Wherever a community attempts to erect anything that can be remotely associated with religious overtones, especially if Christian in nature, the ACLU and Freedom From Religion fanatics are sure to follow, demanding the offending (to them) display be removed immediately. Their primary objection being that, in their view, any display on public property runs contrary to the establishment clause of the First Amendment, and violates the “Wall of Separation” referred to by one no less notable than Thomas Jefferson himself.
The problem with that argument lies in their misunderstanding of that phrase “wall of separation” in the context which Jefferson used it in his letter to the Danbury Baptists. So, what is that misunderstanding? How did it come about? What was Jefferson’s actual intent?
For answers, let us turn to an excellent piece by Bill Fortenberry, “What Did Jefferson Mean by the Phrase Wall of Separation?”
When considering Jefferson’s famous letter to the Danbury Baptists, most people only consider how the phrase “wall of separation” sounds to our modern ears. To us, this phrase sounds as if it is describing an impenetrable impasse which stands between our nation’s religious institutions and her political institutions. Consider, for example, the following opinion of Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter in McCollum v. Board of Education:
“Separation means separation, not something less. Jefferson’s metaphor in describing the relation between Church and State speaks of a ‘wall of separation,’ not of a fine line easily overstepped.”
Justice Frankfurter’s opinion sounds perfectly reasonable to most of those living in the twenty-first century, but it is not consistent with the way that this phrase was understood by our forefathers.
Fortenberry goes on to explain the history and common usage of the phrase “wall of separation” long before Jefferson penned those words.
The phrase “wall of separation” has a very lengthy history in the Judeo-Christian world view. It is a reference to the wall which separated between the Jewish and the Gentile worshipers in the temple at Jerusalem, and in Ephesians 2:14, Paul refers to this wall being symbolically broken down by Christ when He died on the cross. This is almost the exclusive usage of this phrase in the literature prior to Jefferson’s letter.
The phrase “wall of separation” was never construed to mean an impenetrable division prior to Justice Frankfurter’s very narrowly defined interpretation, but rather an injunction against union.
In the Christian era, following Paul’s symbolic usage, the term “wall of separation” came to be used as a figure of speech for anything which prevented complete union between two groups. This usage can be seen with great clarity in James Durham’s “Dying Man’s Testament to the Church of Scotland” published in 1740.
“In such Practices as are opposite and infer Division in the Cases mentioned, there can be no Union or Communion expected, as we see in all the Cases where such have been practised, as of the Novatians, Donatists, and such like; there may be more or less Heat and Bitterness betwixt Men that differ so: But there cannot be Union, because such Determinations and Practices do draw a Line, and build a Wall of Separation betwixt the one and the other, and so makes one Side to be accounted as not of the same Body.”
The “wall of separation” was used in reference to many types of division. From the geo-political:
But uses of this phrase were not limited to religious writings. It was also used on multiple occasions to describe King James’ successful union of England and Scotland.
to the naturally occurring:
And, of course, I cannot fail to mention that Benjamin Franklin once used this phrase to refer to the imaginary boundary between fresh water and salt water at the mouth of a river.
Fortenberry concludes with a truth most have understood from the begining, despite protestations from anti-religion zealots.
Thus we can see from the historical understanding of this phrase that when Jefferson wrote of the “wall of separation between church and state,” he was not referring to a completely impassible barrier as Justice Frankfurter supposed. He was using a commonly understood phrase to describe the fact that the First Amendment prevented the church and the state from achieving a complete union in America. They would always remain distinct entities, and the President of our nation would never be, as Jefferson described it, “the legal head of its church.” This was the true intent of Jefferson’s claim, and we would be fortunate indeed if this intent were once again to be realized among us today.
Dennis P. O’Neil