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The Origin of the Separtion of Church and State

“Separation of Church and State”: No doubt you have heard the phrase, but what does it mean? I did not come to answer that question; instead, I will introduce you to the origin of the phrase. And that may help you decide for yourself.

First of all, why a separation of Church and State? No doubt the Founding Fathers did not want to reproduce the European situation where, due to different nations having different national religions, they were plagued with external fighting and internal discontent. Plus, think of this, if the Founding Fathers did choose a national faith, which one would it be? Different states had different "official" religions. So they chose none.

This did not come out forcefully enough in the Constitution in 1789, so two years later the First Amendment made it more clear: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." (Ratified Dec 15, 1791)

However, a group of Baptists in Connecticut—the Danbury Baptist Association—felt they continued to experience religious harassment. They wrote a letter in October of 1801 to the then-President Thomas Jefferson complaining of such, and it includes this concern: "…what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the state) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights…" The Baptists of Connecticut believed that, as a minority, they were being allowed to worship instead of worshipping because it was a right as citizens.

The President responded, and I reproduce the letter here in full:

“Gentlemen: The affectionate sentiments of esteem & 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 & zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, and in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more & 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, 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. [The underlining is not part of the quote.] 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 and blessing of the common Father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves and your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem.

(signed) Thomas Jefferson, Jan.1.1802

So what does this "wall of separation between church and state" mean? Well, that is the big question, isn’t it? And the debate goes on.

©2006 Mark Nickens All Rights Reserved