‘A Wall Of Eternal Separation’

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TPM Reader AM responds to the question of whether Christine O’Donnell bungled the Establishment Clause in today’s debate by laying down some serious theo-political history:

Nice citation of Jefferson in your article this a.m. — #Conlawfail? Indeed Jefferson did cite the separation between church and state in his letter to the Danbury Baptists. But he wasn’t the source. He borrowed from Rhode Island’s Roger Williams who, in 1644, decried the deleterious effects of the world on the church:

“[W]hen they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall itself, removed the Candlestick, etc., and made His Garden a wilderness as it is this day. And that therefore if He will ever please to restore His garden and Paradise again, it must of necessity be walled in peculiarly unto Himself from the world, and all that be saved out of the world are to be transplanted out of the wilderness of the World.” [Roger Williams, “Mr. Cotton’s Letter,” Roger Williams: His Contribution to the American Tradition, Perry Miller (New York: Atheneum, 1962), 98.

Williams wrote this letter in response to a letter from John Cotton defending Williams’ banishment from Massachusetts. Williams’ banishment was in large part due to his theo-political argument that “an enforced uniformity of religion through a nation or civil state, confounds the civil and religious, denies the principles of Christianity and civility, and that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh.” He was making strong arguments for religious toleration and freedom of conscience. Roger Williams, “The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution,” July 15, 1644.

When Thomas Jefferson borrowed Williams’ metaphor, almost 160 years later, he was speaking more narrowly to a concern raised by the Danbury Baptist Association. Their issue was that the state of Connecticut, viewing religion as its “first object of legislation,” might interfere with an individual’s right to religious liberty. In response, Jefferson pointed to the First Amendment, enacted thirteen years earlier, as having built “a wall of eternal separation between Church & State.” In establishing that “Congress will make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” the Constitution, according to Jefferson, upholds the conviction that religion “is a matter which lies solely between man & his god” and that the “legitimate powers of government reach actions only and not opinions.” Jefferson’s main concern here is about religious freedom at a time when some states, including Connecticut, still had advantaged and potentially coercive established churches. While civil and political society is no longer posited as a wilderness, as in Williams’ argument, Jefferson was clearly interested in protecting religious belief from state incursion, and on theological grounds.

The modern use of the wall metaphor in American life can be traced to the 1947 Supreme Court decision in Everson v. Board of Education, a case that challenged whether it was legal for a New Jersey township board of education to reimburse parents for the expenses they incurred sending their children to parochial schools on public buses. Writing for the majority, Justice Hugo Black concluded, “The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.” The decision became seminal for interpreting the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment when it proscribed state and federal government involvement in six broad areas of religious belief and practice.

The “wall of separation” metaphor has not been static. It developed from Williams’ concern with the church’s corruption when the world breached its walls, to Jefferson’s concern for religious freedom vis a vis the state and an established church, to Black’s arguments that the U.S. government must not engage in religious establishment, preference, and taxation, or in matters of attendance, participation, and belief.

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