Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Wall of Separation

It seems to be a common trope among religionists that the First Amendment to the US Constitution is designed to keep government out of the affairs of the church, but that in no way should inhibit the church from meddling in the affairs of state.  They say the so-called "wall of separation" is just a myth, mainly due to the unfortunate wording of Thomas Jefferson, in his famous letter to the Danbury Baptists, which has been misunderstood.  In their misguided view, Jefferson was not describing anything like an actual wall that separates two things from one-another, but rather something more akin to a pen that keeps the government within bounds, but places no restrictions on the church.  But that raises the question: If that's what Jefferson meant to say, then why didn't he say that?  One answer that seems to elude them is that Jefferson actually meant what he aid.

But this myth-of-separation trope has been echoed once again by BK, at Christian Cadre.  BK refers us to a fairly well-written article by the WallBuilders organization that explains the circumstances of Jefferson's letter.  Unfortunately, there is no justification for concluding that the First Amendment allows the church to meddle in government:
The Danbury Baptists concerns had nothing to do with the church's ability to influence the state. In fact, the very act of writing to the President (and his response) constitutes prima facie evidence that both parties believed it to be perfectly permissible for the church to try to influence the state. - BK
This is a logical fallacy.  It is quite correct that the Danbury Baptists were not concerned about the ability of the church to influence the state.  They were concerned about the possibility of state eventually influencing the affairs of the church, due to its inclusion in the Constitution, presumably as a "granted" (and therefore revocable`) right, as opposed to a "natural" (or God-given) right.  This was the reason for the letter.  (Incidentally, the WallBuilders maintain that natural rights are defined in part by the gospels - something that Jefferson would have soundly rejected.)  Nevertheless, it is wrong to think that the First Amendment allows the church to influence government, simply due to the fact that this was not the subject of concern in the Danbury Baptists' letter.  And there is not a single word in the Constitution or Jefferson's letter that would justify such a conclusion.

BK quotes the WallBuilders article:
The Congressional Records from June 7 to September 25, 1789, record the months of discussions and debates of the ninety Founding Fathers who framed the First Amendment. Significantly, not only was Thomas Jefferson not one of those ninety who framed the First Amendment, but also, during those debates not one of those ninety Framers ever mentioned the phrase “separation of church and state.” It seems logical that if this had been the intent for the First Amendment – as is so frequently asserted - then at least one of those ninety who framed the Amendment would have mentioned that phrase; none did. - WallBuilders
It is true that Jefferson didn't write that amendment.  But the article doesn't mention name the person who did: James Madison, who was the author of the entire Bill of Rights.  If they wanted to get the opinion of the actual author, why make vague references to the "Framers", without mentioning the single most important "Framer"?  Could it be that they're trying to hide some inconvenient fact?  As it turns out, Madison did have some things to say about it (although he doesn't use the specific phrase "wall of separation").
- Every new and successful example, therefore, of a perfect separation between the ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance; and I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that religion and Government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together

 - To the Baptist Churches on Neal's Greek on Black Creek, North Carolina I have received, fellow-citizens, your address, approving my objection to the Bill containing a grant of public land to the Baptist Church at Salem Meeting House, Mississippi Territory. Having always regarded the practical distinction between Religion and Civil Government as essential to the purity of both, and as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States, I could not have otherwise discharged my duty on the occasion which presented itself

- The civil Government, though bereft of everything like an associated hierarchy, possesses the requisite stability, and performs its functions with complete success, whilst the number, the industry, and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people, have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church from the State

- The experience of the United States is a happy disproof of the error so long rooted in the unenlightened minds of well-meaning Christians, as well as in the corrupt hearts of persecuting usurpers, that without a legal incorporation of religious and civil polity, neither could be supported. A mutual independence is found most friendly to practical Religion, to social harmony, and to political prosperity

- The settled opinion here is, that religion is essentially distinct from civil Government, and exempt from its cognizance; that a connection between them is injurious to both; that there are causes in the human breast which ensure the perpetuity of religion without the aid of the law;
In fact, Madison made his position abundantly clear in the state of Virginia, a few years before writing the Bill of Rights, in response to a bill that would allow the church to establish religious education under the auspices of government.
Because the establishment proposed by the Bill is not requisite for the support of the Christian Religion. To say that it is, is a contradiction to the Christian Religion itself, for every page of it disavows a dependence on the powers of this world… - Madison, from the Skeptical Libertarian
In other words, the church attempting to insert itself into government is the very kind of "establishment" that is prohibited by the Constitution.  But the church should not be dependent in any way upon the powers of government.  From all this, it should be absolutely clear that Madison firmly believed that there was indeed a two-way separation between church and state, and that Jefferson's metaphor of the wall was an accurate reflection of the intention of the author of the First Amendment - not something that was poorly worded and subsequently misinterpreted. 

And this truth is necessarily so.  Any reasonable person can see that any intrusion of the church into government is indistinguishable from a government establishment of religion.  It would advance the cause of one religion (or one set of religious denominations) at the expense of all others.  It infringes upon the freedom of religion that is our right.  Long live the wall of separation.


  1. http://www.rollcall.com/news/home/delivering-on-the-free-exercise-clause

    1. There were always plenty of religious people in government. But back in those early days, many of them recognized the secular nature of the US government, and didn't have a serious problem with that. They understood the importance of separating church and state. It is the modern religionists especially who don't get it.

  2. I am firmly convinced that Jefferson and Madison had in mind a completely neutral Government wrt religions but, even if they didn't, it would still be a damn good idea.