Judge Alfred T. Goodwin and Thomas Jefferson: Guarding the Wall (November 2002)

How fitting that Judge Alfred T. Goodwin of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit should write the opinion declaring “under God” unconstitutional in the 200th year of Thomas Jefferson’s famous wall-of-separation letter.
On January 1, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson wrote to a group of Connecticut Baptists that there is “a wall of separation between Church and State.”

The Connecticut Baptists had written to Jefferson, urging him to defend a constitutionally mandated separation of church and state because they were chafing under Connecticut’s state-supported Congregational church. Having studied the issue for more than 30 years, Jefferson’s “wall of separation” response (which was reviewed by Attorney General Levi Lincoln) was a succinct summary of what the founders had struggled to achieve: a secular government. Nowhere does the Constitution use the word “God” or claim that the Constitution was inspired by God.

The U.S. Constitution clearly removes religious tests for office–and it’s a good thing too, because many of the early presidents would not pass today’s fundamentalist litmus test. In the First Amendment, the Constitution prohibits the establishment of a state religion. The 14th Amendment applies the “no establishment” clause to the states.

Some theocratically inspired Protestant fundamentalists have tried to argue that Jefferson did not really mean what he wrote. Using typical fundamentalist sophistry, they have falsely claimed that the “wall” is one-way: that the state can’t interfere with religion but religion can interfere with the state. Worse, some of these Taliban wannabes have erroneously claimed that the Constitution never meant for people to have freedom from religion.

In 1785, Jefferson’s ally James Madison wrote the stirring “Memorial and Remonstrance” in favor of religious liberty in Virginia. Madison, who is often called the father of the Constitution, said, “Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us.” Clearly the founders believed that people have freedom from religion.

America’s founders were better versed in history than many of today’s politicians. Madison’s rhetorical question sums up the problem of state-supported religion: “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?”

Madison issued this warning about the dangers of state-supported religion: “Distant as it may be in its present form from the Inquisition, it differs from it only in degree.”

Ignoring the wisdom of the founders, Protestants set about to indoctrinate public school students with their texts. Catholics rioted and established their own schools. One of the ironies of the current move by Protestant fundamentalists to force religion into the public system is that they were once the champions of church-state separation when they worried about a papist plot to take over America.

In Boise, Idaho, where I grew up, school prayer and bible reading were quietly dropped in the early 1950s, long before the famous 1962 and 1963 Supreme Court decisions were issued against such practices. Possibly, as in the recent Texas school prayer lawsuit, Catholic and LDS parents in Idaho may have been fed up with having their children indoctrinated with Protestant religious texts.

The founders were well aware, as Madison put it in his Memorial, that “Torrents of blood have been spilt in the old world, by vain attempts of the secular arm, to extinguish Religious discord, by proscribing all difference in Religious opinion.”

A quick look at the world from Northern Ireland to the former Yugoslavia to Afghanistan and the Middle East shows the dangers of mixing church and state. In the 20th century, over 100 million people were killed in the name of sectarian and secular orthodoxies.

Biographer Willard Sterne Randall has written, “If Jefferson had any religious credo, it was a utilitarian faith in progress. With Bacon, he believed that mysteries beyond human understanding should be set aside so that the mind was freed to attack real obstacles to happiness in life.” Would that someone had told Andrea Yates that!

Jefferson observed: “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

With that in mind we would do well to keep religion a private matter between each individual and his beliefs–as the founders and Jesus advised.

Jefferson’s epitaph listed the three things for which he wanted to be remembered: the Declaration of Independence, the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and being father of the University of Virginia–the first secular university. Not a day goes by that I am not thankful the United States had freedom-loving founders like Jefferson and Madison–and not zealots like Pope Innocent VIII and Martin Luther.

Printed Source Material:

Thomas Jefferson, A Life by Willard Sterne Randall, HarperPerennial, New York, 1994.

The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. X and Vol.. XVI, Andrew A. Lipscomb, Editor-in-Chief and Albert Ellery Bergh, Managing Editor, The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, Washington, D.C., 1905.

“Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments” [ca. 20 June 1785], The Papers of James Madison, Vol. 8, edited by Robert A. Rutland, William M.E. Rachal, Barbara D. Ripel, and Fredrika J. Teute, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London [1962] – 1991.

Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association (from pp. 281-282 of Vol. XVI of The Writings of Thomas Jefferson).

Freedom From Religion Foundation