Letter to the Danbury Baptists
January 1, 1802
The Final Letter, as Sent
To messers. Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson, a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut.
The affectionate sentiments 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, & 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 & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & 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 & 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 & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem.
Jan. 1. 1802.
Rule of Law versus rule of men, and the erroneous "wall of separation"
Unbeknown to many Americans, the words "wall of separation between church and state" do not appear in our Constitution -- nor is this notion implied. Thomas Jefferson penned those words in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in response to a letter they wrote him objecting to Connecticut's establishment of Congregationalism as their state church. Jefferson assuaged their concerns, telling them the First Amendment prohibited the national government from establishing a "national church," but he concluded rightly that the Constitution (see the Tenth Amendment's federalism provision) prohibited the national government from interfering with the matters of state governments -- a "wall of separation," if you will, between the federal government and state governments.
There is ample evidence that Jefferson did not intend for that metaphor to become an iron curtain between church and state. Though he favored a secularist state, he knew that the Constitution offered no such proscription on religious observance and practice in the public square. Those, including judicial activists, who insist such was Jefferson's original intent, and that of our Constitution, are either historically nescient or they harbor a disingenuous motive to serve a secularist constituent agenda.
American University professor Daniel Dreisbach and University of Chicago law professor Philip Hamburger argue, correctly, that the "wall of separation" has its ironic and erroneous origin in 1947. It was then in the case of Everson v. Board of Education that conservative Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote in the majority opinion that the First Amendment created a "wall of separation" between religion and government at the state level.
Black unwittingly opened the door for Fourteenth Amendment application of the First Amendment to the states. By invoking the Establishment Clause, he set legal precedent, and you know the rest of the story. The Everson decision launched a new era of constitutional interpretation by judicial activists, creating precedent to remove prayer and virtually all reference to religion from state and local public forums.
This fundamental violation of federalist principle was the central issue in 2003, when Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore defied an order by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state's justice building rotunda. Judge Moore lost that case and federal agents removed the Ten Commandments. Of such judicial diktats, Thomas Jefferson warned, "The Constitution [will become] a mere thing of wax in the hands of the judiciary which they may twist and shape into any form they please."
Indeed, it has become just that.
As for that utterly phony "wall of separation," Princeton scholar Stanley Katz says that correcting the "Jeffersonian myth" will have a "profound impact on the current law and politics of church and state." Joining the debate, Justice Clarence Thomas argues, "This doctrine, born of bigotry, should be buried now."
However, this issue is not merely about federalism and states' rights. It is about the Rule of Law and the future of our Constitutional Republic versus the rule of men base on the errant notion of a "living constitution." That is precisely why Senate Democrats are so insistent on blocking the President's judicial nominations. They know that the real locus of central-government power now resides on the federal bench, not in the legislature. This struggle between judicial governance versus government of, by and for the people, is really at the core of the current filibuster debate.
George Washington: "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 favors."