Examining a president’s words

Sunday, August 23, 1998

The current occupant of the White House isn't the only president whose motives are being questioned this month.

Nearly 200 years after leaving office, Thomas Jefferson is once again in the news. In his own day, of course, Jefferson was no stranger to controversy. His moral character and political ideas were constantly assailed by his opponents, and Jefferson was attacked as an “atheist” (and worse).

This time around, Jefferson's famous letter about the “wall of separation between church and state” — written to the Baptists of Danbury, Conn., in 1802 — has stirred yet another debate about the meaning of the First Amendment.

The implications of the “wall” image have been hotly contested for many years. But now, new language uncovered in a draft of Jefferson's letter is being used to raise questions about the significance of the correspondence itself. James Hutson, chief of the manuscripts division at the Library of Congress, claims that the newly uncovered notations prove that the letter wasn't meant to be a statement of “fundamental principles,” but “a political manifesto, nothing more.”

The portions of Jefferson's draft deleted from the final version have mostly to do with Jefferson's explanation of why he didn't proclaim days of fasting and thanksgiving as other presidents had done. By writing and then eliminating these parts, Hutson argues, Jefferson demonstrates that he was concerned primarily with responding to political attacks that he was “irreligious,” not with defining the First Amendment. Besides, Hutson adds, by 1802 Jefferson was no longer the strict separationist he once had been.

Twenty-four prominent church-state scholars have already attempted to refute Hutson, arguing that Jefferson meant what he said about favoring “a wall of separation between church and state.” The fact that Jefferson edited his draft, they say, proves nothing about his intentions.

I agree. A close look at the historical record suggests that Mr. Hutson overstates his case. True, the letter was shaped in part by political considerations (as every presidential message must be). But that doesn't change the fact that Jefferson used the letter as an opportunity to state his fundamental convictions about the First Amendment. As he explained to the attorney general (in a note asking for comments on the draft of the letter), Jefferson wished to use his letters to sow “useful truths and principles among the people, which might germinate and become rooted among their political tenets.”

Why should it matter what Jefferson intended by this letter? Because the Supreme Court has often used Jefferson's “wall” metaphor in key church-state cases to support a “separationist” reading of the First Amendment. This has meant, for example, a prohibition on any direct government funding for religion, and, when a captive audience of impressionable children is involved, prohibiting government-sponsored prayers or worship.

The court's decisions have endorsed Jefferson's conviction that liberty of conscience is only possible when the government stays out of the religion business. But this doesn't mean that religion should be kept out of public life. When the “wall of separation” is interpreted to mean that religious expression by citizens doesn't belong in the public square—including in the public schools—then Jefferson's letter is being misused.

When all the dust settles, we'll see that this latest debate about the intention and meaning of Jefferson's letter misses the point. The real question isn't whether or not Jefferson was a strong separationist. He was. Or whether or not he meant what he said. He did. The underlying issue is how much should we (or the Court) use Jefferson's views to interpret the First Amendment?

After all, the founders of our nation were divided—as we are today—about what it means to separate church from state. Then, as now, some argued with Jefferson for what the Supreme Court has called “a high and impregnable wall” between church and state. And then, as now, others envisioned a more porous wall, one that might allow indirect state aid to religious groups and more religious expression by government.

As we continue this debate, what's remarkable isn't how much we disagree, but rather how much we agree on fundamental principles. Fortunately, there was in Jefferson's time and there remains today a broad consensus in America that no national or state church should ever be established and no government should ever prefer one religious group over others.

Much to Thomas Jefferson's great satisfaction, America in 1791 separated church and state for the first time in history, thereby launching humanity's boldest experiment in religious liberty. Our disagreements about the size and shape of Mr. Jefferson's “wall” shouldn't obscure that extraordinary achievement.