Saturday, October 31, 2009

Thomas Jefferson and the Separation of Church and State

Much as we extol the wisdom and foresight of America’s founding fathers, we as a nation have spent over two centuries trying to understand some of their intentions and mightily resisting others.

Among the clauses still being debated are “cruel and unusual punishment” and the Second Amendment’s right to “keep and bear arms.” Among the concepts that have met with resistance is the notion that all “men” should enjoy equal rights and full citizenship. It took over well over a hundred years for the poor, blacks, and women to be recognized as “men” and treated accordingly—and the struggle for equality still goes on.

But of all the good intentions of the authors of America’s first documents, perhaps the one that’s been most trampled and ignored is the vital concept of the separation of church and state.

On January 1, 1802, shortly after taking office as the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson responded to a letter from a religious group in Connecticut called the Danbury Baptists. In his response, Jefferson declared his “sovereign reverence” for what he called a “wall of separation between church and state.”

That “wall” is clearly established in the first words of the First Amendment of the Constitution, even before the much more widely known language regarding freedom of speech: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Please note that the Amendment forbids laws both “establishing” and “prohibiting the free exercise of” religion.

Christianity is a religion. In all its various incarnations, it happens to be, at present, the religion of the majority of people of faith in the United States. But that does't make America a “Christian” nation.

According to the First Amendment, America as a nation can no more be “Christian” than it can be Buddhist, Muslim, or Shamanic. Furthermore, if America were considered a “Christian” nation (in the broad, populist meaning of the word), that would still not make it a “fundamentalist” one. Being a Christian does not mean that one necessarily believes in creationism, speaking in tongues, or a literal interpretation of the Bible.

As an American, I don’t want “born again” Christian cult leaders—people like Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and Pat Buchanan—caucusing with Congress, proposing legislation, advising presidents on public policy, or meddling in politics in more devious, secretive ways (like the terrifyingly powerful advisers to the “Family” on C Street).

Likewise, I’m opposed to the government’s having an office of “faith-based” initiatives, posting the Ten Commandments in public buildings, or displaying crosses on public land. And just for the record, if it were up to me, I’d take the words “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance. (The Pledge worked just fine as a gesture of American unity before those words were added in 1954.)

Anyone who doubts that Jefferson’s all-important “wall” has been breached, especially in recent years, ought to read Max Blumenthal’s courageous, meticulously researched, and highly depressing book Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party. Although the historical focus of the book is the influence of religion during the George W. Bush administration, there are implications than should worry any American, regardless of political affiliation.

Every American should be concerned and vigilant about “religion creep” in the workings of the American government. The briefest glimpse at the state of affairs in many other countries today should be enough to illuminate the critical importance of maintaining the distinction between democracy and theocracy.

10 comments: said...

Excellent post, Jane! I have also been appalled by all the creep into our government. (Which is why I am dues paying member of Americans United!) What is truly appalling in these fundamentalists is how often they actually cite Thomas Jefferson as "proof" that America is a Christian nation. If you actually read the founding fathers (Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Paine) you'll realize how passionate they were about interference in or from the church.

What is truly funny about these people is how against Islamic theocracies (like Iran) they are - but they would like a similar set up in our country. As long of course it's THEIR religion in charge.

Six said...

AMEN! Hallelujah! hehe - just seemed appropriate!

Excellent post! One thing I would add is it was not just Jefferson who felt this way, as evidence by the purposeful message to the rest of the world in the practice of stating right in early treaties (ratified by congress and signed by the presidents - so clearly this was the widely held belief about our country in the early years), "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion" in that case signed by 'Founding Fathers' such as John Adams. And other similarly clear variations of that phrase.

The Republicans have a love affair with the Christian right-wing religious nut jobs such as Fawlwell as you highlighted... but it is important to note that it's not just a Republican thing... even the almighty and Exalted One Barak Obama goes out of his way to practically kiss the ring of guys like Rick Warren to show how Christian he is...

And lets not forget, Bush was wildly (and rightfully) criticized for his 'faith based initiatives' but under Obama, they have been expanded, not disbanded. Not to mention of course Obama's close association with more than one very fanatical pastor. So it's not just a right-wing thing... (but the right wing nut jobs are the one that scare me the most).

Six said...

Oh and to Cilla - agreed!! That and Jefferson was NOT EVEN A CHRISTIAN! If he were to walk in to any of these 'born again' churches and share his philosophy no one would call it a Christian one... a spiritual one, a deist one - yes - but no question not a Christian! And he may have very well believed that living a 'Christian Life' was a good way to live... but he did not believe it himself nor did he believe that our country was a Christian country - in fact that was exactly they type of thing they were founding a country in opposition to across the pond. I always enjoy pointing out to those who try to use him as an example of our Founders founding this country as a Christian one that Jefferson even rewrote HIS OWN VERSION of the New Testament omitting many of the miracles and supernatural events as highlighting it more as a philosophical text rather than one of inspired word. Sound Christian to you?

Sue said...

As I said to a previous post:

That "separation of church and state" is probably one of the most misunderstood and misquoted phrases in this country, Jane. The founding fathers did not intend or expect that religion and beliefs would be absent from government; to them, religious beliefs were so deeply embedded in their culture that they automatically assumed that religious values would play an important role in the decision-making processes of government. It's only in the last 50 years or so that the anti-religion forces have tried to change the separation of church and state concept from "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" which was designed to allow all people the freedom to practice their various religions to "there should be no religious influence in any aspect of government." Separation of church and state should NOT mean that individuals' religious beliefs do not influence their decision making. I would hope that all elected leaders would bring their beliefs to the table when they are considering matters of importance to the country -- whether it's war, the death penalty, or health care issues. Elected officials' religious beliefs (or lack of them) are part of who they are and why they were elected as our representatives. And I want a whole person representing me. As with other decision-making criteria, I would hope that the majority position would rule.

The purpose of the First Amendment was not to prohibit religion or prevent it from having a role in the life of the country. The purpose was to avoid the possibility of a "State Religion" such as England and most other European nations had (and some still have). The ancestors of most of the founding fathers came to this country to avoid religious persecution (the "prohibiting the free exercise") and realized how vital it was that everyone have the right to practice their religious beliefs in freedom. This means I can be Christian, Muslim, Jew, or any of a vast number of other religions as long as I don't infringe upon the rights of others to do the same. Although that is what is happening with the extremist religious leaders you refer to, the founding fathers would be disturbed at the idea of a lack of religious involvement in the life of the country.

If you don't like the positions of James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, or any other religious spokesperson, fight them and their positions on the basis of what they're saying not because they represent a particular religious faction. Don't try to remove religious influences from the government sphere. said...

Ugh! Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine are turning over in their graves. I am so frustrated and upset I can't rationally respond to you. I encourage you to read Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson and study history to see how dangerous religion can be to a government and society. Religion and government operate best when they are kept away from another. (Like keeping sodium and water away from one another.)

Six said...

Sue - I can't speak for Jane, but I suspect she would agree with me that the point is not to get all agnostic/atheist leaders, rather that the politicians - who like the majority of society are mostly religious - simply do not try to legislate thier religious beliefs on to the masses.

People such as Falwell speak directly from thier pulpit to use thier influence to keep religious laws - such as ones that regulate bedroom behavior - on the books. It is one thing to call someone a sinner - I will fight to protect your right to do that. It is completely another thing for a politician to use thier political power to pass a law that puts me under violent threat to live the way you want me to or be sent to jail because you do not like something consenting adults do behind closed doors that crossed your religious beliefs.

I heard it mused the other day, "Democracy makes it trivially easy to interfere with the lives of others." Fortunately for minority groups, the constitution is not set up as majority-rule as Sue implies it should be.

Citizen Jane said...

Hi, Sue,

I read with interest what you said about this subject before, which is why I delved into it further, reading some of what Jefferson and Franklin had to say. I don't pretend to be an expert on the subject, but from what I read, I simply disagree with your conclusion: I believe the Founding Fathers meant to keep religion as far as possible from the political realm.

I don't think I or any other American should have to "fight" religious extremists of any stripe on what they say about politics. They shouldn't figure into the conversation. I have trouble enough--as do we all--"fighting" the politicians!

I have no objection, of course, to politicians being people of faith, and voters are free to decide if their professed religion is relevant to their politics. But when the Mormon Church crosses the border into California and interferes in California politics, or when secret enclaves (like the C Street "Family")has broad powers to get specific people elected, or when a James Dobson caucuses with conservative Congressmen--then we're in trouble.

Frankly, I think one of the biggest social problems preventing this country from joining the 21st Century on issues such as evolution, climate change, and stem-cell research, among others, is the inappropriate commingling of church and state.

Citizen Jane said...

To what Six said, I say, "Amen."

I really don't care what a person believes about religion. But when those who hold certain beliefs see themselves as anointed by God and entitled to reshape the country--by any means--according to those beliefs, that's not acceptable. And for many years, we citizens, in our political correctness, have silently watched that happen.

Idna said...

Sue, you make a lot of sense to me!

Jane, I'm wondering how much of your arguement is colored by this "Republican Gomorra" book(sounds real balanced) that you are currently reading. And are the ONLY religious voices that you object to from the Republican side?

I didn't see any mention of Obama's pals who spew such hate speech - Jeremiah Wright, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Farrakhan, etc. - on your list, who mix religion and politics? How come you have no problem with all these lefties - all "Reverends" - getting involved in politics and even running for office?

And how come the ONLY person that has a national holiday named after him is the Rev. Martin Luther King? Maybe we should get rid of that day since he was a man of religion and politics.

But I'm sure THAT conversation is not politically correct.

Sue said...

Bravo, Idna.

I still say -- if you don't like people's policies or positions, fight that. Don't hold religion as the villain for what a few people say or do in its name.

And, no, I don't think the founding fathers wanted to keep religion out of politics. All of them held religious beliefs that influenced their positions. They freely used terms like "endowed by their creator" and "blessings of liberty" that clearly show a religious (and in fact Christian) bent. It's the recent revisionist historians who are trying to reinterpret their words. Much as they have made a strong attempt to condemn them for espousing liberty but holding slaves -- even though that was the norm for the era. With history, it is always necessary to look at the times and its values, not just at the "facts" as seen from our contemporary perspective.