A Revisionist Interpretation of Jefferson's "Wall"

Sunday, October 29, 2006

A Revisionist Interpretation of Jefferson's "Wall"

Daniel L. Dreisbach, a professor at American University, has written an article in which he takes issue with the "conventional" interpretations of Thomas Jefferson's "wall of separation between church and state." Dreisbach writes:
... Jefferson’s wall separated the national government on one side from state governments and religious authorities on the other.
Dreisbach's conclusion strikes me as an indefensible leap.

First, the fact that Jefferson drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom attests to his deep concern with potential friction or collaboration between government authorities (state or federal) and religion.

Second, it was state authorities, not federal, who had attempted in Jefferson's day to establish or recognize specific churches. This was true in the State of Connecticut, home of the Danbury Baptists. As Dreisbach himself explained in the article:
At the time, the Congregationalist Church was still legally established in Connecticut .... Thus the Danbury Baptists were outsiders — a beleaguered religious and political minority in a state where a Congregationalist-Federalist party establishment dominated public life. They were drawn to Jefferson’s political cause because of his celebrated advocacy for religious liberty.
Dreisbach cites a few observations to challenge the "conventional" interpretation of Jefferson's separation view, including the fact that "Jefferson concluded his [letter to the Danbury Baptists] with a prayer."

So what? This argument exposes Dreisbach's prejudice — the assumption that a person who engages in prayer or other manifestations of religious faith couldn't possibly support strict separation of church and state.

Another reason Dreisbach cites is that Jefferson’s metaphor was used "in the service of the free exercise of religion ... (not) to restrict religious exercise ..."

In this particular instance, perhaps that is true. But Jefferson was a man who employed his words carefully and thoughtfully. If Jefferson had intended his metaphor only to apply to "the free exercise of religion," he would have done more to clarify it as such. Instead, he used the term "separation," which implicitly casts religious advancement or endorsement by government to be illegitimate.

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