A special day slipped by most of us this past Wednesday — Constitution Day. Few Americans likely took note that September 17th was the date members of the Constitutional Convention signed the U.S. Constitution in 1787. Forgetting our history can have terrible consequences. In fact, when it comes to the First Amendment, we are living with the cost of remembering only Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association and forgetting his other letter.
To an ever-growing number of Christians in America, there is an increasing awareness that there is a consequence to forgetting our history and heritage regarding the First Amendment. That consequence is the rapid rise in government suppression of religious liberty, all for the sake of placating the irreligious among us who insist that any religious presence in the public square is an “establishment of religion.”
Our plight as Christians is sadly our own fault. Generations that preceded us forgot the history and heritage of America that would have made clear the real purpose of Jefferson’s letter and the First Amendment. And consequently, we were unable to keep our fellow Americans from forgetting as well.
While constitutional interpretation should not turn on private letters in the first instance, what is so tragic about the Supreme Court’s current interpretation and application of the phrase “a wall of separation between church and state” in Jefferson’s letter is that it is divorced from the historical context set by a previous letter by the President.
The “forgotten” letter was one written the year before by then President-elect Thomas Jefferson to his friend and co-signer of the Declaration of Independence, Dr. Benjamin Rush. Here is the pertinent part of that letter:
“The clause of the Constitution which … covered … the freedom of religion [the First Amendment], had given to the clergy a very favorite hope of obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity through the United States … especially the Episcopalians and Congregationalists.… They believe that any portion of power confided to me will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly.”
While the possibility of the federal government establishing a “national church” seems laughable to us in the face of today’s First Amendment jurisprudence, it was an issue during Jefferson’s election. And it was a particularly important issue because abhorrence of the strictures of the national church in England was not a too distant heritage for many then living.
What is important to note is that the later letter from the Danbury Baptists to which President Jefferson responded made clear the Baptists’ fear in that regard, particularly because of their experience with the state church in Connecticut, the Congregationalists!
Here is the pertinent part of the Danbury Baptists’ letter to which Jefferson responded:
“… what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights: and these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgements, as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen. (emphasis added)”
In other words, the Baptists wanted an assurance from President Jefferson that the political position he had expressed earlier in his letter to Rush was his true position because they didn’t want to be a “minor part” of the nation as well as Connecticut.
In that context, it then becomes clear what Jefferson meant.
Jefferson’s letter was about the principle of federalism and keeping the national government out of the clutches of a particular ecclesiastical hierarchy. It was not about protecting the irreligious from any religious influences in the public square or on public policies involving the regulation of civil conduct. And if you want to see the evidence that corroborates this interpretation, then you’ll just have to come to one of the upcoming Stand for Truth seminars.
Having forgotten our history and our heritage of religious liberty, the Court was able to lead us to believe that religion has no place in the public square.
Sadly, it looks like Karl Marx was right on at least one thing: “A people without a heritage are easily persuaded.”