by: Thomas Lee Abshier, ND
The Danbury Baptists wrote Jefferson a letter of praise on October 7, 1801, telling him: “Among the many millions in America and Europe who rejoice in your election to office, we embrace the first opportunity… to express our great satisfaction in your appointment to the Chief Magistracy in the United States… [W]e have reason to believe that America’s God has raised you up to fill the Chair of State out of that goodwill which he bears to the millions which you preside over. May God strengthen you for the arduous task which providence and the voice of the people have called you… And may the Lord preserve you safe from every evil and bring you at last to his Heavenly Kingdom through Jesus Christ our Glorious Mediator.”
However, in that same letter of congratulations, the Baptists also expressed to Jefferson their grave concern over the entire concept of the First Amendment:
“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, [and] that the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor. But sir, our constitution of government is not specific… . [T]herefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights.”
The inclusion of Constitutional protection for the “free exercise of religion” suggested to the Danbury Baptists that the right was government-given (thus alienable) rather than God-given (hence inalienable), and that therefore the government might someday attempt to regulate religious expression. This was a possibility to which they strenuously objected – unless someone’s religious practice caused him, as they explained, to “work ill to his neighbor.” Jefferson understood their concern; it was also his own. He made numerous statements declaring the inability of the government to regulate, restrict, or interfere with religious expression.
Jefferson, in his short and polite reply to the Danbury Baptists on January 1, 1802, he assured them that they need not fear; the free exercise of religion would never be interfered with by the government. As he explained:
“Gentlemen, – The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me on behalf of the Danbury Baptist Association give me the highest satisfaction… Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God; that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship; that the legislative powers of government reach actions only and 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 and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties. I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and Creator of man, and tender you for yourselves and your religious association assurances of my high respect and esteem.” T.J., President of the United States
Jefferson’s reference to “natural rights” invoked an important legal phrase which was part of the rhetoric of that day. The use of that phrase confirmed his belief that religious liberties were inalienable rights. While those words communicated much to people then, to most citizens today it means little.
By definition, “natural rights” included “that which the Books of the Law and the Gospel do contain.” Very simply, “natural rights” incorporated what God Himself had guaranteed to man in the Scriptures. Thus when Jefferson assured the Baptists that by following their “natural rights” they would violate no social duty, it was understood that he was affirming to them his belief that the free exercise of religion was their inalienable God given right. They were therefore assured that God-given of religious expressions was above federal jurisdiction.
So clearly did Jefferson understand the Source of America’s inalienable rights that he even doubted whether America could survive if we ever lost that knowledge. He queried:
“And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure if we have lost the only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath?”
Jefferson believed that God, not government, was the Author and Source of our rights and that the government, therefore, was to be prevented from interference with those rights. Very simply, the “fence” of the Webster letter and the “wall” of the Danbury letter were not to limit religious activities in public; rather they were to limit the power of the government to prohibit or interfere with those expressions.
Earlier courts long understood Jefferson’s intent. In fact, when Jefferson’s letter was invoked by the Court (only once prior to the 1947 Everson case the Reynolds v. United States case in 1878), unlike today’s Courts which publish only his eight-word separation phrase, that Court published Jefferson’s full letter, and then concluded:
Coming as this does from an acknowledged leader of the advocates of the measure, it [Jefferson’s letter] may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the Amendment thus secured. Congress was deprived of all legislative power over mere [religious] opinion, but was left free to reach actions which were in violation of social duties or subversive of good order.
That Court then succinctly summarized Jefferson’s intent for “separation of church and state”:
The rightful purposes of civil government are for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order. In th[is] … is found the true distinction between what properly belongs to the church and what to the State.
With this even the Baptists had agreed; for while wanting to see the government prohibited from interfering with or limiting religious activities, they also had declared it a legitimate function of government “to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor.”
That Court, therefore, and others (for example, Commonwealth v. Nesbit and Lindenmuller v. The People), identified actions into which – if perpetrated in the name of religion – the government did have legitimate reason to intrude. Those activities included human sacrifice, polygamy, bigamy, concubinage, incest, infanticide, parricide, advocation and promotion of immorality, etc.
Such acts, even if perpetrated in the name of religion, would be stopped by the government since, as the Court had explained, they were “subversive of good order” and were “overt acts against peace and good order.” However, the government was never to interfere with traditional religious practices outlined in “the Books of the Law and the Gospel” – whether public prayer, the use of the Scriptures, etc.
Passages taken from Original Intent: The Courts, the Constitution, & Religion by David Barton