Mending Wall: A Reflection On Good Barriers And Bad Ones

I think it's important to note that the church-state wall is not Jefferson's. It was instead the 'act of the whole American people.'

In his poem "Mending Wall," poet Robert Frost wrote, "Before I built a wall I'd ask to know what I was walling in or walling out."

Today, on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, that's a point worth pondering. There are good walls and bad ones.

I was in Berlin once in the 1970s when the Berlin Wall was still in place. It was, to say the least, a very bad wall. Crossing that checkpoint, past heavily armed guards ready and willing to shoot transgressors, was a chilling experience even for a tourist who knew he could get back out.

The communist government of East Germany placed that ominous barricade there, of course, to prevent its own citizens from fleeing to the West. Many desperate Germans were killed trying to cross over, under or around it to freedom.

The East German government was "walling in" their own people and "walling out" the fundamental civil rights we often take for granted – freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, etc.

Some misguided Religious Right activists try to compare the Berlin Wall to the wall of separation between church and state, that metaphorical barrier enshrined in the Constitution and popularized by Thomas Jefferson. A few years ago, Family Research Council President touted President Ronald Reagan's role in the fall of the Berlin Wall and railed against America's church-state bulwark.

"We must all work to tear down this perilous wall," blustered Perkins, "and allow freedom to truly ring."

Jefferson and other Founders would be appalled at this breath-taking misunderstanding of history.

In his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, our third president wrote, "Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and 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 and State."

I think it's important to note that the church-state wall is not Jefferson's. It was instead the "act of the whole American people." The American people, through our First Amendment's religious liberty provisions, have "walled in" freedom of conscience and "walled out" theocracy.

Today, as we remember the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the "whole American people" must recommit ourselves to the care and upkeep of the church-state wall. Our freedom demands it.