Separation of Church and State—The Misleading Metaphor

by David Barton

In 1947, the Supreme Court declared, “The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.” Actually, the “separation of church and state” phrase which they invoked is not found in any of our official government documents. It was taken from letters between President Thomas Jefferson and the Baptist Association of Danbury, Conn.

On Oct. 7, 1801, the Danbury Baptists wrote the new president a letter in which they expressed concern over the First Amendment and its guarantee for the “free exercise” of religion. This suggested to them that the right of religious expression was government-given (thus alienable) rather than God-given (hence inalienable), and therefore the government might someday attempt to regulate religious expression. They strenuously objected to this possibility unless someone’s religious practice caused him to “work ill to his neighbor.”

Thomas Jefferson shared their concern. He made numerous declarations about the constitutional inability of the federal government to regulate, restrict or interfere with religious expression.


[N]o power over the freedom of religion…[is] delegated to the United States by the Constitution.

                                                —Kentucky Resolution, 1798


In matters of religion, I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the Constitution independent of the powers of the general [federal] government.

                                                —Second Inaugural Address, 1805


[O]ur excellent Constitution…has not placed our religious rights under the power of any public functionary.

            —Letter to the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1808


I consider the government of the United States as interdicted [prohibited] by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions…or exercises.

                                                —Letter to Samuel Millar, 1808


Having witnessed the tendency of government to encroach upon the free exercise of religion, Mr. Jefferson had written to Noah Webster in 1790:

It had become an universal and almost uncontroverted position in the several States that the purposes of society do not require a surrender of all our rights to our ordinary governors…and which experience has nevertheless proved they [the government] will be constantly encroaching on if submitted to them; that there are also certain fences which experience has proved peculiarly efficacious [effective] against wrong and rarely obstructive of right, which yet the governing powers have ever shown a disposition to weaken and remove. Of the first kind, for instance, is freedom of religion.

President Jefferson had no intention of allowing the government to limit, restrict, regulate or interfere with public religious practices. He believed, along with the other founders, that the First Amendment had been enacted only to prevent the federal establishment of a national denomination. In his reply to the Danbury Baptists on Jan. 1, 1802, he assured them that the free exercise of religion would never be interfered with by the federal government.

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.

The president’s reference to “natural rights” reaffirmed his belief that religious liberties were inalienable rights. “Natural rights” included “that which the Books of the Law and the Gospel do contain.” That is, what God Himself had guaranteed to man in the Scriptures.

When the president assured the Baptists that by following their “natural rights” they would violate no social duty, he was affirming to them that the free exercise of religion was their inalienable, God-given right and therefore was protected from federal regulation or interference.

Doubting whether America could survive if we ever lost knowledge of the source of our inalienable rights, he asked:

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?


The Meaning of Separation

Thomas Jefferson believed that God, not government, was the author and source of our rights and that government was to be prevented from interference with those rights. The “fence” of the Webster letter and the “wall” of the Danbury letter were not to limit religious activities in public. They were to limit the power of the government to prohibit or interfere with those expressions.

Earlier courts long understood President Jefferson’s intent. When his Danbury letter was invoked by the Supreme Court in 1878, unlike today’s courts which publish only his eight-word separation phrase, that earlier court published his entire letter and concluded:

Coming as this does from an acknowledged leader of the advocates of the measure, it [Mr. 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.

The court then summarized Thomas Jefferson’s intent for “separation of church and state”:

[T]he 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.

That court and others 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, infanticide, advocation and promotion of immorality, etc. Such acts, even if perpetrated in the name of religion, would be stopped by the government since they were “subversive of good order” and were “overt acts against peace.”

However, the government was never to interfere with traditional religious practices outlined in “the Books of the Law and the Gospel”—whether public prayer, use of the Scriptures, public acknowledgements of God, etc.


Original Intent

If Thomas Jefferson’s letter is to be used today, let its context be clearly given, as in previous years. Earlier courts had always viewed his Danbury letter for just what it was: a personal, private letter to a specific group. There is probably no other instance in America’s history where words spoken by an individual in a private letter—words clearly divorced from their context—have become the sole authorization for a national policy. The Danbury letter should never be invoked as a stand-alone document. A proper analysis of Mr. Jefferson’s views must include his numerous other statements on the First Amendment.

For example, in addition to his statements previously noted, he also declared that the “power to prescribe any religious exercise. . . . must rest with the States.” Federal courts ignore this declaration and choose rather to misuse his separation phrase to strike down scores of state laws which encourage or facilitate public religious expressions. Such rulings against state laws are a direct violation of the words and intent of the very one from whom the courts claim to derive their policy.

They should consider the original intent of the 90 founding fathers who framed the First Amendment. The Congressional Records from June 7 to Sept. 25, 1789, record their months of discussions and debates. It is significant that Thomas Jefferson was not one of those 90 and that during those debates not one of the framers ever mentioned the phrase “separation of church and state.” It seems logical that if this had been the intent for the First Amendment, then at least one of those 90 would have mentioned that phrase. None did.

The “separation” phrase was rarely mentioned by any of the founders. Even Thomas Jefferson’s explanation of his phrase is diametrically opposed to the manner in which courts apply it today. “Separation of church and state” has been described as a “misleading metaphor” by Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist. It currently means almost exactly the opposite of what it originally meant.

As Christians we need to pray for our country and for those in authority to come to the knowledge of the truth. Join us in spreading the message of the founders’ original intent for the First Amendment.