How the partnership of Jefferson and Madison – a friendship described in letters – shaped the separation of church and state in America

Few constitutional principles are more familiar to the common American than the separation of church and state.

According to the Pew Research Center, 73% of adults agree that Religion needs to be separated from government policyOf course, support varies depending on political or religious affiliation – among the many Democrats Supporting the principle in much larger numbers – and depending on the problem, corresponding to prayers in public schools or the erection of the Ten Commandments monuments. Yet only 19% of Americans think the United States should abandon the principle of separation of church and state.

However, criticism appears to be increasing, especially amongst politically and religiously conservativeAnd this criticism comes from the very top.

Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives Mike Johnson noticed in 2023 that “the separation of church and state is a misnomer … it comes from a phrase in a letter that [Thomas] Jefferson wrote, “It is not in the Constitution. And what he meant by that was that they did not want the government to interfere with the church – not that they did not want principles of faith to influence our public life.”

As a scholar of American legal and spiritual historyI have written extensively in regards to the development of non secular freedom within the USA and the origins of the separation of church and state.

Two of the Founding Fathers have shaped American views on these issues greater than another: Jefferson and James Madison. But their views have also develop into a focus of controversy because the “wall” between church and state is put to the test.

My next bookThe Grand Collaboration attempts to reply several questions: What was Jefferson and Madison's understanding of non secular freedom? And why were they so committed to this principle?

Cornerstones of the law – in Virginia and beyond

Jefferson wrote the Virginia Religious Freedom Act In 1777, essentially the most comprehensive declaration of non secular freedom on the time was passed. The law guaranteed freedom of conscience, protected religious assemblies from government control, prohibited government funding of non secular institutions, and boldly declared that religious opinions were beyond the authority of civil officials.

In a grassy area with trees there is an obelisk-shaped tomb.
Thomas Jefferson asked that three of his achievements be honored on his grave, including being the writer of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.
Christopher Hollis/Wikimedia Commons

Just a few years later, Madison turned these ideals into law. His “Memorial and protest against religious judgmentsa protest against a proposal to make use of tax money to support Christian teachers reaffirmed the values ​​of separation of church and state and spiritual equality. It helped defeat the proposal—and set the stage for Virginia to pass Jefferson's bill.

As president, Jefferson wrote a letter to a Baptist association in Connecticut where he immortalized the phrase “a wall of separation between church and state.”

The Bill of Rights comprises two clauses on religion, each in the First Amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law establishing a religion, or prohibiting the free exercise of religion.”

What needs to be considered a “state religion”, nonetheless, is controversial.

In 1947, the US Supreme Court ruled advocated the separation of church and state as a guideline for the interpretation of the religious clauses, rely largely in regards to the writings and actions of the 2 Virginians. Justice Hugo Black wrote: “In Jefferson's words, the clause against the establishment of religion by law was intended to erect a 'wall of separation between church and state.'”

The duo's documents served as the idea for the legal principle of separation of church and state, and for five many years their credibility in court remained unchallenged.

Shift at SCOTUS

Criticism of the separation of church and state intensified within the Nineteen Eighties. As the religious right became a political force, Commentators argued that the concept was anti-religious and didn’t reflect the prevailing views about church and state on the time of the founders.

In recent many years, such arguments have attracted politicians and lawyers, including members of the Supreme Court. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the court's previous separatist interpretations of the structure “sometimes bordered on religious hostility.” Legal scholars Philip Hamburger has declared that “the constitutional authority for the separation has no historical basis“ and “should be viewed with suspicion at best.”

Several recent Supreme Court decisions have rejected a separatist approach to church-state affairs. For example, the conservative majority has allowed taxpayer money for use for religious schools that Representation of non secular symbols on government property and spiritual expressions by public school employees.

In a dissenting opinion from 2022Justice Sonia Sotomayor complained that the court had turned the separation of church and state from a “constitutional obligation” right into a “violation of the Constitution.”

The judges’ earlier appeal to Jefferson and Madison has borne the brunt of the criticism that their views on church and state issues didn’t represent their colleagues, or that neither of the 2 men, as portrayed, was in favor of the separation.

Exchange of ideas

To higher understand Jefferson and Madison’s views, I examined lots of the 2,300 letters between the 2 about “Founders online”, a web site of the National Archives. I also checked out correspondence with other acquaintances.

Both founders had day loanswhich implies that they believed in a better being, but thought science and reason were the most effective ways to know religion. They were only nominally Christians, but higher shielded from religious intolerance than other “Dissenters” due to their high social standing and their membership within the Anglican Church.

A formal portrait of a man with white hair, wearing a white high collar shirt and a black jacket, staring at the viewer.
Official presidential portrait of Thomas Jefferson, painted around 1800 by Rembrandt Peale.
History of the White House via Wikimedia Commons

It is all of the more remarkable that they dedicated their entire lives to promoting religious freedom.

Religious issues were all the time of concern to them. For example, when Madison and Jefferson debated the necessity for a Bill of Rights, freedom of conscience was all the time at the highest of the list. Both believed that the federal government should avoid supporting religion, even when no particular religion was favored. They also insisted that individuals must have broad religious freedom.

These views were clearly pioneers, but other religious rationalists and spiritual dissidents also held a comprehensive understanding of non secular freedom.

Both men were committed to promoting religious freedom because they saw it as closely linked to freedom of inquiry and conscience. “Reason and free inquiry are the only effective remedies against error,” said Jefferson. wrote in 1784. Allowing people to freely investigate ideas “supports true religion,” because “truth can stand on its own.”

Similar, Madison explained “Freedom of conscience is a natural and absolute right.”

In their view, freedom of inquiry was the source of other rights. Freedom of faith, for instance, was a subset of freedom of conscience. And a healthy separation of church and state was the important thing to making sure these freedoms.

“A support”

The letters reveal how Jefferson and Madison complemented and reinforced one another's views on church and state. They also show the close mental and emotional affection the 2 men felt for one another and the way much each valued the opposite's support.

A portrait of a man with white hair, a white high collar shirt and a black jacket.
A portrait of James Madison by Chester Harding, painted around 1829, several years before his death.
Daderot/National Portrait Gallery via Wikimedia Commons

In their last exchanges Before Jefferson's death on July 4, 1826, he pleaded with Madison: “For myself, you have been a support all my life. Take care of me when I am dead, and rest assured that I will leave you my last feelings.”

Madison responded with similar affection: “You cannot look back on the long period of our private friendship and political harmony with more moving memories than I do.”

Jefferson and Madison's 50-year collaboration within the name of non secular freedom and equality is a very important chapter within the founding history of the United States. I consider this legacy mustn’t be dismissed, but remembered and celebrated.

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