Imprimis

Origins and Dangers of the ‘Wall of Separation’ Between Church and State

Daniel Dreiisbach
Professor, American University


Daniel DreiisbachDaniel L. Dreisbach is a professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, D.C., as well as the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. He received his D.Phil. from Oxford University and his J.D. from the University of Virginia. He is author or editor of numerous books, including Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State; The Founders on God and Government; Religion and Political Culture in Jefferson’s Virginia; and Real Threat and Mere Shadow: Religious Liberty and the First Amendment.



The following is adapted from a lecture delivered at Hillsdale College on September 12, 2006, during a Center for Constructive Alternatives seminar on the topic, "Church and State: History and Theory."


In conclusion, Jefferson’s figurative language has not produced the practical solutions to real world controversies that its apparent clarity and directness led its proponents to expect. Indeed, this wall has done what walls frequently do—it has obstructed the view, obfuscating our understanding of constitutional principles governing church-state relationships. The rhetoric of “separation of church and state” and “a wall of separation” has been instrumental in transforming judicial and popular constructions of the First Amendment from a provision protecting and encouraging religion in public life to one restricting religion’s place and role in civic culture. This transformation has undermined the “indispensable support” of religion in our system of republican self-government. This fact would have alarmed the framers of the Constitution, and we ignore it today at the peril of our political order and prosperity.