Jefferson’s church-state wall

JEFFERSON’S CHURCH-STATE WALL…. CBS’s Katie Couric asked the vice presidential candidates two sets of questions last night, and the one about Roe, privacy, and the Supreme Court is getting nearly all of the attention. That’s understandable, of course, given that Sarah Palin’s response highlighted a degree of ignorance I hadn’t thought possible in a candidate for public office.

But let’s take a moment to also consider Couric’s other question: “Thomas Jefferson wrote about the First Amendment, building a wall of separation between church and state. Why do you think that’s so important?”

I used to work at Americans United for Separation of Church and State several years ago, so the question is near and dear to me. I was, as you might imagine, anxious to hear the responses.

Joe Biden gave a strong answer, noting countries around the world where religion and government aren’t separate, and the “real turmoil” it produces. He said religion has a place in the “public square,” but in diverse society like ours, the founders realized the “best way to do this is to keep the government out of religion; they took religion out of government.”

And then there’s Palin. Asked about Jefferson’s wall, she said:

His intention in expressing that was so that government did not mandate a religion on people. And Thomas Jefferson also said never underestimate the wisdom of the people. And the wisdom of the people, I think in this issue is that people have the right and the ability and the desire to express their own religious views, be it a very personal level, which is why I choose to express my faith, or in a more public forum.

And the wisdom of the people, thankfully, engrained in the foundation of our country, is so extremely important. And Thomas Jefferson wanted to protect that.

Most of this is just odd, but more importantly, the notion that Jefferson’s church-state wall was simply about preventing the government from “mandating a religion on people” is just foolish. Indeed, it’s completely at odds with the historical record.

My friend and former colleague Rob Boston wrote a terrific piece on Jefferson’s metaphor a few years ago, which helps highlight how misguided Palin’s sense of history is. Maybe someone ought to send her a copy of the article.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.