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OPINION

Rebuilding Jefferson’s Wall of Separation

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The American Left loves to harp on us about the separation of church and state, and this is a busy time of year for them.

From griping about nativity scenes in Maine to agitating against prayer at city council meetings in Oregon, ungrateful beneficiaries of America’s Judeo-Christian founding firmly believe the reason for the Christmas season is to lecture the rest of us on how separation of church and state is vital to democracy. 

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Some totalitarians cite Thomas Jefferson in their opposition to religion in general, and Christianity in particular. A couple hundred years ago, Jefferson wrote a letter to a group of Baptists about “building a wall of separation between the church and state,” This, we are told, is the predicate for restricting the free exercise of religion. 

But in citing this sentence fragment from Jefferson’s letter, the American Left corrupts the true meaning of religious liberty. Jefferson was not talking about protecting Americans from religion; he was talking about protecting Americans from government. 

Baptists first arrived in the colonies during the 17th century and were often objects of persecution. One notorious episode took place in Massachusetts in 1651, when Obadiah Holmes was flogged after refusing to pay a court ordered fine for the crime of practicing his Baptist faith. Holmes received 30 lashes, the punishment typically meted out to rapists. 

The persecution of Baptists was not limited to colonial New England courts. They faced similar problems in the southern colonies as well, which continued even after the Revolutionary War.

North American Baptists suffered varying degrees of persecution for 150 years so they were naturally motivated to explain their plight to their recently elected president, Thomas Jefferson. While Leftists love to quote a sliver of Jefferson’s response to the Baptists, they never talk about the letter sent to Jefferson by the Baptists. 

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In their October, 1801 correspondence to Jefferson, (the original text is quoted), the Danbury, Connecticut Baptist Association vigorously argued that, “no man aught to suffer in Name, person or effects on account of his religious Opinions—That the legetimate Power of civil Goverment extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbour.” 

The Baptists said the Constitution was “not specific” enough in protecting people of faith by correctly noticing, “what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights: and these favors we receive at the expence of such degrading acknowledgements as are inconsistant with the rights of freemen.” 

They also worried that dishonest politicians might attack another lawmaker as, “an enemy of religion Law & good order because he will not, dares not assume the prerogative of Jehovah and make Laws to govern the Kingdom of Christ.” In essence, they were afraid that authoritarians would gaslight Americans in matters involving the free exercise of religion. 

Sound familiar? 

All the Baptists wanted was some assurance that the government would leave them alone to practice their faith unmolested. That was the assurance Jefferson gave them when he wrote of “building a wall of separation between the church and state.”

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Jefferson agreed with the Baptists in his January 1, 1802 response, writing 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.”

In keeping with the First Amendment’s prohibition on the establishment of religion and preventing government from interfering with the practice of one’s faith, Jefferson wrote, “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.”

It is the natural right of people to worship as they see fit. Jefferson’s “wall” was to protect people of faith from government, not the other way around. 

This is the concept that is uniformly bastardized by the American Left. They know the free exercise of religion is antithetical to the tyrannical government they seek, so they work overtime to impede it. If necessary, they lie to achieve their goals.  

Regrettably, Jefferson’s wall is crumbling thanks to the efforts of America’s home grown authoritarians. Football coaches who engage in voluntary prayer lose their jobs. People who use their faith to advocate for the lives of the unborn are jailed. Christians who believe in biblical marriage are persecuted by the government. 

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The wall meant to protect the natural rights of these and other Americans from a government that doesn’t agree with them and their faith is in need of repair. Thankfully, some jurists are working as cultural masons in rebuilding it, but all of us need to take some brick and mortar to the First Amendment if we want to keep it. 

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