So often the phrase “separation of church and state” gets invoked anytime someone wants to express their faith in the public arena or when someone feels compelled to live according to their faith and convictions. It is often expressed with contempt for those who would dare express any belief in a god, especially the Christian God, in a public setting. I often hear the claim that you are not allowed to express your faith if you are in a position in government at any level. Along with the First Amendment, the phrase is so often misused and misunderstood, and so I wanted to try and clear some things up about this phrase and where it came from. First, that phrase is no where in our Constitution or in any other official founding documents. It was used in a letter from Thomas Jefferson, written on January 1, 1802, in response to the Danbury Baptist Association. Some clergyman had written Jefferson expressing their concern about the state regulating their religious beliefs or expressions of faith. The letter was written to the newly elected president on October 7th, 1801:
Among the many millions in America and Europe who rejoice in your election to office, we embrace the first opportunity which we have enjoyed in our collective capacity, since your inauguration , to express our great satisfaction in your appointment to the Chief Magistracy in the Unite States. And though the mode of expression may be less courtly and pompous than what many others clothe their addresses with, we beg you, sir, to believe, that none is more sincere.
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, [and] 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 is not specific. Our ancient charter, together with the laws made coincident therewith, were adapted as the basis of our government at the time of our revolution. And such has been our laws and usages, and such still are, [so] 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 acknowledgments, as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen. It is not to be wondered at therefore, if those who seek after power and gain, under the pretense of government and Religion, should reproach their fellow men, [or] should reproach their Chief Magistrate, as an enemy of religion, law, and good order, because he will not, dares not, assume the prerogative 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, but our hopes are strong that the sentiment of our beloved President, which have had such genial effect already, like the radiant beams of the sun, will shine and prevail through all these States–and all the world–until hierarchy and tyranny be destroyed from the earth. Sir, when we reflect on your past services, and see a glow of philanthropy and goodwill 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 goodwill which he bears to the millions which you preside over. May God strengthen you for the arduous task which providence and the voice of the people have called you–to sustain and support you and your Administration against all the predetermined opposition of those who wish to rise to wealth and importance on the poverty and subjection of the people.
And may the Lord preserve you safe from every evil and bring you at last to his Heavenly Kingdom through Jesus Christ our Glorious Mediator.
Signed in behalf of the Association,
Neh,h Dodge }
Eph’m Robbins } The Committee
Stephen S. Nelson }
Here was Jefferson’s response to the Danbury Baptist’s concerns, in the form of a letter:
“Messrs. Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, and Stephen s. Nelson
A Committee of the Danbury Baptist Association, in the State of Connecticut.
Washington, January 1, 1802
Gentlemen,–The affectionate sentiment 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, and 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 and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature would “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church and 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.
I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and Creator of man, and tender you for yourselves and your religious association, assurances of my high respect and esteem.”
This is the context in which the phrase “separation of church and state” was used, which is rightly attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but is often wrongly used today to attack religious liberty. Those who helped found this nation and came here to flee religious persecution were concerned that their “unalienable rights” which are granted by God (also mentioned in the Declaration of Independence) would become alienable rights–granted by a government they feared would become tyrannical, which could take away their God-given rights. They believed our rights came from God, not government, and that the purpose of government should be to protect those rights. They feared the state might be able to wield power over the churches like it had in England and much of Europe during that time period. They did not want a state-run church. They believed the government should be restricted from interfering with the church and its doctrine, with the exception of a doctrine working “ill towards his neighbor.” The purpose of that statement and of the First Amendment was not to keep God out of government, but rather restrict the state from imposing their will on the churches or people of faith. The purpose was not to suppress expressions of faith and/or religion, but to protect the right to express those beliefs without reprimand.
If you study our founders and the history of this nation, you will see many of them were Christians who expressed their faith in a benevolent and sovereign God, who they credited for the successes and blessings of our nation. Many made mention of God in their addresses to the people. Congress partook in times of prayer together. Our national monuments and the capitol building are full of scriptures from the bible as well as artwork referencing the bible. Our founders did not believe in forcing people to be part of a church or part of a particular faith. You are free to participate or not participate. But they also believed that someone should not be prevented from expressing their faith or beliefs, even in the public square–as many of them did themselves. The First Amendment is their to protect religious freedom and expressions, not to limit them. I will leave you with a few quotes from Thomas Jefferson:
“God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the Gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath?
“No power over the freedom of religion . . . [is] delegated to the United States by the Constitution.” Kentucky Resolution, 1798
“In matters of religion, I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the Constitution independent of the powers of the general [federal] government.” Second Inaugural Address, 1805
“I consider the government of the United States as interdicted [prohibited] by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions . . . or exercises.” Letter to Samuel Millar, 1808