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The Wall That Never Was

There's another myth that the Founders built a "wall of separation between church and state" to keep government strictly secular and free of influence by religious people and ideas. Again, though, the truth is vastly different.

In fact, those words — "wall of separation between church and state" — don't appear in the Constitution. They come from a letter written by President Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury (Connecticut) Baptist Association, which has no legal authority — and which has been widely misinterpreted.

Jefferson, who had been accused during the recent presidential campaign of being hostile to Christianity, wrote to assure his pious readers that he supported their religious liberty. As president, he would later support policies such as using federal funds to build churches and to support Christian missionaries working among the Indians. As Dreisbach writes, "The absurd conclusion that countless courts and commentators would have us reach is that Jefferson routinely pursued policies that violated his own 'wall of separation.'"Dreisbach, Daniel L., "The Mythical 'Wall of Separation': How a Misused Metaphor Changed Church-State Law, Policy and Discourse," The Heritage Foundation First Principles Series Report # 6, June 23, 2006.

The truth is, the First Amendment was written primarily to protect the church from the state, not the other way around. It guaranteed that Congress would not infringe the free exercise of religion or establish a national church body. The Founders wanted to preserve the many vibrant Christian churches which were thriving in America, and to ensure they would not be swallowed by a single national, official church such as England's.

The Founders' vision of active, engaged Christian citizens has been realized many times in American history. Christians drove the antislavery campaigns and the civil rights movement. Like those early believers in Rome, they did it because they were "the ones who cannot ignore what is happening around them, the ones who stand up and say, 'Somebody has to do something!' "

America today needs that same spirit from Christians as much as ever — and maybe even more so, in order to keep our cherished freedoms alive.