I’d love to know your thoughts on whether or not you believe it was Constitutional to use the U.S. Capitol building as a church.
I’ve been thinking about beginning a series of articles on the government, religion, and the ideas we hear today on the separation of church and state. These things interest me, and I think they just might interest you as well. They certainly interested my students many years ago as they dug through the old documents and developed their own thoughts on just what they really say, what they promise us, and what they absolutely do not.
As a point of reference, George Washington himself laid the cornerstone for the U.S. Capitol in 1793; however, it was not until November of 1800 that Congress actually settled itself into the building, and as another point of reference, Thomas Jefferson was elected President of the United States in the year 1800.
Jefferson is important to our study because it was none other old Tom himself who used the exact words “wall of separation between the church and the state.” The only problem is that Thomas Jefferson did not pen these words until January 1, 1802, long after Congress had begun a practice that would seem to be in direct conflict with the President’s words.
What practice you might ask?
On December 4, 1800, Congress approved using the Capitol building as a venue where church services could be held. AND, believe it or not, Jefferson himself attended services in the House of Representatives during the eight years of his Presidency.
Using the Capitol for church services continued until well after the Civil War. In fact, records show that in 1867 The First Congregational Church held services for a membership of 2,000 there while they raised the money to build their own building.
Hmmmmm….so what in the heck does it mean?
It is actually very simple if you take a hard look at these people who became the first leaders of this country, their hopes, and maybe more importantly, their fears. They knew the history; they understood from where we had come and from what we were running and that was not from the Church, not at all. No, we were running from a government that had the power to impose a state-run church on its people.
When Thomas Jefferson used those words that everyone from the media to the President like to throw around, his meaning was that the State must NOT be allowed to insert its will into the Church because, you see, it was the State that was the threat to the people, not the Church.
Now, just in case I’ve created any misunderstanding here, Jefferson certainly believed that Americans had the right to make their religious decisions for themselves. They could, as the saying goes, take it or leave it, and the State would stay the heck out of it.
Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States (Washington: Gales and Seaton, 1853), p. 797, Sixth Congress, December 4, 1800.