Thomas Jefferson on Separation of Church and State
A popular notion among many religious conservatives is the rejection of what is commonly referred to as the separation between church and state. They maintain the United States was founded by leaders who endorsed Christian principles as the cornerstone of American democracy, and that the First Amendment prohibition against government establishment was not intended to remove religion from public life. As a result, a number of disputes have made their way through to the courts, pitting those ready to defend the wall of separation, against those who would tear it down. Two recent cases have brought this battle to the forefront of political debate. The first involves an Alabama Supreme Court justice, who, in defiance of a Federal judge, fought the removal of a granite display of the Ten Commandments from the rotunda of the state courthouse. Also, a California man has challenged the constitutionality of the phrase “under God” in an upcoming Supreme Court case involving student recitation of the pledge of allegiance.
In each of these instances those supporting government involvement in, and endorsement of religion have justified their assumptions by referencing the words and beliefs of the founding fathers, most notably Thomas Jefferson. They point out that he, like most of the other founders, was a religious man, and that his writings exposed a conviction America was essentially a Christian nation. After all, wasn’t it Jefferson who spoke of inalienable rights bestowed upon man by God in the Declaration of Independence? A more detailed examination of his beliefs, though, reveals exactly the opposite was the case, as Jefferson was actually a champion of separation between church and state.
Jefferson left behind a wealth of documentary evidence to lend insight to his views on a many subjects, including the First Amendment, and freedom of religion. These would include his writings, correspondence, and public and personal papers, much of which can be easily accessed through the Library of Congress, and other related Internet sites. When examining these documents one theme that overwhelmingly comes across is Jefferson’s reverence for the establishment clause. While it is true that he personally had a deep respect for religious faith, he was also a staunch advocate of keeping religion and government unattached. When commenting on the issue, he invariably praised this as the principle upon which liberty is both exercised, and guaranteed.
Jefferson’s admiration for the wall is rooted in the tenet that religion is essentially a private matter between oneself and God. Inherent in this implication is the premise that no one can compel another to worship, nor prescribe the manner in which it is done. We are all accountable to God only, and neither priests nor the government can tell us otherwise. To Jefferson, the concept of freedom of religion, and the...