Sunday, December 04, 2005

Faith Of The Founders: James Madison

The recurring questions about the lives of our Founding Fathers and the design they intended for the United States continues to play a significant role in our public discourse. It has been the contention of latter-day Christian conservatives that the Founding Fathers were Christian men intending to found a Christian nation. This belief drives the conservative desire for social policy based in Biblical moralism and remains the most pronounced threat again the First Amendment in our day.

But do modern conservatives have a case to support their belief about the faith of the men that wrote our Constitution and founded our nation? In as much as anything labeled "faith" can be backed by evidence, it's certainly worth looking into. In this edition of Faith of the Founders, let's take a look at one of the most brilliant and oft-cited legal minds in U.S. history: President James Madison.

The discussion about faith where the Founding Fathers are concerned centers around two questions. The first is what the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers were and the second is did that faith translate into a mandated religious framework for the United States. The first question really depends on the individual Founder.

In the case of James Madison, his personal faith could be best described as Deist or Unitarian. It was the belief in Nature's God, the divine Creator that is referenced in the Declaration of Independence. Unlike others among the Founders, Madison was much more reticent when speaking about his personal faith, and relatively few credible quotes exist. One of them is as follows:

We hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth that religion, or the duty which we owe our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence. The religion, then, of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man: and that it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. [James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance to the Assembly of Virginia]

References to "our Creator" and "reason and conviction" are consistent with the Deist beliefs in the Enlightenment era. Certainly were Madison a devout Christian, his writings would have reflected a more overt acceptance of such, as do the writings of both Patrick Henry and John Jay.

It's interesting to note that at least one very prominent "Christian" quote has been attributed to Madison in error. The quote, via

"We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all of our political institutions upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God."

This quote seemed so out of character for Madison that Professor Robert S. Alley of the University of Richmond exhaustively researched it and concluded that it could not be found in any of Madison's writings. Alley determined that the quote was fabricated and, later, David Barton of Religious Right admitted that this was the case. It speaks volumes about the integrity of those conservative religious groups attempting to draw a foundational basis for a Christian United States that they have to resort to making up false quotes out of whole cloth.

Clearly it cannot be argued honestly that James Madison himself was a conservative Christian. The beliefs expressed in his writings clearly indicate a Deist theology that was consistent with the educated elite of his day, of which Madison certainly was one. However, that begs the second question: did Madison intend for the United States to be a Christian nation founded on Christian principals? Perhaps Madison can answer in his own words:

An alliance or coalition between Government and religion cannot be too carefully guarded against......Every new and successful example therefore of a PERFECT SEPARATION between ecclesiastical and civil matters is of importance........religion and government will exist in greater purity, without (rather) than with the aid of government. [James Madison in a letter to Livingston, 1822, from Leonard W. Levy- The Establishment Clause, Religion and the First Amendment,pg 124]


Experience witnesseth that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of religion, have had a contrary operation. During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less, in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution. [James Madison, A Memorial and Remonstrance, addressed to the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia, 1785]


It was the Universal opinion of the Century preceding the last, that Civil Government could not stand without the prop of a religious establishment; and that the Christian religion itself, would perish if not supported by the legal provision for its clergy. The experience of Virginia conspicuously corroborates the disproof of both opinions. The Civil Government, tho' bereft of everything like an associated hierarchy, possesses the requisite stability and performs its functions with complete success; whilst the number, the industry, and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the TOTAL SEPARATION OF THE CHURCH FROM THE STATE. [James Madison, as quoted in Robert L. Maddox: Separation of Church and State; Guarantor of Religious Freedom]

(See here for more quotes.)

Not only did Madison address the necessity of a strong separation between church and state, a position he defended throughout his legal and political career, but he also specifically makes mention of the tribulations inherent with establishing Christianity as a state religion. It is impossible to argue that Madison, called the Father of the Constitution, could have written so stridently against establishing a Christian nation and yet written a Constitution intended to do exactly that. Madison clearly believed in a secular nation free from religious interference and his writings, both personal and official, reflect this view unerringly. This Founding Father, at least, was not a Christian man intending to create a Christian nation.

By way of addendum, one of the ancillary arguments often put forth by conservative Christians is that, while the country may not be a Christian nation statutorily, it was founded upon "Christian ideals". This term seems to be very cloudy as to exactly what it defines. Certainly the primary "Christian ideal" is that all men are sinners and God sent his son to save them from eternal damnation. However, this sort of ideal is not found anywhere in the Constitution or Declaration of Independence and leaves no statutory impression.

Some of the other "ideals" offered are those concerning legal prohibitions, such as those against murder, theft, etc.; much as could be found in the Ten Commandments. However, if this is true, then why did societies that pre-date the Bible, such as Egypt or China, also have laws prohibiting this sort of behavior? And why are only two of the Ten Commandments laws in the United States, while the other eight, plus the hundreds of other Levitical laws, are not? The answer lies not in religious values, but in sociology. Prohibitions against murder and theft are what allowed human culture to evolve into larger and more complex groups. The United States has such laws, not because they have anything to do with Christianity, but because they are the bedrock principals that allow human societies to exist. Besides, if U.S. laws were based solely on the Ten Commandments and the Old Testament, that would be a compelling argument for the United States being a Jewish nation, not a Christian one. Certainly none of Christ's teachings are given unique statutory treatment in U.S. law or policy.

As I've stated before, the entire argument about whether or not the Founding Fathers were Christian men creating a Christian nation is really just a not-so-subtle attempt to side-step the restrictions of the Establishment clause. That very freedom from government interference is what has allowed Christianity to flourish, and modern conservatives' attempts to weaken that protection by making it conditional on majority rule is a misguided shot in the foot. No religious faith should require state backing as a crutch, else that calls into serious question the strength of that underlying faith. Further, with that protection eroded, conservative Christians could find themselves at a serious ideological disadvantage, given that more liberal Catholicism is the largest branch of Christianity in the United States.

The United States is a secular nation, designed as such intentionally by men of many different ideological backgrounds. Any attempt to argue otherwise is nothing but historical revisionism; an attempt to give state-sponsored legitimacy that is clearly unsupportable by either the Constitution or the words of the Founding Fathers themselves.

See also Faith of the Founders: Thomas Jefferson.

Next up: George Washington...


Kart said...

i think that America was built on
Biblical principles. and that our founding fathers never meant for our nation to ever be anything but that.

Anonymous said...

I believe that the founding fathers wanted the church and state to be institutionally separate. They didn't want what they had in Europe where they were persecuted for not being e.g. Anglican or Catholic. They wanted every American to be free to there own religious beliefs. If this is not true, why on earth did Benjamin Franklin call for prayer during the constitutional convention and why did Washington, the chairman of the convention, agree to it? Franklin said "I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth-that God governs in the affairs of men."

Anonymous said...

I forgot to add to the above comment that James Madison said, "The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe with blood for centuries."

Anonymous said...

There were fifty-five individuals directly involved in framing the Constitution ... an additional ninety in the first federal Congress that framed the First Amendment and Bill of Rights... The records of the Constitutional Convention demonstrate that James Madison was often out of step with these Founders. The other delegates rejected Madison's Virginia plan in preference for Roger Sherman's Connecticut plan and voted down 40 of Madison's 71 proposals (60 percent). Nevertheless, today Madison is cited as if he is the only authority among the Founding Fathers and the only expert on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights.

Was Madison responsible for the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights? Definitely not. In fact, during the Constitutional Convention, it was Virginian George Mason that advocated that a Bill of Rights be added to the Constitution, but the other Virginians at the Convention - including James Madison - opposed any Bill of Rights and their position prevailed. Consequently, George Mason, Elbridge Gerry, Edmund Randolph, and others at the Convention refused to sign the new Constitution because of their fear of insufficiently bridled federal power. Mason and the others returned to their home States to lobby against the ratification of the Constitution until a Bill of Rights was added. As a result of their voices (and numerous others who agreed with them), the ratification of the Constitution almost failed in Virginia, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York. Rhode Island flatly refused to ratify it, and North Carol. refused to do so until limitations were placed upon the federal government. Although the Constitution was eventually ratified, a clear message had been delivered: there was strong sentiment demanding the inclusion of a Bill of Rights.

When the Constitution was considered for ratification, the reports from June 2 through June 25, 1788, make clear that in Virginia, Patrick Henry, George Mason, and Edmund Randolph led the fight for the Bill of Rights, again over James Madison's opposition. Henry's passionate speeches of June 5 and June 7 resulted in Virginia's motion that a Bill of Rights be added to the federal Constitution; and on June 25, the Virginia Convention selected George Mason to chair a committee to prepare a proposed Bill of Rights, with Patrick Henry and John Randolph as members. Mason incorporated Henry's arguments as the basis of Virginia's proposal on religious liberty.
Although Madison had opposed a Bill of Rights, he understood the grim political reality that without one, it was unlikely the new Constitution would receive widespread public acceptance. Consequently, he withdrew his opposition, and in the federal House of Representatives he introduced his own versions of the amendments offered by his State.
...The failure to rely on Founders other than Madison seems to imply that no other Founders were qualified to address First Amendment issues or that there exists no pertinent recorded statements from the other Founders. Both implications are wrong: numerous Founders played pivotal roles; and thousands of their writings do exist.

However, if critics of public religious expression believe that only a Virginian may speak for the nation on the issue of religion (they usually cite either Madison or Jefferson), then why not George Mason, the "Father of the Bill of Rights"? Or Richard Henry Lee who not only framed Virginia's proposals but who also was a Member of the first federal Congress where he helped frame the Bill of Rights? Or why not George Washington? Perhaps the reason that these other Virginians are ignored (as are most of the other Framers) is because both their words and actions unequivocally contradict the image portrayed by the one-sided picture of Madison given by those who cite only his "Detached Memoranda."
from "James Madison and Religion in Public" David Barton - 09/2002

Anonymous said...

James Madison also attempted to give the central government more power than others in the Constitutional Convention believed was proper in suggesting that the new federal government be given the power to veto state legislation. This idea was defeated by a landslide, as it would have negated all the colonists had fought for against the British. States' rights were very much in accord with the founding fathers, with every attempt to limit the power of the central government except in certain cases delineated in the Constitution they created. The "general welfare" clause has wound up being a catch all for the central government to encroach more and more on the lives of citizens, unfortunately.
Our founding fathers did not want a "godless" society and citizens. The First Amendment merely stated the restriction on the power of the federal government to establish a national religion, but it did not grant power to the same federal government to interfere in church-state relations decided on by the states. Thus, the issue of school prayer and whether to allow it should have never been an issue touched by the federal government, and Engel v. Vitale (1962) should never have happened. This supreme court decision resulted in banning prayer in all the public schools of this nation. This is directly prohibiting a community's free exercise of religious values, trampling upon the desires and values of the local citizenry. said...

The chap is absolutely just, and there is no question.

Anonymous said...

You couldn't be more wrong about prayer in school. Anyone is free to pray anywhere at any time to any god or gods they choose. The State may not officially promote religion or prayer. I have just as much freedom FROM religion being thrust upon me by government