How a Misused Metaphor Changed Church–State Law, Policy, and Discourse
No metaphor in American letters has had a more profound influence on law and policy than Thomas Jefferson's "wall of separation between church and state." Today, this figure of speech is accepted by many Americans as a pithy description of the constitutionally prescribed church-state arrangement, and it has become the sacred icon of a strict separationist dogma that champions a secular polity in which religious influences are systematically and coercively stripped from public life.
In our own time, the judiciary has embraced this figurative phrase as a virtual rule of constitutional law and as the organizing theme of church-state jurisprudence, even though the metaphor is nowhere to be found in the U.S. Constitution. In Everson v. Board of Education (1947), the United States Supreme Court was asked to interpret the First Amendment's prohibition on laws "respecting an establishment of religion." "In the words of Jefferson," the justices famously declared, the First Amendment "was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between church and State'...[that] must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach."
In the half-century since this landmark ruling, the "wall of separation" has become the locus classicus of the notion that the First Amendment separated religion and the civil state, thereby mandating a strictly secular polity. The trope's continuing influence can be seen in Justice John Paul Stevens's recent warning that our democracy is threatened "[w]henever we remove a brick from the wall that was designed to separate religion and government."
What is the source of this figure of speech, and how has this symbol of strict separation between religion and public life come to dominate church-state law and policy? Of Jefferson's many celebrated pronouncements, this is one of his most misunderstood and misused. I would like to challenge the conventional, secular myth that Thomas Jefferson, or the constitutional architects, erected a high wall between religion and the civil government.
Building a "Wall of Separation":