“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”
So wrote Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Danbury Baptists, dated Jan. 1, 1802. The comment underscores Jefferson’s understanding that government, being a human construct, is insufficient to dictate religious beliefs, which are a matter of individual conscience, and therefore should remain separate.
The separation of church and state has long been a tenet of Western democracy, but David Barton, author of a controversial book about the third president of the United States, thinks this idea is based on a misunderstanding of the founding father’s position. Barton’s book, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson, was recently dropped by its publisher, Thomas Nelson, due to inaccuracies (arguably an understatement: before Thomas Nelson ceased publication, the History Network anointed the volume the dubious honour of being “the least credible history book in print”). Specifically, critics allege that Barton does not deal adequately with the matter of Jefferson as slave owner, and that the author cherry-picks his facts, conveniently ignoring those that refute his argument.
Questions of legitimacy appear not to concern right-wing pundit Glenn Beck, however. Beck has announced that his publishing imprint, Mercury Ink, will take over publication of Barton’s book. Alison Flood writes in the Guardian:
The new version “will not include any substantive changes, but I will rephrase some things to remove any potential confusion,” [Barton] told Publishers Weekly. The evangelical writer will also include content cut by Thomas Nelson, he said, adding: “I have actually run across more supporting documents that strengthen my case, not weaken it.”
Perhaps Beck had another Jefferson quotation in mind, this one from an 1814 letter to a bookseller in Philadelphia: “Are we to have a censor whose imprimatur shall say what books may be sold, and what we may buy?” (In fairness, the full context of that quotation involved a critique of church censorship of texts deemed immoral or otherwise contrary to Christian values, but since Barton and Beck seem unconcerned about context or nuance, Quillblog figures it can also play that game.)