Limbaugh Flunks History: Radio Ranter Spreads False Information About Church And State

I don't listen to Rush Limbaugh's radio program; I have more useful things to do, like sort my sock drawer. But I stumbled on a recent screed of his about church-state separation that was breath-taking in its ignorance of American history.

Responding to a caller on Sept. 20, Limbaugh launched into a tirade about liberals, religion, the views of the nation's founders and the mandates of the U.S. Constitution. He focused on an unnamed teacher somewhere who allegedly tells students that the nation's founders were atheists. The rambling rant blundered through many areas of religion, politics and history, but the bottom line was this: The U.S. Constitution does not mandate the separation of church and state.

Said Limbaugh, "I want to finish my thought on this separation of church and state business here, folks, because this is important.  I don't care if you have some wacko teacher teaching your kid wrongly about it, it's still something that everybody has just come to accept, and it doesn't exist.  There's no such thing."

He went on to wildly distort the views of Thomas Jefferson on religious liberty. Noting that the Supreme Court cited Jefferson's 1802 letter to a group of Danbury, Conn., Baptists as evidence that the First Amendment separates church and state, Limbaugh gave a completely bogus description of the missive and its history.

"When this all started in 1947," Limbaugh claimed, "the Supreme Court seized on a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote.  'The wall of separation between church and state' was taken out of context in a letter that Jefferson wrote to the Danbury, Connecticut, Baptist community in which he explained why he didn't call for national days of fasting and Thanksgiving, as George Washington and John Adams had as president.... He used the phrase, 'a wall of separation between church and state' to describe what the First Amendment had accomplished so that these Baptists didn't need to fear state governments' declarations of days of prayer and fasting, as abridging their religious rights.  They didn't have to fear it because nothing could be done to them.  

"Now, this letter," Limbaugh continued, "ended up being seized on in 1947 by the Supreme Court, in a case called Emerson vs. Board of Education.  The Supreme Court in '47 asserted that separation of church and state is mandated by the Constitution.  That was a complete misstatement of Jefferson's record, to seize a single letter and to ignore the rest of his record and to take that whole phrase, a wall of separation, out of the context of the letter that Jefferson wrote."  

Wow. Limbaugh accuses some poor teacher somewhere of teaching bogus history, then gives us this hundred-pound bag of fertilizer. Where to begin?

In the first place, Jefferson sent his letter to the Baptists to thank them for their support of him and his stance on behalf of religious liberty. He also intended to assure them that he shared their hope that religious liberty would spread throughout the land. In Connecticut, Baptists were still second-class citizens.

After thanking the Baptists for their "affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation," Jefferson 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.

"Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience," Jefferson continued, "I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties."

In other words, Jefferson said the American people through the First Amendment have built a wall of separation between church and state, and he hoped that concept would progress throughout the country.

Limbaugh is wrong that the exchange of letters between Jefferson and the Baptists was focused on prayer proclamations. Jefferson did consider commenting on why he didn't believe in presidentially issued days of prayer, but decided not to.

Limbaugh is also quite wrong that "nothing could be done" to the Baptist dissenters in Connecticut. At that time, the federal constitution's church-state provisions did not extend to the states. The government of Connecticut could, and did, favor Congregationalists over Baptists. That's why the Baptists wrote to praise Jefferson and point to their plight.

"Sir," they wrote, "we are sensible that the President of the united States is not the national Legislator & also sensible that the national government cannot destroy the Laws of each State; but our hopes are strong that the sentiments of our beloved President, which have had such genial Effect already, like the radiant beams of the Sun, will shine & prevail through all these States and all the world till Hierarchy and Tyranny be destroyed from the Earth."

Limbaugh's Supreme Court account is wrong too. Jefferson's letter was first mentioned in high court jurisprudence, not in 1947, but in 1879. In their Reynolds v. U.S. decision, the justices unanimously held that the letter reflects the intent of the First Amendment.

"Coming as this does from an acknowledged leader of the advocates of the measure," the court held, "it may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the amendment thus secured."

The justices referred to the letter again in their 1947 Everson --not Emerson -- decision. And the court unanimously affirmed a high wall of separation between religion and government.

"In the words of Jefferson," Justice Hugo Black wrote, "the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect 'a wall of separation between church and State'.... That wall must be kept high and impregnable."

Far from misconstruing Jefferson's viewpoint, as Limbaugh claims, the Danbury letter exactly captures the Sage of Monticello's church-state vision. It also reflects the views of James Madison and other far-sighted visionaries among the nation's founders.

Too many Americans have too little knowledge about the constitutional separation of church and state. Limbaugh is doing his part to make things worse.