and is the author of the newly released Jefferson's Declaration of Independence: Origins, Philosophy, and Theology (University Press of Kentucky).
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|Title Annotation:||separation of church and state as intended by Thomas Jefferson|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1999|
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