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FIRST-PERSON: Religious liberty 101: Jefferson & the Danbury Baptists

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP) -- The "principle of context" is an idea that stated simply declares, "Nothing is meaningful without a context." A statement, action or reaction must be considered within its immediate circumstance in order for it to be completely and accurately understood.

I have found the principle of context to be immutable and universal. That said, it is often neglected and even ignored -- many times on purpose in an attempt to gain an advantage or manipulate reality.

One such neglect of the principle of context comes in reference to the concept of religious liberty in America. And it is precisely this -- the neglect and/or ignoring of a historical circumstance -- that has led the Obama Administration to attempt to force religious groups to violate deeply held convictions.

A rule in the new health care law requires that all private insurance plans cover FDA-approved contraceptives; including abortifacients like the so-called morning-after pill that can block implantation of the embryo. The latter method is considered early term abortion by pro-life groups. The problem? Religious groups initially were required to purchase those insurance plans. President Obama announced a compromise Friday, but it falls short of what is needed and still violates religious liberty, according to religious and conservative leaders. It violates the First Amendment.

There are many Americans, many who are well-meaning, that have neglected the principle of context in respect to the First Amendment. The most-often-used description of America's first freedom is that is establishes a "separation between church and state."

While the phrase "separation of church and state" is found nowhere in the U.S. Constitution, it was introduced by Thomas Jefferson in a letter written to a group of Baptists. Too many people have failed to realize the context of Jefferson's phrase and believe it was intended to protect the state from interference by the church. The entire context reveals the exact opposite to be true.


Shortly after Jefferson was elected president, a group of Baptist churches in Connecticut -- the Danbury Baptist Association -- wrote America's third president expressing concerning that the First Amendment might not be adequate to provide absolute protection of religious liberty.

In part, the Danbury Baptists wrote:

"Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty -- that religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals -- that no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions -- that the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbors. ..."

The letter continued: "It is not to be wondered at therefore; if those who seek after power and gain under the pretense of government and religion should reproach their fellow men -- should reproach their order magistrate, as a enemy of religion, law, and good order, because he will not, dare not, assume the prerogatives of Jehovah and make laws to govern the kingdom of Christ. ..."

There is no other way to take the Baptists' concern other than they were worried about the government interjecting itself into religion. In Jefferson's response, the new president made it clear he understood their concern.

Jefferson replied in part:

"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. ..."


Jefferson sought to relieve the fears of the Danbury Baptists by stating that the First Amendment constituted a wall that would keep the state out of the affairs of the church.

When context is neglected, reality can be distorted and manipulated. Such is the case with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Many either are ignorant of the context in which the phrase "separation between church and state" was first introduced or they simply ignore it in order to manipulate and distort the truth. In either case, the reality of the First Amendment is turned on its head.

I do not know whether or not the Obama Administration is seeking to breach the wall of separation between the church and state purposefully or because the administration has violated the principle of context in regard to the proper understanding of religious freedom.

What I do know is that a battering ram in the form of the contraceptive mandate is slamming against America's wall of religious freedom. If the mandate stands, a crack will have formed in the wall Jefferson believed would protect the church from the state. If so, it will be a new and ominous day for religious freedom in the United States.

Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press and editor of the Baptist Message, newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook ( and in your email (


Copyright (c) 2012 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press

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