In the debate about the relationship between religion and the state, which remains relevant today, Thomas Jefferson is once again at the centre of the controversy. Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was the precursor to the Establishment Clause of the Constitution (the Clause that states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”).
Jefferson also popularised the famous phrase that there should be “a wall of separation” between church and state. But what was behind Jefferson’s defence of Religious Freedom? This article will explore the personal and political reasons behind one of Jefferson’s most important legacies – the separation between church and state.
When it was announced that Jefferson would be seeking the Presidency there were reports that people were burying their bibles to protect them from the atheist Mr Jefferson. However, despite Jefferson’s, at best, ambivalent attitude, towards religion, he was a strong believer in the right to free religious practice and expression.
In a response letter to the Baptists of Danbury Connecticut in 1802 who had written to Jefferson about their fear of being persecuted by Congregationalists of Danbury Connecticut, Jefferson wrote:
“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 legitimate 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.”
Jefferson had first addressed this issue in his Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, which was drafted to disestablish the Church of England in Virginia. It is clear that Jefferson’s belief in a separation between church and state stems from the political oppression that arises from the establishment of a national church.
It is also clear that Jefferson’s beliefs stemmed from the great intellectual and philosophical achievements of the 18th Century Enlightenment, a period referred to by historians to denote a time when reason, science and logic began to challenge the supremacy of religion in the public square.
It is also true though that Jefferson had political motivations for his “wall of separation pronouncement”. His Federalist enemies in Connecticut were primarily Congregationalists. It is also the case that Jefferson wanted protect himself as President when he did not issue religious proclamations on religious holidays (something his predecessors had done).
By publicly emphasising the separation he not only protected religious minorities, such as Catholics and Jews, but prevented accusations that he was anti religious by simply stating it was not the Government’s role to support or establish any religion.
The separation of Church and State is a complicated issue that has personal, political, philosophical and international foundations. But, by thinking about these points, we can begin to understand one of the defining features of the US Constitution, and Mr Jefferson’s legacy.