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:

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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.

Supreme Court Justices in Church? We Can’t Have That

Monday, October 8, AD 2012

At the Bench Memos blog at National Review, Mathew Franck linked to a rather hysterical screed written by Marie Griffith. The object of Griffith’s scorn: the annual Red Mass that takes place at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, DC before the opening of the Supreme Court term. Griffith is not at all pleased that two-thirds of the Supreme Court attended the latest Red Mass a couple of weeks ago.

Last Sunday, September 30, witnessed one of the most vivid and, to many (emphasis mine), disturbing examples of this religion/politics paradox.

Right out of the gate we get some good old-fashioned intellectual dishonesty. Who are the “many” that are disturbed by this visual? I would wager that the overwhelming majority of people have no idea that this Mass even exists, and that a scant few who are aware of its existence are very bothered by it. Rather than taking ownership of an opinion and writing that she is offended by the Red Mass, Griffith assigns a feeling to a mythical many. It’s a passive aggressive trick employed when a writer either lacks the guts to openly state their feelings, or when they want to conjure up support for an opinion that is not wildly shared by actual open beings.

She continues:

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11 Responses to Supreme Court Justices in Church? We Can’t Have That

  • “… I’m a little embarrassed that a Supreme Court Justice used an apostrophe to form a plural, but that’s beside the point…”

    LOL! It’s the editor in me, but that was the first thing I thought upon reading that quote.

  • We invoke the only JUST one that He might inspire all that you do….

    So perfectly said, however the heights of the bench seem to tower over heaven in the case of a few Justices.

    Humility anyone?

  • For the record, Justice Breyer, also Jewish, was in attendance. So, 4 Catholics and 2 Jews. There were 2 Catholics that were not there: Justices Alito and “Wise Latina”.

  • It’s too bad these special people are “disturbed” by liberties that our forefathers won with so much blood, sweat, and tears.

    We need to ensure these special people can never act toward such paradoxes as did their heroes: Che, Mao, Pol Pot, Stalin, . . .

  • If the Klan of the 1920s (and their lawyer, Mr. Hugo Black) could only see the Supreme Court of today: 6 Catholics, 3 Jews, and nary a Protestant (and the only Southerner a black Catholic man).

  • Which isn’t to say I wouldn’t mind seeing a few more Southerners on the Supreme Court – starting with a certain bowtie-bedecked Catholic currently sitting on the Georgia Court of Appeals.

    (Imagine the field day the libs on the Judiciary Committee would have with “Stare decisis is fo suckas!”)


  • In France, the equivalent of the “Red Mass” is held up and down the country on the feast of St Ives, the patron saint of lawyers (and abandoned children) on 19 May. Magistrates and advocates attend in their robes, as do members of the law faculties of universities.

    In Paris, it is held in the Sainte-Chapelle (arguably the most beautiful small building in the world) which is part of the courts complex (the Palais de Justice) and state property.

    Every year one hears some criticism, not to the fact of the mass (for laïcité guarantees freedom of worship) but to the wearing of official dress, which opponents argue gives it the appearance of a state occasion.

    By the by, there is a daily mass in the Sainte-Chapelle on weekday mornings at 8.30 am, for those working in the courts or having business there – even though the Sainte-Chapelle is only about 300 m from Notre Dame cathedral.

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  • Writers, without any known exception, are assumption peddlers; they assume, you read then ignore or make it your own–they could care less all the way to the bank. This humorous piece has but one answer; the justices who attended the Red Mass did so because they wanted to for their own personal reasons as big boys and girls often do and, oh yes, responding to God’s ever-present grace may have been a factor. I pray so.

  • “… I’m a little embarrassed that a Supreme Court Justice used an apostrophe to form a plural, but that’s beside the point…”

    You’re incorrect. It is impossible for an apostrophe to form a plural. A Supreme Court justice may claim that it does, but it’s outside the nature of an apostrophe to do such a thing. An S performs its natural function when it is applied to a word without putting a barrier between it and a word. That’s how plurals are formed. Liberals may object to that, saying that people are free to form plurals any way they want to, but you can’t alter the nature of the plural without serious consequences. In fact, trying to perform a pluralization with an apostrophe turns the act into an artifical form of contraction.

Constitutional Ignorance

Tuesday, October 19, AD 2010

I see that my co-blogger MJ Andrew has already posted about the Christine O’Donnell-Chris Coons debate, and I thank him as that saves me the trouble of having to sort through a whole bunch of links.

I disagree with him, though somewhat reservedly.  Having listened to the entire clip it does seem to me that O’Donnell is questioning whether the concept of the separation of Church and State is in the First Amendment, not the Establishment Clause.  There was some crosstalk at this point in the debate, and it appears to me that she’s just repeating her question with regards to the issue of separation.  It’s debatable, though, and a candidate should do a better job clearly establishing what she’s talking about in such a setting.

That being the case,  I was more intrigued by  Coons’s own response to the question.  While O’Donnell possibly made a gaffe – an unfortunate one if indeed it was a gaffe – Coons’s response is the more troubling aspect of this exchange.

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11 Responses to Constitutional Ignorance

  • I tend to agree with those who think the Establishment Clause does not mandate a strict separation of church and state, and I think Coons gets that bit wrong.

  • Coons believes that the Supreme Court is a perpetual Constitutional Convention which may amend the Constitution as it pleases, the text of the document be hanged.

  • I agree with you, but as MJ points out not knowing at least the gist of the 14th amendment is pretty bad.

  • “I agree with you, but as MJ points out not knowing at least the gist of the 14th amendment is pretty bad.”

    Michael, outside of attorneys who do criminal defense and constitutional law cases, I think many attorneys would have a hard time saying much about the 14th amendment, not to say anything of the Byzantine case law interpreting the amendment. Of course you law school sudents being force fed all of this put us practicing attorneys to shame in this area! 🙂

  • I think many attorneys would have a hard time saying much about the 14th amendment, not to say anything of the Byzantine case law interpreting the amendment.

    It’s true that after what SCOTUS has done to the poor amendment has rendered its meaning unintelligible to all but the wisest of men (obviously those being on the Court), I think knowing that 14th guarantees due process against state infringement and that this is the avenue of incorporation would be nice to know. After all, it’s the through the 14th that SCOTUS has brought its, er, unique modern approach to constitutional interpretation.

  • Substantive due process has been the gateway to practically every dubious Court decision of the past century plus.

  • Israel and Great Britain get along passably without a formally composed Constitution. It sometimes seems ours is just an excuse for our appellate judges to be officious nuisances.

  • I learn something new about the 14th Amendment every time some judge with an expansive view of his or her self worth puts pen to paper.

  • I knew the Constitution pretty well during Con Law class and just prior to taking the bar. After that, not so much. Although I do occassionaly peruse it when a particular issue comes up. God help anyone who has to rely upon my faulty memory.

  • My keyboard quotes marks are not working.

    Meanwhile, Cornell law prof William Jacobson comments: A literal reading of O’Donnell’s comments reflects that she was correct, but of course, the press and the blogosphere don’t want a literal reading, they want a living, breathing reading which comports with their preconceived notions.”

    And, Instapundit: The Constitution stands for things that are good. The things that we want are good. Therefore, the Constitution stands for what we want. QED. How can those dumb wingnuts (like ODonnell) not understand this simple logic?

  • Good catch on Coons – most people have missed it in the frenzy to attack or defend O’Donnell. Whatever one may think of O’Donnell’s views (and I agree with them – though I think she didn’t effectively advance her correct argument), Coons is clearly of that liberal mindset which holds to “if we like it, it’s Constitutional”. On his own ground, Coons is going to be fine – as long as he’s talking to ignorant MSMers or liberal who like the current status of Constitutional law, he’s going to look like a genius…put him in a room with anyone who actually holds that laws are meant to be obeyed, and he doesn’t come off so well.

    We’ll see if O’Donnell can actually do anything with this – Delaware may not be ready, yet, to ditch its liberal Ruling Class…but O’Donnell has dented it, and that’s good enough to go on.