Jefferson’s Wisdom on Separating Church and State

June 23, 2013 in Publisher's Corner

“Christianity neither is, nor ever was, a part of the common law.” — Thomas Jefferson, 1764.

The Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence. Source: National Archives.

Some have questioned why the first installment of “quote of the week” is seemingly so explosive. That quote was chosen precisely because it actually is among the most mundane of the eschewed wisdom of the founding fathers: separation of church and state. The United States was founded as a nation of men, living under the natural laws of creation and recognizing their intrinsic, inalienable rights. It is not a theocracy. The country’s system of justice instead responds to the rights and laws of man, only.

Christianity is not, nor has it ever, been the basis for America’s inherited system of law. English common law pre-dates Jesus, and the founding of the Christian religion. It owes its history to the Roman legal system, not the Catholic Church, or any of its subsequent offshoots. A separate system of ecclesiastical law existed in England. Americans do not share it, nor was it ever part of American common law.

Jefferson then was a 21 year old man responding to the question of the influence of religion in the foundation of English common law. England, unlike the current-day U.S., has a common law system. This body of law arises out of case-by-case decisions presented before and decided by a court. This is opposed to a civil system, which operates under a clearly defined code outlined by act of law. The U.S. judicial system is a hybrid of both, incorporating features of both traditions.

Jefferson suffered much criticism for making this statement, which was part of an essay explaining the basis of the common law. He was considered blasphemous by those who believed America to be a Christian nation. This was not, however, an alien concept to the framers of the Constitution. His words were published posthumously, shortly after his death in 1826, and in 1904-05 in “The Works of Thomas Jefferson” by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, Vol. 1, p. 459.

Personally, Jefferson was both a publicly espoused Baptist and a deist.  He believed in the “engineer” theory of God. Many of the founding fathers believed the universe was designed as a grand machine, allowed to run its course without direct intervention. The affairs of the race of man they believed were their sole province. Religion should play no binding part in public affairs. They made that ideal concrete through the First Amendment.

Most importantly, Jefferson was not only a founding father but the author of the Declaration of Independence. Without his contributions there likely would be no free America. This land would still bow before a monarch and be subject to foreign law irrespective of our natural liberties and wishes as a society. Taxation without representation might still be a fact of reality. Instead now Congress decides our laws, which is elected by the American people.

If we accept Jefferson as a hero on taxes, we need to pay heed to the other wisdom that produced this nation. That includes his clarion call to deny any infringement of our inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.