The Christian Constitutional Republic One Nation Under God
Government of, by, and for the People
Liberty and Justice for All by: Thomas Lee Abshier, ND
Separation of Church and State – the Founders’ Intent by: Thomas Lee Abshier, ND
The Danbury Baptists wrote Jefferson a letter of praise on October 7, 1801, telling
him: "Among the many millions in America and Europe who rejoice in your election
to office, we embrace the first opportunity... to express our great satisfaction
in your appointment to the Chief Magistracy in the United States... [W]e have reason
to believe that America's God has raised you up to fill the Chair of State out of
that goodwill which he bears to the millions which you preside over. May God strengthen
you for the arduous task which providence and the voice of the people have called
you... And may the Lord preserve you safe from every evil and bring you at last to
his Heavenly Kingdom through Jesus Christ our Glorious Mediator."
However, in that same letter of congratulations, the Baptists also expressed to Jefferson
their grave concern over the entire concept of the First Amendment:
"Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty: that religion is
at all times and places a matter between God and individuals, that no man ought to
suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions, [and] that
the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man
who works ill to his neighbor. But sir, our constitution of government is not specific...
. [T]herefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we
enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights."
The inclusion of Constitutional protection for the "free exercise of religion" suggested
to the Danbury Baptists that the right was government-given (thus alienable) rather
than God-given (hence inalienable), and that therefore the government might someday
attempt to regulate religious expression. This was a possibility to which they strenuously
objected – unless someone's religious practice caused him, as they explained, to
"work ill to his neighbor." Jefferson understood their concern; it was also his own.
He made numerous statements declaring the inability of the government to regulate,
restrict, or interfere with religious expression.
Jefferson, in his short and polite reply to the Danbury Baptists on January 1, 1802,
he assured them that they need not fear; the free exercise of religion would never
be interfered with by the government. As he explained:
"Gentlemen, – The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are
so good as to express towards me on behalf of the Danbury Baptist Association give
me the highest satisfaction... Believing with you that religion is a matter which
lies solely between man and his God; that he owes account to none other for his faith
or his worship; that the legislative powers of government reach actions only and
not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American
people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment
of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation
between Church and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the
nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction
the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights,
convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties. I reciprocate
your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and Creator
of man, and tender you for yourselves and your religious association assurances of
my high respect and esteem." T.J., President of the United States
Jefferson's reference to "natural rights" invoked an important legal phrase which
was part of the rhetoric of that day. The use of that phrase confirmed his belief
that religious liberties were inalienable rights. While those words communicated
much to people then, to most citizens today it means little.
By definition, "natural rights" included "that which the Books of the Law and the
Gospel do contain." Very simply, "natural rights" incorporated what God Himself had
guaranteed to man in the Scriptures. Thus when Jefferson assured the Baptists that
by following their "natural rights" they would violate no social duty, it was understood
that he was affirming to them his belief that the free exercise of religion was their
inalienable God given right. They were therefore assured that the issue of religious
expressions was above federal jurisdiction.
So clearly did Jefferson understand the Source of America's inalienable rights that
he even doubted whether America could survive if we ever lost that knowledge. He
"And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure if we have lost the only firm
basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift
of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath?"
Jefferson believed that God, not government, was the Author and Source of our rights
and that the government, therefore, was to be prevented from interference with those
rights. Very simply, the "fence" of the Webster letter and the "wall" of the Danbury
letter were not to limit religious activities in public; rather they were to limit
the power of the government to prohibit or interfere with those expressions.
Earlier courts long understood Jefferson's intent. In fact, when Jefferson's letter
was invoked by the Court (only once prior to the 1947 Everson case the Reynolds v.
United States case in 1878), unlike today's Courts which publish only his eight-word
separation phrase, that Court published Jefferson's full letter, and then concluded:
Coming as this does from an acknowledged leader of the advocates of the measure,
it [Jefferson's letter] may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of
the scope and effect of the Amendment thus secured. Congress was deprived of all
legislative power over mere [religious] opinion, but was left free to reach actions
which were in violation of social duties or subversive of good order.
That Court then succinctly summarized Jefferson's intent for "separation of church
The rightful purposes of civil government are for its officers to interfere when
principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order. In th[is] ...
is found the true distinction between what properly belongs to the church and what
to the State.
With this even the Baptists had agreed; for while wanting to see the government prohibited
from interfering with or limiting religious activities, they also had declared it
a legitimate function of government "to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor."
That Court, therefore, and others (for example, Commonwealth v. Nesbit and Lindenmuller
v. The People), identified actions into which – if perpetrated in the name of religion
– the government did have legitimate reason to intrude. Those activities included
human sacrifice, polygamy, bigamy, concubinage, incest, infanticide, parricide, advocation
and promotion of immorality, etc.
Such acts, even if perpetrated in the name of religion, would be stopped by the government
since, as the Court had explained, they were "subversive of good order" and were
"overt acts against peace and good order." However, the government was never to interfere
with traditional religious practices outlined in "the Books of the Law and the Gospel"
– whether public prayer, the use of the Scriptures, etc.
Passages taken from Original Intent: The Courts, the Constitution, & Religion by