Any in depth look into the Freedom of Religion in the U.S. Constitution must, at some point, take up the subject of James Madison. He is the writer of the current text, and was very influential in the founding. It is through his documents that those looking for the Founder’s mind go to as they ponder these questions. We’ll look at some of his documents, his actions in Congress, and his writings later.
His Early Documents
The question in Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance” revolves around the question of whether he is concerned about all state aid to religion (a high wall separating church and state) or a subsidy for a single religion or sect. Those that hold to the former take this quote:
Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? That the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever.
Two points to consider here:
- This is the point that some have made over President Bush’s idea to fund, through federal funds, faith based charity. They say that money should be able to go to whatever religion can do the work– so Christian’s money could go to Buddhists. However, this is supported by Madison’s philosophy, because there is no discrimination.
- Even at this time, the context of Madison’s quote states that he was more concerned about sects of Christianity rather than a whole other religion– proof that at the time the U.S. was a Christian nation.
However, I believe that there is more to support that Madison was more concerned about subsidy and allowing for freedom of conscience than he was about no entanglement:
Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us. If this freedom be abused, it is an offence against God, not against man: To God, therefore, not to man, must an account be rendered. As the [Virginia] Bill violates equality by subjecting some to peculiar burdens; so it violates the same principle, by granting to others peculiar exceptions.
Can you guess what one of the earliest acts of the First House of Representatives was? On Friday, May 1, 1789, “the House proceeded by ballot to the appointment of a Chaplain” and “the Rev. William Linn was elected.” James Madison was a member of the Congressional Committee that recommended the Chaplain system.
Further, Madison’s first draft of the Establishment Clause read:
The Civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of Conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed.
Sounds like a guy more concerned that there not be a national religion and that all were treated fairly. Which would be consistent with the fact that when the Establishment Clause was added via amendment to the constitution, saw the same people that voted for it also vote for a day of Thanksgiving unto God come from the national government.
Madison did have some things to say about this after he was out of office (both House and Presidency). Taken by themselves, one could assume that he had a different opinion, or that he was even a different person. However, I agree with Robert Cord that it is more instructive to take a person’s testimony while in office than in reflection.
There’s nothing here to indicate that the U.S. was not a Christian nation– but that Madison did not want any one sect to be able to receive preferential federal government treatment or to have a national church. This is a far cry from having things removed from court houses, white washing religion out of the public square, and denying the right for school children to pray.
Unless otherwise noted, quotes taken from Separation of Church and State: Historical Fact and Current Fiction