Friday, October 18, 2013

Jefferson and the Real Meaning of the "Wall of Separation"

Today's Americans might be surprised that government buildings were used for religious services during the construction of Washington DC, but not even Thomas Jefferson envisioned America as a secular, "naked" public square, where religion is to be kept as a private, not a public, matter. 

As we see in the punchline of historian Thomas S. Kidd's new essay, Evangelical Christians, Deists and America’s Founding, the Founding principle was not "freedom" from religion, but accommodation of all religions--two very different things:


Did Jefferson envision a secular public sphere, as his liberal admirers might imagine today? Clues to Jefferson’s intentions came the weekend that [Baptist Rev. John] Leland delivered the mammoth cheese, a weekend, as it turns out, that was one of the most significant in America’s history with regard to church-state relations. For this was when Jefferson sent his famous “wall of separation” letter to the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut, an evangelical group of Baptists who, like Leland, admired Jefferson. In his letter, Jefferson reminded them of their common commitment to the principles enshrined in the First Amendment, which built a “wall of separation” between church and state.
The evangelical New Englanders did not interpret “wall of separation” to mean rigid secularism, and indeed, neither did Jefferson. That Sunday, Jefferson attended a church service in the House of Representatives chambers, with John Leland giving the sermon. Whatever “wall of separation” meant to Jefferson, it could include holding church services in government buildings, a practice which Jefferson routinely allowed as president. This does not mean that Jefferson was personally devout, but that Jefferson was generously appreciative of the significance of faith in American public life.

35 comments:

Ray Soller said...

Tom, I suppose most Americans are unaware that government buildings were used for religious services during the construction of Washington DC, but, more suprisingly, one should add that nearly everyone is unaware that these religious services are not known to have received any official congressional endorsement to do so.

Tom Van Dyke said...

As we see in the punchline of historian Thomas S. Kidd's new essay, Evangelical Christians, Deists and America’s Founding, the Founding principle was not "freedom" from religion, but accommodation of all religions--two very different things.

L.Long said...

But the xtians insist that atheism is a religion then we are still included ...they can't have it both ways even if they do try.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Who is "they?" Straw man alert.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Whether atheism is a religion for actual metaphysical purposes, it is one for legal constitutional purposes and should be or else atheists wouldn't have equal rights under the religion clauses.

Tom Van Dyke said...

How do you make something out of nothing? ;-P

wsforten said...

Tom, I think that I may be able to help answer your question about the real meaning of Jefferson's "Wall of Separation." In using this phrase, Jefferson was following his usual practice of borrowing commonly understood phrases to express his point.

The phrase "wall of separation" has a very lengthy history in the Judeo-Christian world view. It is a reference to the wall which separated between the Jewish and the Gentile worshipers in the temple at Jerusalem, and in Ephesians 2:14, Paul refers to this wall being symbolically broken down by Christ when He died on the cross. This is the almost exclusive usage of this phrase in the literature prior to Jefferson's letter, and an example of it can be seen in the 1756 edition of The Family Expositer by Philip Doddridge:

For he is the Procurer of our Peace, who hath reconciled us, whether Jews or Gentiles, to God and to each other, and hath so incorporated us into one Church, that it may properly be said, he hath made both one, as to an Interest in the Favour of God, and in the Privileges of his People; and that no Difference might remain between us, he hath thrown down the middle Wall of Separation, which divided us from each other, as the Wall which runs between the Court of the Gentiles and that of Israel in the Temple at Jerusalem, divided the Gentile Worshippers from the Jewish.

Gentile proselytes to the Jewish religion were not permitted into the inner court of the temple unless they actually became Jews by being circumcised in accordance with Exodus 12:48. These proselytes were allowed to worship God and to participate in the ceremonies, but they had to remain distinct from the Jews by staying on the Gentile side of the wall of separation.

In the Christian era, following Paul's symbolic usage, the term "wall of separation" came to be used as a figure of speech for anything which prevented complete union between two groups. This usage can be seen with great clarity in James Durham's Dying Man's Testament to the Church of Scotland published in 1740.

In such Practices as are opposite and infer Division in the Cases mentioned, there can be no Union or Communion expected, as we see in all the Cases where such have been practised, as of the Novatians, Donatists, and such like; there may be more or less Heat and Bitterness betwixt Men that differ so: But there cannot be Union, because such Determinations and Practices do draw a Line, and build a Wall of Separation betwixt the one and the other, and so makes one Side to be accounted as not of the same Body.

wsforten said...

This phrase was also used in this sense in William Hale's "Survey of the Modern State of the Church of Rome" published in The Analytical Review in 1790.

The grand pillar of the Romish church was indirectly sapped by its rational members, when they found themselves obliged, by cogent reasons, and the humane suggestions of their own minds, to soften tenets they could not enforce or excuse. The wall of separation thus removed, all conscientious christians may meet and agree, in observing the main doctrines of the gospel, justice, mercy and truth, leaving rancorous disputes to those who are hearers, rather than doers of the law.

But uses of this phrase were not limited to religious writings. It was also used on multiple occasions to describe King James' successful union of England and Scotland. One of the more famous of these is found in Sir Francis Bacon's address in the British Parliament:

His majesty is the first (as you noted it well) that hath laid lapis angularis, the corner stone of these two mighty kingdoms of England and Scotland, and taken away the wall of separation: whereby his majesty is become the monarch of the most puissant and military nations of the world.

And, of course, I cannot fail to mention that Benjamin Franklin once used this phrase to refer to the imaginary boundary between fresh water and salt water at the mouth of a river:

In such cases, the salt water comes up the river, and meets the fresh in that part where, if there were a wall or bank of earth across, from side to side, the river would form a lake, fuller indeed at some times than at others, according to the seasons, but whose evaporation would, one time with another, be equal to its supply.

When the communication between the two kinds of water is open, this supposed wall of separation may be conceived as a moveable one, which is not only pushed some miles higher up the river by every flood tide from the sea, and carried down again as far by every tide of ebb, but which has even this space of vibration removed nearer to the sea in wet seasons, when the springs and brooks in the upper country are augmented by the falling rains, so as to swell the river, and farther from the sea in dry seasons.


Thus we can see from the historical understanding of this phrase that Jefferson was not referring to the extent of the First Amendment but rather to its nature. In essence, he was simply reminding the Danbury Baptists that the First Amendment prevented the church and the state from achieving a complete union in America. They would always remain distinct entities.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Excellent, Bill. Thx for answering my rhetorical question. ;-)

And you're right. In this day of alarm bells about "theocracy," we continually forget that in the context of England, it was the state that took over the [Catholic] Church. The concern of the Danbury Baptists was whether the state would interfere with their church.


Check this out, Bill.

If you register for a free MyJSTOR Beta account here

https://www.jstor.org/action/registration?redirectUri=/action/showShelf?candidate=10.2307/2674235

you can access the article here

http://tinyurl.com/n4zbd8n

It's by James Hutson, former librarian of Congress. They subjected the Danbury letter to modern FBI techniques and found all the words Jefferson edited out. Hutson's conclusion is that the Danbury letter was more designed as a political rhetorical weapon against the Federalists than an actual discussion of religion.

Cool stuff.

Jonathan Rowe said...

"Thus we can see from the historical understanding of this phrase that Jefferson ...."

The problem is with Mr. Fortenberry's "thus's and "therefore's." Where is the connection between his quotations and Jefferson?

As far as I have researched, following Hamburger, the lineage traces to Roger Williams. Though, no evidence connects Jefferson directly to Williams and his usage. Rather Jefferson likely learned of and borrowed the phrase from James Burgh's writings. And Burgh, in turn, borrowed from Williams.

If we want to know what was going on in Jefferson's mind we need to trace a more direct connection than the extraneous sources Mr. Fortenberry offers.

wsforten said...

Jon, my "thus" in this instance is based on the underlying assumption that, unless we have good reason to assume otherwise, we should recognize an author's use of a common phrase as an intention to convey the idea commonly associated with it. Do you think that we should take a different approach in this instance?

Jonathan Rowe said...

You didn't prove that you properly defined the "common usage" of late 18th Cen./early 19th American term "SOCAS."

Hamburger questions that the phrase was indeed "commonly used" in the late 18th Century and noted when used in the early 19th Cen. by Democratic-Republicans it was loaded with peculiar (controversial, politicized) meaning.

All I see from you are cherry picks that have no relationship to Jefferson and what he meant when he wrote the phrase.

wsforten said...

I think that you may be reading your opinion into what I wrote. You claim that I did not prove any common usage of the phrase "separation of church and state" in the eighteenth century, but there is a very good reason for this supposed failure on my part: Jefferson did not use the phrase "separation of church and state" in his letter to the Danbury Baptists. Jefferson referred to the First Amendment "building a wall of separation between Church & State." He did not say that the First Amendment created a separation of church and state, but rather than it built something between the church and the state. That something which was built in between these two entities was "a wall of separation." Thus (there's that word again), in order to understand what Jefferson was saying, we should study the phrase describing the thing which he viewed as being in between the church and state and not some contrived phrase that he did not use.

wsforten said...

By the way, Tom, thanks for the link. That is very interesting indeed.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Wall of separation as it relates to church and state in the relevant context that interests this blog traces to Roger Williams. Your described lineage is hair brained and most likely the result of a misuse of google .

wsforten said...

That's an interesting possibility. Can you provide any examples of a pre-nineteenth century usage of the phrase "wall of separation" which conveys a meaning other than "something which prevents the complete union of two groups"?

Jonathan Rowe said...

I don't need to because it is an irrelevant inquiry.

wsforten said...

I suspected as much. Well let me throw you a bone and see if you can run with it to something more meaningful than a mere dismissal. Here is a 19th century occurrence of the phrase "wall of separation" in the context of church and state relations which was published prior to the publication of Jefferson's papers:

The enlightened policy of the Roman government, at first went a great way to break down this. To mould into one so many states, they carefully protected the religious rites of each, when not cruel and horrible to nature. But when special superstitions were transported beyond their own limits, and ceremonies the most discordant were celebrated, side by side, in the same metropolis, they destroyed each other's credit; and general unbelief became widely diffused. On the blending of so many nations into one empire, the old separate religions were no longer in appearance useful; they were a wall of separation, not a wall of strength. In this 'fulness of times' Christianity was preached, as an extra-political religion; separating the things of Caesar from the things of God, which had never before been done. The Church and State were now no longer one. The personal responsibility of each separate conscience to God was proclaimed, and religion was made a right and a duty of the individual. Such was the great revolution in thought, introduced by the preaching of the apostles.

http://books.google.com/books?id=htgEAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA292

Tom Van Dyke said...

Can you provide any examples of a pre-nineteenth century usage of the phrase "wall of separation" which conveys a meaning other than "something which prevents the complete union of two groups"?

Actually, I took that as Bill's key point, the general meaning of the metaphor. As for Jon's point, the specific application of the metaphor to religion and state, the link above to the Hutson investigation speaks to Jon's point, and that Jefferson was engaging in a pointed political polemic vs. the Federalists.

Danbury is in Connecticut, a state controlled by the Federalists and one that had an official, established state church. Danbury's Baptists didn't dig that, for obvious reasons. Baptists were always in 3rd place, behind Presbyterianism/Congregationalism and Anglican/Episcopalianism. Baptists were THE natural allies for Jefferson's Democratic Republicans, and indeed had more to do with passing Virginia's statute for Religious Freedom than did the "secular Enlightenment" types.

http://americancreation.blogspot.com/2008/09/scholarly-malpractice-and-founding.html

Tom Van Dyke said...

The Heritage Foundation on Jefferson's political purpose:
____________

January 1, 1802
The Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut wrote to President Thomas Jefferson on October 7, 1801, to complain about the infringement of their religious liberty by their state legislature: “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 acknowledgments, as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen.”

The Baptists, of course, acknowledged that “the president of the United States is not the national legislator,” but expressed the wish that his views on religious liberty would “shine and prevail through all these states and all the world.”

In his brief response, President Jefferson sympathized with the Connecticut Baptists in their opposition to the state’s established religion, while expressing his reverence for the First Amendment’s “wall of separation between Church & State” at the federal level. Jefferson was not advancing the modern view that religion must be excluded from the public square. After all, he concludes his letter, written in his official capacity as President, with a brief prayer.

The now well-known expression lay dormant for nearly a century and a half until Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, in the 1947 case Everson v. Board of Education, put forth the novel interpretation that the First Amendment’s establishment clause applied to the states and that any government support or preference for religion amounts to an unconstitutional establishment of religion. In support of his argument for a radical separation of religion and politics, he cited Jefferson’s metaphor: “[t]he First Amendment has erected a wall of separation between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable.”

Jefferson’s actual aim was quite to the contrary. While he, along with James Madison, stoutly opposed established churches as existed in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and other states (while recognizing that, as President, he had to respect them), he was deeply committed to religious liberty. Jefferson’s letter must also be read in context of his declaration in the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom: “Almighty God hath created the mind free….”

The “wall of separation” exists to affirm natural rights, including those of faith and religious worship. The “wall” does not imprison the free exercise of religion. Rather, Jefferson sought to prevent the domination of particular sects, making free the religious practices of all.
________

TVD: And if you follow the links to the JSTOR article by Hutson above, iirc Hutson maintains that Jefferson--already president--was trying to put the final nail in the Federalists' coffin and further diminish their power in Congress, hence his courting of the New England Baptists.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Mr. Fortenberry,

You may be on to something with your analysis of "Wall of Separation." But I don't "see it." Rather I see, novel eccentric word parsing. But still there are a lot of things I don't "see." If I "saw" everything I'd pick the right stocks and would be a billionaire.

You have to get the right people to buy into it. And if you hit big, then be able to withstand the scrutiny of the Roddas (as Barton could not).

I certainly don't buy the Hamburger/Dreisbach/Hutson separation analysis completely; but they at least got a lot of important folks to buy into their narrative (notably Supreme Court dissenters).

But back to your word parsing. If you can dismiss the phrase "Separation of Church and State" as a "contrivance" because Jefferson didn't use those exact words, I can do the same with "Wall of Separation."

He didn't say that either. He said "Wall of ETERNAL Separation...." (Emphasis mine.)

Jonathan Rowe said...

Oops. I see that the term "eternal" was in the original draft, but then dropped by TJ.

https://www.pbs.org/godinamerica/people/wall-of-separation.html

polymathis said...

I found out about that MyJSTOR Beta a month or so ago. Makes me drool just thinking about all those history articles...

polymathis said...

You all might get a kick out of this: What Does Benjamin Franklin Have to Do With Obamacare? (at the Atlantic):

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/10/what-does-benjamin-franklin-have-to-do-with-obamacare/280735/

Tom Van Dyke said...

I used to love the Atlantic. Now it's just another banal organ of the left.

i still subscribe, because they're practically giving it away, $3.48 a year at this website.

http://www.magazinepricesearch.com/detail/atlantic.html

I still manage to get through most odf an issue before tossing it across the room, but I used to savor every word when Michael Kelly was running it.

That said, it was a pretty even-handed article:

He said to the Assembly, Here's the idea. If I and my associates can raise such-and-such an amount of money (an enormous sum for the time), you will match it, and the project moves forward.

That's not Obamacare, it's a public-private partnership, and a faith-based initiative at that. The GOP would have supported that. Contrary to popular slander, those who voted against Obamacare still favor public charity for the poor and sick.

Some of us might enjoy Christopher Hitchens' Straussian take on Ben Franklin linked in the article

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/11/free-and-easy/304323/?single_page=true

I loved Hitchens, but I think it's he who's left "swinging at air" here. Franklin was quite capable of sincerity, the one thing that Straussian "esotericism" is unprepared for.

JMS said...

TVD wrote: “the Founding principle was not "freedom" from religion, but accommodation of all religions--two very different things.”

Tom, they are only “very different” in your presentist mind, not Jefferson, Madison or Leland’s. They saw these founding principles as “both and” rather than “either or.” The Virginia Statute for Religious insisted on freedom from gov’t sponsored or mandated religion and the dogmas of other people’s religious beliefs so that everyone would be free to follow the demands of our own conscience. Section 2: “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion.” Leland concurred: “the liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence; whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.”

While the Danbury Baptists and Leland appealed to God, and Jefferson appealed to reason, they came to the same conclusion: the “rights of conscience” were “natural” and “unalienable” rights. Leland wrote, “Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men than it has with the principles of mathematics. Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles that he believes, worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing.”

The religion clauses of the First Amendment constitutionally guarantee that we have both freedom of religion and freedom from religion. The broad-minded policies of Jefferson and Madison protected religious freedom at the national level, but in the early Republic states remained free to promote favored faiths and oppress religious minorities. Leland never accepted that discriminatory policy as just, and he relentlessly fought government-backed religious establishments in Massachusetts and Connecticut. He opposed Sunday laws, all special privileges for the clergy, state-paid chaplains, and the “mischievous dagger” of any government aid to religion.

As William Lee Miller wrote, “dissenting Protestantism made common cause with rationalism and deism to bring about a revolution within the Revolution.” their novel “free marketplace of religion” approach to religious pluralism (i.e., Jefferson’s “truth is great and will prevail if left to herself”) worked! Between 1776 and 1833, every state ended tax support for churches and religious qualifications for voting and office-holding. Religious denominations had to compete for followers without government support, and voluntary support for religion proved to be enormously successful. Between 1800 and 1840, the proportion of Americans who were church members doubled. Today, a higher proportion of Americans regularly attend a religious institution than in any other western country.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Tom, they are only “very different” in your presentist mind, not Jefferson, Madison or Leland’s.

Well, I confess to a "presentism" in that I used the language in its present day sense. Duh, JMS.

Separation of "church and state" is not the same as the separation of religion and government, or between faith and ethos, which we can say informs the "spirit of the laws."

I use "freedom" from religion in its modern-day sense that virtually every reader of my post understood: The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which litigates to remove virtually every trace of religion from the public square.

And although your observations re John Leland are accurate [I have never found your facts questionable], the whole point of the post is that Leland HIMSELF preached a service in the Halls of Congress!

And there is no purpose in arguing that Founder X said "but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion.” After all this time in our company, it's inexplicable that y'd think anyone is saying otherwise, or that "freedom" from religion [esp with the scare quotes only on "freedom"] was being used in any but the contemporary sense, esp in the context of Tommy Kidd's essay, which that's also the point of:

Did Jefferson envision a secular public sphere, as his liberal admirers might imagine today? Clues to Jefferson’s intentions came the weekend that [Baptist Rev. John] Leland delivered the mammoth cheese, a weekend, as it turns out, that was one of the most significant in America’s history with regard to church-state relations...








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padraig said...

"the Founding principle was not 'freedom' from religion, but accommodation of all religions--two very different things."

Perhaps, but if religions refuse to be mutually accommodated, the only way to accommodate them both is to be free from both, no?

sameer waseem said...
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Tom Van Dyke said...

padraig said...
"the Founding principle was not 'freedom' from religion, but accommodation of all religions--two very different things."

Perhaps, but if religions refuse to be mutually accommodated, the only way to accommodate them both is to be free from both, no?


That's a big "if," and not one that is the fact today in America, or even back then.