Misunderstanding Jefferson’s ‘wall of separation’ metaphor
by P.A. Madison on November 19th, 2010
Not intending to revisit what has already been written following the Coons/O’Donnell Senate debate over church and state under the First Amendment, I do though want correct an erroneous assertion that Jefferson’s use of the phrase “wall of separation between Church & State” is somehow improper or erroneous. The fact is there is nothing wrong with Jefferson referring to the Establishment Clause as a wall between church and state in his famous Danbury Baptists letter. Jefferson was simply describing in a colorful way disestablishment, which in simple words means religion can no longer be an auxiliary of government control.
The problem isn’t Jefferson’s choice of words in referring to disestablishment for which was the purpose of the religious clause, but how the court misconstrues the word “establishment” for the word “endorsement” thereby implying the people through their governments can’t acknowledge religion, period. The Establishment Clause has been judicially transformed to such an extreme extent that it now means any religious symbol on public property can be judicially declared a violation because it might be seen as some official government endorsement of religion.
The Supreme Court does just what the First Amendment set out to prohibit, federal control over religious matters of the people. The Fourteenth Amendments principal framer, Rep. John A. Bingham, stressed how Christianity and morality was an important principle for State legislatures to recognize after its adoption.
More insulting is the fact the court had to invent the fiction of substantive due process in order to rewrite “Congress shall make no law” to “No State shall make no law” in order to apply to the States, something that never was successful through seven attempts to amend the Constitution post Fourteenth Amendment to make the Establishment Clause in some form or another applicable against the States.
The words “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” means in simple words that no power was invested in Congress to established a national church and to compel by law worship of its tenets, which in return disallows the “free exercise” of religion. This is the “wall” the First Amendment erects Jefferson was referring to. Two days after Jefferson wrote his “wall of separation” metaphor he attended church services held in the House of Representatives where the Speaker’s podium was used as the pulpit.
This wasn’t no isolated event either as he continuously attended church services held on government property during his two terms as President. President Madison also attended church services in the House on Sundays. Even the Treasury building was used as a church on Sundays where John Quincy Adams was known to attend.
Jefferson wrote in his Second Inaugural Address that the Constitution left religious matters “under the direction and discipline of State or Church authorities acknowledged by the several religious societies.” James Madison describes what disestablishment accomplishes under the First Amendment:
Congress should not establish a religion and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience, or that one sect might obtain a pre-eminence, or two combined together, and establish a religion to which they would compel others to conform.
The First Amendment does not disable Congress from recognizing or participating in religious practices but only prohibits Congress from creating by law a religious establishment and compel its worship and thus, “prohibiting the free exercise” of other religions. Churches established by law were well known to the colonists since nine of the thirteen colonies prior to the revolution had state established churches by law. At the time of the adoption of the First Amendment, half still maintained official religious establishments.
An establishment meant government control and indoctrination of religious tenets through governmental authority. Establishment could be either coercive or intolerant as Baptist found in Virginia before Jefferson penned the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1786.
Arguments made against establishment were that government tended to corrupt religion, was contrary to freedom of conscience and disestablishment would have the effect of revitalizing Christianity. As Madison put it, “morality of the Priesthood, & the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the Church from the State.”
The first question under any establishment controversy will be whether there has been a law enacted that establishes a government controlled church or a law compelling all persons to worship a certain religious sect. Questions over whether religious symbols on public property are a First Amendment violation is pure rubbish. The First Amendment will historically always be a check against government establishing a religion and declaring by law that it is the only religion that can be worshiped (restraining the free exercise of worshiping other religions) and not anything to do with acknowledging religion and its teachings.