Today’s Americans might be surprised that government buildings were used for religious services during the construction of Washington DC, but not even Thomas Jefferson envisioned America as a secular, “naked” public square, where religion is to be kept as a private, not a public, matter.
As we see in the punchline of historian Thomas S. Kidd’s new essay, Evangelical Christians, Deists and America’s Founding, the Founding principle was not “freedom” from religion, but accommodation of all religions–two very different things:
Did Jefferson envision a secular public sphere, as his liberal admirers might imagine today? Clues to Jefferson’s intentions came the weekend that [Baptist Rev. John] Leland delivered the mammoth cheese, a weekend, as it turns out, that was one of the most significant in America’s history with regard to church-state relations. For this was when Jefferson sent his famous “wall of separation” letter to the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut, an evangelical group of Baptists who, like Leland, admired Jefferson. In his letter, Jefferson reminded them of their common commitment to the principles enshrined in the First Amendment, which built a “wall of separation” between church and state.
The evangelical New Englanders did not interpret “wall of separation” to mean rigid secularism, and indeed, neither did Jefferson. That Sunday, Jefferson attended a church service in the House of Representatives chambers, with John Leland giving the sermon. Whatever “wall of separation” meant to Jefferson, it could include holding church services in government buildings, a practice which Jefferson routinely allowed as president. This does not mean that Jefferson was personally devout, but that Jefferson was generously appreciative of the significance of faith in American public life.