A video of U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) has been floating around on the internet. During the video, which was taken during Thursday’s National Prayer Breakfast, Scalise asserts that it’s impossible to separate church and state and cites Thomas Jefferson, whom he calls “the author of the Constitution.”
There are times when the irony meter explodes, and this is one of them. Let’s start with the obvious factual error: Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution. Jefferson was in France during the Constitutional Convention. James Madison is the Father of the Constitution and a primary author of the First Amendment. (A strong argument can be made that the church-state provisions of the First Amendment were influenced by Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, but it was Madison who did the heavy lifting.)
More to the point, Scalise’s argument fails because Jefferson was one of the strongest advocates of separation of church and state ever to occupy the White House. On New Year’s Day, 1802, Jefferson drafted a famous letter to the Danbury, Conn., Baptist Association that invoked the metaphor of the First Amendment erecting a “wall of separation between church and state.”
Jefferson abhorred the idea of state-established religion and was no 'Christian nation' advocate.
As president, Jefferson refused to issue proclamations calling for official days of prayer and fasting. “I do not believe,” he observed in an 1808 letter, “it is for the interest of religion to invite the magistrate to direct its exercises, it disciplines or its doctrines….”
Scalise relies heavily on a quote from Jefferson that is engraved on the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.: “God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?”
What Scalise fails to realize is that it was quite possible for Jefferson to hold a belief like this yet still insist that freedom of conscience be extended to all and that the government refrain from meddling in religious matters. Jefferson abhorred the idea of state-established religion and was no “Christian nation” advocate.
Furthermore, his personal religious views – he admired Jesus as a great moral teacher but rejected his divinity and the miracles of the New Testament – hardly qualify him as the kind of devout Christian who would seek to mix church and state. Indeed, according to the strict litmus test laid down by today’s Religious Right, Jefferson would not qualify as a Christian at all. This is the man after all, who took a knife to the Gospels, cutting away what he did not accept and pasting up what was left to create a private devotional. (In a remarkable 1819 letter to his friend William Short, Jefferson listed the doctrines of Christianity that he did not accept. The list reads: “The immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, etc.”)
It’s obvious that Scalise is no fan of separation of church and state. He has the right to hold that view – but he has no right to draft Jefferson as an ally in his ill-considered crusade.
P.S. Americans United has a pamphlet that debunks the “Christian nation” myth. You can read it here.