I’ve seen many walls in my life; even a few famous ones. I’ve seen one that separates our southern border from Mexico; I’ve touched the ancient stones of the Walls of Thessaloniki. I’ve even got a small piece of the one Ronald Reagan demanded that Mr. Gorbachev tear down.
Walls serve several purposes. Usually, they’re meant to keep what is outside, out. For our southern border, it’s the illicit activity so common in that region. For the Greek leader Kassandros, it was about protection against those who would invade his vital port city of Thessaloniki. For the Soviet Union, it was about keeping the West from influencing its Communist ways (and to keep its freedom from continuing to entice mass emigration).
There’s another wall we hear a lot of lately. In fact, we hear about it an inordinate amount indeed for one that has no physical form.
US-Mexican border. Getty Images
It is commonly known as the great “Wall of Separation.” This figurative wall is supposedly meant to separate religion from the state.
Indeed, it’s this wall of separation that has Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker—a practicing Christian— in so much trouble, after he included one of his favorite Bible verses on his official Twitter account this past week. So raucous were the protests that Freedom from Religion Foundation even demanded that he remove the “offending tweet” from his profile.
Allow me to introduce you to the real wall of separation. It was created by Thomas Jefferson in letter sent to the Danbury Baptist Association in January 1802.
Jefferson used his pen to carefully and thoughtfully address the association’s desire for him to use his influence aspPresident to deal with a state-level dispute over religion. The response to the association’s request was short . . . and yet it would change our nation profoundly. He wrote:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . .’thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.
Jefferson closed the letter with a promise to the group that he would keep them in his prayers. (“I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man . . .”)
The wall exists, alright. But it’s not meant to keep God out of government. It’s meant to keep government out of God.
As his nation’s highest official, Jefferson decided not to use his position to influence the religious activities of the several states, in keeping with the Constitution’s promise that the federal government would “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Anything else on Jefferson’s part would have been detrimental to religious freedom for generations to come, as he would have set a precedent of government interference in the free practice of religion.
Members of the executive committee of the National Governors Association including Minnesota Gov. Mark Daton, left, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert speak to the media after meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, in Washington. Walker is currently facing backlash for posting a Bible verse to his public Facebook and Twitter pages. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Much to Jefferson’s likely chagrin, his words have been wildly misinterpreted over the years. They’ve been used to justify everything from the indignation at Gov. Scott Walker’s personal expression of faith, to the protest of a cross in the Mojave desert honoring veterans; from the outrage over the Ground Zero cross, to the objections to an Air Force cadet’s having written a Bible verse on his dry erase board.
While the Founders plainly understood the need for religious freedom (consider one of the reasons for the original migration to the New World—that is, to escape religious persecution) and placed the proper parameters around the federal government to keep it from establishing a state church, they also never meant for religion to be excluded from our nation's government. Consider the very first resolution passed by the very first Continental Congress in September 1774.
They resolved to pray.
Tuesday, September 6, 1774- Resolved, that the Rev. Mr. Duché be desired to open Congress to-morrow morning with prayer, at Carpenter’s Hall, at nine o’clock.
“Wednesday, September 7, 1774, A.M.- Agreeable to the resolve of yesterday, the meeting was opened with prayer by the Rev. Mr. Duché.
Hardly the actions of men bent on keeping religion out of the public sector.
Consider also our Declaration of Independence (“Endowed by their Creator”); our Liberty Bell (Leviticus 25:10 on its face); the last verse of our National Anthem (“In God is Our Trust”), to name a few. “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God” were the words inscribed on Thomas Jefferson’s own personal seal.
A Bible verse on a twitter account, a public school football coach leading his players in prayer, or including a recovered cross in a 9/11 museum are hardly federal mandates that each American convert to a specific religion. Not even close.
What is, however, an affront to our Constitutionally-protected religious freedoms are things like the government’s demands (via Obamacare) that the owners of certain businesses (see: Hobby Lobby, among others) pay for things that violate their religious convictions.
By passing a law that requires someone to forgo their beliefs, our government has effectively prohibited the free exercise thereof. That ought to be the real focus of the ire of those outraged about supposed “religious violations.”
After all, how is demanding that Gov. Scott Walker hide his faith any less oppressive than a government that would demand that all its citizens bow to a state church? Or in this case . . . that its citizens bow at the altar of Obamacare, leaving their religion behind?
There’s a wall of separation, indeed. And it’s our task as bearers of the great heritage left to us by our Founders to ensure that this wall, which staves off the federal government's intervention in our right to worship as we please (whether we’re holding office or running a business) remains wholly intact.
Mary Ramirez is a full time writer, and creator of www.afuturefree.com--a political commentary blog. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org; or on Twitter: @AFutureFree
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