Contradictory Claims from the Right on Separation of Church and State

Clayton Cramer says the concept of separation of church and state should be "given a proper (and secular) burial". Jon Rowe has already said much of what I would say in response to it, so I'm only going to comment on one aspect of Cramer's post. I have to give Cramer credit for at least accurately describing the reason why the Danbury Baptists wrote to Jefferson in 1802, something his fellow conservatives seem to lie about rather frequently. Cramer writes:

Back in 1802, a group of Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut, wrote a letter to President Thomas Jefferson, congratulating him on his election. They were also upset because Connecticut (like a few other states at the time), had an established church, meaning the one particular denomination had special legal privileges. In some states, the government collected taxes to fund that church. The Danbury Baptists were not happy about this, understandably, and hoped for President Jeffersons help. There wasnt much that Jefferson could do; the First Amendment prohibited the federal government from giving special treatment or privileges to a particular church, but the states were free to give these sort of special privileges.

All quite accurate, with the exception of the date (the letter from Danbury was written in October 1801, Jefferson's reply to them was written in January of 1802), and that is a mere quibble. The Danbury group was hoping that Jefferson might be able to intervene in their state to do away with the laws in Connecticutt that required all citizens of that state to support the Congregationalist establishment. Jefferson was a passionate supporter of separation, and while he did say that the purpose of the first amendment was to "erect a wall of separation between church and state", he also informed them that the wording of the first amendment prevented him from doing anything about state establishments. He further said that he hoped the example of the first amendment at the federal level would lead the states to abandon church establishments on their own, which they subsequently did over the next few decades. But let's contrast Cramer's accurate description of this letter to what the WorldNutDaily has to say about it. In one hysterical article pimping a book that they publish (it seems that at least half the articles they write are really shameless advertisements for books that they profit from), entitled Exploding the myth of church-state separation, the WND says this about the letter from the Danbury Baptists:

Starting with the famous 1801 letter written by the Baptists of Danbury, Conn., to newly elected President Thomas Jefferson and Jefferson's brief response, in which he coined the phrase "a wall of separation between church and state" to assure his constituents that the new Constitution would not establish a national church or otherwise infringe on their religious liberties this special Whistleblower edition attacks the church-state issue from every conceivable angle.

Except the truth and accuracy angle, apparently. Jefferson did not write that letter to the Danbury Baptists "to assure his constituents that the new Constitution would not establish a national church or otherwise infringe on their religious liberties." He wrote it to reluctantly tell the Danbury Baptists that the new Constitution did not allow him to protect the religious liberties of the citizens of Connecticutt. The Danbury group certainly did not feel this was an "assurance", but rather likely a disappointment, as they expressly hoped that the trend of disestablishment that Jefferson had helped start would soon result in Connecticutt following suit. They make this lie even more explicit with this commentary, written by Kyle Williams, their precocious 15 year old columnist who clearly has a bright future ahead of him if he keeps telling whoppers like this one:

This was the point that Thomas Jefferson was attempting to make. The Danbury Baptists were concerned that the government would, as in Great Britain, interfere in the workings of their religion and other religions. But Jefferson assured them that would not happen, because there is a "wall" of separation between church and state.

Sorry Kyle, you have either been lied to or you are doing the lying. The Danbury Baptists were upset that the state of Connecticutt WAS interfering in the workings of their religion (and they were right), and they were hoping along with Jefferson that they would soon stop. Perhaps Mr. Cramer can at least set his comrades-in-arms straight so that this popular piece of misinformation will stop being spread around.

You can find the full text of the letter from the Danbury Baptists here and the full text of Jefferson's reply here.

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There were no government established churches left in the United States in 1801. There were only the remnants of the once powerful state government churches. The most odious vestige of the old government religions was the Connecticut Certificate Law of 1791.

Under Connecticut law in 1801, local governments could legal establish the duty of every individual to contribute to the financial support of the Protestant religion. Any Protestant sect could be selected by majority vote to receive the contributions. However, dissenters could obtain a Certificate acknowledged (notarized) by their minister stating that they attended a different church and their contributions would go to the church they specified in their certificate.

The Connecticut Baptists referred to the Certificate Law, in their letter to President Jefferson, as the "degrading acknowledgements". Many Baptist refused to comply with the Certificate Law because to do so would imply that they acknowledged government authority over their duties to God.

When the local collector came around, many of the Baptists told him to go back and tell Satan that the Baptists were going to contribute to the Baptist sect and they didn't need no stinking certificate to do it. By 1801, no one was actually being prosecuted for not paying the contributions, but that was not good enough for the Baptists. They demanded State Constitutional safeguards for the right of conscience.

In 1817 the conservatives fell from power in Connecticut. Oliver Wolcott was chosen governor by a coalition of all opponents to the State-Church. All the dissenting Churches made common cause with the Republicans against the conservative dynasty. The Connecticut legislature of that year adopted James Madison's general view of religious liberty and did away with the Certificate Law. In 1818 the first Connecticut Constitution was adopted with safeguards for religious liberty in conformity with the James Madison view of the rights of conscience.

Presented below is John Leland's description of the Connecticut Certificate Law.

The certificate that a dissenter produces to the society clerk, must be signed by some officer of the dissenting church, and such church must be Christian; for heathens, deists, and Jews, are not indulged in the certificate law; all of them, as well as Turks, must therefore be taxed for the standing order, although they never go among them, or know where the meeting-house is.

This certificate law is founded on this principle, "that it is the duty of all persons to support the gospel and the worship of God." ...Is it the duty of a deist to support that which he believes to be a cheat and imposition? Is it the duty of a Jew to support the religion of Jesus Christ, when he really believes that he was an impostor? Must the Papists be forced to pay men for preaching down the supremacy of the pope,...? Must a Turk maintain a religion, opposed to the Alkoran ...? I now call for an instance where Jesus Christ, the author of his religion, or the apostles, who were divinely inspired, ever gave orders to, or intimated, that the civil powers on earth, ought to force people to observe the rules and doctrine of the gospel.

Friday Slice

By FridaySlice (not verified) on 04 Jan 2006 #permalink

Federal Government protection for the religious freedom of the Baptists in Connecticut (to financially support the religion of their choice) would not have been the granting of a special privilege. President Jefferson and Congress were helpless because the Constitution, at least the way they read it, prohibited any legislation whatsoever respecting the duty we owe to the Creator. No laws to protect the duty. No laws to infringe on the duty. No Laws.

The Baptists, in their letter to Jefferson, wrote that they knew the President and Congress could not "destroy" the Connecticut Certificate Law. The Baptists apparently already knew that Jefferson read the Constitution to prohibit all federal legislation respecting religion, whether to protect religion or to violate the right to the free exercise thereof. It seems that every one in 1801 knew Jefferson's views on the rights of conscience and his take on the First Amendment. There was a reason for this.

One of the issues in the 1800 Presidential Election was whether the Constitution granted the President authority to issue religious proclamations. President John Adams claimed that it did and had issued two during his four-year term without a request from Congress.

Jefferson ran on a promise the he would not issue any religious recommendations under the authority of his office. It was an extremely close election, but a slight majority favored Jefferson's interpretation.

Friday Slice

By FridaySlice (not verified) on 04 Jan 2006 #permalink