SPECIAL TO THE CALDWELL JOURNAL (By Daniel B. Rundquist)…There continues to be endless debate in America over the notion of “the separation of church and state.” This has probably occurred more so in the twentieth century than at any time in the course of our history, and it would not be surprising to learn that the issue is likely more related to public funding than it is to principle. It is, however, interesting to observe that for all this effort and angst the matter never seems to be settled. There is always someone or group pushing for either more or less religious involvement in government institutions and for either more or less government involvement in religious institutions. But rather than revisit all the various factions and their arguments of the past century, perhaps it would be a more productive exercise to understand a simpler policy on the matter presented to America by our third President, Thomas Jefferson.
President Jefferson considered himself a Christian, even though he was first raised as an Anglican and then influenced by English deists. Jefferson never seemed to have too much to say about his own deep personal thoughts on religion—so little in fact that by the late 1790s during a particularly nasty political season Jefferson was even accused of being an atheist. Jefferson, however, saw Christianity in a more pure light than the brand of doctrine being advertised and implanted by the Church of England and other organized religions at the time.
Jefferson’s Christianity was centered on the principles of Christ alone and not the piety of the church. In 1803, Jefferson wrote to Benjamin Rush declaring, “To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed, opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other.”
In 1813 Jefferson wrote to Richard Rush, “…the subject of religion, a subject on which I have ever been most scrupulously reserved. I have considered it as a matter between every man and his maker, in which no other, & far less the public, had a right to intermeddle.” In 1816 Jefferson wrote to Charles Thomson in his own defense, “I too have made a wee little book, from the same materials, which I call the Philosophy of Jesus. It is a paradigma of his doctrines, made by cutting the texts out of the book, and arranging them on the pages of a blank book, in a certain order of time or subject. A more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen. It is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists, who call me infidel, and themselves Christians and preachers of the gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogmas from what its Author never said nor saw…”
By 1819, it was clear that although Jefferson indeed attended church services, he was not a subscriber to organized religion. In a letter that year he wrote, “I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.”
Jefferson’s public policies regarding religion and state were as clear and consistent as were his other policy positions. He was a perpetual champion for individual liberties and the concept that the rights of one individual extended only to the point where the rights of another’s began. He writes, “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
In 1802 Jefferson wrote to the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut stating, “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & 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 & State.”
In Jefferson’s day, the Church of England had continued to apply its authoritative hand in the Commonwealth of Virginia. From 1776 to 1779, Jefferson served as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates where in 1777 he drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was intended to establish freedom of religion and define the separation of church and state. Jefferson saw that the influence of the Church of England had put Virginia at a competitive disadvantage economically compared to the other states not encumbered by the Church.
People immigrating to America could simply choose to live and work in other states not under the influence of the Church of England. As a result, the builders of America— blacksmiths, brick masons, farmers and so on were flooding into other areas of the country and not into Virginia. Educated men who might serve as effective leaders were likewise not flocking to Virginia. Jefferson understood that long term, Virginia could not grow at the same pace as the other states due to this problem.
Entered into the Assembly record of Virginia as Bill No. 82, “A Bill For establishing religious freedom,” Jefferson’s bill states, in part, “We the General Assembly of Virginia do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his 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 to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” Bill No. 82 was finally adopted for Virginia in 1785.
In the case of church and state, Jefferson got it right. Bill No. 82 defines the “separation” for us. Government was to be indifferent to the people’s “opinions in matters of religion,” neither compelling citizens to practice a specific state mandated religion nor punishing them for not doing so by force of law. Further, citizens were simply free to profess whatever religion they wished “to maintain.”
Thomas Jefferson and his peers resolved the issue of the separation of church and state in America a long time ago with Virginia setting the example. He saw America as a place with inexhaustible liberty so long as the people were willing to take the time and effort to maintain it. He worked tirelessly to craft public policy that was clear, concise, and addressed the issues in the simplest and most direct path as possible. He might well be surprised and dismayed by the twisted “separation” policy that we imagine to exist today.
Americans have been duped into the popular thinking that local issues like pre-game prayers at a football game, school children saying grace in the school lunchroom, or nativity scenes at Christmas on the lawn of a privately-owned church are somehow grave and dangerous violations of “the separation of church and state.” Clarity and common sense is again what is needed today’s America. As citizens, we must remember that Jefferson showed us that religious tolerance is a two-way street and that indeed it “does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god.” One’s liberty does not end at the point where another person simply claims to be offended.