youthful James Madison, traveling in Culpeper County in Virginia,
happened upon a jail that
half a dozen Baptist preachers. They were locked up simply for having
published their religious views. It was not an uncommon scene in
Madison's day. State officials, under the sway of the established
Anglican Church, tolerated the violent persecution of religious
The retiring and bookish Madison bristled with indignation at the
"diabolical Hell-conceived principle of persecution." He ended a
letter to his friend William Bradford with a lament: "So I leave
you to pity me and pray for Liberty and Conscience to revive among
Though well known to Madison historians, the above tale escapes
the notice of most students of the American founding. It shouldn't.
Today marks the 250th anniversary of Madison's birth and, while
his role as the major architect of the Constitution is widely understood,
his fight for religious freedom is not. Liberals make Madison into
an anti-religious rationalist out to quarantine the republic from
the disruptive effect of faith. Conservatives, when not trying to
Christianize him, invoke Madison's faith-friendly rhetoric to justify
the latest attempt to insert religion into the public square.
The truth about Madison is more complicated. What is nearly indisputable
is that his religious instincts fueled much of his political activity.
And one of the major thrusts of that activity was an attempt to
establish unprecedented protections for the freedom of religion.
"There is no principle in all of Madison's wide range of private
opinions and long public career," writes biographer Ralph Ketcham,
"to which he held with greater vigor and tenacity than this one
of religious liberty."
It is a mistake for historians to skip over Madison's early education.
Rather than studying closer to home, Madison chose the College of
New Jersey (later Princeton), an evangelical seminary known as both
a citadel for republicanism and a haven for dissenting Presbyterianism.
President John Witherspoon who would later sign the Declaration
of Independence and under whom Madison studied directly set
this goal: "In the instruction of the Youth, care is to be taken
to cherish the spirit of liberty
and not only to permit, but
even to encourage their right of private judgment."
Witherspoon's influence at the college is difficult to overstate.
One of the assigned topics in graduation exercises in Madison's
senior year was to find support for the proposition that "every
religious profession, which does not by its principles disturb the
public peace, ought to be tolerated by a wise state." In a widely
circulated pastoral letter, Witherspoon argued that "the greatest
service that magistrates or persons in authority can do with respect
to the religion or morals of the people is to defend and secure
the rights of conscience in the most equal and impartial manner."
This position is virtually indistinguishable from the one Madison
took throughout his life. Madison's political record began in May
1776, when the state constitutional convention wrote a new constitution
for the newly independent Commonwealth of Virginia. The document
contained a Declaration of Rights with a clause on religious liberty,
written by George Mason. The original clause declared that "all
men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion,
according to the dictates of conscience
Madison didn't like it. "Mason's proposal went further than anything
ever before adopted in Virginia," writes Michael Malbin, "but it
didn't go far enough to satisfy James Madison." Madison objected
to Mason's use of the word "toleration," because it implied that
the exercise of faith was a gift from government, not an inalienable
right. Madison's substitute "all men are entitled to the
full and free exercise" of religion essentially won the day.
This put Madison far ahead of Locke, who generally mustered no more
than grudging toleration for religious belief.
Over the next decade, Madison would be involved in various religious
liberty battles in the Virginia legislature, from repealing penalties
against dissenters to suspending taxpayer support for Anglican clergymen.
Those struggles came to a head in 1784, when religious conservatives
take note the General Assembly tried to pass a General Assessment
bill to collect tax money for all Christian churches in the name
of "public morality." Madison and others saw the bill for what it
was, an attempt to prop up the Protestant Episcopal (Anglican) Church
with taxpayer money. Prompted by Baptist leaders and others, Madison
penned his now-famous Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious
Assessments in July 1785.
Memorial and Remonstrance represents Madison's most complete
and cogent argument for freedom of religion. Historian Irving Brant
calls the 15-point document "the most powerful defense of religious
liberty ever written in America." One reason is that Madison made
freedom of conscience i.e., one's belief or conviction about
religious matters the centerpiece of all civil liberties.
He called religious belief "precedent, both in order of time and
in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society."
Hardcore separationists and others claim that the Memorial's
pious rhetoric masks an antipathy to religion. "I find Madison hostile
not only to religious establishments," says one scholar, "but also
to religion itself." But that assessment relies on just a few private
letters in which Madison's main lament concerns the tendency of
state-supported religions to become oppressive establishments. That's
not anti-religious. And consider Madison's appeals in the Memorial:
He argues that the misuse of religion would lead to "an unhallowed
perversion of the means of salvation." He reasons that government
support would "weaken in those who profess this Religion a pious
confidence in its innate excellence and the patronage of its Author."
He recalls that ecclesiastical establishments of the past have done
great damage to the "purity and efficacy" of religion." Do those
sound like the arguments of a religious scoffer?
Other evidence suggests Madison's abiding respect for religious
belief. In his youth, Madison considered becoming a minister and
encouraged his friend, William Bradford, to season his law studies
"with a little divinity now and then." In the fight to pass the
Virginia Bill for Religious Liberty, he shamed Christian conservatives
who had tried to insert the words "Jesus Christ" into an
amended preamble with these words: "The better proof of reverence
for that holy name would be not to profane it by making it a topic
of legislative discussion
". At age 65, in retirement at his
estate in Virginia, Madison praised the separation of church and
state because by it "the number, the industry, and the morality
of the Priesthood, & the devotion of the people have been manifestly
Thanks largely to Madison, free exercise replaced toleration as
the national standard for protecting religious liberty. His proposed
language for the First Amendment was among the most ambitious offered,
and the final version unmistakably bears his stamp. Neither version
was motivated by anything resembling an animus toward religion.
Writing at the twilight of his life, Madison agreed with religious
author Frederick Beasley that "belief in a God All Powerful wise
and good, is so essential to the moral order of the World and to
the happiness of man, that arguments which enforce it cannot be
drawn from too many sources."
Only in a culture that "bristles with hostility to all things religious"
(as Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist recently put it) could
such a common-sense view fall into controversy or neglect. Today
is a time to consider the cost of that neglect.