As we head into an extremely contentious 2016 presidential election campaign, issues of religious freedom will be paramount. Christians must be unafraid to voice their opinions on abortion, same-sex “marriage,” or any other issue affecting public policy. Some argue that religious belief should have no place in politics since the United States Constitution created “a wall of separation between church and state.” They have relied upon this in their efforts to erase any mention of God or religion from public life, whether it is removing “one nation under God” from the pledge of allegiance, “in God we trust” from US currency, or monuments inscribed with the Ten Commandments from government grounds.
However, as I explain in my new book, Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God: The Role of Christianity in the American Revolution, (available at Create Space and Amazon) Thomas Jefferson’s phrase, “a wall of separation between church and state,” does not appear in the United States Constitution. (Jefferson was not even in attendance at the Constitutional Convention; he was in France.) The words actually originated in a letter that Jefferson wrote to a committee of the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut on January 1, 1802. Furthermore, a careful reading reveals that Jefferson’s words were intended to reassure the Danbury Baptists that the First Amendment prohibition against Congress passing any law having to do with an establishment of religion would protect their faith and all faiths from interference by the federal government, not banish any kind of religious expression from public life.
After stating that he agreed with the Baptists that “religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God,” Jefferson added, “the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions.” In other words, the government had no power whatsoever to compel individuals in terms of what they believed or expressed. Here is the full quote:
“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 legislative 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.”
The Baptists were a religious minority in Connecticut, a state where the Congregational Church was the established religion. Jefferson was alluding to the fact that the national government, unlike the state governments, was prohibited from establishing an official religion. It was in the context of shielding religion from the federal government that Jefferson wrote of “a wall of separation between church and state,” not the other way around. Jefferson’s letter can be found here.
To provide further context for Jefferson’s “wall of separation,” it is important to acknowledge what took place a mere two days after writing his letter to the Danbury Baptists. On January 3, 1802, President Jefferson attended worship services held in the House of Representatives and conducted by Baptist minister John Leland of Cheshire, Massachusetts. The press noted that Jefferson even joined in singing Psalm 100. This was only one of several occasions where Jefferson participated in worship services in the House. (John Fea, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 165-166.)
People can argue all day long about what Jefferson believed or did not believe, but clearly he saw no contradiction between the First Amendment and voluntary public expressions of religious faith, even by federal officials on government property. If the sitting President of the United States can attend church in the House of Representatives, then shouldn’t citizens be able to bring their religious beliefs into discussions and decision-making on issues of vital importance to our nation?