My purpose in going to London this week was to help an organization start a student chapter at Oxford. In doing so, the organization sponsored an Oxford Union debate over the proposition, “The Dividing Line Between Religion and Politics Should Shine Brightly.”
I’m afraid that, despite the profound eloquence and passion of the two speakers who flew out from the States for the debate—a federal appellate judge and a renowned legal scholar—along with their two co-debaters, their argument against the motion was unsuccessful. They lost by about thirty votes out of near 300 cast.
They used convincing examples of the Reverend Martin Luther King, the founders of the European Union, and William Wilberforce using religion to inspire the best of motives to help win political causes.
Yet I can’t but help think they stretched a good point too far and thus lost unnecessarily. There is a word in the proposition with which even Thomas Jefferson, who first penned the words “wall of separation between church and state,” would have disagreed: “brightly.”
In his draft letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, Jefferson put a word before the famous phrase and later crossed it out. It wasn’t till 200 years later that James H. Hutson, chief of the Library of Congress’ manuscript division, detected with new microscopic technologies what the word was. Jefferson initially wrote that there should be an “eternal wall of separation between church and state.” Later, thinking better of it, he crossed out “eternal.”
Within 48 hours of sending a letter he knew would become famous, Jefferson also did something he knew would draw attention: he began attending church regularly. Not that he hadn’t ever been to church before. Yet this was the beginning of his first regular attendance over multiple years. And it wasn’t just any church he was attending. This was Church at the Capitol, held in the House of Representatives (currently Statuary Hall), where many who mattered in the young capitol worshipped every Sunday, served by rotating preachers of all faiths.
Jefferson also began to allow public funds to be used for this service, as the national band, paid by his government, played at the services, and Jefferson began opening all federal buildings for worship services, there not yet being houses of worship built in the young capital.
As Hutson also illustrated, the very public attendance at a State-sponsored non-denominational religious activity was meant to be interpreted alongside the letter to show just what Jefferson meant with his letter. Yes, there was a wall of separation, but there were meant to be a few non-denominational doors and windows in it.
In any event, Jefferson’s wall, or line, certainly didn’t shine very bright. Just enough to prevent government control and requirement, but not quite support or allowance, of religion.
I wholeheartedly support Jefferson’s position. Had I made a speech, perhaps I could have added a few more votes to the tally. Maybe even 31.