A fine video by Professor John Eastman for Praeger University demonstrating how Church State relations today in the United States bears almost no relationship to that envisioned by the Founding Fathers. The vehicle of this misapprehension has been Thomas Jefferson’ s letter to a congregation of Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut. Here is the text of that letter:
To messers. Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson, a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut.
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. my duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, & in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing.
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & 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 & 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 & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem.
Th Jefferson Jan. 1. 1802.
It would have astounded Jefferson if he could have foreseen that the Supreme Court would make his letter the cornerstone of erecting a wall of separation between Church and State. Jefferson did not intend to have the letter be a centerpiece of Constitutional theory, but rather it was a partisan attempt by his to refute Federalist arguments that he was an infidel. In a brilliant essay, which may be read here, James Hutson, Chief of the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, explains the historical background of the letter:
Jefferson heeded Lincoln’s advice, with the result that he deleted the entire section about thanksgivings and fasts in the Danbury draft, noting in the left margin that the “paragraph was omitted on the suggestion that it might give uneasiness to some of our republican friends in the eastern states where the proclamation of thanksgivings etc. by their Executives is an antient habit & is respected.” Removed in the process of revision was the designation of the president’s duties as “merely temporal”; “eternal” was dropped as a modifier of “wall.” Jefferson apparently made these changes because he thought the original phrases would sound too antireligious to pious New England ears.
In gutting his draft was Jefferson playing the hypocrite, sacrificing his principles to political expediency, as his Federalist opponents never tired of charging? By no means, for the Danbury Baptist letter was never conceived by Jefferson to be a statement of fundamental principles; it was meant to be a political manifesto, nothing more.
Withholding from the public the rationale for his policy on thanksgivings and fasts did not solve Jefferson’s problem, for his refusal to proclaim them would not escape the attention of the Federalists and would create a continuing vulnerability to accusations of irreligion. Jefferson found a solution to this problem even as he wrestled with the wording of the Danbury Baptist letter, a solution in the person of the famous Baptist preacher John Leland, who appeared at the White House on Jan. 1, 1802, to give the president a mammoth, 1,235-pound cheese, produced by Leland’s parishioners in Cheshire, Mass.
One of the nation’s best known advocates of religious liberty, Leland had accepted an invitation to preach in the House of Representatives on Sunday, Jan. 3, and Jefferson evidently concluded that, if Leland found nothing objectionable about officiating at worship on public property, he could not be criticized for attending a service at which his friend was preaching. Consequently, “contrary to all former practice,” Jefferson appeared at church services in the House on Sunday, Jan. 3, two days after recommending in his reply to the Danbury Baptists “a wall of separation between church and state”; during the remainder of his two administrations he attended these services “constantly.”
Jefferson’s participation in House church services and his granting of permission to various denominations to worship in executive office buildings, where four-hour communion services were held, cannot be discussed here; these activities are fully illustrated in the forthcoming exhibition. What can be said is that going to church solved Jefferson’s public relations problems, for he correctly anticipated that his participation in public worship would be reported in newspapers throughout the country. A Philadelphia newspaper, for example, informed its readers on Jan. 23, 1802, that “Mr. Jefferson has been seen at church, and has assisted in singing the hundredth psalm.” In presenting Jefferson to the nation as a churchgoer, this publicity offset whatever negative impressions might be created by his refusal to proclaim thanksgiving and fasts and prevented the erosion of his political base in God-fearing areas like New England.
Jefferson’s public support for religion appears, however, to have been more than a cynical political gesture. Scholars have recently argued that in the 1790s Jefferson developed a more favorable view of Christianity that led him to endorse the position of his fellow Founders that religion was necessary for the welfare of a republican government, that it was, as Washington proclaimed in his Farewell Address, indispensable for the happiness and prosperity of the people. Jefferson had, in fact, said as much in his First Inaugural Address. His attendance at church services in the House was, then, his way of offering symbolic support for religious faith and for its beneficent role in republican government.
It seems likely that in modifying the draft of the Danbury Baptist letter by eliminating words like “eternal” and “merely temporal,” which sounded so uncompromisingly secular, Jefferson was motivated not merely by political considerations but by a realization that these words, written in haste to make a political statement, did not accurately reflect the conviction he had reached by the beginning of 1802 on the role of government in religion. Jefferson would never compromise his views that there were things government could not do in the religious sphere — legally establish one creed as official truth and support it with its full financial and coercive powers. But by 1802, he seems to have come around to something close to the views of New England Baptist leaders such as Isaac Backus and Caleb Blood, who believed that, provided the state kept within its well-appointed limits, it could provide “friendly aids” to the churches, including putting at their disposal public property that even a stickler like John Leland was comfortable using.
Analyzed with the help of the latest technology, the Danbury Baptist letter has yielded significant new information. Using it to fix the intent of constitutional documents is limited, however, by well established rules of statutory construction: the meaning of a document cannot be determined by what a drafter deleted or by what he did concurrently with the drafting of a document. But it will be of considerable interest in assessing the credibility of the Danbury Baptist letter as a tool of constitutional interpretation to know, as we now do, that it was written as a partisan counterpunch, aimed by Jefferson below the belt at enemies who were tormenting him more than a decade after the First Amendment was composed.
Courts are places where arguments are made in an adversarial setting and short shrift is given to facts that do not support the argument that a proponent is making. In regard to the Danbury letter, shearing off the historical context in which the letter was written has taken the US down a path of Church State relations that most of the Founding Fathers, including Jefferson, would have regarded as a mistake.