A good brief summary from Princeton’s Robert P. George:

The best resource I know on this question is Daniel Dreisbach’s Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State (New York University Press, 2003).

For a good summary of this history and analysis, see his online piece, “The Mythical ‘Wall of Separation': How a Misused Metaphor Changed Church-State Law, Policy, and Discourse.”

Professor Dresibach begins by observing:

No metaphor in American letters has had a more profound influence on law and policy than Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state.” Today, this figure of speech is accepted by many Americans as a pithy description of the constitutionally prescribed church-state arrangement, and it has become the sacred icon of a strict separationist dogma that champions a secular polity in which religious influences are systematically and coercively stripped from public life.

In our own time, the judiciary has embraced this figurative phrase as a virtual rule of constitutional law and as the organizing theme of church-state jurisprudence, even though the metaphor is nowhere to be found in the U.S. Constitution.

Dresibach sets out “to challenge the conventional, secular myth that Thomas Jefferson, or the constitutional architects, erected a high wall between religion and the civil government.”

“Although today,” he writes, “Jefferson’s Danbury letter is thought of as a principled statement on the prudential and constitutional relationship between church and state, it was in fact a political statement written to reassure pious Baptist constituents that Jefferson was indeed a friend of religion and to strike back at the Federalist-Congregationalist establishment in Connecticut for shamelessly vilifying him as an infidel and atheist in the recent campaign.”

It’s not uncommon for advocates of the “high and impregnable wall” misunderstanding of the metaphor to suggest that Jefferson’s own policies were incompatible with his own principles (e.g., endorsement of federal funds to build churches, support of Christian missionaries among the Native Americans, etc.). But Dresibach shows that in Jefferson’s own thinking, the wall was not a separation between church and all civil government, but rather a wall between the national and state governments on matters related to religion.

For more on the metamorphosis of this metaphor in constitutional law and its repercussions, read the whole thing.

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2 thoughts on “Where Does “Separation of Church and State” Come From and What Does It Really Mean?”

  1. Wesley says:

    Justin –
    thanks for this post. My understanding of the separation of church and state was also that this was primarily something coming from the side of the church, not something being pressed upon the church by the government, as in the the free church of Scotland, etc. rejecting the authority of the governing authorities to install pastors, leaders, etc. that the church did not approve of, and/or otherwise forcing the church into positions that would be at odds with their beliefs. Is that accurate as well?

  2. dghart says:

    The separation of church and state is not American. It is Western Christian. And even the Westminster Assembly, some 125 years before the U.S. Constitution, taught it:

    Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate. (WCF 31.5 — in the original)

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Justin Taylor


Justin Taylor is senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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