The notion that the United States observes a separation of church and state is a lie, according to President Donald Trump’s senior campaign legal adviser.
“The left is going to tell you there’s this separation of church and state, and that’s just nowhere in the Constitution, nowhere in American law,” Jenna Ellis declared Monday evening during a Zoom event hosted by Asian Pacific Americans for Trump. “That’s nothing that our founding principles ever, uh, derived whatsoever.”
The concept of a firewall between church and state authorities, Ellis claimed, is a mere “twisting a letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Church that was simply talking about the three tiers of authority that God himself ordained—the church government, the civil government, and the family government.”
Such an interpretation of Jefferson’s 1802 letter—which the Supreme Court affirmed in 1879 as an “authoritative declaration” of the First Amendment clause prohibiting government entanglement in religion—has long been a key argument of conservative Christian leaders seeking to end the separation, which serves as the basis for America’s historically pluralistic society. But it’s not altogether common for a top official of a presidential campaign to so forcefully adopt such a position and it’s further proof that Trump—hardly an observant man himself—has strategically allowed his presidency to become a vessel for the religious right.
Ellis has made such an argument before. In late April, while reacting to local bans on church gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic, she argued that “‘separation of church and state’ is a myth perpetuated by liberals to pretend morality and religion cannot be part of government.”
During Monday evening’s remarks, Ellis advanced her argument against the separation of church and state by invoking and defending the president’s now-infamous walk from the White House to St. John’s Episcopal Church for a Bible-holding photo op—which was made possible by police tear-gassing a crowd of peaceful protesters—as a valiant stand against those who forsake religious authority.
“As faith-based Christians and pastors and faith leaders, we need to be telling truth about protecting and preserving religious freedom in our country… and especially protecting and preserving the church’s authority in our society,” she said. “And so that’s what President Trump so remarkably with his walk from the White House over to St. James [sic] Church.”
She concluded: “For him to go out and hold up that Bible in front of the church and acknowledge that religious liberty prevails in America like no other society and nation that ever existed in the face of the Earth—that is what our freedom is all about.”
Constitutional scholars and political activists have long grappled with the lines of demarcation between church and state in America, with the consensus view being that there are boundaries to government involvement in religious promotion and affairs.
“While the literal words ‘wall of separation between church and state’ don’t appear in the Constitution, the concept of church-state separation certainly does,” Americans United for Separation of Church and State has written in response to the religious-right argument against a firewall. “If you doubt that, just read the writings of Jefferson, James Madison and generations of U.S. Supreme Court justices tasked with interpreting and applying the Constitution. We’re gonna take their word for it.”
For Ellis, the comments before the Asian Pacific Americans for Trump gathering are merely the latest in a long string of provocative utterances and eyebrow-raising moves. She was hired by the Trump campaign late last year and almost immediately became a favorite surrogate of the president’s because of her relentless and bombastic jeremiads against his impeachment—even taking her pro-Trump fervor to the Kremlin-funded network RT, which U.S. intelligence agencies have long considered a Russian propaganda outlet.
But as The Daily Beast previously reported, Ellis has generated outrage for her tirades against the LGBT community and Muslims.
Following the 2015 mass shooting at Orlando gay nightclub Pulse, which left 49 people dead, she wrote an opinion piece, headlined “Two Wrongs Do Not Make an LGBT Right,” decrying how the massacre had led to increased acceptance of homosexuality. “I’m disappointed conservatives are acquiescing to the LGBT agenda,” Ellis wrote. “Let me be clear—the Orlando shooting was absolutely terrible and tragic. But the response to this tragedy should not be embracing and advocating for gay rights.”
Elsewhere, Ellis has promoted the harmful anti-gay “conversion therapy,” declared that HIV infections in gay men was simply “God’s moral law,” and claimed that Islam is “not American.”