There is a revisionist strain of teaching in modern day American fundamentalism, furthered by frauds like David Barton, that the Wall of Separation is largely a myth. It was not, as the fiction goes, religion that the founders wanted equally protected -- and separate from government -- but Christianity and its various sects; and, rather than "separate", they were to merely live in harmony. The founders were all Christian, and, seeing the conflict between denominations, wanted to create a paradise for and by, and exclusive to, Christians. This paradise would not promote one denomination above the other, but it would be a Christian land, a theocratic paradise that would certainly impose religion on its citizens. But rather than promoting Presbyterianism in one area, say, and Methodism in another, and Catholicism in yet another, it would promote a generic (but always, in practice, far right) Christianity. Alas for the fundamentalists, this is a poorly constructed lie that any honest examination of history will easily demolish: the wall of separation of church and state was clearly and fully intended to keep all religions, including Christianity, out of government, and to protect all faiths, not merely Christianity's many incarnations, equally.
It must be stated from the outset, for it is often presented as a contradictory concept, that we do not suggest that the founders were irreligious or that they refrained from practicing their faiths. They were a largely religious body (although there were a fair share of deists and doubters in their ranks as well), and wise religious men at that – wise enough to understand the difficulty inherent in promotion of one faith over others.
Having seen both locally and overseas, in their present day as well as throughout history, the impact of theocratic tyranny, the founding fathers went to great lengths to protect against such a state of affairs manifesting in their country. Jefferson, drafter of the Statue of Virginia for Religious Freedom, had witnessed in Virginia, and long railed against, the practice of promoting one sect of one religion over all others. His efforts in promoting religious freedom in that state were not merely to protect individual sects, however, but everyone, regardless of their religious belief (or lack thereof). This is made clear in, among other places, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVII.
Jefferson's vision of religious liberty extended not merely to the man whose belief in Jesus was somewhat different than his neighbor's, but to the man who had no belief in Jesus at all. The principle was the same, regardless of what deities (or none at all) were involved. And rather than being troubled that freedom of religion might allow too much dissent, Jefferson believed this freedom would separate real truths from pretenders, that free inquiry would bolster truth, rather than harm it.
The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
This is, then, the mindset of the man who wrote the powerful lines:
Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error. Give a loose to them, they will support the true religion, by bringing every false one to their tribunal, to the test of their investigation.
The use of language is important. Jefferson didn’t just say “God”, or “our God”, as he might of if he meant to narrow the field merely to believers in his deity of choice, or if he merely took it for granted (as revisionists pretend) that freedom of religion was only a Christian right. He specifically states that it is a matter between a person and “his” -- the individual’s -- god, and not any other. It is absolutely not a matter for the government, as it is an opinion and not an action. And then, most powerfully, he defines a barrier between Church and State. Not a protective wall to shelter one religion from state. A wall. And not a wall around one, a defensive line, but a wall between, a divider. In context of Jefferson’s words and writings, this is very clear: Jefferson did not intend that to be a wall that sheltered Christianity and allowed Christians to inject religion into politics, but a dividing wall, a separating wall.
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.
"But, the early government employed chaplains!" the revisionist will declare. "They prayed. So, checkmate!" As with most of these claims, the revisionist draws wholly unwarranted and unsupported meaning from simple fact (when there is any fact involved at all). Meaning, more often than not, that they wind up with an interpretation that is entirely at odds with reality. From the first, there was concern among the founders as to what sort of interpretation might be taken from the fact that they prayed to their own god (concern well founded, as is evidenced by the fact that this discussion is even now ongoing). Madison, for instance, detested the notion of legislative chaplains. He declared that “[t]he establishment of the chaplainship to Cong[res]s is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles” because
Madison also felt that military chaplains were unconstitutional. (Imagine the reaction from theocratically minded Christians of our current day if a contemporary politician were to advocate such a course of action -- and bear in mind, as you contemplate such a thing, the hysteria that ensued from, for example, the Air Force's decision to stop forcing cadets to pledge to a god they might not believe in, when they rendered the phrase "so help me God" optional).
The Constitution of the U. S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion. The law appointing Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them; and these are to be paid out of the national taxes. Does not this involve the principle of a national establishment, applicable to a provision for a religious worship for the Constituent as well as of the representative Body, approved by the majority, and conducted by Ministers of religion paid by the entire nation.
But Jefferson took matters even further, beyond objecting to the governmental employment of persons in a strictly religious function, to refusing to even hold religious thanksgivings and fasts for fear that they would be perceived as having “some authority”. Adams regretted having recommended a national fast, saying that he feared it foreshadowed “seeds of an ecclesiastical history of US for a century to come”. He also noted at the time that the public spirit was so set against Presbyterians that the people would have preferred “philosphers, Deists, or even atheists, rather than a Presbyterian President.” Madison rejected public funds for religious charities multiple times, believing that a precedent “for giving to religious Societies” should not be set. Other founders did the same.
Furthermore, like Jefferson and the 20-god-worshipping polytheist, or atheist, whose rights to free belief he supported, George Washington declared to Jewish Americans (in his 1790 letter to the Touro Synagogue) that the US “requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens”, and that “[i]t is no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the free exercise of their inherent natural rights.” Not that the nation "requires only that you acknowledge the Father and Son of my religion, or at least bow to their dictates". Not that they should delight that "the benevolence of the Christian majority, and its government by and for Christians, leaves the worshipers of Touro Synagogue unmolested." No indeed: the congregation of Touro, and all people, enjoyed free exercise of natural rights that no one could infringe upon; and all that was required, rather than bowing to the "right" deity or submitting to the majority faith, was that Americans conduct themselves as good citizens.
In a letter to New Church in Baltimore, Washington expounded on this notion: “In this enlightened Age and in this Land of equal liberty it is our boast, that a man’s religious tenets will not forfeit the protection of the Laws, nor deprive him of the right of attaining and holding the highest Offices that are known in the United States.” He further felt no qualms in recognizing the religious beliefs of others, as in his 1796 address to the Cherokee Nation: “I now send my best wishes to the Cherokees, and pray the Great Spirit to preserve them.”
In short, our founding fathers and early presidents not only embraced a wall of separation between religion (including Christianity) and state, but envisioned a far more solid thing than the patched and leaking barrier that today remains. Contrary to revisionist claims that this wall is a new and radical invention, it is in fact as old as our country, and a far more (dare I say, too?) lenient wall than that which was originally established. The founding fathers had studied history's religious tyrants, and dealt with plenty from their own day; they saw what modern day would-be theocrats are either too blind to see or too foolish to understand: that the wall of separation is the only effectual assurance of true religious freedom, and as important for the majority as the minority.
Originally posted at Rachel's Hobbit Hole.