Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Jefferson and Madison on Religion and Government

President Thomas Jefferson is probably over-represented on this forum, mostly because it is he who is usually quoted when someone raises "separation of church and state." My premise is that Jefferson's words are wrongly used for two reasons:

1) They are often used instead of the actual words of the First Amendment's religion clauses.

2) They are used to place limits on activities that Jefferson himself would not have limited.

The U.S. Library of Congress has volumes of information about our early years as a country. In their article The State Becomes the Church: Jefferson and Madison, we can hear more details of how Jefferson not only approved of using federal buildings for worship services, he also attended those services.

"It is no exaggeration to say that on Sundays in Washington during the administrations of Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) and of James Madison (1809-1817) the state became the church. Within a year of his inauguration, Jefferson began attending church services in the House of Representatives. Madison followed Jefferson's example, although unlike Jefferson, who rode on horseback to church in the Capitol, Madison came in a coach and four. Worship services in the House--a practice that continued until after the Civil War--were acceptable to Jefferson because they were nondiscriminatory and voluntary. Preachers of every Protestant denomination appeared. (Catholic priests began officiating in 1826.) As early as January 1806 a female evangelist, Dorothy Ripley, delivered a camp meeting-style exhortation in the House to Jefferson, Vice President Aaron Burr, and a "crowded audience." Throughout his administration Jefferson permitted church services in executive branch buildings. The Gospel was also preached in the Supreme Court chambers.

Jefferson's actions may seem surprising because his attitude toward the relation between religion and government is usually thought to have been embodied in his recommendation that there exist "a wall of separation between church and state." In that statement, Jefferson was apparently declaring his opposition, as Madison had done in introducing the Bill of Rights, to a "national" religion."

Learn more at the Library of Congress website

No comments: