Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant and prolific writer who waxed eloquent on hundreds of subjects during the years he served as a Virginia statesman and, later, president of the United States. Author of the Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom, Jefferson's strongly-held convictions on the subject of religious liberty were often misunderstood.

 

Yet, with all his discourse on the subject, only one time in any of his writings or speeches did Jefferson ever mention the now famous metaphor, "wall of separation between church and state."

 

Remarkably, this phrase has, in the minds of many, replaced the actual text of the Constitution's First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

 

But contrary to popular belief, the metaphor is not included in the First Amendment. Indeed, it appears nowhere in the Constitution. Yet these seven words have had a more profound effect on church-state law and policy than possibly any others penned in American history.

 

In his book, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State (New York University Press, 2002), Daniel L. Dreisbach carefully explores the history of the metaphor, its controversial uses and competing interpretations. The book also focuses on a 1947 Supreme Court decision that Dreisbach contends resulted in today's courts using the phrase to essentially remove from America's public square anything that vaguely resembles "religion."

 

Dreisbach, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C., holds a Doctor of Philosophy degree and a Juris Doctorate. He has studied the subject of separation between church and state for nearly 20 years. His knowledge and attentiveness to accuracy are apparent as he references literally hundreds of books and writings in his book's bibliography. Dreisbach says he penned his book because little has been written that examines the historical and political context in which Jefferson used the wall metaphor.

 

Dreisbach's book explores in rich detail Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut, which contains his only reference to the wall. It also compiles and reproduces, for the first time, correspondence between Jefferson and the Danbury Baptists, as well as discourses he held with his cabinet members.

 

So what was behind it all? Following is a synopsis gleaned from Dreisbach's book, as well as other insights he provided in an e-mail interview with AFA Journal.

 

Historical Context

In 1800, Republican Thomas Jefferson defeated Federalist John Adams in one of the most bitterly contested presidential elections in American history. The Federalists fiercely attacked Jefferson, questioning his religious beliefs and calling him an "infidel" and an "atheist." Some folks were so convinced of his heathenism that they buried family Bibles, fearing that Jefferson would confiscate and burn them when he became president. This distrust of Jefferson had been brewing for nearly 20 years, even though he had written several works in support of religious freedom.