Friday, September 3, 2010

James Madison and Religious Liberty in America

Relative to men like Jefferson, Hamilton and Washington, our fourth president gets relatively little attention in schools and beyond. This was evinced when, just yesterday, a college student expressed to me that he had never heard of James Madison. I am currently wrapping up my summer research work, which centered on the persuasive method and thought of Madison. Having had Madison at the forefront of my thoughts for the past four months, I was more than shocked that someone anywhere in the United States had never heard of the Father of the Constitution. It’s understandable, though. Madison was short, sickly and incredibly soft-spoken. Those who admired him did so for his immense knowledge, practicality and ability to identify subtle nuances in complex issues facing republican government, which would be the topic of another (much longer) post. Sadly, the ability to identify nuance doesn't earn monuments.

One area of Madison’s life that should win him a particular amount of attention from Americans, especially men and women of faith, is the role he played in protecting religious liberty. Although the bulk of my work this summer did not focus directly on this aspect of Madison’s thought and work, I thought that the Cahiers Péguy readership might be particularly interested in seeing a bit about how Madison ingrained freedom of conscience in our culture and Constitution:

-Madison attended the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) which was known for its liberalism (in the more traditional sense) at the time. There, under the direction of John Witherspoon, Madison studied enlightenment thinkers who had an affection for, at least, tolerance of various religious positions.

-Though the details of exactly what he did are unclear, we know that Madison rose to the defense of what he called “persecuted Baptists” early in his career. Historians suspect that he was writing about a group of Baptist preachers in Virginia who were arrested for preaching without licenses. He did this although he was not particularly religious or influenced by revivalism. This experience, he wrote after age 80, gave him “very early and strong impressions in favor of liberty both Civil and Religious...”

-After the Virginia Declaration of Rights was drafted, Madison objected to the word “toleration” for the exercise of religion. He suggested that the word be struck from the draft, penned by George Mason. Ralph Ketcham writes: “The change was crucial, however, because it made liberty of conscience a substantive right, the inalienable privilege of all men equally, rather than a dispensation conferred as privilege by established authorities.” Many regard this to be Madison’s first important public act.

-Patrick Henry sponsored a bill in Virginia that would have required citizens to pay assessments in support of churches. Madison wrote the Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments. This 15-point document argued for religious freedom from the state and made arguments focused on the nature of mankind, the nature of government, the nature of religion and the best interest of religion. He was successful and not only defeated the bill, but also set the stage for the passage of the Bill for Religious Freedom in Virginia.

-Virginia, in large part due to Madison’s influence, ratified the Constitution and made recommendations for a bill or rights. Virginia’s recommendations included provisions for religious liberty.

-In drafting the Bill of Rights, Madison fought for clear and unequivocal protections of conscience. Here is a quote from the article linked to below: "Madison's original draft was among the most ambitious: ‘the civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship...nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed....’ Though somewhat less expansive in its protections, the final version--’Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’ --clearly bears the Madison stamp.”

Here is a LINK to an article that expounds upon most of what I said above... an article I wish I found a few months earlier than this morning because it pulls everything together very well. By posting this, I’m not necessarily endorsing the author’s conclusion at the end.

1 comment:

clairity said...

That's a fascinating story. I imagine we may hear more about James Madison, when certain claimed rights come in conflict with freedom of conscience.