Rob Boston: Thomas Jefferson, A ‘Mammoth Cheese’ And The Church-State Wall: A New Year’s Day Tale

January 2, 2017 – Yesterday, the country marked an important anniversary dealing with religious freedom that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Jan. 1, 1802, was a busy day at the White House for President Thomas Jefferson, who had a special visitor. His friend John Leland arrived from Massachusetts with a gift: a 1,200-pound wheel of cheese.

Known as the “mammoth cheese,” the wheel was a present from Jefferson’s Baptist admirers in New England. It was accompanied by a card reading, “The Greatest Cheese in America for the Greatest Man in America!”

Why would Baptists have wanted to give Jefferson this gift? They knew our third president was a champion of religious liberty – a principle that wasn’t always respected in New England states where Congregationalism, the remnants of the old Puritan church, still reigned supreme. Jefferson advocated for religious freedom as a fundamental right for all people, and Baptists, as dissenters, wanted to thank him for that.

Perhaps inspired by the gift, later that day, Jefferson took pen to parchment and drafted a reply letter to a separate Baptist group in Danbury, Conn., making it clear that he stood for religious freedom and opposed church-state union. In this letter, Jefferson invoked the famous metaphor of the First Amendment erecting “a wall of separation between church and state.” It’s a phrase that has rung down through the years and appeared in many legal opinions.

Thomas Jefferson’s church-state wall protects us all, believer and non-believer alike. .

Jefferson’s missive is such a powerful statement that in modern times, Religious Right activists have tried to undercut it. They’ve argued that the letter was a mere courtesy, dashed off by Jefferson without a lot of thought. This is simply wrong. Jefferson stated upfront that he wanted to use the letter to make a public statement about his views on religious freedom, and he asked members of his cabinet to review it.

Others have asserted that Jefferson’s views on the First Amendment aren’t important because he was in France when the amendment was drafted. This overlooks the fact that Jefferson authored the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which scholars agree inspired James Madison, a primary author of the First Amendment and close Jefferson ally.

Still others have insisted that Jefferson said his wall was “one directional” and intended only to protect the church from state interference. This is fiction. The Danbury letter contains no such language, and Jefferson’s entire body of writings makes it clear that he believed his protective barrier was good for both institutions.

In 2002, the 200th anniversary of the Danbury letter, I wrote an article for Church & State designed to clear up some of these misconceptions. The full story behind the letter is fascinating, and it debunks so much Religious Right nonsense.

In a few weeks, we’ll have a new president, a man who, by all accounts, doesn’t value the wisdom of Jefferson. We’ll have plenty of fights on our hands as we work to keep the church-state wall high and firm.

Read up on the history of Jefferson’s accomplishment – and make a New Year’s resolution to defend it.