By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country
Responding to my piece on how President Obama might make White House faith-based initiatives stronger than they were under George W. Bush, reader Joseph Cassles excerpts Thomas Jefferson's 1808 "Letter to Virginia Baptists":
"Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person's life, freedom of religion affects every individual. Religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of an established religion tends to make the clergy unresponsive to their own people and leads to corruption within religion itself. Erecting the, "wall of separation of church and state," therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society."
A few thoughts.
First, defenders of religion's role in politics note that Jefferson's "wall of separation" formulation appeared in his personal correspondence, not in an official government document, let alone one of the founding documents.
Second, when Jefferson decries religious institutions using government power to force their views on persons of other faiths, how would that apply to the faith-fueled Northern abolitionist churches clamoring for emancipation before and during the Civil War? To black churches and faith-based leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., clamoring for equal rights during the 1960s? Were these instances of religious institutions using government power to force their views on persons of other faiths?
Lastly, the second part of Jefferson's argument is almost totally ignored in the current debate over the propriety of blending church and state through programs like Obama's White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships: "State support of an established religion tends to make the clergy unresponsive to their own people and leads to corruption within religion itself."
It's one reason that lots of black churches declined to participate in faith-based initiatives under Bush; they didn't want to risk being co-opted. As Mark Silk notes, it's amazing that religious organizations are silent about that danger today.