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Jefferson's Letter to the Danbury Baptists
9.26.03
Politics and Economy:
God and Government
More on This Story:
Thomas Jefferson's Letter

The argument over spending federal monies for faith-based initiatives is just the most recent battle in a long war over the role of religion in American political life. Among the documents both sides call into evidence are not only the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, but also a letter written by then-President Thomas Jefferson. (Read the letter.)

There is a debate to this day as to the intent and the meaning of Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists, in which he spoke of a "wall of separation between Church and State." Some say he was responding to pressure from the Baptists to set aside a day of fasting. Some say that his letter was a response to a rumor that Congregationalism was to become the national religion.

In recent years, religious conservatives and others have attacked the principle of separation of church and state. The main strategy has been to trivialize Jefferson's letter, arguing that it was written hastily as a thank you note for a gift he received from the Baptists. However, it has also been documented that Jefferson sent the first draft of his letter to his attorney general for comments and corrections, then wrote notes about what was revised in the letter in the margins before sending out the official letter. Some claim that these things suggest the letter was carefully written.

Scholars have long been analyzing Jefferson's words and actions to determine how the phrase in question should be interpreted. Read what some of them have said below.

Defending SeparationOpposing Separation
"The letter was the subject of intense scrutiny by Jefferson, and he consulted a couple of New England politicians to assure that his words would not offend while still conveying his message: it was not the place of the Congress or the Executive to do anything that might be misconstrued as the establishment of religion."

- Stephen Mount, USConstitution.net

Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition, calls Jefferson's letter an "angry note" which "mentioned in passing that the First Amendment had built a wall of separation between church and state."
"This was no mere assurance that Congress could not establish a national religion. It was a response to the very thesis of the Baptists' letter: that religious rights are by nature inalienable. The Baptists wanted that view to prevail in Connecticut. Jefferson's metaphor assured them that this was already true on the national level, and that the federal government had no right to legislate on religious matters in any way."

- Tom Peters, Jim Allison and Susan Batte, Separation of Church and State Homepage

"Jefferson believed that God, not government, was the Author and Source of our rights and that the government, therefore, was to be prevented from interference with those rights. Very simply, the 'fence' of the Webster letter and the 'wall' of the Danbury letter were not to limit religious activities in public; rather they were to limit the power of the government to prohibit or interfere with those expressions."

- David Barton, "The Separation of Church and State"

"It was for the simple reason that he was president of the American people, not their pastor, priest or minister. He realized that he had absolutely no authority to lead other citizens in religious services or expressions of religious faith and worship. Why is it, then, that other presidents have assumed that authority over the rest of us?"

- Austin Cline, "Thomas Jefferson & the Danbury Baptists: Myths About the Separation of Church and State"

"Because Jefferson's foes had vilified him as an infidel, he hoped this letter would reassure the pious Baptists that he was a friend of religion and an advocate of religious liberty. Jefferson also wanted to use the letter as a vehicle to explain his views on a politically divisive issue — why he, as president had declined to proclaim days for public thanksgiving and prayer, as Presidents Washington and Adams had done before him."

- Daniel L. Dreisbach, author of THOMAS JEFFERSON AND THE WALL OF SEPARATION BETWEEN CHURCH AND STATE

"Jefferson's Danbury letter has been cited favorably by the Supreme Court many times. In its 1879 Reynolds vs. U.S. decision the high court said Jefferson's observations 'may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the [First] Amendment.' In the court's 1947 Everson v. Board of Education decision, Justice Hugo Black wrote, 'In the words of Thomas Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect a wall of separation between church and state.' It is only in recent times that separation has come under attack by judges in the federal court system who oppose separation of church and state."

- Robert Boston, author of WHY THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT IS WRONG ABOUT SEPARATION OF CHURCH & STATE

"But the greatest injury of the 'wall' notion is its mischievous diversion of judges from the actual intentions of the drafters of the Bill of Rights. The 'crucible of litigation,' ante, at 2487, is well adapted to adjudicating factual disputes on the basis of testimony presented in court, but no amount of repetition of historical errors in judicial opinions can make the errors true. The 'wall of separation between church and State' is a metaphor based on bad history, a metaphor which has proved useless as a guide to judging. It should be frankly and explicitly abandoned."

- Justice William Rehnquist, Dissent in Wallce v. Jaffree

"Baptists should not be swayed by opponents of separation who argue that this phrase is taken out of context and that Jefferson hardly influenced the original intent of the Constitution. That is a moot debate in view of the fact that over 150 years earlier Roger Williams had already coined the phrase when he warned against civil religion like that of Israel which had 'opened a gap in the hedge, or wall of separation, between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.' Williams' arguments for strict separation were biblical and incontrovertible."

- Jim Spivey, "Separation No Myth"

"Jeffersonís view was a minority report among the Founding Fathers which emerged long after the ink dried in Philadelphia... Although Mr. Jefferson would no doubt have loved the insinuation that the Constitution was a document of his singular genius, the third presidentís opinion and Constitutional law were never originally one and the same."

- Gregory Alan Thornbury, Ph.D. , "Thomas Jeffersonís Anticlericalism, Church, and State"



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