James Johnson's essay on Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists.

Thomas Jefferson and the First Amendment 
  to the Constitution of the United States                   

      Thomas Jefferson’s historic letter to the Baptists of Danbury Conn., dated January l, 1802, includes the following statement: “Believing, .....that the legislative powers of government must 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.”
These words were the heart of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists, and, as is so often apparent in Jefferson’s superbly crafted prose, were permanent in their intent. Jefferson understood perfectly that the new nation’s prohibition of any religious authority over government, coupled with its guarantee of personal religious freedom, was unprecedented in human history.  
            Jefferson’s letter directly quotes the first clause of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights (1791), authored by Jefferson’s collaborator James Madison. Aware of its historical enormity, and wishing to illustrate by visual imagery this revolutionary intent of the Constitution, Jefferson shared the letter with his Attorney General, Levi Lincoln, as if to have its authenticity informally notarized.  
This opening provision of the Bill of Rights, which dissolved the age old collusion of government with religion, had immediate precedent in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which Jefferson had earlier introduced, and persistently promoted for seven years, until it was finally adopted in 1786.  Since the Virginia Statute preceded the Constitution, it must be recognized as the first occasion in history when an independent political entity declared itself free of religious affiliation. In larger context the Virginia Statute may more gracefully be honored as prologue to the First Amendment’s separation clause, since the Constitution ultimately had vastly greater influence. Jefferson’s personal determination was absolutely essential to this evolution of concept into law. 
More than two centuries later, with the composition of American society unrecognizably altered from its original makeup, religious controversy remains tenaciously intense.  Presently we are awash in conflicting and often ill-informed opinions regarding the relationship between our government and religion.  Urged on blindly by President Bush and his many religiously ardent administrators, members of Congress have proposed all manner of proclamations and legislation which are constitutionally suspect.  In his recent public emphasis of Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers’ personal religious beliefs, he has blatantly challenged Article VI of the Constitution, which concludes by stating: “but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
Recently screwball religious zealot Pat Robertson has claimed Thomas Jefferson’s philosophy as one of the foundations of his own.  That is quite like Machiavelli citing Jesus as his primary inspiration. Others of similar ilk flaunt their ignorance with righteous indignation, oblivious to the irony of their extremist posturings, and striving to undo the very freedoms which sanction their shenanigans. 
Religionists have exploited international instability to coerce the public into accepting even more religious intrusion into lawfully secular domains of public and private institutions. In 2002 Mitt Romney, then governor of Massachusetts, stated publicly during Olympic rituals recently that “We are a nation in prayer.” Never mind that Romney has no business making so personal a statement during secular public ceremonies. Why show any respect for well over fifteen per cent of Americans who are openly non religious, and unlikely to be praying?  What do they matter, although their multitude exceeds by threefold that of American Mormons? Rude gaffes such as Mr. Romney’s might be politely ignored as opinion inappropriately expressed. In the matter of law, though, religious zealotry is a present and urgent danger, so we must constantly revisit our protections against religious intrusion upon public liberty. An egregious example of such abuse is the scandal of pervasive and aggressive fundamentalist Christian proselytism throughout the US military organizations . The federal government now claims to be dealing with this problem. Let us wait and see.
       Some time ago a columnist employed by major conservative media syndicated her thoughts on the separation clause of the First Amendment. She claimed that its actual intent was not to protect the state from the church, but to protect the church from the state.  She further opined that Americans incorrectly believe the opposite: that it exists to protect the state from the church. Such whiny dronings are an endless ostinato from the religious right.  Religious zealots now claim that the “true” meaning of the separation clause has been replaced by a “false” meaning. All their ferocities assume that the truth must be one or the other. The subtle possibility of “both/and” goes unexamined. 
       But the genuine meaning of the separation clause is dualistic. It guarantees both protection of state from church, and of church from state. This is easily demonstrated by examining the actual text, and confirmed by its historic context. Keeping in mind the significance of its primary position in the Bill of Rights, consider its two phrases: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (“respecting” equals “regarding” or “with 
respect to” in modern usage).
       The first phrase protects the state from the church, by forbidding any official affiliation of religion with the secular government, since such a formal connection would, de facto,  constitute a legal influence of the church upon the state.  Much more recently, the Supreme Court has restricted even the appearance of religious influence upon government, using the word “entanglement” to define such impropriety. 
The second phrase of the separation clause clearly protects the expression of religious belief from interference by the government. It protects the church from the state. However closely related, these two guarantees are quite distinct. 
But it can easily be shown that one is impotent without the other.
Suppose that the Bill of Rights contained only the first phrase of the separation clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” In that case, the state would have protected itself against religious authority.  But nothing here restrains the government from regulating, or even prohibiting religious expression.  Rather, the first phrase alone throws open Pandora’s Box.  Below we’ll examine the word “establishment” to confirm this. 
    Then suppose, instead, that the wording was limited to: “Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion.”  In this case the state would protect religious expression, but could not prevent legally binding religious 
intrusion. Standing alone, the second phrase invites contagious manipulation of government by religious interests.  
            So in order to ensure the genuine religious freedom which was then both unique to the American system and historically unprecedented,  it was imperative to compose the separation clause as two phrases, because two protections were required.
          Let’s further support our argument by examining the immediate historic context, most especially Jefferson’s success in passing the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786. Until then, the English Established (sic) Church was the official church of Virginia, and all citizens were obliged to pay taxes for its continued dominance. Those adhering to other Christian sects, to say nothing of non-Christians such as Jews and freethinkers, were at a serious disadvantage in social and legal matters. Baptists were especially despised by the Established Church, so years later, Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists was a hymn of victory.  
            The word “establishment,” as used in the separation clause, can now be seen by the modern reader to refer specifically to religion officially endorsed by the government, rather than some looser meaning such as might refer to various religious organizations, in the sense that we now use the word to refer to some established business or other organization. “Establishment” referred exclusively to the legal affiliation of religion with government. 
             The coalition which ultimately loosed the stranglehold of the English Established Church in Virginia was a motley crowd. All the other Christian sects had piled onto the disestablishment bandwagon. But the reformist leaders, Jefferson foremost among them, were secular and rational in their objectives, and Jefferson himself always maintained a high degree of skepticism about religion. Nevertheless, he seems to have held deeply personal, perhaps virtually unique, religious beliefs. Perhaps we could call him a spiritual agnostic; he considered himself a sect of one, and, like most intellectuals of the late Eighteenth Century, accepted that God was to be found in nature, a philosophy called Deism.  Jefferson was certainly not a Christian.  He explicitly rejected the divinity of Christ. Instead, he published the Jefferson Bible, which was his compendium of the moral teachings of the historical Jesus, which excluded all reference to miracles and sacraments.  And although Jefferson was a frequent visitor to the Unitarian-Universalist Church in Charlottesville VA, still a thriving congregation, he never officially joined them.
Certainly, the prevailing Enlightenment, to which he and most other intellectuals of his day subscribed, required that nothing be exempt from critical inquiry, including religion. As Jefferson once wrote, “Question with boldness even the existence of God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.” And elsewhere: “I have no fear that the result of our experiment (the new republic) will be that men may be trusted to govern themselves without a master. Could the contrary of this be proved, I should conclude either that there is no God, or that He is a malevolent being.” This statement utterly trashes the many and continuing claims of American religionists that our nation was founded upon some Judeo-Christian tradition.  In fact, the Constitution evolved from legal precedents originating in Greco-Roman civilization, passed on through English common law, traceable at least to the Magna Carta of 1215.
During their housecleaning in Virginia, Jefferson, and his secular allies were, in fact, confronted with an unsavory alternate proposal. Excepting Baptists, the Christians wanted to replace the singular establishment of the English Church with a pluralistic establishment of various Christian sects. The plan would hardly have constituted the religious freedom which Jefferson desired, being nothing more than an establishment of Christianity in general. With considerable effort this fabrication was thwarted. As a distant mirror, the designs of these self-interested Christians were similar to today’s proponents of taxpayer support for parochial schools. Vouchers would have delighted the pluralist plotters whom Jefferson put down. Yet in spite of polls showing the public consistently opposed to vouchers, religious agitators continue to assault this most fundamental tenet of the Constitution. 
Understanding that total religious freedom was the only religious freedom, Jefferson intended that the guarantees of the First Amendment include the right of freethinking people to exclude religion from their lives. Since fork tongued religious conservatives often deny this, let’s consider the First Amendment in its entirety.  Directly following the separation clause come the equally fundamental guarantees of free speech and of the press, to speak and to publish what one believes. So anyone who disbelieves religion is guaranteed the right to say as much, and to promote such perspectives. To presume otherwise would turn the entire First Amendment into a monstrous oxymoron. But the Constitution harbors no contradictions. The most important document in the history of human progress is written with enduring precision.  
From these particulars, and much more available evidence, we know that Jefferson believed absolutely that government should in no way be partial to religion, but always entirely neutral. Considering this, more historically recent religious references endorsed by the federal government, such as that which was added to the Pledge of Allegiance some fifty years ago, are blatantly unconstitutional. And all of these have been forced upon the general public by religious conservatives, who persist incessantly in their efforts to undermine religious liberty.
But the First Amendment protects the rights of all, to believe or not to believe. Jefferson wrote as much in his book Notes on the State of Virginia:  “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket, nor breaks my leg.”  The absolute fact of this statement has been denied by religionists for over two centuries.
What would Thomas Jefferson think of parochial school vouchers? And of other devious endeavors by religionists to siphon public funds into their collection plates, through holes chipped in the wall of separation between church and state? For sure he did not suffer pickpockets. Immutable, his conviction remains hard as  a diamond: “It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.” 
The ultimate irony of our present social malaise as Americans is that the men who created the freedoms we have so long taken for granted could not today be elected to public office.

-----James Johnson   
James Johnson's essay on digital playing actions for pipe organs. 


In this tube you see
At the far end a batch of
Colored-glass debris—

Which, however, grows
Upon reflection to an
Intricate pied rose,

Flushed with sun, that might,
Set in some cathedral’s wall,
Paraphrase the light.

Now, at the least shake,
The many colors jumble
And abruptly make

The rose rearrange,
Adding to form and splendor
The release of change.

Rattle it afresh
And see its coruscating
Flinders quickly mesh,

Fashioning once more
A fine sixfold gaudiness
Never seen before.

Many prophets claim
That Heaven’s joys, though endless,
Are not twice the same;

This kaleidoscope
Can, in that connection, give
Exercise in hope.

Richard Wilbur in Collected Poems,

Harcourt Inc. Copyright 2004 by
Richard Wilbur.

Used by permission of the author.

    PLEASE allow me to share with you some imaginings that I have had over the past few years concerning the design of organ-playing actions and the flexibility of access to stops. We have entered a new era of digital technology, a brave new world that suggests much potential for innovation.
    First, let me state what is obvious to anyone acquainted with my career activities over the years. I have always been a “tracker backer.” For 20 years I performed regularly on the Flentrop organ in Harvard University’s Adolphus Busch Hall, and I have recorded six compact discs on mechanical-action or gans by Fisk, Flentrop, Frobenius, and Sandtner. And while I have greatly enjoyed presenting concerts on many large organs controlled by electric action, from the Passau Dom to Washington National Cathedral, I have always advocated the superiority of mechanical linkage, which offers the player an unrivaled sense of direct control. This historic system permits many subtleties of keyboard technique, whereas electric actions of all kinds are never more than on-off switches.
    Until recently there has been no alternative to mechanical action that could offer the performer such precise rhythmic control, and that intimate tactile sensation so important to musical sensibility. And to some degree the performer may even influence the articulation at the beginning of a note, but that is rather subtle.
    The important thing is “feeling” the sound. As Julia Child famously wrote, “Il faut mettre la main à la pâte!” In larger mechanical organs, the Barker lever is an example of “power steering”
that lightens the resistance of the keys, but such technologies are now obsolete except for historic replicas, and of course the Barker lever reduces the performer’s sense of control.
    The world of the organ is in the conservative wing of the cultural spectrum, the natural outcome of its weighty historical traditions, its predominately classical repertoire, and its primary
function in Western society as the musical instrument of churches. An historically reactionary movement commenced in the 1930s that intended to restore many superior organbuilding techniques that had been discarded in the early decades of the last century. However, this Orgelbewegung was itself eventually discredited by its own ideo-
logical tenacity.
    Later decades of the 20th century witnessed a huge diversity of styles and attitudes. It was a period during which
organ design continued to evolve by assimilating ideas from previous schools and historic periods. The results, kaleidoscopic for sure, range from the ridiculous to the sublime. But to build a new organ that replicates exactly another is no act of creation, however skillful. Rather, it is mere imitation.
    So back to the future. Digital technology now permits the construction of playing actions that will ultimately not
only equal the musicality of mechanical linkage, but indeed surpass it regarding the comfort and flexibility it will afford the player. Advanced digital systems will be capable of transmitting exactly
the details of a player’s finger-work to the slider chest, and return to the player the precise feel of what is happening at the other end. Elaborate mechanical linkages will no longer be required between console and slider chests, and will, I am sure, eventually become obsolete in large instruments. Lest this be considered the latest Seward’s Folly, let’s remember that the greatest concert pianists have always been exceedingly choosy about their instruments, and a major factor in their requirements has always been the playing action. Whyshould organists not have the same control over their instruments?
    I am aware that there were attempts at these innovations in the 1990s, in the United States and France at least, but I have not followed their progress or other more recent efforts. While I am
not at all technologically astute, technical expertise is not needed to under stand what is now possible.
    The basic concept is very simple. Within the console, analog mechanical movement is transferred to a digital circuit, which then converts back to analog mechanical linkage inside the instrument, terminating in the usual fashion at pulldowns under the windchests. The keyboards connect to the digital transfer just as if they were beginning the route of tracker action, so the player creates, and feels, the same impressions on the keys as he would through mechanical linkage.
    However, choices of key action nuance will now be available to the player: the resistance of the key, or its depth of movement, or its pluck point, the sensation of which can be adjustable from crisp to more supple, thus serving diverse repertoire. All of these adjustments can be mechanically generated in the console.
    The digital transfer of information in the center of this circuit must, of course, be two-way: the player sends an impulse, and the sensation of the mechanical results at the other end of the action
is returned to him instantly, just as in an all-mechanical linkage. Since such systems will more likely be developed by specialists in digital technology than by organbuilders, I should observe that receptiveness to their use will depend upon the builder’s existing approach. All-mechanical builders will have little use for these ideas, as well as builders at the other end of the spectrum who still cling to pitman windchest construction, or other designs that would be unresponsive to touch-sensitive digital systems. Builders who have used both mechanical and electric actionswith slider chest construction will surely be more receptive.
    Many existing problems with mechanical action, especially regarding coupling, will disappear with digital actions. Since each manual will have its own digital linkage, it will be possible
to command any number of other divisions or subdivisions without affecting the touch.
    Touch-sensitive digital action depends upon slider chest construction, so the possibilities for duplexing stops between divisions would remain limited. However, large divisions could be organized such that, for instance, the principal chorus might stand on one slider chest, the chorus reeds on another, and the color stops on yet another. This arrangement would allow different wind pressures for each slider chest, hardly a novel idea. Built thusly, sections of a division could be coupled to other manuals without requiring the
rest of the division to come along. And some stops could also be built with double sliders for even more flexibility. Yet none of this would affect at all the player’s sense of touch: the digital system will instantly make all adjustments for the player.
    Organ consoles can already be made completely detached from the instrument by wireless transfer of an electrical switch. With digital systems the tactile sensation can also be transferred wirelessly.
    Personally, I have always explored to its limits the coloristic possibilities of any organ. And I often imagine combinations that would sound beautiful, were they accessible. But direct mechanical linkage and slider-and-pallet windchest construction often preclude access. When playing organs with pitman windchests and electropneumatic action, all manner of duplexing is possible, and the builder might as well do that to provide maximum flexibility of access to the registers. But the player will never feel the music as he does
with existing mechanical systems.
    An organ built with digital technologies such as I have here suggested can be upgraded in the future with no change to the essential integrity of the instrument. Whatever the current state
of digital linkages, over time they will be improved. All that need be done to acquire the better versions will be to replace the linkages. Although alterations will always be possible, the physical structure of the instrument need never be changed.
    These are mere speculations concerning organ design in this new century. Some organbuilders, particularly those absorbed in the recreation of historic organs, will be indifferent. But it is the
music and the musicians who should be generating innovative concepts, not the organbuilders, who in many recent instances, particularly within the limited world of academia, have let the tail wag the dog. I recall an exchange with one notable builder of historic copies, on the occasion of my performing on one of his most noteworthy instruments. Afterwards he remarked, “You should not use the 8' principal and the 4' flute in combination,” apparently because the ancient treatises upon which he based his ideas forbade such tonal miscegenation. Never mind that the combination of those two stops on that organ was exceptionally beautiful.

    As Claude Debussy once wrote, “There is no theory. You have only to listen. Fantasy is the law.”
James Johnson holds the BA degree from Williams College and the DMA degree from Yale University. He was organist in Adolphus Busch Hall at Harvard University from 1971 to 1991.
He may be reached at 518-561-3073, or at <jejphoenix@westelcom.com>.