By: Charles Sumner
Re: Myth 2
MYTH 2: Thomas Jefferson's 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists was
a mere courtesy and should not be regarded as important.
Religious Right activists have tried for decades to make light
of Jefferson's "wall of separation" response to the Danbury
Baptists, attempting to dismiss it as a hastily written note
designed to win the favor of a political constituency. But a glance
at the history surrounding the letter shows they are simply wrong.
As church-state scholar Pfeffer points out, Jefferson clearly
saw the letter as an opportunity to make a major pronouncement on
church and state. Before sending the missive, Jefferson had it
reviewed by Levi Lincoln, his attorney general. Jefferson told
Lincoln he viewed the response as a way of "sowing useful truths
and principles among the people, which might germinate and become
rooted among their political tenets."
At the time he wrote the letter, Jefferson was under fire from
conservative religious elements who hated his strong stand for full
religious liberty. Jefferson saw his response to the Danbury
Baptists as an opportunity to clear up his views on church and
state. Far from being a mere courtesy, the letter represented a
summary of Jefferson's thinking on the purpose and effect of the
First Amendment's religion clauses.
Jefferson's Danbury letter has been cited favorably by the
Supreme Court many times. In its 1879 Reynolds v. U.S. decision
the high court said Jefferson's observations "may be accepted
almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of
the [First] Amendment." In the court's 1947 Everson v. Board of
Education decision, Justice Hugo Black wrote, "In the words of
Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was
intended to erect 'a wall of separation between church and state.'"
It is only in recent times that separation has come under attack
by judges in the federal court system who oppose separation of
church and state.
(Some Religious Right propagandists have take to outright
fabrications in order to refute the Jefferson metaphor. They
sometimes claim that Jefferson described his wall as "one-
directional," forbidding government intervention into religion,
but allowing church intrusion into government. In fact, Jefferson
used no such language, as the text of the Danbury letterattests.)
Provided by Americans United for Separation of Church and State,
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