Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;
In the 1947 Supreme Court decision, Everson v. the Board of Education, the Court was reviewing a policy on behalf of the state of New Jersey to reimburse the public bus fees of students attending parochial schools. The argument made was that by providing such a reimbursement the State was respecting an establishment of religion (and thus against the spirit of the 1st Amendment). This is argued by a sloppy composition of the idea of a ‘wall of separation’, which term they took from Thomas Jefferson’s letter to Baptist ministers of Danbury, Connecticut.
From this ‘wall of separation’, wrongly interpreted, they argued the strict hyper-secular interpretation of the First Amendment we see today. However, an examination of Jefferson’s letter to the Baptists is both revealing and humorous.
(1) What was the historical background that prompted Jefferson to use such terminology, and (2) what context may be given to aid in discovering his meaning?
The various Baptist ministers of Danbury wrote to Jefferson to complain about the established church in Connecticut. Out of the thirteen states, nine supported established churches with tax money. In addition, such churches discriminated against Baptists. An example of this were the 500+ Baptist preachers who were jailed in Virginia for “disturbing the peace”. In other words, they were preaching God’s Word without licenses from the state. In fine Baptist tradition, they responded with appeals towards religious liberty.
John Leland is a figure worth pointing to. An important Baptist preacher and evangelist, Leland had initially planned to campaign against the ratification of the Constitution out of fear that the above mentioned experiences would be expanded at a federal level. Given his influence, this spelled trouble for the ratification, since Baptists held significant political sway within Virginia, North Carolina, and other such states. We cannot blame Leland and those Baptists, given their earlier experiences at the state level.
Due to the impact such opposition could have, James Madison met with Leland, and the two came to an agreement. Leland would remove his opposition in exchange for a protection as given in the First Amendment.
It is now we turn again towards Jefferson’s above mentioned letter. In their petition, they expressed the worry of persecution on behalf of their state church establishment (and rightly so). It was this focus of state establishment that Jefferson responded to, and we cannot remove ourselves from the oddity of the Supreme Court accepting it as expressive of the federal scenario.
With the historical background expressed, what events surrounding Jefferson’s response and his mention of a ‘wall of separation’ can we observe to further define what he meant by ‘wall’? Was the Supreme Court not only wrong to observe as authoritative a letter addressing state-focused persecutions, but also wrong in its hyper-secularized application intended on removing any exchange or incentive on behalf of religious life and state (thus excluding religion from public participation and witness)?
We can say, with some authority, that they committed a grevious error of interpretation, and that they clearly abused the context of both the environment of Jefferson’s response, and his own surrounding practices. Observing those practices humorously make the point. I quote from Richard Land’s essay on “Religious Liberty in the Founding and Development of America”, as found in First Freedom, The Baptist Perspective on Religious Liberty (T. White, J. G. Duesing, M. B. Yarnell III):
On the same Friday that a Baptist preacher [Leland] showed up with an enormous cheese, prayed for the president, and the president thanked him for the prayer, the president later that day wrote his well-known letter to the Baptist preachers of Danbury. Two days later, on Sunday morning, Thomas Jefferson attended a Christian worship service in the House of Representatives. With about half the members of Congress in attendance, as well as the President, John Leland, a Baptist evangelist, preached a revival sermon from the speaker’s rostrum of the House of Representatives.
Clearly, the hyper-separation of religious life from public seems ill-fitting. How do Jefferson’s actions accord with the tone of his letter? What then, of his ‘wall of separation’? For the Supreme Court to argue it meant one thing, when Jefferson acts in a manner completely opposite of such an interpretation (two days after drafting his letter), seems odd indeed! The wall to be observed then is the error of the Court to properly scale both historical background and context.
We can conclude that hardly did Jefferson have in mind a secular strict division as rendered by the Everson v. the Board of Education case. In short, the Court sought to propose Jefferson as arguing a removal of any Christian element from public governance on the grounds of it establishing a religion (a wall between the two). Yet this same Jefferson they wrongly interpret is the one who sat in the front row during Leland’s sermon at the House, as well as the one who accepted both Leland’s prayers, and Leland’s cheese. Surely Jefferson’s actions would best explain his own words!