By Jeff Olson
According to Aristotle, metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else. Metaphors, while a primary mode of expression and comprehension, are based on premises and if those premises are false then the success of the metaphor serves only to perpetuate the falsehood.
Such has been the case with the metaphor, “wall of separation between church and state.” This famous metaphor, though nowhere in the U.S. Constitution nor in any other founding document, has been a part of American legal thought, discourse, policy, and jurisprudence now for more than 70 years, ever since Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black (in Everson vs. Board of Education -1947) resurrected and misused it from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury (Connecticut) Baptist Association in 1802. Taken within its original intent and context, this letter simply communicated Jefferson’s conviction that religion is an essentially private matter and that, as a matter of federalism, the nation’s chief executive could not disturb church-state relationships and policies concerning religious liberty in the individual states. This is why he refused to issue proclamations for national days of religious observance while he was president.
Jefferson believed, as this letter and metaphor address, that the First Amendment prohibited the federal government from having any authority in religious matters. “Congress shall make no law …..” means precisely that and, as such, the president has no authority to execute laws which the legislature cannot make. We must remember that the First Amendment was a part of the Bill of Rights, which was essentially an individual and state’s rights document. So, by definition, every amendment in the Bill of Rights addresses specific areas of jurisdiction where the federal government has essentially no constitutional authority. Jefferson had no reservations about the authority of state governors in declaring religious days of observance because as a member of the House of Burgesses and as Governor of Virginia, he himself declared these days in 1774 and in 1779, respectively.
There has been some excellent scholarship on Jefferson’s letter and its use of the metaphor, a metaphor which in fact did not even originate with Jefferson. It is unfortunate and irresponsible that more such scholarship, as well as the early congressional records of the drafting of the 1st Amendment, haven’t been been referenced and accurately and contextually interpreted nearly enough or even at all by educators, lawmakers, the courts and the media.
Nevertheless, our nation’s court system has, through misreading or incomplete research of the historical record and false assumptions and ideology (and perhaps an agenda), given the metaphor authoritative gloss on the First Amendment thus re-defining church-state relations in America. Ironically, it was Jefferson who, more than any other Founder, warned us about the potential dangers of a Supreme Court venturing beyond its constitutional authority. It has in fact been the Court’s premise, not Jefferson’s intent, of the metaphor which has essentially re-written the 1st Amendment. Even so, Jefferson was not even in America when the Constitution was written nor when the First Amendment was drafted. He was Minister (Ambassador) to France at the time and later renounced to his historian, Joseph Priestly, his alleged status as an authority on the Constitution. The primary authorities, the men who were there such as James Madison, John Adams, Gouverneur Morris, Fisher Ames and others, are rarely referenced. Madison was the father and chief architect of the Constitution, and in his words, “there is not a shadow of right in the general (federal) government to intermeddle with religion.” Morris spoke more frequently (173 times) than anyone else at the Constitutional Convention. Ames provided the exact wording for the First Amendment, “respecting the establishment of religion” which was to prevent the establishment of any single Christian denomination as a national church. Do we hear anything of or from these men? Their writings are available if only we will take the time and initiative to search and to learn for ourselves and not let others continue to mislead us down a very dangerous road. All of us; especially parents, teachers, and church and civic leaders must bear this in mind as we work to develop a generation with the knowledge, character, and moral compass to carry the torch of their heritage; a torch which must light the way for Church and State to serve effectively in their divinely-ordained, complimentary and distinct roles in a journey back to our nation’s roots.
The “wall” has become a treasured symbol for a strict separationist policy that champions a secular order in which (certain) religious influences are systematically removed from public life. The First Amendment’s text imposed explicit restrictions on Congress only and was designed to facilitate the encouragement of religion and positive religious influences, not to isolate the interests of religion behind a “high and impregnable wall” of separation. Reparation of Church and State must continue with a reparation of re-written American history; a history which has victimized generations of Americans.
We need to return to the writings of our Founders and to our founding documents; to learn and perpetuate the transcendent biblical truths that set our nation on a foundation, course, and success in self-government unrivaled by any other nation in history. Today, more than ever, this is a choice and a choice that can’t wait any longer for the sake of both Church and State. Righteousness exalts a nation; but sin is a reproach to any people (Proverbs 14:34).