Thinking Correctly About “Separation of Church & State”: A Hermeneutical Approach

By Steve Williams

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November 1, 2018

Is “separation of church and state” in any U.S. founding documents?

This is a popular claim among many in the U.S., but the answer is an emphatic “no!” The phrase “wall of separation between church and state” is not in any U.S. founding documents, but is found in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists in 1802 — well after the founding documents were written. Jefferson was addressing concerns that the Baptists had due to a rumor that the U.S. was going to found a national religion. This phrase has been lifted out of this letter and abused by activist judges (most notably FDR appointee and Klansman Hugo Black), but it: 1) has no power, because it’s not codified in law, and 2) could not have been intended to mean what these activists hope in any case, because the actions and statements of the founding fathers at that time don’t match that purported meaning.

A common claim that activists try to pair up with this line from Jefferson’s letter is that “Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were Deists”. An unbiased look at the writings of these two men who wrote our Declaration of Independence (Jefferson) and participated in the writing of our Constitution and Bill of Rights (Franklin) shows, however, that at the times they were written, they were Christians — not Deists (or at least had Christian theism in mind). And because the concept of “original intent [of the author(s) and at the time of writing]” is the only valid interpretive philosophy in determining the meaning of contracts, constitutions, charters, declarations, bylaws and other legal documents, this is the only point in time that matters to this question.

At other times in their lives, both men dabbled in Deism, and quotes from those times have confused many. The fact that they were not Deists when they participated in and wrote these documents is easy to prove. Let’s start with the definition of Deism:

Deism

Entry from World dictionary

Pronunciation:/ˈdeɪɪz(ə)m, ˈdiːɪ-/

noun

[mass noun]

  • belief in the existence of a supreme being, specifically of a creator who does not intervene in the universe.

Notice that this Deity, in contrast to the Christian God, does not intervene in the universe. A Deity who answers prayer, intervenes in creation, and creates abstract (invisible but discernible) rights that we can perceive and which are inalienable, cannot be the Deity of Deism.

Jefferson:

Thomas Jefferson wrote our Declaration of Independence. He wrote four references to God into the document:

  • “..the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them…”. Here God is mentioned as the Maker of the laws of nature, and of mankind’s entitlements within those laws. This makes him a legislator and shows that Jefferson cannot be referring to the god of Deism. Within Deism, no one could ever know if one had such entitlements, nor would that Deity have any reason to create such entitlements in the first place.

  • “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Here God is mentioned as The Creator who endows us with certain rights; not the detached creator from Deism.

  • “…appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions…” Here He’s mentioned as the Supreme Judge of the world, to Whom we can appeal. This cannot be the god of Deism who has not expressed laws to mankind, with whom we cannot communicate, and to whom we cannot appeal.

  • “…with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” Here Jefferson mentioned a God who protects through divine providence (sustaining guidance and/or care) – which makes him an executive, and which cannot be the uninvolved god of Deism.

A look at Jefferson’s Notes on Religion from 1776 also shows him repeatedly referring to himself as a Christian and a church member at that time, so the evidence on this is quite clear. As governor of Virginia, Jefferson proclaimed days of “thanksgiving and prayer to Almighty God” and drafted a bill that punished those who disturbed worship services. As President, he prayed during both of his inaugural addresses, signed bills that appropriated money for Congressional Chaplains, and “earnestly recommended to all officers and soldiers, diligently to attend divine services”.

Context shows that what Jefferson meant by “wall of separation” in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists (long after America’s founding) was roughly the same thing as Roger Williams meant by it in his sermon “The Garden and the Wilderness” (which is where Jefferson got the quote) – our gov’t was to be walled off from oppressing the church (it’s a one-way wall).

That being said, our founders saw no problem with using the force and favor of the Federal government to honor what they called “The Sabbath” (Sunday) and other holy days, calling for days of thanksgiving, fasting and prayerproviding funds for Christian missionaries, funds for building churchesencouraging teachers to teach from the Bibleincorporating God into our nation’s symbolsreferring to God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit in our TreatiesDeclaration of IndependenceArticles of ConfederationConstitution, and many other similar accommodations. They clearly believed that our Federal government could accommodate mere non-denominational Christianity without any conflict with The First Amendment.

Individual states retained the sovereignty to go even further than the Federal gov’t, and many had official denominations. Membership was required for incentives ranging for tax benefits, and in some cases for voting or serving in the legislature (Virginia: Anglican; Massachusetts: Congregational, etc.). This was uncontroversial at the time, so obviously it was only the Federal government that was prohibited from establishing a favored denomination.

Franklin:

Benjamin Franklin’s address to the constitutional convention and President Washington as they encountered challenges in crafting our Constitution in 1787 is very revealing:

“I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth–that God Governs the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?

We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings, that “except the Lord build the House, they labor in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and bye word down to future ages. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human wisdom and leave it to chance, war and conquest.

I therefore beg leave to move–that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessing on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the clergy of this city be requested to officiate in that service.”

This address has several scriptural references, as well as presupposing that God “intervenes in the affairs of men. Obviously this is not the deity of Deism that Benjamin is referring to.

Benjamin Franklin, in July of 1776, was appointed part of a committee to draft a seal for the newly united states which would characterize the spirit of this new nation. He proposed:

“Moses lifting up his wand, and dividing the Red Sea, and Pharaoh in his chariot overwhelmed with the waters. This motto: ‘Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.’”

Benjamin Franklin wrote his own epitaph:

“THE BODY of BENJAMIN FRANKLIN Printer

Like the cover of an old book,

Its contents torn out,

And stripped of its lettering and gilding

Lies here, food for worms;

Yet the work itself shall not be lost,

For it will (as he believed) appear once more,

In a new,

And more beautiful edition,

Corrected and amended

By the AUTHOR”

These are not the words of a Deist.

A few other facts to consider: every session of Congress since it’s founding in 1774 has been opened in prayer. Every “swearing in” ceremony (until recently) used a Bible. The inauguration of our 1st President (George Washington) was filled with numerous Christian religious components and references, and was followed by he and Congress attending “Divine services” at St. Paul’s Chapel. The first act of Congress signed by President George Washington was The Northwest Ordinance, which included the provision: “schools and the means of education” in that territory must encourage the “religion, morality, and knowledge” that was “necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind.” This ordinance was drafted concurrently with the 1st Amendment, remains in force today as one of the organic, foundational pillars of U.S. Law. in 1800, Congress approved the use of the Capitol building as a church building for Christian worship services. Christian worship services were also approved for the Treasury Building and at the War Office. By1867, the church in the Capitol had become the largest church in Washington, and the largest Protestant church in America.

It was in the House Chamber in the Capitol Building where Thomas Jefferson attended church services two days after his letter to the Danbury Baptists. Need I write more?

Conclusion

So to re-cap, the phrase “separation of church and state” is nowhere in our founding documents, and was obviously not intended to be an anti-Christian phrase in its original context. It was a one-off reminder from President Jefferson (who was not even in attendance at The Constitutional Convention, by the way) to The Danbury Baptists that there would be no national denomination (such as Anglicanism in England) to which they would need to conform. When the majority in the U.S. insist on certain “respects” being afforded to Christianity (such as treating Sunday as a holy day), this has always been seen as harmonious with The First Amendment, as they do not establish a national religion, but merely allow certain de minimis majority preferences to be encoded into law.

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About the Author

By Steve Williams

Steve Williams is the author of What Your Atheist Professor Doesn’t know (But Should), and a Reasonable Faith chapter director in Hawaii.