Religious Liberty: The Foundation of Independence
On October 7, 1801, Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins and Stephen S. Nelson drafted a letter to newly-elected President Thomas Jefferson on behalf of the Danbury Baptists Association of Connecticut. Their concern was that the Connecticut State Constitution did not expressly protect religious liberty as an inalienable right of the people.
In the letter, they write that religious liberty is a “matter between God and individuals” and that the “constitution of government is not specific” to protect religion. The Baptists were concerned that “what religious privileges we enjoy…we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights.” If privileges were nothing more than favors, a power-hungry government official may “dare not assume the prerogatives of Jehovah and make laws to govern the kingdom of Christ.”
President Jefferson had won the bitter, divisive election of 1800 with a stance on strictly limiting government intrusion in matters of religion. The Danbury Baptists wanted his influence in persuading the Connecticut legislature to adopt a change in its constitution. After all, Jefferson had written the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, adopted in 1786, which was the precursor to the First Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified in 1791.
Jefferson believed, and, ultimately, James Madison penned in the Bill of Rights, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” The Danbury Baptists believed of Jefferson that “America’s God has raised you up to fill the chair of state” and that his influence could ultimately protect their religious practices.
Jefferson replied on January 1, 1802. In his letter, he stated, “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship,… thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.” His belief was that government should have no role in religion other than protecting the freedom of consciousness of the people to practice their worship of the Almighty.
The pursuit of religious freedom started centuries earlier. In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany. This spurned the Protestant Reformation that led to a split between Catholics and Protestants. Over the bulk of the next 100 years, all of Europe saw turmoil and strife, largely due to religious differences between the people and the established government-approved churches.
In 1611, King James sought to unite Catholics and Puritans with his politically motivated version of the Bible. But, his rules and dictates surrounding its use and translation only further divided his people.
In 1620, a group of Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Harbor, in present day Massachusetts, and established a colony based on a unified religious belief system, to be a model of righteousness. Over the next 150 years, colonies, commonwealths, and states were organized with strong religious influences in their design.
By the mid- to late-1700’s, the oppression of the new American people by the motherland England reached a fever pitch. From requiring colonists to register with the established church, persecuting clergy who were not approved to preach, to implementing taxes on all manner of items and circumstances, Colonial Americans entered into the Revolutionary War.
In 1776, a group of men from across the colonies came together to commit treason – they dared to declare independence from England. On July 4 of that year, 56 patriots signed the Declaration of Independence, a document that mentions God on four occasions and sets the foundation of a new nation where “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
One can easily see the buildup to the concern of the Danbury Baptists. Blood was shed, lives were lost, and families were torn apart for their right to worship God in a manner that they saw fit. They wanted that right protected not only at the federal level with the First Amendment to the Constitution, but with the Constitution of the State of Connecticut. And, President Jefferson was their strongest ally.
While it is obvious from a study of Jefferson’s beliefs on religious liberty that he favored man worshiping God without government interference or restrictions, a short phrase from his response letter has been used as a way for government to intrude on the free exercise of the people’s religious beliefs. The phrase, “a wall of separation between Church and State,” has been used as a modern-day obstacle to religious independence.
Throughout the 19th century, the courts held a view that protecting and valuing religion and religious practices was not the same as establishing a religion. In 1892, in his comments on the case Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, Supreme Court Justice Josiah Brewer commented, “…this is a Christian nation.”
In 1947, the Supreme Court of the United States heard Everson v. Board of Education. The case involved a New Jersey Law allowing the use of taxpayer funds to bus students to religious schools. In a narrow 5-4 decision, the court upheld the law and stated the practice did not establish a religion nor prohibit the free exercise thereof.
However, in writing for the majority, Justice Hugo Black interpreted the First Amendment to mean “a wall between church and state,” taking Jefferson’s phrase out of context and applying it to a Supreme Court case. This established judicial precedence and has since been used to restrict religious practices of people with loose ties to government entities.
The case Engel v. Vitale (1962) ultimately banned prayer in public schools, stating it was a violation of the First Amendment. In his dissent, Justice Potter Stewart stated that the law did not establish a religion, as is prohibited by the Constitution. But, the damage was done, apparently, “a wall of separation between church and state” usurped “prohibit the free exercise thereof.”
Other court cases have furthered the assault on religious liberty. Abington School District v. Schemp (1963) prohibits Bible reading in schools. Santa Fe ISD v. Doe (2000) prohibits student-led prayer over school loudspeakers.
On occasions, a few seemingly absurd cases have been decided in favor of religious liberty – absurd because they should have never been filed. McDaniel v. Paty (1978) tried to ban clergy from seeking elected office in Tennessee. Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores (2014) tried to force a company owned by Christians to provide contraceptive care for employees. And, in 2018, Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission wanted to force a Christian cake baker to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.
There is no greater country on the planet than The United States of America. We enjoy freedoms unlike any other, freedom from the restraints of government. But, without careful attention, those freedoms erode one step at a time. Without our first freedom, the Freedom of Religion, all other freedoms we enjoy are in danger.
It is apparent throughout our history that God has intended for us to be a people who worship Him freely. He has blessed us by removing the obstacles that interfere with man’s free exercise of his religious beliefs. But, when we remove our focus from His blessings, we begin to see our demise.
For Independence Day, read the Declaration of Independence and 2 Chronicles 7:14. Our continued liberty is incumbent upon both.
“Troublesome times are here, filling men's hearts with fear
Freedom we all hold dear now is at stake
Humbling your hearts to God saves from the chastening rod
Seek the way pilgrims trod, Christians awake
Jesus is coming soon…”
Jerel Wade is the husband to Sarah Elizabeth Wade and father to Carson, Maylnn, and Baylor. Jerel is a principal at Perry County High School and serves as a deacon at Pleasant Home Baptist Church.