Let’s say a legislator in your state came up with the bright idea to force everyone to pay a special tax to support “teachers of the Christian religion.” What would you do?
You’d probably fire up your computer and use social media and Twitter to mobilize opposition. You might start an online petition or lobby the legislature directly.
But if it were 1785, and you didn’t have any of those tools, you might just have to do what James Madison did – reach for a quill pen and write a broadside so powerful it would sink the idea.
Tomorrow, June 20, is the 230th anniversary of a document Madison wrote to blast church taxes. His “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” is a classic of religious liberty that’s well worth reading today.
Let’s set the stage a bit: Madison lived in Virginia, where the Anglican Church of England was established by law. Not everyone was happy about this. Members of dissenting sects, chiefly Presbyterians, Baptists and Deists, worked hard to end that special relationship. But they weren’t getting anywhere.
The end of the Revolution gave them new hope. The United States was independent now, and it hardly seemed appropriate for Virginia to give state support to an English church. Thomas Jefferson’s answer was straight-forward: disestablish the church and guarantee religious freedom to all. Jefferson had originally introduced a religious freedom bill in 1779, while the war was still raging, but it failed to garner much support.
By 1785, the situation had changed. Virginia lawmakers were willing to reconsider the relationship between church and state, but, unfortunately, the leading proposal wasn’t a good one.
Patrick Henry was a fervent patriot who labored for American independence, but his views on church-state relations were not progressive. Henry refused to believe that religion could survive without government support and fretted that without church-state union, public morals would decline. Accordingly, he introduced a bill that would have required all citizens to pay a tax that would subsidize any “Minister or Teacher of the Gospel.”
Henry undoubtedly thought his plan was better than having a single established church. After all, under the Henry proposal, people could contribute to the Christian denomination of their choice. (Non-Christians would be out of luck.)
But Madison knew this idea was still a dud, so he swung into action. Calling the bill “obnoxious” and “dishonorable,” the brainy Virginian wrote the Memorial, which is essentially a list of 15 reasons why churches do not need government support. (That’s right, Madison invented the “listicle.”)
Copies of Madison’s Memorial, which, by the way, he issued anonymously, were duly made and sent all over the state. The original copy is dated June 20, 1785. Many Virginians endorsed it and similar anti-Henry bill documents written by others. Opposition to the Henry measure mounted, and the proposal died.
But Madison didn’t stop there. He used the momentum to push Jefferson’s religious freedom bill through the legislature. (Jefferson was living in Paris at the time, serving as U.S. ambassador.) That bill became law on Jan. 16, 1786.
Madison’s Memorial – he finally fessed up to being the author in 1826 – is written in the language of the times, but the amazing thing about it is that its arguments could still be used today in opposition to vouchers for religious schools and “faith-based” initiatives.
Consider these three passages:
* “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 only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?”
* “[E]xperience witnesseth that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation.”
* “Torrents of blood have been spilt in the old world, by vain attempts of the secular arm, to extinguish Religious discord, by proscribing all difference in Religious opinion. Time has at length revealed the true remedy. Every relaxation of narrow and rigorous policy, wherever it has been tried, has been found to assuage the disease.”
There’s a lot more good stuff in Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance.” You can read the entire document here.