The 221st anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s famous letter to the Danbury, Conn., Baptists is coming up soon – Jan. 1, 2023. For those who aren’t familiar with it, this is the letter in which Jefferson invoked the famous metaphor of the First Amendment erecting a “wall of separation between church and state.”
It has been amusing to watch how Christian Nationalist groups have reacted to this letter over the years. They spent decades trying to minimize its importance, downplay the contributions of Jefferson to religious freedom or, in the case of Christian nationalist faux historian David Barton, inserting things into the letter that it doesn’t contain.
Recently, the Christian Nationalist legal group First Liberty – a member of the billion-dollar shadow network seeking to undermine church-state separation and redefine religious freedom – launched a different approach: They’re trying to coopt the letter. First Liberty now admits that the letter is an important statement on religious freedom, but, in a new video, the group distorts its meaning and fails to put it in proper context. From the start, they frame separation of church and state as a principle that’s not in the Constitution – a common Christian Nationalist myth.
The First Liberty video, titled “No Better Letter,” is a cartoon with narration in rhyme. It’s obviously aimed at children, and First Liberty probably harbors hopes of getting it into public schools, which is something we’ll have to watch out for.
The video doesn’t belong in public schools because it misinterprets the letter. Chiefly, First Liberty fails to grasp what Jefferson knew instinctively – that religious freedom can only exist when protected by a church-state wall.
True Religious Freedom Was Denied In Connecticut
To understand Jefferson’s letter, you have to know why the Danbury Baptists wrote to Jefferson in the first place on Oct. 7, 1801: They were upset because Connecticut didn’t have separation of church and state. At the time, Connecticut was essentially a Congregationalist theocracy. The state had a “Toleration Act” that allegedly allowed dissenters the right to worship – once they had proved to a magistrate that they belonged to another church.
In most parts of Connecticut, a powerful combination of church and state could and did make life very difficult for dissenters like the Baptists. In their letter to Jefferson, the Baptists observed, “[W]hat religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights: and these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgements, as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen.”
At the time, the First Amendment did not yet apply to the states. But the Danbury Baptists knew of Jefferson’s reputation as a foe of established churches (after all, he drafted the law that ended Virginia’s state-established church) and wrote to express their hopes that his view would one day apply to all of America, or, as they put it, “like the radiant beams of the Sun, will shine & prevail through all these States….”
Those beams did reach Connecticut, eventually. In 1818, the Congregational Church was disestablished, and true religious freedom came to that state. What First Liberty won’t admit is that separation is key to this story. Without it, there would have been no religious freedom in Connecticut. Separation of church and state is what the Danbury Baptists really wanted – and Jefferson knew that.
Wall Bashing: A Tiresome Christian Nationalist Trick
It’s a tiresome trick of groups like First Liberty to claim that religious freedom and separation of church and state are somehow in conflict. In fact, as Connecticut’s history proves, they rely on one another. For all their bloviating about “religious freedom,” a Jeffersonian separation of church and state is the last thing groups like First Liberty want because, properly applied, it prevents them from forcing all of us to live under their narrow, discriminatory and often hate-based theology.
Separation of church and state is the protector of religious freedom. The Danbury Baptists knew this. Jefferson knew this. When will First Liberty learn it?
P.S. If you want the true story of the Danbury letter, I hope you’ll read this article I wrote in 2002 to mark its 200th anniversary.