For some time now in America there has been an ever increasing effort to keep a person's religious beliefs out of the realm of politics. And, more and more, the courts seem to be agreeing with this idea. And with each new success to prevent any sort of support for religious expression from our government, the call has grown louder and more insistent to silence all religious expression, both in and out of politics.
The rationale for this is that people have a constitutional right to live their life without encountering any reminder of God. Their argument is that religion is a personal matter and should therefore not be displayed in public. To them, when the Declaration of Independence states that men have an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, they interpret that to mean that anything that offends someone is infringing upon their right to be happy. Therefore, if someone is offended by seeing a cross hanging on a chain around a co-worker's neck, or the display of a Christmas tree in a public area, they feel that their Constitutional rights have been violated. Of course, the absurdity of such an argument is that the person wearing the cross or displaying the tree is likewise offended by being told what they can and cannot do.
The legal basis for their claim comes from a statement made by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802 when he was the President of the United States. In that letter, Jefferson said that the Constitution of the United States "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."
It is the phrase "a wall of separation between church and state" that has become the primary reason for people justifying the removal of all religious expression by any government official or agency. It has been pointed out that it was Thomas Jefferson who wrote the Declaration of Independence and who was a strong supporter of the Constitution of the United States. Therefore, they contend that if anyone understood the intended meaning of the first amendment granting us religious freedom, he most certainly did. Therefore, they argue that since Thomas Jefferson, acting in the capacity as President of the United States, declared that there should be a wall separating the church and state, they say it is clear that he understood the Constitution as prohibiting any governmental office or officer from saying or doing anything of a religious nature because that would be mingling the religious beliefs of the Church with the duties of the State.
They further argue that Thomas Jefferson was not a Christian. Instead he has been labeled as either being an Atheist, a Freethinker, or a Deist. It has been pointed out that he rebelled against many beliefs that are core to the Christian faith and was adamantly opposed to the idea that Christianity should be forced on anyone. Therefore, they claim that this is further evidence that Jefferson strongly believed that any expression of religion, especially Christianity, has no place in governmental affairs.
Since schools are maintained and operated by city and county governments and are funded in part by federal grants, it is argued by some that they too are to be excluded from conducting anything of a religious nature on their property. Using this interpretation, it can be argued that anything that is open to the public is either influenced or controlled to some degree by the government, be it federal, state, or local. Under this criteria that would effectively prevent any kind of religious display being made in public at any time.
But such an argument can only be made by ignoring much of Thomas Jefferson's life. It is only by picking and choosing certain parts of his writings that people can use his words to support such an interpretation of the Constitution. Therefore to better understand what Jefferson meant by what he wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association, we need to take a closer look at a wider range of his writings.
However, before doing that, it might be helpful if we first determine if Thomas Jefferson was an Atheist, Freethinker, Deist, or Christian because that will help us better determine Jefferson's views of religion in general and about Christianity in particular. This, in turn, will help us better understand Jefferson's view of the Constitution concerning religion.
An Atheist is someone who does not believe in the existence of God. During the ugly presidential campaign for the presidency of the United States in1800, the enemies of Thomas Jefferson accused him of being an atheist with the hope of scaring people into thinking that if he were elected he would take away the rights of all Christians to worship God. However, such a charge was without merit and was completely fabricated for political reasons only. Jefferson himself clearly stated that he was not an atheist.
It has been said that during the time Jefferson lived, Freethinking was very popular, and that Jefferson was a follower of this philosophy. Simply put, Freethinkers are people who want the freedom to think for themselves when it comes to religion. As such, they do not believe in following the beliefs of any kind of biblical book, creed, or organization. Their only yardstick for determining truth is based on the logic of those things that can be experienced through our five senses. Therefore, anything of a paranormal nature, such as miracles, angels, and revelation, is automatically rejected by them precisely because they cannot be verified by scientific means.
Because of this, Freethinkers tended to view religion as consisting of nothing more than a collection of fanciful myths. Such myths would include a belief in God, since He cannot be experienced by normal touch, sight, sound, smell, or taste. This would also include the belief that Jesus' death on the cross somehow has the power to atone for our sins and can bring us into the presence of a God which they say doesn't exist. Freethinkers also deny the principle of revelation, since that would involve a non-existing God communicating His will to man in a mysterious and mystical manner. They also tended to deny the existence of a soul and, by extension, an afterlife where the souls of men go after death. However, Freethinkers did believe in practicing good moral behavior such as human compassion, kindness, honesty, and social justice, which are things that Christians also believe in.
On the other hand, Deists differed from Freethinkers mostly in that they acknowledge the existence of God. However, like the Freethinkers, they too rejected the idea that God reveals His will to man. Because of this belief, they do not accept the Bible as being God's revealed word. What most Deists believed about God is that while He created the universe, He has left it to operate by itself according to scientific laws without any interference from Him. Thus, they believe more in nature and in the laws of nature than in God Himself. Although Deists may occasionally pray to this Being they call God, yet it is only to give thanks and appreciation for what He has provided for them. It is never to ask for His help because they do not believe that God interferes in the destiny of man.
In the Declaration of Independence we find expressions such as "the laws of Nature and of nature's God" "Creator," and "Divine Providence," which were common expressions used by Deists at that time. Since Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence this has lead some to believe that he was a Deist.
It has also been pointed out that Jefferson did not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity, which he felt was incomprehensible, illogical, and unbiblical. He also disagreed with the common belief that God, angels, and man's soul was composed of an "immaterial" substance. This idea was put forth by Athenasius in the second century and has been one of the core beliefs of Christianity ever since. Concerning this subject, Jefferson wrote,
"To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, [and] God, are immaterial is to say they are nothings, or [in other words] that there is no God or angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise... At what age of the Christian church this heresy of immaterialism or masked atheism, crept in I do not exactly know. But a heresy it certainly is. Jesus taught nothing of it." (from a letter to John Adams written August 15, 1820).
Jefferson was also adamantly against the teachings of John Calvin. He wrote, ""I can never join Calvin in addressing his god. He was indeed an Atheist, which I can never be; or rather his religion was Daemonism. If ever man worshipped a false god, he did." (from a letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823) At another time he wrote that "the impious dogmatists, [such] as Athanasius and Calvin, are the false shepherds foretold [in the New Testament]… They are mere usurpers of the Christian name, teaching a counter-religion made up of the deliria of crazy imaginations, as foreign from Christianity as is that of Mahomet." (from a letter written to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, dated 1822).
He also often wrote critically of the Christian clergy, accusing them of tyrannical behavior, denouncing what he felt was their abusive use of power and "who have so distorted and deformed the doctrines of Jesus, so muffled them in mysticisms, fancies, and falsehoods, have caricatured them into forms so monstrous and inconceivable as to shock reasonable thinkers." (from a letter to Thomas Pickering, dated 1821).
It is because of comments like these that have led some to conclude that Thomas Jefferson was either a Deist or a Freethinker. And because he rejected some of the core beliefs of Christianity, such as the doctrines of the Trinity, as well as the teachings of Athanasius and Calvin, that he could not have been a Christian in the true sense of the word.
However, after his death, his oldest grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, in 1850 wrote a letter to his grandfather's biographer saying, "In his contemplative moments his mind turned to religion which he studied thoroughly. He had seen and read much of the abuses and perversions of Christianity; he abhorred those abuses and their authors, denouncing them without reserve. He was regular in his attendance [at] church, taking his prayer book with him. He drew the plan for the Episcopal Church in Charlottesville [Virginia], was one of the largest contributors to its erection, and contributed regularly to the support of its minister. I paid, after his death, his subscription of $200 to the erection of the Presbyterian church in the same village."
Not only did Thomas Jefferson regularly attend the Episcopal church in Charlottesville, VA while carrying his prayer book with him but he helped pay for the salary of the minister and the upkeep of the church as well as regularly praying to the same God Christians believe in, and did so with fasting on many occasions. In fact, he helped pass a bill calling on the citizens of Virginia to both fast and pray concerning their troubles with England. In 1774 England had passed the Boston Port Bill in retaliation for the British ships that were burned during the Boston Tea party. This punitive law further outraged the colonists who now became even more determined to resist the rule of King George.
Concerning this threat of escalated violence, in his autobiography Thomas Jefferson wrote about his effort while in the Virginia state legislature to appoint "the 1st day of June, on which the port bill was to commence, for a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer, to implore Heaven to avert from us the evils of civil war, to inspire us with firmness in the support of our rights, and to return the hearts of the King and Parliament [of England] to moderation and justice… We returned home, and in our several counties invited the clergy to meet assemblies of the people on the 1st of June to perform the ceremonies of the day and to address to them the discourses suited to the occasion."
This kind of attitude toward the Christian faith is generally not one embraced by Deists since they don't believe God can be asked to intervene in the affairs of men. It wasn't so much that Thomas Jefferson was against a belief in Christianity as he was against what he considered to be a corruption by the Christian churches of what Jesus taught as contained in the Bible. In a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, dated April 21, 1803, he wrote, "My views of [the Christian religion] are the result of a life of inquiry and reflection, and very different from that anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. [It is] to the corruption of Christianity [that] I am indeed opposed but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished anyone to be - sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others."
In a letter to Charles Thomson in 1816 Jefferson wrote, "I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus - very different from the Platonists, who call me [an] infidel and themselves Christians and preachers of the gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogmas from what its Author (Jesus) never said nor saw. They have compounded from the heathen mysteries a system beyond the comprehension of man, of which the great Reformer of the vicious ethics and deism of the Jews, were He to return on earth would not recognize."
Jefferson believed there was a Supreme Being who created the earth and the universe. In a letter to John Adams written in 1823 Jefferson said, "When we take a view of the universe in its parts, general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, [with] consummate skill and infinite power in every atom of its composition. The movements of the heavenly bodies, so exactly held in their course by the balance of centrifugal forces; the structure of our earth itself, with its distribution of lands, waters, and atmosphere; animal and vegetable bodies, examined in all their minutest particles; insects, mere atoms of life, yet as perfectly organized as man or mammouth; the mineral substances, their generations and uses - it is impossible, I say, for the human mind not to believe that there is, in all this, design, cause, and effect, up to an ultimate cause, a Fabricator of all things… We see, too, evident proofs of the necessity of a superintending power to maintain the universe in its course and order…. So irresistible are these evidences of an intelligent and powerful Agent, that, of the infinite numbers of men who have existed through all time, they have believed, in the proportion of a million at least to a unit, in the hypothesis of an eternal pre-existence of a Creator, rather than in that of a self-existent universe."
From this we can conclude that at the least Jefferson believed in intelligent design. However, unlike the Deists, Thomas Jefferson believed that this Divine Creator had an interest and a controlling influence in the outcome of earthly matters. As we have already seen and will yet see, he believed in imploring the help of this God and encouraged others to do the same. Furthermore, Jefferson also believed that this Supreme God did reveal his will to man, that man had a soul, and that there was an afterlife where the soul went upon death to receive its just punishment or reward. Deists did not believe in any of these things.
In addition to this, Jefferson felt that the priests of the various churches often wielded as much abusive and tyrannical power as did the King of England. Jefferson was a keen student of history and was well aware of the Thirty Year wars that had ravaged nearly all of Europe between 1618-1648, less than 130 years before he wrote the Declaration of Independence. That war was sparked and fueled by the religious priests of that day.
During that period of time, Spain was ruled by Catholics who had fought a bloody war between 1582-83 to restore Catholicism as the ruling power from the former prince-archbishop who had converted to Calvinism. France too was a Catholic monarchy. However, the rulers of Germany, Sweden and Denmark were Lutheran, although the Calvinists in that country were seeking to wrest political and economic power from them.
At the same time, the governments of Austria, Bohemia and Hungary had no national religion and allowed their subjects the freedom to choose whatever church they wanted to belong to. But this practice was considered blasphemous by those nations who were ruled by Catholics, especially Spain and France.
In 1605, in the German city of Donauworth, when the Lutherans barred the minority Catholic residents from holding a procession, a riot broke out, inflaming tensions between the two faiths. Feeling threatened by this display of power, the Calvinists in Germany banded together to form the League of Evangelical Union in an effort to provide themselves some protection from the Lutheran government. But this action angered the Catholics who then formed the Catholic League in 1609 in retaliation.
In 1618 when the Lutheran king of Bohemia chose a Catholic as his successor, civil war broke out among his subjects who feared the new ruler would take away their religious freedom. In time, this revolt drew in other nations and before the war officially ended in 1648, nearly every nation in Europe had become engulfed in the fighting. The result of all this religious intolerance was that 15-20% of the population of Europe had been killed either by the war itself or by pestilence or famine caused as a result of the war.
Thomas Jefferson was well aware of the suffering and misery religion had brought upon people over the centuries and he saw for himself the abuse of power the clergy employed, not only in England but in America as well. In 1816 he wrote, "The sway of the clergy in New England is indeed formidable. No mind beyond mediocrity dares there to develop itself. If it does, they excite it the public opinion which they command, and, by little but incessant and tearing persecutions, drive it from among them." (from "The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, " compiled by Paul Leicester Ford, ed., vol. 10, page 13)
Under the sway of the clergy, many of the state constitutions made it a law that no one could hold office unless they prescribed to the Christian beliefs of that day. In fact, such a law once existed in Virginia. In his book "Notes on Virginia" written in 1785 Jefferson wrote, "By our own act of Assembly of 1705, c. 30, if a person brought up in the Christian religion denies the being of God, or the Trinity, or asserts there are more gods than one, or denies the Christian religion to be true, or the Scriptures to be of divine authority, he is punishable on the first offense by incapacity to hold any office or employment, ecclesiastical, civil, or military; on the second, by disability to sue, to take any gift or legacy, to be guardian, executor, or administrator, and by three years' imprisonment without bail. A father's right to the custody of his own children being founded in law on his right of guardianship, this being taken away, they may of course be severed from him, and put by the authority of the court, into more orthodox hands. This is a summary view of that religious slavery under which a people have been willing to remain, who have lavished their lives and fortunes for the establishment of civil freedom." (pp. 234-237)
It was this extreme religious intolerance between the various Christian churches and the tyrannical power of many of these church authorities that Jefferson was so adamantly opposed to and which he was so intent on preventing in our own system of government. When he was in the Virginia legislature he introduced a bill in 1779 entitled, Establishing Religious Freedom, the intent of which was to prevent churches from using the government to pass laws compelling people to support a particular religious faith, which is exactly what the Church of England had done, even in America. This bill said, in part, "We, the General Assembly of Virginia, do enact that 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 beliefs; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities."
In 1801the Baptists living in Danbury, Connecticut felt that their state laws prohibited them from worshipping God as they chose. Therefore, they wrote a letter to then president Thomas Jefferson, seeking his help in this matter. They argued "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--that the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbors."
However, they complained that whenever their state congressmen assembled to discuss the laws that should govern their citizens "religion is considered as the first object of legislation." In other words, the state legislators felt their duty in Congress was to pass laws regulating religious worship. Since the Baptist were in the minority in that state, they felt that "what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the state) we enjoy as favors granted [by the state], and not as inalienable rights."
The complaint of the Danbury Baptists was that their right to worship God was being dictated by the state of Connecticut through laws its congress had passed. And if the government could do that then they could also take away their right to worship just as easily. Their argument to Jefferson was that this was not only degrading but was "inconsistent with the rights of freemen." They further argued "that no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions." They also complained that those who sought for power, under the pretense of representing the will of the people, were using their position to manipulate the judicial system in order to "reproach their fellow men" and had become "a enemy of religion" rather than a protector of it. They felt that no one but Jehovah had the right to "make laws to govern the kingdom of Christ."
In their letter to President Jefferson they acknowledged that he did not have the power to tell the states what they could or could not do but they hoped that through his influence on this matter he would be able to have a beneficial effect on persuading the legislators of Connecticut to relax their restrictive laws. They liken this influence to the rays of the sun which have a beneficial effect upon all those who come in contact with them.
This letter put President Jefferson in a difficult position. On the one hand, he believed in religious freedom and felt that no man could truly be free if his right to worship was something granted to him by law. On the other hand, he was a strong supporter of states rights, which is that the federal government had no authority to tell the states what to do except in those areas specifically stated in the Constitution. Further complicating his situation was that these Baptists had voted for him and were his constituents. Therefore, Jefferson felt a sense of obligation to be of some help to them. However, his hands were tied because he had no constitutional authority to support their struggle. Therefore, in his response to their letter he had to strike a very delicate balance between being sympathetic to their complaint while at the same time not exceeding his authority as set forth in the Constitution.
In his reply letter to them he said that he too believed "that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God" and that man should not be accountable "to none other for his faith or his worship." He further agreed "that the legislative powers of government" is for the purpose of "reach[ing] actions only and not opinions." In other words, Jefferson said that the purpose of government is not to legislate thought but to control harmful behavior.
But, after admitting to all of this, he then said that when he contemplated with "sovereign reverence" how the people of the United States as a whole had declared that their federal government should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" he felt that such a statement created a wall which separated the church and state. His point was that as much as he would like to help the Baptists in Danbury, CT, the Constitution of the United States prevented him from becoming involved in their dispute with their state legislators.
It is from this reply that people have inferred that Jefferson meant that no one in government has any right to engage in anything of a religious nature. This would include prohibiting a government official from offering a prayer in public or using the name of God in public, or expressing any sort of religious opinion in public. From this one statement of Thomas Jefferson, people have inferred that he was saying that any public institution which receives money from any kind of government agency, be it local, state, or federal, is forbidden by law from allowing any kind of religious expression on its property.
However, such an interpretation can only be made by completely ignoring the historical context which led to Jefferson writing those words. As such, when we narrowly focus on just one part of one sentence of an entire letter, we are taking it out of context and giving it a meaning that was never intended.
On the other hand, the critics argue that the Supreme Court of the United States in 1947, and in subsequent cases, has ruled that this is what Jefferson meant by his words. However, such an argument is only partially true. But, rather than getting into the thorny issue of legal interpretation, of which there has been much written and debated, it might be better to approach this subject from a different perspective.
The Supreme Court is made up of nine judges who have distinguished themselves in the profession of law and arguably are said to be the best legal minds of our nation - at least in theory. However, even among such scholarly people, it is rare that all nine justices render a judgment where all of them are in complete agreement. In most cases, the decision handed down by these nine judges are more likely to be evenly divided. That is to say that half agree with the verdict and the other half disagrees with it. In many instances, one vote would have resulted in the Court handing down the opposite decision.
While it's true that when the Supreme Court makes a decision it becomes the law of the land, yet that doesn't guarantee that they have made the right decision. More than that, it is not unheard of for later courts to overturn the decisions of earlier courts. This can be illustrated with the case of Roe v. Wade. In 1973 the Supreme Court ruled that women had a right to have an abortion if they so desired. However, while that law has remained unchanged ever since then, it is still possible for a future court to reverse that decision.
Some Conservative senators and Presidents have nominated judges who would favor overturning such a law, while liberal senators refuse to confirm any nominee to the Supreme Court they feel would cause that judicial body to reverse this decision. Therefore, the decision to allow a woman to have an abortion ultimately is based on the political ideology of the judges. (see NOTE #2 at end of article) And this is just as true in the case of religious freedom.
Thomas Jefferson understood this very well. If we are to depend on his words to justify the removal of religion from politics then it is only reasonable to examine his words concerning his feeling about the Supreme Court. In a letter to William Charles Jarvis, dated 28 September 1820, he wrote, "Our judges are as honest as other men, and not more so. They have, with others, the same passions for [political] party, for power, and the privilege of their corps,…. And their power [is] the more dangerous as they are in office for life, and not responsible, as the other functionaries are, to the elective control"
In another letter Jefferson wrote, "The opinions of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction…. To suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency, is a dangerous fallacy which at once destroys all religious liberty, because he being, of course, judge of that tendency, will make his opinions the rule of judgment, and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or suffer from his own." (p604)
Having been a lawyer, legislator, governor, diplomat, Secretary of State, Vice President and President, Thomas Jefferson was very familiar with the way the rule of law worked and he knew, first hand, that judges, even on the Supreme Court, are subject to "the same passions for [political] party, for power, and the privilege of their corps (e.g., position)" as anyone else is and that they have the tendency to make judgments based on their own opinions and "approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or suffer from [their] own [opinions]."
Since legal scholars can and do have honest differences of opinions among themselves, it is unreasonable to say that a majority of judges sitting on the Supreme Court have correctly interpreted Jefferson's statement about a "wall of separation between church and state."
But, if we are going to use the words of Thomas Jefferson as the basis for determining the role of government in religious matters, then it is only fair and just to see how Jefferson applied this principle in his own political life. In that way we can gain a clearer understanding of what he meant by the need for "a separation of church and state."
As we have already seen, in 1774 Thomas Jefferson voted for a law making the 1st of June a day of fasting and prayer. However, according to today's critics of religion, Jefferson would be accused of mingling the affairs of the state with that of the church and would be condemned for his vote if he made it today. The counter argument to this is that this law was passed before there was a Constitutional law prohibiting the government from being involved in religious matters. However, that's a very weak argument because Jefferson always believed that the government should not dictate religious behavior. The fact that he whole-heartedly endorsed this bill indicates that he did not feel that such a law violated his conviction on this issue.
But a similar bill was passed after the Constitution was in force. On October 3, 1789, President George Washington signed into law a bill passed by both houses of Congress stating, "Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor… Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country… And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually… and, generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best."
This is the law that established a day of Thanksgiving, to be celebrated on the third Thursday of November. But if today's Congress passed a law calling on the citizens of the United States "to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God [and] to obey His will" the anti-religionists in this country would be denouncing this law as a violation of the Constitutional requirement of the separation of church and state. They would file lawsuits in every federal court seeking to block the provision that calls on the citizens of the United States to "unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations." And they would threaten to oust every congressman who voted for the provision that says we should acknowledge that "He (i.e., God) alone knows [what is] to be best."
What did Thomas Jefferson have to say about this bill establishing a day of thanksgiving? Nothing! Of the 19,000 letters he wrote that have been preserved, there is not one mention of condemnation from him about this law. But that's not surprising because after he had been elected president of the United States for a second term, in his second inaugural Address, given in 1805 he himself acknowledged that we are in the hands of that God who lead Israel out of Egypt and then asked the nation to join together in praying that God would enlighten the minds of those who serve in public office, including the President of the United States, and to guide them in their decisions so that whatever they did would result in their peace and be for their good.
Here are the actual words he used: "I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life; who has covered our infancy with His providence and our riper years with His wisdom and power, and to whose goodness I ask you to join in supplications with me that He will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils, and prosper their measures that whatsoever they do shall result in your good, and shall secure to you the peace, friendship, and approbation of all nations."
In his first inaugural address he made similar remarks saying, "And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, …enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter… And may that Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe lead our councils to what is best, and give them a favorable issue for your peace and prosperity."
It would not be hard to imagine what would happen today if a president of the United States spoke to the nation and asked all of its citizen to pray that not only God would guide him in the performance of his duties but that God would do the same for all members of Congress. If a president were to make that kind of a statement today there would be those who would seek to have him impeached for violating the Constitutional ban on the separation of Church and State, even if the person making that statement was Thomas Jefferson himself.
But clearly, Jefferson did not feel he was violating his own principles when he made these comments. Therefore, it is just as clear that those who have interpreted Jefferson's words as meaning that religion should have no part in the affairs of government are not following his intended meaning.
Then what was Jefferson's feelings concerning the relationship between the church and state?
In his book "Notes on Virginia," Thomas Jefferson wrote, "(O)ur rulers can have no authority over such natural rights, only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."
As far as Jefferson was concerned, the role of government was to insure that the acts of one person or group of people did not cause injury to another. When it came to matters of religion, Jefferson's opinion was that the government had no business or authority to interfere in the rights of its citizens to worship who, how, and when they desired, as long as such worship did no harm to anyone. The idea that a person is somehow harmed because their feelings have been offended was not Jefferson's concept of injury. In fact, just the opposite was true. He felt that someone expressing even an outrageous statement of belief did him no harm.
Although he himself disagreed with many of the religious philosophies of his day yet he nonetheless fought for their right to practice their beliefs the way they wanted to, free from the constraints of government interference, and that included even the judiciary. What Thomas Jefferson was strongly against was the kinds of laws that England had passed, forcing people to pay money to support a church they didn't believe in, compelling people to attend a church they did not wish to go to, and prescribing punishments for those who did not believe as the state demanded.
And yet, when the Danbury Baptist Association asked him to pressure the Connecticut state legislature to repeal laws that were similar to those of England, President Jefferson's reply was that the federal government had no authority to tell the states what laws it could or could not make concerning religion. This was the wall of separation that Jefferson was referring to in his letter.
And Thomas Jefferson practiced what he preached. When he retired from politics after his second term as president, he became interested in establishing a school of higher learning, which led to the creation of the University of Virginia. This institution was a state funded school and Thomas Jefferson was appointed as its first president. As such, his duties included selecting the curriculum. Of the many classes he proposed, the subject of religion was not included among them. The reason for this was he felt it was not proper for the state to pay someone to teach a particular brand of religious doctrine.
However, this didn't mean that the subject of religion was not taught on UVA's campus. In 1822 Jefferson wrote, "In our university [of Virginia] there is no professorship of divinity… In our annual report to the legislature after stating the Constitutional reasons against a public establishment of any religious instruction, we suggest the expediency of encouraging the different religious sects to establish each for itself, a professorship of their own tenets on the confines of the university, so near as that their students may attend the lectures there and have the free use of our library and every other accommodation we can give them; preserving, however their independence of us and of each other." (from "The Writings of Thomas Jefferson", Albert Ellery Bergh, ed., vol 15, p405.)
Although Thomas Jefferson didn't establish an official course in religion he nevertheless invited each religious faith to come onto his campus and teach classes to those students who wanted to attend them. In this way, each church had the freedom to express their beliefs to others without the government either endorsing or interfering with their religious rights.
However, in 1948 the Supreme Court of the United States in McCollum v. Board of Education School District 71 decreed that allowing religious faiths to come and teach their beliefs in public schools was a violation of the Constitution. Surprising at it may seem, they used Jefferson's statement about the need to erect a "wall of separation" as the reason for their decision. Unfortunately, in 1953 the same court reaffirmed this decision. If Thomas Jefferson was the president of the University of Virginia today and did what he did in 1822, he would be in violation of not properly following the principles of the Constitution because of what he himself had written! Clearly, his understanding of what he meant by the separation of church and state is far different from what the modern-day courts have interpreted it to be.
In 1808, Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Virginia Baptists saying, "We have resolved, by fair experience, the great and interesting question whether freedom of religion is compatible with order in government and obedience to the laws. And we have experienced the quiet as well as the comfort which results from leaving every one to profess freely and openly those principles of religion which are the inductions of his own reason and the serious convictions of his own inquiries."
Later, in 1819, Jefferson wrote, "The constitutional freedom of religion [is] the most inalienable and sacred of all human rights." (from the Virginia Board of Visitors Minutes)
It is those who now say that religion has no place in the governing of our country who are the ones violating "the most inalienable and sacred of all human rights" as guaranteed by our Constitution as they seek to prevent "every one to profess freely and openly those principles of religion which are… the serious convictions of his own inquires." It is those who now want to keep religion out of government who are doing the very thing that the framers of the Constitution tried so hard to prevent and from which they tried so desperately to escape.
When the delegates to the constitutional convention met in Philadelphia in 1787 they deliberately sought to create a form of government that would insure that the restrictive laws passed by the Parliament of England, which suppressed any religious expression except that which the government approved of, could never be passed by the government of the United State. In their effort to come up with a form of government that would promote the greatest liberty, prosperity, and happiness for its people they had studied the different forms of governments used throughout both the modern and ancient world. What they came up with was something unique to anything that had ever existed. It combined all those qualities of government that had proved successful and made provisions to prevent those abuses of power that had led to tyranny in all of its many forms. Concerning our Constitution, Thomas Jefferson wrote that despite its imperfection it is, "unquestionably the wisest ever yet presented to men" (from his letter to Colonel David Humphreys , March 18, 1788).
But today, those who now advocate taking religion out of government want to reinterpret the Constitution, claiming it is outdated to our modern way. But what they want to put it its place is similar to those forms of government that our Founding Fathers once carefully studied and rejected. Today's anti-religious advocates are doing all in their power to pass laws designed to restrict any religious idea that disagrees with their own. And atheism is as much of a religious idea as is Christianity or Judaism.
What we see happening today under the guise of supporting the Constitution are a minority of people attempting to take us back to the days when the majority of people were the slaves of their government. And one way they are doing this is by replacing our constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion with their dictatorial freedom from religion.
In that prayer, President Roosevelt also said, "Many people have urged that I call the Nation into a single day of special prayer. But... I ask that our people devote themselves in a countenance of prayer. As we rise to each new day, and again when each day is spent, let words of prayer be on our lips, invoking Thy help to our efforts." He ended this prayer by saying, "Thy will be done, Almighty God. Amen." (see http://www.historyplace.com/speeches/fdr-prayer.htm)
When President Roosevelt publically gave that prayer in 1944 Americans not only welcomed it but were inspired by it. However, the religious climate of our country today has so changed that should any president of the United States make that same speech today before the American public, instead of praise, as was given FDR, there would be a loud, indignant outcry of protest that he was violating the Constitiution's ban on the separation of Church and State. Just a little more than 50 years ago there was no worry about keeping the Church and State separate from one another. Therefore, it's clear to see that such a concept didn't begin with Thomas Jefferson but is something that has very recently been invented by those who don't want to have anything to do with God.
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