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 PositiveAtheism.org:
"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...