Answering Matt Barber on Jefferson and the First Amendment

Continuing the Liberty Law School misunderstanding of the First Amendment, Matt Barber cites Thomas Jefferson out of context in a recent WND column. Following David Barton, Barber wants the intent of the First Amendment to cover denominations of Christianity.  Barber writes:

Now what did they mean by “… shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion?”
Well, in a letter to Benjamin Rush, a fellow-signer of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson – often touted by the left as the great church-state separationist – answered this question. The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause was simply intended to restrict Congress from affirmatively “establishing,” through federal legislation, a national Christian denomination (similar to the Anglican Church of England).
As Jefferson put it: “[T]he clause of the Constitution” covering “freedom of religion” was intended to necessarily preclude “an establishment of a particular form of Christianity through the United States.”

Before I set Jefferson’s word in proper context, let me note that law attorney Eugene Volokh addressed this issue here, and I have here and here. Volokh refers to the North Carolina Ratifying Convention which I will return to shortly.
The Jefferson quote above comes in a letter of response to Benjamin Rush. To understand Jefferson, we must know to what in Rush’s letter he was responding.  On August 22, 1800, Rush wrote Jefferson about several matters, one of which was to remind him to explain his views on religion. In doing so, Rush offered his view of Christianity in relationship to republicanism as a form of government. Rush wrote:

You promised me when we parted, to read Paley’s last work, and to send me your religious Creed.–I have always considered Christianity as the strong ground of Republicanism. Its Spirit is opposed, not only to the Splendor, but even to the very forms of monarchy, and many” of its precepts have for their Objects, republican liberty and equality, as well as simplicity, integrity and Economy in government. It is only necessary for Republicanism to ally itself to the christian Religion, to overturn all the corrupted political and religious institutions in the world. (emphasis in original)

Rush seemed to be making a clear pitch for some kind of alliance between republicanism and Christianity. What was Jefferson’s response? On September 23, 1800, he wrote to Rush:

I promised you a letter on Christianity, which I have not forgotten. On the contrary, it is because I have reflected on it, that I find much more time necessary for it than I can at present dispose of. I have a view of the subject which ought to displease neither the rational Christian nor Deists, and would reconcile many to a character they have too hastily rejected. I do not know that it would reconcile the _genus irritabile vatum_ who are all in arms against me. Their hostility is on too interesting ground to be softened.

First, he addressed Rush’s question about his personal religion. Jefferson would not provide Rush with a lengthy outline of his views until 1803. However, in this letter, he deferred that topic and goes on to the then current matter of Christianity and politics.

The delusion into which the X. Y. Z. plot shewed it possible to push the people; the successful experiment made under the prevalence of that delusion on the clause of the constitution, which, while it secured the freedom of the press, covered also the freedom of religion, had given to the clergy a very favorite hope of obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity thro’ the U. S.; and as every sect believes its own form the true one, every one perhaps hoped for his own, but especially the Episcopalians & Congregationalists. The returning good sense of our country threatens abortion to their hopes, & they believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. 

First, Jefferson referred to the XYZ affair which was used to garner support for the Alien and Sedition Acts. In particular, the acts relating to sedition generated much controversy over free speech when criticizing the government. The XYZ affair frightened Federalists into thinking they needed to risk violating freedom of speech to keep the peace.
Jefferson used the XYZ affair to illustrate how public sentiment could threaten Constitutional liberties. He then responded to Rush’s rather enthusiastic wish to align republicanism with Christianity. Social unrest also led various clergy to push for their denomination to become preferred by the national government. In other words, he was speaking about the sentiment of the day during the Adams’ administration and vowed that he would stand any such efforts. Jefferson was running for president at the time against Adams and had been criticized as an atheist and enemy to religion. He concurred to a certain point; he was a threat to the designs of some clergy to establish a sect in violation of the First Amendment.
Jefferson wasn’t saying that the only intent of the First Amendment was to preclude the establishment of a particular sect. He was responding negatively to Rush’s ebullience about aligning Christianity with politics and using current events to do it. Furthermore, if historical events had been different (e.g, some other religion wanted dominance), it seems reasonable to believe Jefferson would have referred to those other religions as well (as he did in his autobiography when discussing religious freedom in VA).
That Rush understood Jefferson’s answer as a specific response to the August 22 letter is made clear in Rush’s follow up letter of October 6, 1800. After agreeing with Jefferson on the disadvantages of cities, Rush wrote:

I agree with you likewise in your wishes to keep religion and government independant of each Other. Were it possible for St. Paul to rise from his grave at the present juncture, he would say to the Clergy who are now so active in settling the political Affairs of the World: “Cease from your political labors – your kingdom is not of this World. Read my Epistles. In no part of them will you perceive me aiming to depose a pagan Emperor, or to place a Christian upon a throne. Christianity disdains to receive Support from human Governments.” From this, it derives its preeminence over all the religions that ever have, or ever Shall exist in the World. Human Governments may receive Support from Christianity but it must be only from the love of justice, and peace which it is calculated to produce in the minds of men. By promoting these, and all the Other Christian Virtues by your precepts, and example, you will much sooner overthrow errors of all kind, and establish our pure and holy religion in the World, than by aiming to produce by your preaching, or pamphflets any change in the political state of mankind.”
A certain Dr Owen an eminent minister of the Gospel among the dissenters in England, & a sincere friend to liberty, was once complained of by one of Cromwell’s time serving priests,—that he did not preach to the times. “My business and duty said the disciple of St Paul is to preach—to Eternity— not to the times.” He has left many Volumes of Sermons behind him, that are so wholly religious, that no One from reading them, could tell, in what country,—or age they were preached.—

What a contradiction to the efforts of the American Renewal Project this is. Rather than be misunderstood by Jefferson, Rush extended his thought on religion and politics in this letter. He was not proposing that clergy do more than practice their faith in ways that make better citizens. Rush said St. Paul would have a message for “the Clergy who are now so active in settling the political Affairs of the World.” He adviseed preaching the faith rather than focusing on “the political state of mankind.” Rush’s answer to Jefferson was a support to the separation of church and state in the context of the times.
The North Carolina Ratifying Convention also took up the question of the extent of the First Amendment freedom of conscience. They understood that the First Amendment “no religious test clause” applied to non-Christian religions as well.  James Iredell, later appointed as a Supreme Court justice said about the First Amendment and no religious test clause:

I consider the clause under consideration as one of the strongest proofs that could be adduced, that it was the intention of those who formed this system to establish a general religious liberty in America.
But it is objected that the people of America may, perhaps, choose representatives who have no religion at all, and that pagans and Mahometans may be admitted into offices. But how is it possible to exclude any set of men, without taking away that principle of religious freedom which we ourselves so warmly contend for? This is the foundation on which persecution has been raised in every part of the world. The people in power were always right, and every body else wrong.

Jefferson noted that the Virginia legislature resisted efforts to limit religious freedom to Christianity.
The efforts of the Liberty Law School to follow David Barton’s misunderstanding of the First Amendment probably set it apart from most, if not all, other such schools and is not a model that is well supported even by the authorities they cite. Attempting to use Jefferson in such a manner rips his words from the immediate context of his letters to Rush but his other statements on liberty of conscience.
Now what separation of church and state means in practice is still a matter to be worked out on a case by case basis. I am not saying that I agree with every court case which invokes separation of church and state as a principle. However, it seems clear that both Jefferson and Rush supported the principle of independence of religion and government from each other.
Note: The post above has been edited to reflect the fact that the NC convention took place before the First Amendment had been introduced (thanks to Bill Fortenberry for pointing this out). The NC convention considered a similar addition in their recommendations as a part of a broader set of amendments. That declaration read:

“20. That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence: and therefore all men have an equal, natural, and unalienable right to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that no particular religious sect or society ought to be favored or established by law in preference to others.”

Given the discussion in the convention, it seems clear that it was understood that broad religious freedom covered any sect or society, not just a Christian version.