“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of people that these liberties are a gift of God?” President Thomas Jefferson wrote these words in his Notes on the State of Virginia in 1785. Most people wouldn’t know or even recognize these words as being from our third president. But they certainly know and can often repeat—quite out of context—his words concerning the so-called “separation of church and state” in 1802.
There seems to be a drum-beat today that has progressively gotten louder, in an effort to remove God from every aspect of public life, relegating Him, along with our moral foundations to the “ash heap of history.” There are those that attempt to silence those who speak freely and publicly about religion and discrediting the very real history of moral guidance in our country. This resistance and opposition comes from all quarters; the world of academia, the citizenry, and perhaps worst of all, from religious and moral leaders and members of the clergy who have continued to advocate for wrong-headed and false doctrines.
The most important thing for people to remember is that, contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as this popularly believed separation of church and state in our Declaration of Independence, Constitution, or the Bill of Rights. It is important to educate people on what the law actually says rather than what it has been misconstrued to say. The only thing that the First Amendment specifically says is, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or the free exercise thereof.” End of story. One cannot read into that a separation clause as it is believed to be. One cannot use that as a basis from which to deny religion and morality in public discourse. This amendment applies only to congress creating laws to establish a formal religion or requiring people to adhere to it, and to keep the federal government from curtailing people’s freedom of religion. More importantly, one cannot apply this vague standard to the states, i.e. schools opening events with prayer, city or county councils opening sessions with prayer, government buildings displaying the Ten Commandments (which incidentally a lot our laws are based on) and the like. Nor does it maintain that others refrain from engaging in these practices, such as the president, state governors, and so forth.
This seems like (or it should seem like) a straight-forward situation. Where the problem comes in, however, is when those certain segments of the population invoke Jefferson’s private letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802, after he was president, quoting his line about creating a “wall between religion and state” so that the former is not unduly dictated by the latter, and vice versa. What he was referring to was their fears that a growing federal government having too much control in constraining religious freedoms, much like the Church of England, and Jefferson was merely placating their fears of such action. A year prior to this, during his first inauguration address on March 4, 1801, Jefferson said, “And may that infinite power which rules the destinies of the universe lead our councils to what is best.”
Let’s make sure we understand the rest of the story. People tend to take this often-quoted letter and twist it into the First Amendment and claim it is law. Worse, Jefferson is often erroneously given credit for influencing the drafting of the First Amendment when he wasn’t even in the country at the time. Nor was the term “separation of church and state” even recorded in the Congressional records from June 6 to July 25 of 1789, which ultimately influenced the First Amendment. And if that wasn’t enough, Jefferson, despite his sometimes personal struggles with organized religion, staunchly advocated religious freedom, attending church services two days after the Danbury letter in the U.S. House of Representatives. Jefferson even wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786, one of the few things he always wanted to be remembered for.
Religious freedom, and more importantly, religious and moral expression has always been a major underpinning in our country and our society. One can only look back at the documents and texts that preceded our founding for proof of this. From the Third Charter of Virginia in 1611 and the Mayflower Compact of 1620 to the Declaration of Independence (which mentions God four times) and James Madison’s Federalist Paper Number 37, where he acknowledges God’s assistance in the country’s times of need. The power of God and morality pervades our documents, texts, and papers, and more importantly, the heads and hearts of our greatest leaders.
More than trying to find a technicality in some law, or worse, pervert established laws with erroneous information, society should welcome a sense of spirituality in its public life. It is a far better fate for a country’s character to rest like a rock on the firm foundation of morality and righteousness, than to sink in the shifting sands of deceit, self-interest, and decisiveness that plagues this country. Which fate should the United States of America seek? In the words of 2 Chronicles 7:14, “If My people, who are called by My name, will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and I will heal their nation.” What kind of nation are we?