Thomas Jefferson’s Knowledge of the First Amendment

The Religious Right often denounces Thomas Jefferson’s famous metaphor of “a wall of separation between church and state.” They say Jefferson is an unreliable source on the subject of church-state relations because he was out of the country during the drafting of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Despite their claims, Jefferson is a very reliable source. And his metaphor accurately describes the Constitution’s requirements concerning the relation between government and religion.

It’s true that Jefferson was in France, serving as U.S. minister to the French government, when the Constitution and First Amendment were adopted. But the Religious Right ignores the fact that Jefferson was in constant discussion with James Madison – through voluminous correspondence – during the same period.

As a result, Jefferson was well aware of the views and actions of the political leaders who established the new government. In fact, he was still one of the main leaders, but happened to also be serving his country abroad at the time.

Moreover, it’s extremely arrogant for members of the Religious Right – living more than 200 years after the fact – to argue that they know more than Jefferson did about what happened at the Constitutional Convention and in the First Congress. And it’s ridiculous.

Even if the Religious Right insists on refusing to believe Jefferson, they certainly should believe Madison. He’s considered the “Father of the Constitution” and introduced the First Amendment in Congress. On many occasions, Madison described the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses in virtually the same manner as Jefferson.

For example, in an undated essay (probably from the early 1800s), Madison wrote: “Strongly guarded . . . is the separation between religion and government in the Constitution of the United States.”

And in 1819, Madison observed that “the number, the industry and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church and state.”

Additionally, the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently agreed with Jefferson’s interpretation of the First Amendment. The court took this position as early as 1878, when it decided Reynolds v. U.S.

In that case, the court said in regard to Jefferson’s “wall” metaphor: “Coming as it does from an acknowledged leader of the advocates of the [First Amendment], it may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the amendment thus secured.” The court has subscribed to the same view in numerous other cases.

If the Religious Right would examine the intolerance and bloodshed caused by religious groups wielding political power – both in history and today – they might have second thoughts about wanting to destroy church-state separation. Madison explained that a purpose of the separation is to “keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries.”

Traditionally, Americans across the political spectrum have supported and cherished the views of Jefferson and Madison on church-state relations.

As Sen. Barry Goldwater told the U.S. Senate in 1981: “We have succeeded for 205 years in keeping the affairs of state separate from the uncompromising idealism of religious groups and we mustn’t stop now. To retreat from that separation would violate the principles of conservatism and the values upon which the framers built this democratic republic.”

No wonder the Religious Right does not think highly of Goldwater. And he felt the same toward them. A few years before his death, he told the right wing: “Do not associate my name with anything you do. You are extremists, and you’ve hurt the Republican Party much more than the Democrats have.”

Goldwater knew that they are not traditional conservatives, despite their attempts to make people think they are.