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Thomas Jefferson and Separation of Church―from Interference by―the State

 

- by Dr. Catherine Millard

 

Religious Freedom in America

Thomas Jefferson believed his greatest accomplishments were the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the passage of his Act for Establishing Religious Freedom in the state of Virginia in 1786. Jefferson fought against Virginia’s state-supported clergy and church, something that had been common practice in Europe. He believed that each individual should be free to contribute according to his conscience to a pastor and church of his own choice, and that one’s religious beliefs should not in any way determine his suitability for civil government. Following are the introduction and conclusion to the Act:

 

…Well aware that Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all

attempts to influence it be temporal punishments and burthens, or

by civil incapacitations tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and

meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of

our Religion, who, being Lord of both body and mind, yet chose not

to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power

to do; the impious presumptions of legislators and rulers civil,

as well as ecclesiastical, who being themselves but fallible and

uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others,

setting their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true

and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others,

hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest

part of the world, and through all time: That to compel a man to

furnish contributions of money for opinions he disbelieves is sin-

ful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that

teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the

comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular

pastor whose morals he would like to pattern, and whose powers

he feels most persuasive to righteousness…be it therefore enacted

by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to fre-

quent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever,

nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened, in body or

goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions

or belief: but that all men shall be free to profess and by argument

maintain their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall

in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities…

 

The First Amendment Clause of the U.S. Constitution

The following year, on September 17, 1787, the U.S. Constitution was written and signed. It included the important First Amendment Clause stating that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of Religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

 

Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists

In recent years, those who would like to interpret the First Amendment in a manner the founders never intended have made use of the term “Separation of Church and State” to mean that there could be no possible impact or influence of Christianity upon civil government―or even upon education.

 

The true meaning of the Establishment Clause can be stated in the terms, “Separation of Church from interference by the State.” The only time the expression “Separation of Church and State” was used by a founding father is in an off-the-record, non-political letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association. He wrote this letter on January 1, 1802, replying to their public address which applauded his stance for establishing Religious Freedom. Jefferson prefaces his statement with an assurance to the Danbury Baptists that he concurs with their belief that man is accountable to God alone for his mode of worship, without governmental coercion or interference:

 

…Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely

between man and his God, that he owes account to none other

for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of govern-

ment reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with

sovereign 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…”

 

Religious Values Protected from Government Interference

The wall of separation between Church and State of which Jefferson speaks is clearly in reference to protecting religious worship from the government’s interference and not about the government being encroached upon by religious values. Furthermore, the Declaration of Independence itself concludes with an emphasis upon this new nation’s dependence upon God’s protective care:

…with a firm reliance upon the protection of Divine Providence,

we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and

our sacred honor.

 

 

Excerpted from Great American Statesmen and Heroes, by Catherine Millard.

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