Jefferson's Philosophical Wall of Separation

By Jayne, Allen | The Humanist, January 1999 | Go to article overview

Jefferson's Philosophical Wall of Separation

Jayne, Allen, The Humanist

Separation of church and state, a cornerstone of American civilization, has been under attack for several years. The Reverend Pat Robertson, for example, has long maintained such separation does not exist. Few people, outside of the Christian right, have taken him seriously. In the summer of 1998, however, a new attack was made--this time on the ideas of Thomas Jefferson, a principal architect of separation of church and state.

In his interpretation of a recent FBI study, James Hutson, chief of manuscripts at the Library of Congress, makes three conclusions about Jefferson. First, Jefferson's famous "wall of separation between Church and State" letter to the Baptists of Danbury, written in 1802, was based solely on politics, not philosophy. Second, he came to believe that traditional religion was important in the sense of essential to the morals of a republic. Third, he was not serious about separating church and state.

All of Hutson's conclusions are erroneous.

In the first, although Hutson correctly states Jefferson's letter served a political purpose, simultaneously it states a philosophical principle that was a basis of John Locke's concept of toleration put to use in American law by Jefferson and James Madison. Prior to and during Locke's time, it was difficult to determine where religion or church left off and government or state began. The powers of both were often combined. As a result, churches frequently used the force of the state to promote and enforce their interests and doctrines. This caused horrendous atrocities against Jews and heretics, as well as the European religious wars between Catholics and Protestants of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that resulted in the deaths of millions of people.

In order to prevent such bloodshed, Locke attacked the combination of church and state that caused it in his Letter Concerning Toleration. Jefferson read this work carefully. In it is found the philosophical basis of Jefferson's "wall of separation" comment made as respects the First Amendment's language: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Locke argued in his Letter that church and state had separate interests and functions. The church's interest was "the salvation of souls" and therefore sacred. Its function was to provide a system of beliefs and a form of worship conducive to salvation.

The interest of the state, on the other hand, was secular, having to do with "life, liberty, health ... and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like." The state's, or state magistrate's, function was "to secure unto all the people in general, and to every one of his subjects in particular, the just possession of these things belonging to this life."

Locke believed force was necessary to perform the state's function that included "the punishment of those that violated any other man's rights." Force, however, was alien to salvation--the church's interest and function. Locke maintained that "true religion consists in the inward and full persuasion of the mind" as respects profession of beliefs and what we are "fully satisfied in our mind ... is well pleasing unto God" as respects worship. If force was used to compel humans to profess what they did not believe in their minds and to worship in a form they deemed unacceptable to God, they were adding to their "other sins those also of hypocrisy," which prevents salvation.

In the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, written by Jefferson in 1777, Locke's idea that the functions of church and state were separate, and that the use of force in religion or church was no part of either of those functions, was made law. Significantly, James Madison was instrumental in the passage of that statute and well aware of its Lockean separation of church and state philosophical foundation.

Just as significantly, it was Jefferson who persuaded Madison to add the Bill of Rights to the Constitution, which included the right of religious freedom, finally made law in 1791. …

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