Monday, May 21, 2007

Jefferson and the "Wall of Separation"

Cynthia Tucker’s Op Ed piece in the San Francisco Chronicle (May 21): "Falwell’s dangerous values” misinterprets Jefferson’s “separation of Church and State." Did Jefferson fear that religion was “dangerous to democracy?” I suggest that Jefferson would turn over in his grave if he saw what his words have come to mean.

The wall of separation referred to federal, not state, power, and the statement was in response to the Danbury Baptists who wrote “Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty - … 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 favor granted…”

Jefferson’s response:

“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 legitimate 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 should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.” His concern was for religion to be free of federal interference.

Jefferson, contrary to popular opinion, believed in God. He believed in religion.
Jefferson's actions as President of the United States are important guidelines in understanding what he meant by the "wall of separation." In 1803, one year after the Danbury letter, Jefferson made a treaty with the Kaskaskia Indians, wherein he pledged money to build them a Roman Catholic Church and to support their priests — all from federal funds. Does that sound like Jefferson thought religion to be dangerous to democracy? He apparently saw no conflict between asking Congress to implement the treaty's provisions by appropriating funds, and the prohibition that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

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