Opinion: Madison laid groundwork for true religious freedomESPN recently aired a documentary listing the most effective athletic combinations, e.g. — Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen; Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. If the History Channel did a similar program, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson would top their list.
By: Robert Duffett, President, Dakota Wesleyan University
ESPN recently aired a documentary listing the most effective athletic combinations, e.g. — Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen; Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. If the History Channel did a similar program, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson would top their list.
From the same Virginian plantation class, lifelong members of the established Anglican/Episcopalian Church (a tax supported part of Virginia’s government), and almost neighbors, Madison and Jefferson were political and social soul mates.
Madison was an unlikely person to so profoundly influence Virginia and America. He was small, sickly, thin and short of stature. Some called him “Little Jimmy Madison.” He was shy, studious, cold, aloof and awkward at social events. He did not make a good first impression.
Two events shaped his religious and political views. First, Baptists were numerous where Madison lived. By the late 1760s, Baptists were persecuted by the same state church where Madison held membership. They were kicked, punched, whipped, dragged by their hair and imprisoned until the outbreak of the war in 1776. Their crime: they disturbed the peace by preaching outdoors thus challenging the authority of the Anglican/Episcopalian church.
Second, Madison attended the College of New Jersey, Princeton College, known then as “a seminary of sedition” due to President John Witherspoon’s passionate advocacy for religious freedom and political independence from England. Madison studied with Witherspoon, the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence. So taken by him, Madison stayed an additional year at Princeton to “read divinity,” as seminary education was then called. He, like John Adams, considered going into ministry.
Religion became political in 1784. Should Virginia’s “church tax” support only the Episcopalian Church or other Christian denominations too? The Madison/Jefferson political combination sprang to life. Quarterback Madison pushed Architect Jefferson’s 1779 Statute for Religious Freedom through the Virginia legislature. And, through a series of legislative and political moves; it became law in 1786. In less than 20 years Virginia went from one established church for some, paid by all, to guaranteeing religious freedom for all and taxing none.
Madison laid out the case for religious freedom in an anonymously published pamphlet titled “Memorial and Remonstrance against Church Religious Assessments” (taxation). He cited numerous reasons against an established church. The state would corrupt the church and vice versa. Bad laws would be passed. Wars would commence over religion. Government would interfere with the church and the church with government. “Religion and government,” said Madison, “will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together.”
As Virginia went so would the country. Virginia was the most populous, wealthiest, and hence, most important of the 13 colonies. Virginians won eight of the first nine presidential elections. Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, all Virginians, served two terms as president.
The Madison/Jefferson combination rolled along to the Federal Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia in 1787. As a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, Madison was so effective and engaged that he became known as “the father of our Constitution.” When he returned to Virginia he ran into stiff religious and political opposition. Baptist leader John Leland, who partnered with Madison to throw the Virginia state church off the tax rolls, opposed ratification of the Federal Constitution and threatened to support Madison’s challenger in an upcoming election!
Why? There was no Constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. They cut a deal. Leland would use his considerable influence among Baptists for ratification, if Madison would propose an amendment for religious freedom after ratification. Both men fulfilled their promise. Madison was almost the sole author of the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, like the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, guaranteed religious freedom: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free expression thereof.”
Toward the end of his long life, Madison reflected on the consequences of removing the church as an official branch of government. “No doubt exists,” he said, “there is more religion among us now than there ever was before the Act was passed. This proves that law is not necessary to support religion.”
Robert G. Duffett is president of Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell.