Amongst his many other achievements, Thomas Jefferson is known today for his “wall of separation” metaphor describing the relationship between church and state in the American Republic. In a New Year’s Day 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut, the newly inaugurated president penned the words that would shape church-state relations in the United States for the next two hundred years and counting. After affirming the long-held Baptist position that “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God,” Jefferson celebrated the non-establishment clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution—a revolutionary concession Baptists had worked tirelessly to achieve—before adding that the clause thus built “a wall of separation between Church and State.”
That metaphor does not mean what many today think it means, namely, that it confines religion to private life so that it bears no influence on political machinations. Jefferson’s note came in the context of other actions wherein the president publicly supported religion, even inviting Baptist John Leland to preach before the House of Representatives two days after writing the note. Jefferson was not scolding the persecuted Baptists; he was expressing solidarity with their cause. He certainly did not intend to push the influence of religion out of the public square as many secularists today interpret the phrase.
No one knows where Jefferson got his metaphor, but he was not the first to use it. In 1644, Roger Williams used a similar phrase in a published letter to the New England Congregationalist minister, John Cotton—the man who had led the effort to try, convict, and banish Williams from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for his “new and dangerous opinions.” Over a century-and-half before Jefferson, Roger Williams’ advocacy of religious liberty for all had run him afoul of Massachusetts Bay authorities, who were attempting to establish a holy society in the New World in obedience to God’s national covenant with Israel. Williams did not believe that that covenant was still in effect. Consistent with Baptist covenant theology, he believed the coming of Jesus had established a new covenant that redefined the composition of the people of God.
When Roger Williams wrote that God had erected a “hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the World,” he was not worried about religion’s intrusion into politics; he was concerned about keeping the world—including the state—out of the church. In short, for Williams, the “wall of separation” metaphor described Christ’s efforts to separate his church from the unregenerate world. The church of God under the new covenant, in contrast to national Israel, would be a regenerate people.
Defining the relationship between church and state is just as vital today as it has ever been. When the Supreme Court overturned Roe earlier this year, secularists clamored about the influence of religion on the courts. What they fail to understand, however, is that religion has always impacted the courts. When Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery in 1865, abolitionist Christians had been advocating for that very thing for decades. The Civil Rights Movement was led by Christians, most notably the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Secularism offers no moral guidance for explaining why any action should be preferred over any other or why any action should be morally disallowed for that matter. When we remove God-inspired revelation, we are left with nothing but human beings arguing amongst themselves. Our entire system of laws and ethics is based on Christianity.
Baptists in America have typically held two things simultaneously. First, matters of religion are between God and the individual conscience. The state has no jurisdiction over the church and cannot mandate religious belief or practice. Every person should have the freedom to practice religion or not, according to his or her own conscience. Just as the Methodist is free to worship the triune God, the Muslim is free to worship Allah and the atheist free to worship no god at all. In other words, the only wall of separation we should support is the one that keeps the state away from all matters of faith and worship. We, therefore, reject any form of state-established religion.
Second, Christians should be working to impact the world to bring about a more just society. We believe that human flourishing is tied to God’s law. The Baptist Faith and Message 2000, the confessional statement most ascribed to by Southern Baptists, describes this impulse well: “All Christians are under obligation to seek to make the will of Christ supreme in our own lives and in human society.” In Jeremiah 29:7, God tells his people as they are on their way to live as exiles in pagan cities to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile.” Christians live in exile today, for our ultimate home is Christ’s eternal kingdom. However, we are called by God to seek the welfare of the cities where God has placed us. We must refuse to keep our religious convictions out of the public square. We love our neighbors too much for that.