What better day than Thanksgiving to link to a masterful article describing this long-misunderstood quote, taken from Jefferson's 1802 letter to the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut.
Jefferson, you see, was widely perceived as being somewhat less than religious, even atheist, and, as the article says, "The Baptists, who supported Jefferson, were outsiders--a beleaguered religious and political minority in a region where a Congregationalist-Federalist axis dominated political life."
Here is the quote:
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.
Author Daniel L. Dreisbach gives us a sense of what Jefferson really believed:
Throughout his public career, including two terms as President, Jefferson pursued policies incompatible with the "high and impregnable" wall the modern Supreme Court has erroneously attributed to him. For example, he endorsed the use of federal funds to build churches and to support Christian missionaries working among the Indians. The absurd conclusion that countless courts and commentators would have us reach is that Jefferson routinely pursued policies that violated his own "wall of separation."
Much more in the full article.