Justice Black's Bigotry Gets Misread as Jefferson's Belief: Scholars Challenge the Theory of Separation of Church and State as a Mid-20th Century Myth Concocted by Ideologues. (Constitutional Law)

By Witham, Larry | Insight on the News, September 2, 2002 | Go to article overview

Justice Black's Bigotry Gets Misread as Jefferson's Belief: Scholars Challenge the Theory of Separation of Church and State as a Mid-20th Century Myth Concocted by Ideologues. (Constitutional Law)


Witham, Larry, Insight on the News


New research on Thomas Jefferson's "wall of separation" between church and state shows that he never intended it to be the iron curtain of today, which instead was built on anti-Catholic legal views in the 1940s.

Though the new scholarship has received good reviews for exploding a "Jeffersonian myth" about a wall against religion, others say it is too late to tear down a barrier that Americans feel comfortable with.

"What we have today is not really Jefferson's wall, but [former] Supreme Court justice Hugo Black's wall," says American University professor Daniel Dreisbach, whose forthcoming book, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State, explores how Jefferson coined the "wall" metaphor.

Dreisbach's arguments parallel those of University of Chicago law professor Philip Hamburger, whose new book, Separation of Church and State, says Black's anti-Catholicism learned in the Ku Klux Klan influenced his 1947 ruling that the First Amendment created a "high and impregnable" wall between religion and government.

The two authors say the Founders did no such thing and that the "wall of separation" has become a "lazy slogan" tot judges and politicians.

In the Supreme Court's 1947 decision forbidding New Jersey to spend state education funds for religious education, Black cited the phrase "wall of separation between Church and State" from Jefferson's Jan. 1,1802, letter to a group of Baptists in Massachusetts.

The new scholarship argues that the Virginian used that metaphor in hopes of winning support in New England--then a stronghold of the rival Federalists--rather than as the definitive interpretation of the First Amendment.

"Jefferson worked with his New England political advisers on the letter," said Dreisbach, who five years ago began looking at Jefferson's original draft, the political advice and the electoral setting of the period.

The letter actually "backfired" by alienating the Baptists, he said. "The Baptists advocated disestablishment of the Congregationalists in New England, but they were not for separation of religion from public life."

This political interpretation of Jefferson's "wall" caused a national stir when it was part of a 1998 Library of Congress exhibit, to which Dreisbach contributed.

Historian Robert Alley, who argues that Jefferson wanted a secular public square, rallied other scholars in protest, saying the exhibit "ignores the past 60 years of Supreme Court opinions that analyzed Jefferson's phrase. …

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Justice Black's Bigotry Gets Misread as Jefferson's Belief: Scholars Challenge the Theory of Separation of Church and State as a Mid-20th Century Myth Concocted by Ideologues. (Constitutional Law)
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