National scholars question Library of Congress’ take on wall of separation

Tuesday, August 4, 1998

Thomas Jefferso...
Thomas Jefferson

Did Thomas Jefferson advocate a wall of separation of church and state merely for fleeting political reasons?


An exhibit at the Library of Congress suggests so, but a group of the nation's leading church-state academics doesn't approve. The exhibit, which centers on a study written by James Hutson, head of the library's Manuscript Division, was unveiled in early June and will be on display until mid-August. Hutson's study was issued along with a news release the day the library's exhibit opened.


The exhibit and Hutson's study contain an 1802 draft letter by Jefferson regarding his thoughts on the separation of church and state. The library had asked FBI laboratories to decipher what Jefferson had written under inked-out portions of the draft letter. According to Hutson's study, Jefferson's newly discovered notes add understanding to his famous “wall of separation” metaphor.


The group of church-state scholars, led by Robert S. Alley, a retired University of Richmond humanities professor, last week issued a letter to the library in which it argued that Hutson's study “yields an unbalanced treatment of this important topic.”


The group of 24 professors went on to ask the library staff to refrain from presenting Hutson's study as “settled fact.”


Hutson's paper, written for the library's “Religion and the Founding of the American Republic” exhibit, suggests that Jefferson wrote favorably of church-state separation merely to stave off political attacks, not to make a major statement on the meaning of the First Amendment's establishment clause.


In particular, Hutson focused on the 1802 letter from then-President Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut. That letter contained Jefferson's famous “wall of separation” metaphor. The metaphor has been quoted by the U.S. Supreme Court to interpret the establishment clause as requiring government to remain neutral toward religion.


According to Hutson's study, Jefferson was trying to explain to the Danbury Baptists his unwillingness to issue a Thanksgiving proclamation. Hutson cited the newly discovered language of the draft letter as proof that Jefferson was merely making political statements. In particular, Hutson pointed to some notes on the draft in which Jefferson dubbed his presidential duties “merely temporal,” and that the “wall of separation” should only be seen as a political pronouncement. Additionally, Hutson noted that Jefferson deleted a description of the wall as “eternal” from the final letter sent to the Baptists.


Hutson, therefore, concluded that Jefferson intended his “reply to the Danbury Baptists as a political letter, not as a dispassionate theoretical pronouncement on the relations between government and religion.” Hutson also charged that federal courts, including the high court, have used Jefferson's “wall” metaphor to cleanse religious expression from public life.


The group of scholars, however, questioned and criticized Hutson's analysis on several fronts.


“The essay depends upon a flawed premise that since President Jefferson edited the original draft of the letter, it is possible, simply by comparing that original with the final version, for the reader to fully 'discern Jefferson's true intentions in writing the celebrated Danbury Baptist letter,'” the group said. “From there, the essay devolves into an assault on the phrase 'separation of church and state' supported with tenuous inferences from Jefferson's excisions.”


The scholars noted that Hutson's study did not mention the Danbury Baptists' letter, which prompted Jefferson's response.


In late 1801, when the Connecticut Baptist group wrote to Jefferson, the First Amendment had not yet been applied to the states and Connecticut was under puritanical rule. The Baptists criticized Connecticut political leaders for attacking Jefferson's call for the disestablishing of state religions. The Danbury Baptists also argued against the state Legislature's efforts to create laws favorable to the state's Puritan majority.


“Our Sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty – That Religion is at all times and places a Matter between God and Individuals – That no man ought to suffer in Name, person or effects on account of his religious Opinions – That the legitimate Power of civil Government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbors,” the Baptists wrote.


In asserting that he knows the true meaning of Jefferson's metaphor, the academic group said, Hutson misinterpreted and misrepresented years of Supreme Court analysis of the doctrine of separation of church and state.


As an example, the scholars noted that only one high court ruling was cited by Hutson—a 1948 opinion that the scholars said Hutson misconstrued.


Hutson “chooses to cite only one case, McCollum v. Board of Education, and argues, with no citation of evidence, that the Court used 'Jefferson's “wall” metaphor as a sword to sever religion from public life, a result that was and still is intolerable to many Americans,'” the scholars wrote.


“Absolutely nothing in the McCollum decision hints at severing religion from public life. It was focused on 'public school buildings used for the dissemination of religious doctrines' during the school day. Indeed Justice Hugo Black, writing for the majority, observed that the decision 'does not, as counsel urge, manifest a governmental hostility toward religion or religious teachings.'”


Hutson said that his study was not actually part of the library's exhibit and it was not his intent to “control interpretation” of Jefferson's 1802 letter.


Hutson said he found it hard to discern from the scholars' letter what exactly they expected the library to do with the exhibit. The library is proud of the exhibit and it has been well received, he said.


In mid-June, The Washington Post reviewed the exhibit, saying, “Curator Hutson has maintained a neutral tone but an unflinching eye throughout this thoughtful and thought-provoking exhibition, whose lack of preachiness makes it all the more powerful a cautionary tale.”


Since the release of Hutson's study, conservative religious groups such as the Christian Coalition have cited it in support of their argument that Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers never meant to build a wall between government and religion.


“It's a liberal myth that Jefferson intended his words to be used as justification for expelling religious expression from the public square,” said Randy Tate, the Christian Coalition's director.


The group of scholars criticized the coalition for grabbing onto Hutson's study in an attempt to undermine establishment-clause jurisprudence.


“The Jefferson phrase 'thus building a wall of separation of church and state' is familiar to millions of Americans and is regularly thought of as a convenient way to describe the scope and effect of the religion clauses of the First Amendment,” the group of scholars wrote in its letter to the Library of Congress. “We believe Jefferson's metaphor to be a significant part of understanding the matrix out of which that Amendment emerged. The historical record makes clear that he used his commitment to religious freedom with utmost deliberation in order to set forth both his philosophy and his view of public policy.”


Charles Haynes, The Freedom Forum's senior scholar and co-author of Finding Common Ground: A First Amendment Guide to Religion and Public Education, said the deciphered Jefferson draft was not mere rhetoric.


“The uncovered language in Jefferson's draft only reconfirms what we have long known: Thomas Jefferson was deeply committed to full religious liberty for all,” Haynes said. “The draft is not a political statement, but a principled articulation of Jefferson's conviction that religious liberty is only possible when the government stays out of religion.”


Derek H. Davis, one of the scholars who signed the letter critical of Hutson's study, said he was not only troubled by the study's historical inaccuracies but also by the library's presentation of it.


“The library ostensibly represents all American people and should not be taking sides on political issues,” said Davis, director of church-state studies at Baylor University and editor of the Journal of Church and State. “To my knowledge the library has never taken such a strident stance on other exhibits; why they would so strongly take a position on this issue is a mystery to me.


“The library is funded by tax dollars and it is essentially a resource of information for all Americans,” Davis said. “I don't know if Dr. Hutson was acting independently and without knowledge of those who are responsible for the library's day-to-day operations, or if this is part of a strategic plan to align the library with what has become a very conservative right-wing position on this issue.”


The library's mission statement written by Librarian of Congress James H. Billington states that its goal, in part, is “to make its resources available and useful to the Congress and the American people and to sustain and preserve a universal collection of knowledge and creativity for future generations.”


Additionally, Billington said in the mission statement, that as “the repository of a universal collection of human knowledge and the creative work of the American people, the library has the primary mission to make this material available and to identify, analyze and synthesize the information it contains to make it useful” to Congress.


Hutson also added that the library was “certainly not trying to impose an official interpretation of” Jefferson's Danbury letter.


“I think they (the scholars) are making a mistake in assuming that the library can control the interpretation of the material at issue,” Hutson said. “We really have no power over conclusions drawn by certain groups of people.”


The Weekly Standard — a conservative political magazine founded by William Kristol, an ABC News political commentator — praised the library's exhibit in an Aug. 3 article.


“Americans should go see this marvelous new exhibition, either now at the Library of Congress or when it travels revival-like around the country,” the article stated. “If enough do, no one will ever” be able to claim the Supreme Court represents the “thinking of the founders. And perhaps even the Supreme Court's great wall of separation will at last come tumbling down.”