Separation of Church and State?

Don't Blame Thomas Jefferson.


Contender Ministries

Posted: March 26, 2003

“Separation of Church and State.”  These are five little words that, in their misuse, have become the rallying cry of atheists, agnostics, and others who wish to remove God from the public forum.  Thomas Jefferson popularized that phrase, and in so doing has become an icon to those who believe that a free expression of faith in God is incompatible with any government institution, practice, program, or official.  In this article, we will explore the birth of the “separation” phrase, the establishment clause of the U.S. constitution, and some other lesser-known things that Thomas Jefferson said.  The overall picture will be one that is much different than the one painted by American Atheists or Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

In June of 2002, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of California atheist Michael Newdow, saying that the United States Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional because it contains the words, “under God.”  The decision was put on hold, pending a request that the court revisit their ruling.  The appeals court refused, and school children in nine Western states will soon be stopped from reciting the pledge in school.

The same atheist, Michael Newdow, also filed suit against President Bush.  Why?  Because the prayer offered by Rev. Franklin Graham at President Bush’s inauguration was offered “in Jesus’ name.” 

The American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State have successfully sued to have displays of the Ten Commandments removed from government-owned property.  They have recently attacked the governor of Alabama for having voluntary Bible studies in his office.  They are leading the way in removing prayer and religious symbols from public schools.  They are doing all of this under the banner of their favorite catch phrase – separation of church and state. 

The First Amendment to the constitution addresses, among other things, religious freedom.  Commonly known as the “Establishment Clause,” the First Amendment reads as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Legal opinions have extended the meaning of the establishment clause to include not only congress, but also all branches of government.  The framers of our constitution did not want the government to favor one religion or denomination above the others, and in so doing, establish a state religion.  The Church of England served as an example of what the founding fathers wanted to avoid.  They wanted each citizen to have the freedom to worship in whatever way he or she chose, without having religious beliefs or practices dictated to them by the government.

You will notice that “separation of church and state” is not mentioned in the first amendment.  In fact, it’s not mentioned in the constitution at all.  That phrase comes from a letter that founding father and 3rd U.S. President Thomas Jefferson wrote, that reads, in part:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with solemn 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.” [1]

In this letter, Jefferson is actually responding to a letter he had received from the Danbury Baptists of Danbury, CT.  They were a minority denomination in that area and were subjected to persecution for their beliefs.  They feared that if the government were to adopt a state religion, as it had done in England, that their minority views would be trampled, and they themselves subject to further persecution.  Jefferson wrote his letter to them to reassure them that they would remain free to worship as they wished, without needing to fear government interference in their religious beliefs or practices.  In fact, he borrowed the term “wall of separation” from famous Baptist minister Roger Williams.

We can see that neither the constitution nor Jefferson’s “separation” letter ever intimates that religious expression must be kept out of the public arena.  Yet the ACLU and Americans United continue to lift Jefferson up as a sort of historic “town crier” for their cause.  They seem convinced that Jefferson would not have permitted any political recognition of anything remotely religious.  Are they correct?  You be the judge.

In 1774, while serving in the Virginia Assembly, Jefferson personally introduced a resolution calling for a Day of Fasting and Prayer. [2]

In 1779, as Governor of Virginia, Jefferson decreed a day of “Public and solemn thanksgiving and prayer to Almighty God.” [3]

As President, Jefferson signed bills that appropriated financial support for chaplains in Congress and the armed services.

On March 4, 1805, President Jefferson offered “A National Prayer for Peace,” which petitioned:

Almighty God, Who has given us this good land for our heritage; We humbly beseech Thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of Thy favor and glad to do Thy will.  Bless our land with honorable ministry, sound learning, and pure manners.

Save us from violence, discord, and confusion, from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way.  Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitude brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues.

Endow with Thy spirit of wisdom those to whom in Thy Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that through obedience to Thy law, we may show forth Thy praise among the nations of the earth.

In time of prosperity fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in Thee to fail; all of which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.” [4]

As is evident, Jefferson’s belief in a separation between church and state did not preclude the very mention of God under state sanction.  If he were not our third president, but our forty-third, I suspect Thomas Jefferson would find himself on the receiving end of a lawsuit for his sundry official statements that specifically mention “God” and “Jesus Christ.”

Nearly 160 years after Jefferson’s death, in the case of Wallace v. Jaffree, Justice William Rehnquist offered the decision of the United States Supreme Court:

It is impossible to build sound constitutional doctrine upon a mistaken understanding of Constitutional history….The establishment clause had been expressly freighted with Jefferson’s misleading metaphor for nearly forty years....

There is simply no historical foundation for the proposition that the framers intended to build a wall of separation [between church and state]….The recent court decisions are in no way based on either the language or intent of the framers.” [5]

Offering his dissenting opinion on Michael Newdow’s “pledge lawsuit,” 9th Circuit Appeals Court Judge Ferdinand Fernandez said, in part:

My reading of the stelliscript suggests that upon Newdow’s theory of our Constitution, accepted by my colleagues today, we will soon find ourselves prohibited from using our album of patriotic songs in many public settings. “God Bless America” and “America The Beautiful” will be gone for sure, and while use of the first and second stanzas of the Star Spangled Banner will still be permissible, we will be precluded from straying into the third. And currency beware!” [6]

Sometimes, I am left to wonder what President Jefferson would think about Michael Newdow’s lawsuits, about the work of the ACLU and Americans United.  I think I found just what Jefferson might say on that matter.  In 1781, he made the following statement:

God who gave us life gave us liberty.  And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the Gift of God?  That they are not to be violated but with His wrath?  Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.” [7]



[1] Thomas Jefferson, personal letter to Danbury Baptist Association, Danbury, CT, January 1, 1802.

[2] Thomas Jefferson, Resolution for a Day of Fasting and Prayer made in the Virginia General Assembly, 1774.

[3] Thomas Jefferson, Proclamation Appointing a Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer, November 11, 1779.

[4] Thomas Jefferson, as quoted in The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson (NY: Random House, 1944), p.341.

[5] United States Supreme Court. 1985, Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S., 38, 99.

[6] United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, 2002, Justice Fernandez dissenting, Newdow v. U.S. Congress et al, No. 00-16423.

[7] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII, 1781, p. 237.


Contender Ministries