This is part two of a series.
I usually don’t hit the same topic in back-to-back weeks, but from the number of responses I received to last week’s column, I felt like I needed to follow up on the concept of “separation of church and state.”
Most of the emails I received objected to crediting Thomas Jefferson with the creation of the concept, stating that the concept itself was laid out in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Yes and no. When we read the First Amendment, it does clearly state “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” But in order to understand the chain of events and the motives of the people involved, we have to look at the issue through the eyes of people living in the late 1700s, not from someone living in 2021.
As of 1802, when Jefferson wrote his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, the First Amendment had existed for 12 years. Yet the populace still feared for their religious liberties. In a letter from the DBA to Jefferson, the association expressed its fears, stating, “Sir our constitution of government is not specific. Our antient charter, together with the Laws made coincident therewith, were adopted as the Basis of our government at the time of our revolution; and such had been our laws & usages, & such still are; that Religion is considered as the first object of Legislation; & therefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable right...”
You see, in 1802 it was still commonplace around the western world for countries to select a national religion. Many countries still have state religions today, including Great Britain, which is the Church of England, with the Queen serving as Supreme Governor of the Church.
Prior to the American Revolution in 1776, most of the 13 original US colonies had official state religions, including Connecticut and Massachusetts. Connecticut didn’t deestablish until 1818 (16 years after the letter) and Massachusetts didn’t deestablish until 1834 (32 years later). By 1802, leaders in many of these states wanted to see a national state religion named in the United States.
In his response, Jefferson stated, “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 & 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...”
Historians, both religious and historical/political, agree that this was the first mention of a separation between church and state. Yes, Jefferson was restating his view on what the First Amendment said, but as of 1802 that was pretty much the only explanation of the First Amendment the public had really gotten. It has since more of less become the official explanation of the First Amendment.
As the DBA said, until that moment “our constitution of government is not specific.”
But back the original point that actually drove me to writing that column. Whether we go by the words of the First Amendment, or the explanation given by Thomas Jefferson, no where does it say that an elected official has to check his or her religion convictions at the door. Actually Jefferson assures the DBA that being able to practice ones religious beliefs is an inalienable right that all people should have with no interference from government.
Inalienable means something that is unable to be taken away. That means if you are a city council member who opposes the Sunday sale of alcohol, your right to feel that way is protected by the First Amendment. If you are a congressman who opposes abortion, that is your right.
Whether you support or stand against either issues , buying alcohol on Sunday or getting an abortion is not a part of your religion. The banning of either is not a violation of your religious rights. Neither is allowing it. While you might oppose it because of your own religious beliefs, your freedom of religion was not violated because it is allowed.
All that said, its wonderful to hear from polite readers, even if they disagree with me. My goal since starting this column was to make people think and to start conversations. I feel like its working!