Commentary Magazine


The Wall of Separation

To the Editor:

In his provocative article, “What Adams Saw Over Jefferson’s Wall” [August], Richard A. Samuelson argues that John Adams was right in contending that religious opinion would, and should, play an important role in public debate. Of course it should—and surely it does.

There are more than 1,800 radio and TV stations nationwide, with an audience of tens of millions, whose chief reason for being is to espouse fundamentalist Christian doctrine on a variety of subjects. Currently, there is robust debate on a host of religious-moral issues, such as abortion, gay rights, school prayer, and teaching “creation science” in public schools. But that is not enough for many religious fundamentalists. What they really want is the freedom not just to preach and practice their own religious beliefs, but rather to impose these beliefs on the entire body politic, using government as the engine to achieve their goals. In other words, they seek to make unlawful what they deem to be sinful. The abortion issue is a striking example of this. In short, at least many, if not most, of them want a Christian theocracy, with all our laws firmly rooted in their interpretation of biblical precepts. Surely John Adams would never have gone along with this.

Mr. Samuelson writes that our founding fathers were not all of a single mind on the issue of church-state relations. This is certainly true, but it is also true that they were heavily in favor of disestablishment. In fact, they designed a Constitution that contained no mention whatsoever of Jesus or, for that matter, even of God. They crafted a design for a secular republic, with religious liberty and freedom of conscience for all. Clearly, they intended to separate religion from government. As John Adams put it in the early days of the Continental Congress: “Congress [it is hoped] will never meddle with religion further than to say [its] own prayers, and to fast and to give thanks once a year.”

But nothing in the Constitution says that religions cannot play a vital role in American public life, and they certainly should play such a role: an active, vibrant, constructive, noncoercive role on behalf of humane values.

Samuel Rabinove
White Plains, New York

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To the Editor:

The wall of separation between church and state envisioned by Thomas Jefferson and strengthened in our own century is indeed “a means of favoring certain values at the expense of others,” as Richard A. Samuelson asserts, but among the favored values is precisely what Mr. Samuelson seems to want: a political system that “would seek to accommodate eternal conflicts, rather than, once and for all, win them.”

What Mr. Samuelson must mean, therefore, is that Jefferson’s wall does not allow “religious opinion . . . [to] play an important role in public debate.” But such a claim is also difficult to understand in view of the fact that religious principles have constantly been invoked in the public debates over slavery and racial segregation in the past, and over birth control, abortion, divorce, capital punishment, and welfare reform in recent years.

The only way to understand Mr. Samuelson’s complaint is to see it as echoing the claim of religious conservatives that on some issues religion should play not only an important role in public debate but a decisive one. The justification for this claim is that some laws decided by a majority vote are such clear violations of the laws of God that they cannot be obeyed by the truly religious. Such a claim is, obviously, an attack not only on our wall of separation between religion and politics but on our democratic ethos, the very basis of our political system. For a government that derives its authority from the consent of the governed cannot also be a government that gives any one religious institution, or even any combination of institutions, a veto power over the decisions of the majority.

Lawrence Hyman
Ridgewood, New Jersey

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To the Editor:

When will people stop desecrating the good name of Thomas Jefferson in order to bolster their pet arguments? First it was Fawn Brodie and her “psychobiography” foolishness, giving unwarranted credence to old slanders about Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Then we had Bill Clinton’s Inaugural fantasy, in which he dragooned Jefferson into the service of the very kind of activist federal government Jefferson steadfastly opposed. Next, it was Conor Cruise O’Brien, painting Jefferson as an inspiration for violent white extremists à la Timothy McVeigh. Now comes Richard A Samuelson to portray Jefferson as an anti-Semite and anti-religious bigot. What next?

The simple fact is that Jefferson was a man whose views were formed in a particular time and place. He wrote candidly and prolifically about a wide range of subjects—astronomy to zoology—over the course of a long and eventful life. His views on some subjects changed somewhat over the years and, by choosing from among his many different public and private writings, one can easily construct an argument between Jefferson and Jefferson.

As for his views on religion, Jefferson was in general a freethinker, a man who approached religious belief with the same worldly, scientific perspective he brought to most other subjects. Above all, he prided himself on being entirely rational, and so we find that he was skeptical of miraculous and mystical elements in the Bible. This was not uncommon then, nor has it been uncommon since.

One cannot understand Jefferson’s views on disestablishment without knowing something about the crucible in which they were formed. During the colonial era, the Church of England had a preferred position in Virginia, and its clergy was virtually a royal bureaucracy. As a result of their official status, Episcopal clergymen were not dependent on voluntary offerings. This meant that many neglected their congregations or lived riotously. Such scandals put the church in disrepute and led to a decline in genuine Christian belief.

After the Revolution, the question of disestablishment became a battleground, with that masterly orator, Patrick Henry, in favor of a general subsidy to the clergy, while Jefferson and James Madison arrayed themselves on the side of disestablishment. (Funny how no one ever bothers to disparage Madison.) Eventually, disestablishment won the day in Virginia, and Jefferson was proud of his role in the victory, making the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom one of three accomplishments listed on his tombstone.

Attempts by America’s cultural elites to purge religion from schools and other institutions are indeed injurious to our nation. While citizens have every right to a government that reflects their religious beliefs, however, we must be careful that we do not allow government to begin meddling in matters of personal faith. This is a fine line, and such matters are best handled at the local level. In the meantime, I hope that writers will cease this annoying modern habit of dragging Jefferson’s name through the mud for the sake of winning an argument. If we Southern conservatives can forgive Jefferson his excessive egalitarian zeal, surely the rest of the country can forgive his other pecadilloes.

Robert Stacy McCain
Rome, Georgia

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To the Editor:

Richard A. Samuelson cites several letters of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams to illustrate the broad disagreement between “the intellectual children of the Enlightenment and the forces of conventional religion” that began in the aftermath of the Revolution and has continued to this day.

For the most part, Mr. Samuelson correctly interprets the differences between Adams and Jefferson as revealed in their correspondence. But he is wrong to equate Jefferson’s private misgivings about orthodox religion with modern liberalism’s dogmatic insistence on a radical degree of church-state separation.

To understand the political theory of the founding, one must first distinguish between the private thoughts of individual founders and the public expressions of those founders in their official capacities. Jefferson rejected orthodox religion in his letters, but not in his public speeches, which were full of praise for religion. In this he agreed with Adams, and indeed with the consensus of the founding era, which is summed up in the Northwest Ordinance:

Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary for good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.

In other words, government would not only not forbid but would encourage religion in public schools.

In some areas one must distinguish between Jefferson on the one hand and the founding consensus on the other. The most famous example of this is the difference between Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence, which contained only one reference to God (“the laws of nature and of nature’s God”), and Congress’s additions, which added Creator, Providence, and Supreme Judge.

But one must also note that Jefferson’s more extreme pronouncements on the religious question were often contradicted by his own writings and public pronouncements. While in public office, he frequently used religious language in his official capacity. For example, he ended both his Inaugural Addresses with a prayer. He even ended the famous “wall-of-separation” letter with a prayer.

The real gap is not between Jefferson and Adams, but between the founders—Jefferson and Adams included—on the one hand and modern liberalism on the other. Today’s liberals want to banish religion from the public square altogether, and would have rejected the public practice and pronouncements of both Adams and Jefferson.

Thomas G. West
Claremont Institute
Claremont, California

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To the Editor:

Richard A. Samuelson particularly maligns Thomas Jefferson as an aggressive proponent of a godless state, an atheist who “never uttered a word in prayer,” and a “virulent” anti-Judaizer. None of these accusations is true.

While Jefferson did believe the First Amendment erected a “wall of separation between church and state,” this barrier is far less formidable than is generally recognized. As he explained in his letter to Reverend Samuel Miller, the “wall of separation” was intended only “to prohibit state direction of religious exercises.” It was not, however, to be understood, Jefferson later wrote (October 7, 1822), “that instruction in religious opinion and duties was meant to be precluded by the public authorities, as indifferent to the interests of society.”

Moreover, under Jefferson’s administration, and with his frequent participation, the House of Representatives was authorized to use its hall for weekly religious services. So much for Mr. Samuelson’s claim that the adult Jefferson “never uttered a word of prayer.”

As for the charge that Jefferson was a bigot, a careful examination of his writings demonstrates that he did not object to Judaism or Christianity as such, but to any form of religion that burdened its disciples with what he perceived to be unnecessary dogmas and ceremonies. If he criticized Judaism for erring in this manner, he did the same of Catholicism.

The views Mr. Samuelson attributes to Jefferson are not Jefferson’s but those of the Supreme Court, which, since the 1947 Everson ruling, has consistently favored secularism over religious belief. Victory over such heresy will not be won by blaming and abandoning the principles of our founding, but by returning to them.

Jameson T. Taylor
University of Dallas
Dallas, Texas

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To the Editor:

Richard A. Samuelson’s article is excellent, but he is wrong on one point. He says that “the wall of separation has indeed become what Jefferson intended it to be—a means of favoring a certain set of values at the expense of others.” Jefferson intended no such thing.

It is true that Jefferson, like Adams, was a disestablishmentarian. He was as distrustful of the sociopolitical institutions of the church as he was of those of government. But he vigorously defended the right of all individuals to worship as they would so choose.

What he opposed was the establishment of a church by the state, and the levying of taxes to pay for its operations. He fully agreed with Patrick Henry’s defense of the tobacco farmers in the Parsons’ trial in which drought-stricken farmers (many Anglican), had been sued to pay back taxes for the wages of Anglican preachers.

The setting for Jefferson’s famous Danbury letter in which he wrote his oft-quoted, oft-misused “wall-of-separation-between-church-and-state” phrase, was similar: Connecticut Baptists were being taxed to pay for the state’s official Congregationalist churches.

In sum, Jefferson was a staunch believer in the freedom of religion. He was convinced that the Constitution was incomplete without a Bill of Rights that would include religious rights.

Although Jefferson held an unfavorable opinion of Judaism, he also said the following, in a letter written in 1820:

[My] own country has been the first to prove to the world two truths, the most salutary to human society, that man can govern himself and that religious freedom is the most effectual anodyne against religious dissension. . . . [I am] happy in the restoration, of the Jews particularly, to their social rights, and hope they will be seen taking their seats on the benches of science, as preparatory to their doing the same at the board of government.

And in another letter, also written in 1820, he wrote:

[I have] ever felt regret at seeing a sect [the Jews], the parent and basis of all those of Christendom, singled out by [Christians] for a persecution and oppression which proved they have profited nothing from the benevolent doctrines of him whom they profess to make the model of their principle and practice.

Jefferson’s wall was not meant to favor a certain set of values at the expense of others; it was meant to preclude the state from mandating, prohibiting, or subsidizing the practice of a certain religion. In other words, Jefferson’s wall was meant to preserve the freedom of choice in religious worship.

This is a far cry from the current position of the ACLU, People for the American Way, and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Unlike Adams and Jefferson, these groups almost seem to deny even the existence of a Supreme Being. They certainly want to limit the implementation of Judeo-Christian tenets in our laws, our social contract, and our popular culture. These tenets are the cornerstones of our government and our society. Unless we preserve them, we will lose our liberty a bit at a time, starting with our religious freedom.

Bruce Crawford
Fountain Valley, California

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Richard A. Samuelson writes:

Samuel Rabinove and Lawrence Hyman take me to task for criticizing the contemporary American model of church-state relations, and maintain that our government is neutral with regard to religion. If only it were so. When the National Endowment for the Arts funds a work like “Piss Christ” but cannot fund religious art, and when the schools may teach that homosexuality is just an “alternative life-style” but not that our religious traditions condemn the practice, the state is guilty of picking winners and losers among competing faiths.

The powers that be in America assume that a radical artist and a relativist philosopher espouse positions that are somehow areligious, and therefore can pass constitutional muster. In my essay I tried to point out why this premise is flawed.

Though they agree with me in deploring contemporary church-state relations, my four other critics, Messrs. McCain, Taylor, West, and Crawford, argue that Jefferson was a typical religious rationalist, not an anti-religious zealot; that his criticism of Judaism was no different from that of other Unitarians of the day; and that his wall of separation was standard for the era, not an aggressive move against religion.

Robert Stacy McCain, to begin with, reproaches me for daring to criticize Jefferson at all. This I cannot accept. Though Jefferson held many beliefs that I admire (his ideas on federalism, for example), on matters of religion I think he was off-base and see no reason not to say so.

Jameson T. Taylor reminds us that Jefferson attended religious services while he was President. Mea culpa. Jefferson was one of the most astute politicians of his age, and his religious beliefs had been criticized in the strongest terms, so it should not be surprising that he uttered words of prayer in public. He did this to keep up appearances while, as Thomas G. West notes, keeping his true opinions hidden from the general citizenry. Mr. Taylor also accuses me of calling Jefferson an atheist. Jefferson was a deistic Unitarian, which is what I labeled him.

In discussing Jefferson’s zealotry, the contrast with John Adams, another Unitarian and man of the Enlightenment, is again instructive. Although he criticized Judaism and most other religions, Adams also called the emergence of ethical monotheism “the greatest wonder of antiquity.” Jefferson, on the other hand, complained that Jewish ethics “were not only imperfect, but often irreconcilable with the sound dictates of reason & morality.” These are not isolated examples, but part of a pattern indicating that Jefferson, unlike Adams, could not interpret other religions disinterestedly.

Bruce Crawford is correct in noting that Jefferson was a strong supporter of religious tolerance and wished that the state would stop persecuting Jews for their beliefs. But this does not alter Jefferson’s abhorrence of Judaism. I specifically chose the term anti-Judaism rather than anti-Semitism in order to highlight the fact that Jefferson disdained Judaism but not Jews. Yet the question remains whether a declared opponent of religion should be the source for our model of church-state relations.

As for the wall of separation, if Jefferson himself intended it as an attack on traditional religion, why should we doubt him? Believing that only Unitarianism would survive disestablishment, Jefferson assumed that all Americans would join his church once the wall of separation was erected. That he was wrong does not alter his intent.

To show that Jefferson was not opposed to religious education in the schools, Mr. Taylor quotes Jefferson as denying that “instruction in religious opinion and duties was meant to be precluded by the public authorities, as indifferent to the interests of society.” True enough; instead, as the context makes plain, such instruction was “meant to be precluded” on other grounds—namely, that it was a violation of church-state separation. To explain: the statement occurs in a report adopted by the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia on October 7, 1822, which actually defends the university’s refusal to hire a professor of divinity on the grounds that doing so would violate the wall of separation—the exact opposite of what Mr. Taylor is trying to demonstrate.

Finally, to return to the present: on the wall of separation, the main difference between Jefferson and the members of today’s anti-religious establishment is that they no longer regard their own beliefs as “religion.”

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