Letter to the Editor: Jefferson in Context

Having recently read the article titled “Religion Should be Separate from Government” by Chris Lauritsen, I could not help but notice that, whether intentionally or for lack of comprehension, a great deal of historical evidence was left out that 30 minutes and a simple Google search would have yielded. In crafting his argument, I believe Mr. Lauritsen failed to consider two important aspects that should be given the utmost consideration: the context in which the letter to the Baptist Association of Danbury was written, and Jefferson’s understanding of the “wall of separation” and federalism in general.

Without delving into an introductory lesson of PS101, it should suffice to say that federalism in the United States can be best understood as the relationship between the national government and the various state governments, and how they operate in both separate and sometimes overlapping spheres. Perhaps no group of individuals had a more firm grasp of this concept than those who helped create this unique form of government.

Being a political reporter, I imagine Mr. Lauritsen is aware that the Bill of Rights initially only applied to the actions of the national government, and not the states. In fact, it wasn’t until the 14th Amendment was ratified that certain elements of the Bill of Rights were made applicable to the states. Because Jefferson resided over the presidency well before the 14th Amendment was ratified after the end of the Civil War, the actual intent of the letter to the Danbury Baptists includes language that when taken in context is a more accurate representation of Jefferson’s sympathies toward federalism and the Constitution.

Rather than arguing for a complete separation of church and state, as Mr. Lauritsen led readers to believe, the underlying principle in his carefully worded letter manifests his understanding of the characteristics of federalism. Jefferson believed that the “wall of separation” only prevented the federal government from recognizing the establishment of religion. Contrary to his article, the proverbial wall wasn’t an assault on religion as much as it was a demonstration of Jefferson’s belief that the national government should avoid becoming entangled in state matters concerning religious establishment and expression. This did not necessarily mean that state governments at the time were prohibited from maintaining an active interest in the spiritual devotion of its citizens. Jefferson echoed these sentiments through his support for the Tenth Amendment when he said that because “o power to prescribe any religious exercise…has been delegated to the General Government (i.e. the national government), it must then rest with the States, as far as it can be in any human authority.”

Another piece of historical evidence that would have proven Mr. Lauritsen’s views to be futile was the fact that as a state politician in Virginia during the 1770s, Jefferson supported the institution of religion. In the late 1770s, he authored “A Bill for Appointing Days of Publick (sic) Fasting and Thanksgiving,” and in 1779 as governor, Jefferson set aside a day for “publick (sic) and solemn thanksgiving and prayer to Almighty God.” Those who lack an understanding of federalism would seem shocked by Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists given his historical inclination to support religious observances and institutions. But once again, it should be stressed that the “wall of separation” was an endorsement of federalism, and not an attempt to completely separate God from the state. In fact, itwas Thomas Jefferson who wrote, “God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?”

Furthermore, if there was to be absolutely no connection between religion and politics in the early days of the republic, then no state would have been bold enough to endorse religious institutions. But that was hardly the case. Every single state in the original thirteen colonies supported state-sponsored religion in one form or another, whether through decree or charter. Some states even went so far as to contain references to established religion within their respective state constitutions.

Your interpretation of Jefferson’s letter to the Baptist Association of Danbury was void of any significant research into the historical context and implications of the document. Casting aside Jefferson, and other founding fathers, as atheists who lacked any moral fiber as understood in the Christian sense is to ignore a substantial portion of their biographies. Personally, I do not consider myself to be a religious person by any means, and while the rhetoric on the campaign trail by certain Republican presidential candidates makes me uncomfortable at times, I nevertheless find that it is important to understand history in context, rather than taking everything I read at face-value. Your article did nothing more than contribute to the misinterpretation of perhaps the most misunderstood metaphor in our nation’s history.