Jefferson’s Danbury Letter and the Separation of Church and State

Sunday, June 2, AD 2013

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:

Continue reading...

9 Responses to Jefferson’s Danbury Letter and the Separation of Church and State

  • In 1947, Everson v. Board of Eucation said that the government cannot aid all religion. This cannot be Justice as government does not own tax dollars. Taxes belong to the taxpayers even as administered by the administration. This means that all religions may be aided by the administration as the taxpayers have the right to religion and freedom.

  • Taxpayer money belongs to the taxpayers. The Federal Government and the Organized Crime Party don’t believe this at all.

  • Penguins Fan: The government is comprised of ordinary citizens who have no power except the power that is given to them by the people to function in their particular office. Politicians have written themselves outrageous retirement funds that insulate them from being ousted from office. Pray.

  • Judging by his letter to Madison of 6 September 1789, Jefferson appears to have believed that the endowments of the churches were at the disposal of the nation; “This principle, that the earth belongs to the living and not to the dead, is of very extensive application and consequences in every country, and most especially in France. It enters into the resolution of the questions, whether the nation may change the descent of lands holden in tail; whether they may change the appropriation of lands given anciently to the church, to hospitals, colleges, orders of chivalry, and otherwise in perpetuity; whether they may abolish the charges and privileges attached on lands, including the whole catalogue, ecclesiastical and feudal… . In all these cases, the legislature of the day could authorize such appropriations and establishments for their own time, but no longer; and the present holders, even where they or their ancestors have purchased, are in the case of bona fide purchasers of what the seller had no right to convey.”

    In other words, what one generation had granted, their successors could revoke. In fact, his viewson Church-State relations would not have been out of place at the Jacobin Club

  • With Jefferson MPS you always have to understand that the man wrote voluminously and that he frequently changed his mind on issues. His opinions in regard to France in the first years of the French Revolution tended to match those of the most extreme revolutionaries in France. The execution of the King disturbed him and he became more reserved about the Revolution although he never completely denounced it. As to Church State relations in America he favored a hands off policy in regard to the government as to the churches.

  • A rather interesting discussion going on at Almost Chosen Peope, the American history blog I run with Paul Zummo, on this post. Go to the link below to read it and to participate in it if you wish:

  • Why cannot I save, i.e cut’n’paste your article, without the video, and others’
    comments? I find not print button on you website. Thank you.

  • Church-state separation is an American concept, but not a Catholic one. As examples, I can cite France (before the Revolution), England (before Henry VIII), the various prince-archbishoprics in Cologne, Salzburg, et cetera, and the Papal States.

    Because of US Supreme Court decisions, prayer is now illegal in public schools. America’s teachers cannot talk to their students about the one single concept that will make their education complete – God. As a Catholic, I find this gag rule to be plain absurd.

  • “As examples, I can cite France (before the Revolution),”

    Yes, the Gallic Church that was frequently at complete odds with the Pope:

    Up to 1947 and the Supreme Court decision in Everson, the Federal government was benignly accomodating to religion. The Supreme Court has distorted beyond recognition what the Founding Fathers, including Jefferson, set up regarding Church-State relations: no established church, each religion granted complete freedom, and a recognition by the state of God as the basis for our unalienable rights that could not be trespassed upon by the State. It was a good system which the Catholic Church in this country flourished under, and we need to return to it.

Burleigh Defends the Pope

Friday, September 17, AD 2010

My second favorite living historian, Michael Burleigh, who has written stunningly original works on subjects as diverse as Nazi Germany, religion and politics in the last two centuries,  terrorism, and morality and World War II,  has taken up the cudgels against the despicable attitude of many Brits of the chattering classes regarding the visit of the Pope to the Island next to Ireland.

Under normal circumstances, one might say “welcome” rather than “receive”. But the multiple sexual scandals that have afflicted parts of the Catholic Church have created a window of opportunity for sundry chasers of limelight – including human rights militants, crusading gays, Islamist fanatics, and celebrity God-botherers – to band together to “arrest” the Pope under laws so obscure that few knew they existed. Because child abuse is involved, rather than the more widespread phenomenon of homosexual predation on young men, these manifestations will receive much media attention, especially from the BBC, to the guaranteed perplexity of a less involved general public in a nominally Protestant country. It will require some effort of mind to tune out this noise to hear what the Pope will be saying.

Continue reading...

3 Responses to Burleigh Defends the Pope

Victory in Connecticut

Tuesday, March 10, AD 2009


Lawlor and McDonald, the two anti-Catholic bigots behind a bill to tell the Catholic Church how to operate in Connecticut, have tucked their tails between their legs, cancelled the hearing on their bill, and their hate note to the Catholic Church, disguised as a bill, is dead for this legislative session.  Massive publicitity worked the trick, and endless outraged calls, e-mails and faxes to the legislators.  Kudos to State Senator John McKinney (Republican, Fairfield) who called 24 hours ago for the hearing on this bill to be cancelled and announced that every Republican in the state senate was against this bill, and that the bill was blatantly unconstitutional.  I am sure the bigots will be back, but so will those of us who oppose them.  A good day in Connecticut.

Update: Hmmm.  The bigots were apparently in alliance with members of Voice of the Faithless.  Surprise!

Continue reading...

6 Responses to Victory in Connecticut

Res & Explicatio for A.D. 3-10-2009

Tuesday, March 10, AD 2009

Salvete AC readers!

Here are today’s Top Picks in the Catholic world:

1. There seems to be a growing counter-movement in U.S. politics aligning itself against the Catholic Church.  We see it happening in Connecticut where state legislatures want to control Church property.  We also see it in the higher echelons of government where President Obama are using Catholic pawns such as Douglas Kmiec and Kathleen Sebelius.  It isn’t being orchestrated by anyone, but the common theme seems to be to neutralize the effectiveness of the Church.  Dave Hartline of the Catholic Report wrote an excellent column tieing all these loose ends together and explaining the consequences of this growing counter-movement.

For Dave Hartline’s columnn click on counter-movement above or here.

2. Speaking of Connecticut, Archbishop Charles Chaput has this to say concerning SB 1098 that would remove the bishops authority over each parish:

“legislative coercion directed against the Catholic community in one state has implications for Catholics in every other state. If bigots in one state succeed in coercive laws like SB 1098, bigots in other states will try the same.”

The bigots Archbishop Chaput is referring to are Senator Andrew McDonald and Representative Mike Lawlor, who are both homosexual activists that opposed the local Church’s efforts to defend marriage between a man and a woman.

For the article click on SB 1098 above or here.

Continue reading...

One Response to Res & Explicatio for A.D. 3-10-2009

  • What Hath Prop 8 Wrought. More annoying little bedbugs like these two will pop up all over the country. Nothing organized as an anti-Catholic conspiracy, but effect is just the same. Much of this stuff bubbling up since November 5. We hope and pray that the sheer ineptitude of these forces allow them to trip up themselves. As King David prayed about ex-advisor Ahithophel, who jumped to rebel side of angry son Absolom. King prayed O Lord turn their counsel against them. We should too.

They Came For The Catholics

Monday, March 9, AD 2009


Anti-Catholic bigots are busily at work in the Connecticut state legislature.   Raised Bill 1098 would effectively place any corporation connected with the Roman Catholic Church in Connecticut under lay control.  The sponsors of the bill, Representative Mike Lawlor, ironically a law professor, and State Senator Andrew J. McDonald, a lawyer, generously allow the local bishop or archbishop to serve on such a board of directors but without a vote.

Continue reading...

11 Responses to They Came For The Catholics

  • Ironically, it’s been argued (Jeffries and Ryan 2001) that the Establishment Clause was incorporated primarily because of anti-Catholicism; specifically a resistance to state funding of Catholic schools. Here, incorporation of the Establishment Clause makes this law almost certainly unconstitutional.

  • Ironically, it’s been argued (Jeffries and Ryan 2001) that the Establishment Clause was incorporated primarily because of anti-Catholicism;

    There’s an interesting history of the Establishment Clause and anti-Catholicism, and I’m kicking myself because I’m forgetting the name of a great book that explores that topic. It may simply be called “Separation of Church and State,” and it discusses how Jefferson’s bit of dicta was used in the late 19th and early 20th century almost primarily as a way of hurting Catholics.

    At any rate, this bit of nonsense will most likely fail, but that doesn’t mean it should not ring alarm bells for all of us. This is just the opening salvo in the new round of anti-Catholic legislation.

  • It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out. Especially with Proposition 8 out in California that may soon be rescinded, one way or another.

  • The homeschool list was trafficing a lot on this over the weekend. One bit of information that sounded odd to me was the claim that this was just an update of a law on how Catholic parishes were to be run in Conn. which was passed back in the 50s. This was allegedly just an “update” of that law.

    Why in the world would there be a law specifically on how Catholic parishes were to be run? I’d think the Church would have to figure out how to make use of existing means of incorporation and administration and let the state know what it was doing.

    Any of you legal gents know anything about that?

  • Darwin,

    I suppose that the proposed bill is an “updating” of the prior law, in the same way that changing one’s will to disinherit one’s son in favor of one’s new girlfriend is an “updating” of one’s will.

    The law actually dates a lot farther back than the 1950s (exactly how far back I can’t say, but I suspect that the original version of the provision in question has been around since the colonial era). Apparently the way it works is that when Connecticut first set up the state’s corporate law governing religious institutions, it did so based on Congregationalist principles. At some point, they realized that this wouldn’t work for other sorts of religious denominations, so they passed special legislation relating to those churches.

  • I certainly gathered that the proposed law tries to force an absolutely unacceptable rule-by-lay-elected-parish-board structure on Catholic parishes.

    I guess what confused me was that there was even a special set of legal structure having to do with religious institutions. I had assumed (which of course made an ass of me) that states just had one set of non-profit incorporation structures available, and that religious institutions such as Catholic diocese picked whichever of these seemed most appropriate to them. (Drawn, I guess, from reading somewhere or other about how diocese differ as to whether each parish is incorporated or the diocese as a whole is incorporated with all parishes held by it.)


    On an only semi-related note: I’d always been curious what would happen in regards to property fights and civil law if there was a full out schism in the US with two claimants to a number of diocesan sees (one bishop who had gone into schism versus his replacement appointed by Rome.)

    Would the sort of ruling cited by Donald above mean that the US would refuse to take a position on which bishop actually had control over diocesan property until the Catholic sorted it out and reached some sort of consensus?

  • Why do you presume it is anti-Catholic in intent? Some think it was in fact pushed by Catholics upset at the lack of accountability in their churches.

  • It’s on. Full scale persecution. What with this silly bill. Plus the nakedly bigoted appointment of Sibelius to HHS. For laffs, picked up the Inquirer this morn- have not received it at domicile since about Our Lord’s Birthday. Not just approving pic of Dear Leader and Crew after signing of Embryonic Stem Cell Approval Bill. But op-ed from KC Star from writer Mary Sanchez praising Sibelius and telling Catholic Church in effect to shut up and go away. Away went paper in nearest trash can.

  • “Some think it was in fact pushed by Catholics upset at the lack of accountability in their churches.”

    Rubbish. The anti-Catholic intent is clear. Catholics do not want any government telling them how to conduct their Church affairs. This is all payback on the gay marriage issue.

  • Pingback: Victory in Connecticut « The American Catholic
  • Pingback: Res & Explicatio for A.D. 3-11-2009 « The American Catholic

Pope Benedict, the SSPX, and the dispute over Religious Freedom and Church-State Relations

Sunday, February 22, AD 2009

Last year, commenting on Pope Benedict XVI’s historic visit to the United States, Bishop Bernard Fellay, Superior General of the SSPX, remarked:

And now, we have a perfectly liberal Pope, my very dear brothers. As he goes to this country [the United States] which is founded upon Masonic principles, that is, of a revolution, of a rebellion against God. And, well, he expressed his admiration, his fascination before this country which has decided to grant liberty to all religions. He goes so far as to condemn the confessional State. And he is called traditional! And this is true, this is true: he is perfectly liberal, perfectly contradictory. He has some good sides, the sides which we hail, for which we rejoice, such as what he has done for the Traditional liturgy.

What a mystery, my very dear brothers, what a mystery!

As Fr. John Zuhlsdorf (What Does The Prayer Really Say?) noted at the time, Fellay’s remarks are indicative of a point he has maintained time and again: the greater dispute between the SSPX and Rome is not so much over questions involving liturgical reform (and the ‘reform of the reform’) — on which there is a great deal of room for agreement — or even the matter of the excommunications; rather, the chief problem hinges on the Society’s objections to Vatican II’s articulation of the principle of “religious liberty” and the relationship of civil and religious authority.

Continue reading...

2 Responses to Pope Benedict, the SSPX, and the dispute over Religious Freedom and Church-State Relations

  • Great post!

    It seems to me that one of the problems the critics of a reconciliation of the SSPX have is that they themselves allow significant freedom to explore theological issues and still remain in the Church in good standing. Lord knows that we have allowed dangerous levels of variance without canonical penalty. Even Hans Kung, while suspended from teaching is in good standing. And yet, these critics don’t want the SSPX back unless they sign on to every jot and tittle of Vatican II.

    An apt comment on Fr. Z’s blog was, if the SSPX will sign on to every jot and tittle of Vatican II, will all of the bishops and priests in good standing take the anti-modernist oath, sign on to every jot and tittle of every ecumenical council since Jerusalem I?

    In fact, I don’t think we should here from any critics of the reconciliation unless they subscribe at the least, to the anti-modernist oath.

    I N. firmly embrace and accept each and every definition that has been set forth and declared by the unerring teaching authority of the Church, especially those principal truths which are directly opposed to the errors of this day. And first of all, I profess that God, the origin and end of all things, can be known with certainty by the natural light of reason from the created world (cf. Rom. 1:19-20), that is, from the visible works of creation, as a cause from its effects, and that, therefore, his existence can also be demonstrated: Secondly, I accept and acknowledge the external proofs of revelation, that is, divine acts and especially miracles and prophecies as the surest signs of the divine origin of the Christian religion and I hold that these same proofs are well adapted to the understanding of all eras and all men, even of this time. Thirdly, I believe with equally firm faith that the Church, the guardian and teacher of the revealed word, was personally instituted by the real and historical Christ when he lived among us, and that the Church was built upon Peter, the prince of the apostolic hierarchy, and his successors for the duration of time. Fourthly, I sincerely hold that the doctrine of faith was handed down to us from the apostles through the orthodox Fathers in exactly the same meaning and always in the same purport. Therefore, I entirely reject the heretical’ misrepresentation that dogmas evolve and change from one meaning to another different from the one which the Church held previously. I also condemn every error according to which, in place of the divine deposit which has been given to the spouse of Christ to be carefully guarded by her, there is put a philosophical figment or product of a human conscience that has gradually been developed by human effort and will continue to develop indefinitely. Fifthly, I hold with certainty and sincerely confess that faith is not a blind sentiment of religion welling up from the depths of the subconscious under the impulse of the heart and the motion of a will trained to morality; but faith is a genuine assent of the intellect to truth received by hearing from an external source. By this assent, because of the authority of the supremely truthful God, we believe to be true that which has been revealed and attested to by a personal God, our Creator and Lord.

    Furthermore, with due reverence, I submit and adhere with my whole heart to the condemnations, declarations, and all the prescripts contained in the encyclical Pascendi and in the decree Lamentabili, especially those concerning what is known as the history of dogmas. I also reject the error of those who say that the faith held by the Church can contradict history, and that Catholic dogmas, in the sense in which they are now understood, are irreconcilable with a more realistic view of the origins of the Christian religion. I also condemn and reject the opinion of those who say that a well-educated Christian assumes a dual personality-that of a believer and at the same time of a historian, as if it were permissible for a historian to hold things that contradict the faith of the believer, or to establish premises which, provided there be no direct denial of dogmas, would lead to the conclusion that dogmas are either false or doubtful. Likewise, I reject that method of judging and interpreting Sacred Scripture which, departing from the tradition of the Church, the analogy of faith, and the norms of the Apostolic See, embraces the misrepresentations of the rationalists and with no prudence or restraint adopts textual criticism as the one and supreme norm. Furthermore, I reject the opinion of those who hold that a professor lecturing or writing on a historico-theological subject should first put aside any preconceived opinion about the supernatural origin of Catholic tradition or about the divine promise of help to preserve all revealed truth forever; and that they should then interpret the writings of each of the Fathers solely by scientific principles, excluding all sacred authority, and with the same liberty of judgment that is common in the investigation of all ordinary historical documents.

    Finally, I declare that I am completely opposed to the error of the modernists who hold that there is nothing divine in sacred tradition; or what is far worse, say that there is, but in a pantheistic sense, with the result that there would remain nothing but this plain simple fact-one to be put on a par with the ordinary facts of history-the fact, namely, that a group of men by their own labor, skill, and talent have continued through subsequent ages a school begun by Christ and his apostles. I firmly hold, then, and shall hold to my dying breath the belief of the Fathers in the charism of truth, which certainly is, was, and always will be in the succession of the episcopacy from the apostles. The purpose of this is, then, not that dogma may be tailored according to what seems better and more suited to the culture of each age; rather, that the absolute and immutable truth preached by the apostles from the beginning may never be believed to be different, may never be understood in any other way. I promise that I shall keep all these articles faithfully, entirely, and sincerely, and guard them inviolate, in no way deviating from them in teaching or in any way in word or in writing. Thus I promise, this I swear, so help me God. . .

    This whole religious freedom argument seems to me much ado about nothing, if you accept that the teaching must be understood in context to the Church’s teaching on it’s mission and “Extra Ecclesium Nulla Salas”, then you should have a right understanding of it’s applicability.

  • Thanks Chris for long thoughtful essay. The kind we can now anticipate from this post. Doesn’t look like Fellay is in any hurry to reconcile with Rome. Oh well. His problem not ours.

Religion in the Political Realm

Thursday, October 9, AD 2008

The question of the role of religion and faith in politics should not be as controversial as it is today, and yet it comes up time and again. Will a Catholic president bow to the Pope? Will a Mormon president bow to the Prophet in Utah? Will a candidate be willing to honor the “separation of church and state”, not allowing his faith to interfere with his politics? Will an evangelical vote to remove science from the classroom, since “science conflicts with religion”? Some of these concerns are legitimate; others are formed by prejudices, propaganda, and general misunderstanding, and thus easily dealt with.

Continue reading...

5 Responses to Religion in the Political Realm

  • Senator Biden is a schizophrenic by his mere statement of “personally” believing in the sanctity of life, but “pubically” against it.

    Regardless, good article Ryan.

  • Thanks, Tito. I suppose to be fair, though, I should try to think of other excuses for Biden than just deceit or schizophrenia. Maybe he really does hold a relativistic mindset in which the only truth is personal truth, and the freedom of personal truth trumps rights to life. Or maybe he fundamentally believes that true Catholics will avoid abortion regardless of what the government permits, and thus he can support legislation contrary to the Catholic viewpoint for the sake of those who are not Catholic and will try to procure abortions with or without government support. However, I think those are rather weak arguments. If you believe you know the truth, you want to spread the truth, especially when error is dangerous. Correcting an English student from “through Mama from the train a kiss” to “throw a kiss to Mama from the train” is not horribly vital, though it helps the student learn how to better communicate. Correcting an engineering student on his statics homework is much more vital, because if you crunch the numbers incorrectly, bridges collapse and buildings fall down. Moral truth is especially important, because of the damage to the soul. Thus if I believed life begins at conception, I cannot but warn people against abortion.

  • …or he could be holding those two conflicting ideas for political expendiency.

    But truthfully, we won’t know unless he is asked these questions directly as to ‘how’ his moral compass operates.

    My best guess is he trully believes it is possible to “personally” against something while “publically” for it.

    Mario Cuomo’s infamous Notre Dame speech helped to pave the way for this. Where he stated pretty much the same thing.

  • Excellent post, Ryan… everyone has a religious belief, insofar as “religious belief” is a synonym for worldview. Regardless of what worldview a public official claims to hold, their “real” worldview is better determined by their actions & policies than by their public proclamations.

  • Pingback: Paris - History | Worlds Biggest Cities