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October 31, 2011

for the good of all the people

by Andrea O'Connell
Photo: Jefferson_on_Mt_Rushmore.jpg Thomas Jef...

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The distinction between religion and the state is so important it is worth talking about at every turn, especially since I fear it’s not being taught in our elementary or high schools.

If we are going to be a sane and sensible America we must understand – ad infinitum – the critically important message of the separation of church and state.

As citizens of the United States we are protected by the Constitution – a non-secular treatise that applies to all people of America.

By no means am I an authority on the Constitution, or history or religion.  I do, however, understand the humanism and the freedoms the Constitution grants us.

I have learned the importance of keeping a wall between religious celebration and ordinary rules of law.  The founding fathers understood the harm that could come if the wall was torn down between religion and government. The Government, having more power than any single religion or person, respected religion enough to promise to never trample on religious freedom .

The constitution is the sanity that stops the government from supporting one religion over another, though in today’s society, the foundation of that wall is coming unglued and the “religious right” has for years tried to insert religion into our laws.  Why?  Because it’s a way to control the people. To start wars, to encourage the hate that starts wars in the first place.

Today, people want Jesus, God, and prayer to be part of our lives outside of our homes and churches.

Religion belongs in the church, in the home, and in the heart and minds of whomever wants to have it.  No where else.  Why?  Because not everyone believes in the same God.  Your God is not my God, and vise versa.

The founding fathers were unbelievably smarter than you and me.  They had the forethought to see what could come of religious idolatry being entwined in the rule of law. Think Hitler and Stalin for examples of this religious and social fanaticism.

Is there any other single subject that has been a war-starter more than religion?  I doubt it.

There has to be respect each others religion – treat it as if it were our own.  Respect is the operative word.  Having respect is to refrain from demeaning, discriminating or destroying another’s personal religious views or beliefs.

I don’t know when we stopped debating cordially about religion.  I don’t know why we stopped respecting the views of another’s religion.  Personal attacks have replaced the philosophical and enlightened religious discussions of the past.  Just listen to the Republican Presidential debates.  These men attack each other personally rather than discuss issues facing the country. Every single one of these candidates disgust me.  They are incredibly transparent.

I dislike using the word “Christian” to describe religious piety since when that term is used, it usually meant to portray its “rightful” superiority – which is not righteous any more than Buddism or any other “ism” is righteous.  Was this the reason why German-Jews had to wear their religion, as a yellow star, through the streets of Germany?  Was it to separate the righteous from what was considered vermin?     You better believe it.  Talk about racist profiling!

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peal...

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But, let me get back on track.  What I want to accomplish here is to enlighten you with the words of  Thomas Jefferson  on this discussion.  The thoughts are brilliant and must have staying power for the good of all the people.

I’ve included two of his letters, and the third entry is Jefferson’s draft of legislation to maintain separateness between the church and the government- in this case, Virginia.

From Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association

Messrs. Nehemiah Dodge and Others, a Committee of the Danbury Baptist Association, in the State of Connecticut

January 1, 1802


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. My duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, and in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing.

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.

 To Rev. Samuel Miller

Washington, Jan. 23, 1808


I have duly received your favor of the 18th and am thankful to you for having written it, because it is more agreeable to prevent than to refuse what I do not think myself authorized to comply with. I consider the government of the U S. as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. This results not only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment, or free exercise, of religion, but from that also which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the U.S. Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. It must then rest with the states, as far as it can be in any human authority. But it is only proposed that I should recommend, not prescribe a day of fasting & prayer. That is, that I should indirectly assume to the U.S. an authority over religious exercises which the Constitution has directly precluded them from. It must be meant too that this recommendation is to carry some authority, and to be sanctioned by some penalty on those who disregard it; not indeed of fine and imprisonment, but of some degree of proscription perhaps in public opinion. And does the change in the nature of the penalty make the recommendation the less a law of conduct for those to whom it is directed? I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct it’s exercises, it’s discipline, or it’s doctrines; nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting & prayer are religious exercises. The enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, & the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it.

I am aware that the practice of my predecessors may be quoted. But I have ever believed that the example of state executives led to the assumption of that authority by the general government, without due examination, which would have discovered that what might be a right in a state government, was a violation of that right when assumed by another. Be this as it may, every one must act according to the dictates of his own reason, & mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the U S. and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.

I again express my satisfaction that you have been so good as to give me an opportunity of explaining myself in a private letter, in which I could give my reasons more in detail than might have been done in a public answer: and I pray you to accept the assurances of my high esteem & respect.

Thomas Jefferson – Public Papers, Revisal of the Laws: Drafts of Legislation

(1777, 1779)

Section I. Well aware that the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds; that Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time: That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness; and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporary rewards, which proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the instruction of mankind; that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry; that therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion. is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right; that it tends also to corrupt the principles of that very religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing, with a monopoly of worldly honours and emoluments, those who will externally profess and conform to it; that though indeed these are criminal who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way; that the opinions of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction; that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous falacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty, because he being of course judge of that tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment, and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own; that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order; and finally, that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself; that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.

Sect. II. We the General Assembly of Virginia do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

SECT. III. And though we well know that this Assembly, elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies, constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.

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