For a number of years now, many folks have been fretting over the word, “God”. That’s with a capital G. They seem to feel oppressed, offended and relegated to second class citizenship if they hear it or see it written. This is especially true if the expression emanates from anyone remotely connected with any governmental entity. This would include people like city councilmen, public school educators and politicians. To those so obsessed, the use of that word, or any term suggesting something like a prayer, is almost a disqualification from office.
The basis of this angst is the clause, “wall of separation between church and state”. Some people believe it to be contained in the US Constitution. That is not so. The original Constitution does tell us that no religious test shall ever be required of anyone who holds office in the federal government. Also, the First Amendment states that Congress shall make no law that establishes a religion or prohibits the free exercise thereof. There is no further mention of religion.
From where, then, did this “wall” business come? When challenged for a response, the unhappy ones reply, “Well, Thomas Jefferson wrote it in a letter to the Danbury, Connecticut Baptist Association, and he would certainly understand the intent of the Constitution”.
Those Baptists had written to President Jefferson because the Puritan/Congregational majority continued to practice some of a century old religious oppression through state laws even after the ratification of the Constitution. The appeal to Jefferson was expressed thusly: (emphases added)
“Sir, we are sensible that the President of the United States is not the National Legislator and also sensible that the national government cannot destroy the laws of each State, but our hopes are strong that the sentiment of our beloved President, which have had such genial effect already, like the radiant beams of the sun, will shine and prevail through all these States…”
To which Jefferson replied: (emphases and parenthetical explanations added)
“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people (the US Constitution) which declared that their legislature (Congress) would ‘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 federal government). 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… I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and Creator of man…”
For further clarification of Jefferson’s opinion that any federal regulation of religious expression would be unconstitutional, we note his second inaugural address:
“In matters of religion, I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the constitution independent of the powers of the general government. I have therefore undertaken, on no occasion, to prescribe the religious exercises suited to it; but have left them, as the constitution found them, under the direction and discipline of state or church authorities acknowledged by the several religious societies.”
We must emphasize that the Baptists did not appeal for constitutional enforcement by the President, the Attorney General or the Supreme Court. Neither did any of those entities consider it their constitutional responsibility to do so. The Baptists only asked for Jefferson’s opinion, hoping it would influence their legislators. At that time, everyone knew the First Amendment restriction applied, as plain English clearly states, only to acts of Congress. About fifteen years later, the people of Connecticut were able to correct the issue through their state legislature.
The example is clear. The First Amendment precludes any religious laws enacted by federal lawmakers…that’s all. Absent state laws, religious practices remain with the people.
To accept today’s popular interpretation, we must accuse those in the Congresses and Supreme Courts of those days as well as Presidents Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe of being intellectually incapable of understanding the document they had ratified and exercised.
Unfortunate it is, that this exchange of letters has not always been a part of our education system.
Two wise thoughts:
“A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” –Thomas Paine
“A nation that expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, expects what never was, and never will be.” – Thomas Jefferson