You won’t find the phrase “separation of church and state” in the United States Constitution. And it isn’t in the Declaration of Independence. In fact, it’s not in any federal document at all except for its citation in court cases in recent years.
The phrase does come from Thomas Jefferson. The context in which he wrote it and the people he wrote to shows how the phrase was used–something entirely different from the way it is popularly used today.
“The wall of separation of church and state” came from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson soon after he was inaugurated as the third president of the United States. He wrote the letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut to allay their fears that the state church of Connecticut would curtail the religious freedom of the Baptists.
The Baptists of Connecticut were a small minority who wanted the right to worship, preach, practice, and evangelize as their religion dictated. They wrote to Jefferson to congratulate his election and to express their concerns.
Jefferson’s reply is now in the Library of Congress. He wrote to let the people of the Danbury Baptist Association know they would have their freedom because of the “wall of separation between church and state.” He made reference to the Bill of Rights which had recently been added to the constitution. Amendment one, of course, says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Jefferson replied to the Danbury Baptists in this way: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & 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 & State.”
Today, court cases and popular politicians refer to the separation of church and state as something the state needs to protect itself from the church. The amendment and Jefferson’s reference to it was given to protect the church and its free exercise of religion from the dictates of the state. This is a totally different issue entirely.
All of the amendments in the Bill of Rights were given to protect individuals and institutions from the tyranny of government. Governments set up “state churches” and make taxpayers support them. Governments restrict freedom of speech and intimidate the press. Governments make unlawful searches and trample privacy.
Jefferson and the Danbury Baptists knew we needed that wall of separation to allow for the freedom of conscience and the freedom to practice our faith according to the Word of God and the dictates of conscience. As Jefferson said: man “owes account” only to God and “the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions.”
I thank God for that wall and for that freedom. May it always be as intended–to protect the freedom of the devoted servant of God to serve and worship as led by conscience.
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