March 2001 Church & State | Featured

When a bill officially incorporating an Episcopal church in Washington, D.C., reached President James Madison's desk one day in February of 1811, he knew just what to do: reach for a veto pen.

Madison was never one to tolerate any official ties between church and state. As he explained in a veto message to Congress, he rejected the church incorporation measure because it "exceeds the rightful authority to which governments are limited by the essential distinction between civil and religious functions."

It "violates in particular," said Madison, "the article of the Constitution of the United States which declares that 'Congress shall make no law respecting a religious establishment.'"

The bill noted that the church would be involved with care of the poor and the education of their children. No public funds were earmarked for these charitable endeavors, but Madison saw the legislative action as a foot-in-the-door for such federal aid to religion. He told Congress the measure was "altogether superfluous if the provision is to be the result of pious charity." He added that the bill could "be a precedent for giving to religious societies as such a legal agency in carrying into effect a public and civil duty."

At a time when many of our national leaders tout taxpayer-supported "faith-based initiatives" as the answer to poverty and other social ills, it might be wise to consider what the author of the Constitution and co-drafter of the Bill of Rights thought about such schemes.

Madison's veto message of "An Act Incorporating the Protestant Episcopal Church," dated Feb. 21, 1811, should be required reading for politicians today. Maybe then they would see how far their church-state partnerships are from the thoughts and words of the man who helped create religious freedom in the United States.

This month marks the 250th anniversary of Madison's birth March 16, 1751. Unfortunately, in most of the country his birthday will pass without even a nod of recognition toward the man who played a crucial role in the formation of the nation and one of its central governing tenets the separation of church and state.

Ironically, Madison's low profile stems in part from his close cooperation with Thomas Jefferson, the physically imposing Virginian, rightly regarded as a genius, who popularized the familiar metaphor of the "wall of separation between church and state." Jefferson's figure looms large over the historical record relating to church and state and has often obscured the perhaps more important contributions of Madison.

Madison was one of the first thinkers in colonial America to understand why church and state must be separated. His advocacy for this concept grew out of his own personal experiences in Virginia, where Anglicanism was the officially established creed and any attempt to spread another religion in public could lead to a jail term.

Early in 1774, Madison learned that several Baptist preachers were behind bars in a nearby county for public preaching. On Jan. 24, an enraged Madison wrote to his friend William Bradford in Philadelphia about the situation. "That diabolical Hell conceived principle of persecution rages among some and to their eternal Infamy the Clergy can furnish their quota of Imps for such business," Madison wrote. "This vexes me the most of any thing whatever. There are at this time in the adjacent County not less than 5 or 6 well meaning men in close Gaol [jail] for publishing their religious Sentiments which in the main are very orthodox. I have neither the patience to hear talk or think any thing relative to this matter, for I have squabbled and scolded abused and ridiculed so long about it, to so little purpose that I am without common patience. So I leave you to pity me and pray for Liberty of Conscience to revive among us."

According to church-state scholar Robert Alley, this incident was pivotal in the young Madison's life. Madison had recently graduated from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) and was unsure what to do with his life. Dogged by frequent illness, the frail and undersized Madison was not even sure he would live much longer. Learning about those preachers in prison gave him a cause and seemed to reenergize him.

"It is the general opinion, I think, of the scholars who have written about Madison that that was a key point in Madison's life," Alley said. "The thing that drove him to get involved in politics was seeing those men in jail in Culpeper County."

Madison soon had the opportunity to translate his anger into action. As a member of the Revolutionary Convention in Virginia in 1776, Madison sought to disestablish the Church of England in that state and secure passage of an amendment guaranteeing religious liberty to all. The attempt at disestablishment failed, but Madison's ideas on religious freedom were included in an "Article on Religion" that was adopted by the Convention. The statement held that religion can be "directed only by reason and conviction, not force or violence" and guaranteed to all "the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience."

Here Madison was responsible for a great leap forward in thinking. At the Revolutionary Convention, delegate George Mason had proposed an amendment guaranteeing "toleration" of all faiths. To Madison, this did not go far enough. He sought to expand religious liberty rights beyond mere toleration and argued for the "free exercise" of religion a concept that would later resurface in the First Amendment.

Even though his attempt at disestablishing the state church failed, Madison had planted an important seed. Three years later Jefferson made another attempt at disestablishing the Anglican [Episcopal] Church in Virginia and securing passage of a general religious freedom bill. The move was unsuccessful, but seven years later, after the Revolution, Madison took up the cause and pushed both measures through.

It was during this struggle that Madison penned what is considered one of the greatest American documents on religious freedom: "The Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments." Despite its somewhat unwieldy title, the "Memorial and Remonstrance" still stands today as a powerful indictment of church-state union.

Madison's appeal was written in response to a drive in the Virginia Assembly, led by Patrick Henry, to use tax funds to pay for "teachers of the Christian religion." The "Remonstrance" lists 15 reasons why state-supported religion is a bad idea. Aimed primarily at Christian clergy and believers throughout the state, the "Remonstrance" was designed to convince Virginians that state support would in the long run, harm, not help, faith.

Madison's prose in the "Remonstrance" is direct and forceful. The first point boldly states that religion is a duty owed only to the Creator and thus "must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right."

The fifth point can today almost be read as a rebuke to President George W. Bush and his "faith-based initiative." It states succinctly: "[T]he bill implies either that the Civil Magistrate is a competent Judge of Religious Truth; or that he may employ Religion as an engine of Civil policy. The first is an arrogant pretension falsified by the contradictory opinions of all Rulers in all ages, and throughout the world: the second an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation."

Madison's "Remonstrance" had the desired effect. Opposition to the Henry measure poured into the Virginia statehouse from all over the commonwealth, and the bill was voted down. Madison used the momentum provided by that victory to push Jefferson's "Act for Establishing Religious Freedom" through the assembly. (Jefferson at the time was living in France, serving as U.S. ambassador there.)

Writing to Jefferson about the victory, Madison observed, "The enacting clauses pas[sed] without a single alteration, and I flatter myself have in this Country extinguished for ever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind."

Madison soon had the opportunity to take his views on religious freedom to the national stage. By 1787 it had become apparent that the loose arrangement provided by the Articles of Confederation was not working. Due largely to Madison's prodding, delegates met in Philadelphia to draft a new constitution. Madison was in the thick of the action. One scholar, A.E. Dick Howard, has called him "the dominating spirit of the Philadelphia convention."

Madison served as the Convention's unofficial secretary and recorded all of the speeches in a special type of shorthand. His notes, published four years after his death, are the only full record of the Convention's undertakings.

Madison pushed hard for ratification, but it soon became clear that some states would not accept the Constitution because it lacked a Bill of Rights. Madison was at first apprehensive. Any attempt to list the rights of people, he believed, was bound to be incomplete. By the time the first Congress met, Madison had laid aside his objections. He helped draft the Bill of Rights and engineered its passage.

Alley, an emeritus professor of humanities at the University of Richmond and a member of the Americans United Board of Trustees, asserts that were it not for Madison, there would have been no Bill of Rights. Some members of Congress, Alley noted, were not eager to take up the task and tried to stall. Madison used his influence to keep things on track.

"The Madison legacy in the Congress was the passage of the Bill of Rights," Alley said. "It would not have been accomplished were it not for Madison's insistence that they get to the business of the day and do what they promised to do."

Throughout August of 1789 Congress deliberated what would become the religion clauses of the First Amendment. Madison's first draft 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." (Madison included the word "national" to quell the fears of states, some of whom wanted to retain their established churches.)

Madison's proposal was turned over to an 11-member committee, of which he was a member, for consideration. Several proposed amendments were put forth. Some members favored allowing the federal government to endorse religion in a general way as long as it did not engage in preferential treatment of any sect. These proposals were rejected as too weak.

The committee eventually settled on language reading, "Congress shall make no law establishing articles of faith or a mode of worship, or prohibiting the free exercise of religion."

The House of Representatives refused to accept this version, so a joint Senate-House committee, which included Madison, was charged with the task of forging a compromise. The records of their debate is sketchy, but it was this committee that eventually emerged with the language we know today: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Madison originally wanted to expand the First Amendment to apply to the states as well as the federal government. In fact, he saw this as the amendment's most important feature. His proposal cleared the House but was voted down in the Senate, and the amendment passed as a prohibition on the federal government only.

But again, the debate showed that Madison was thinking ahead of the curve. Eighty-one years after his proposal, Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment, which was designed to do what Madison argued for in 1787 apply the Bill of Rights to the states.

Following adoption of the Bill of Rights, Madison worked with Jefferson to build political opposition to the Federalist Party. When Jefferson was elected president in 1800, Madison went to Washington with him, serving as secretary of state. During his two terms, Jefferson worked to groom Madison as his successor.

Madison served as president from 1809-17. In his inaugural address he promised "to avoid the slightest interference with the rights of conscience or the functions of religion, so wisely exempted from civil jurisdiction...." (Compare that to the recent Bush inaugural, which opened and closed with sectarian prayers and featured other trappings of a religious agenda.)

During his presidency, Madison vetoed two bills that he believed would violate the separation of church and state. One was the church incorporation bill mentioned earlier. The second was a measure giving some federal land to a Baptist church in Mississippi. In his veto message, dated Feb. 28, 1811, Madison wrote, "in reserving a parcel of land of the United States for the use of said Baptist Church comprises a principle and precedent for the appropriation of funds of the United States for the use and support of religious societies, contrary to the article of the Constitution which declares that 'Congress shall make no law respecting a religious establishment.'"

These messages, Madison scholars say, refute any claim that Madison was not a proponent of a strict separation between religion and government. Had he believed that all the First Amendment was intended to do was bar establishment of a national church, he would not have vetoed the measures.

Nevertheless, some Religious Right activists continue to try to draft Madison as an ally in their theocratic cause. Some assert that Madison was not a strict separationist because he issued proclamations calling for days of fasting and prayer. Madison issued the first of these proclamations on July 9, 1812, at the beginning of the war with Great Britain. He continued to issue one each year until the war's official end in early 1815.

At least one Madison scholar, Robert J. Morgan, author of the 1985 book James Madison On the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, has argued that the proclamations had a primarily political intent. "These proclamations are a striking example of political pietism for party purposes," Morgan, professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, wrote in a recent paper.

Madison admitted as much in his "Detached Memoranda," a document scholars believe was written sometime between 1817 and 1832. He noted that he signed the proclamations because Congress had asked him to and acknowledged that he should not have acquiesced. In the "Detached Memoranda" he lists five reasons why presidents should not issue these proclamations. Number three reads, "They seem to imply and certainly nourish the erronious [sic] idea of a national religion."

Religious Right activists also point out that Madison supported congressional chaplains early in his political career. What they omit is his later thinking, when he called both congressional and military chaplains a violation of the First Amendment, views he discussed at length in the "Detached Memoranda."

Some Religious Right advocates have even tried to portray Madison as an evangelical Christian. As a young man Madison did have an interest in theological matters and considered studying for the clergy, but his ardor quickly cooled. Although nominally a member of the Episcopal Church, Madison rarely talked about his religious beliefs. Leading biographers routinely refer to Madison as a "Deist."

Books, videos and other materials produced by Religious Right "Christian nation" propagandists frequently refer to a quotation allegedly uttered by Madison. "We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it," Madison supposedly said. "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."

There is no evidence that Madison ever said this or anything like it. The editors of the Madison Papers at the University of Virginia have been unable to verify the quote. Many Religious Right activists who used to cite it no longer do so.

Madison lived out his post-presidency years mostly pursuing private interests. He helped Jefferson launch the University of Virginia and after Jefferson's death made sure the school got on secure footing by serving as rector for 10 years.

But Madison spent most of his time out of the public eye, entertaining visitors at Montpelier, his estate in Orange County, Va. He never wavered in his commitment to church-state separation.

In 1833, just three years before his death, Madison observed in a letter to the Rev. Jasper Adams, "[I]t may not be easy, in every possible case, to trace the line of separation between the rights of religion and the Civil authority with such distinctness as to avoid collisions and doubts on unessential points. The tendency to a usurpation on one side or the other, or to a corrupting coalition or alliance between them, will be best guarded against by an entire abstinence of the Government from interference in any way whatever, beyond the necessity of preserving public order, and protecting each sect against the trespasses on its legal rights by others."

Today, while most Americans certainly recognize Madison's name, few know of the scope of his accomplishments. Many scholars believe he has not received due recognition. The Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., is a well-known, often-visited tourist landmark. By contrast, Madison has no memorial in the capital city. His likeness graces no U.S. coin or currency, and his visage does not adorn Mount Rushmore.

Even Madison's estate, Montpelier, is only now being reconstructed. Madison died in debt, forcing his wife Dolley to give up the estate in 1844. It went through several more owners until 1901 when it was purchased by the duPont family, who added additional wings and doubled its size. An effort is currently under way to refurbish the estate as it might have looked in Madison's day, complete with period furnishings.

Will Americans ever truly acknowledge Madison's legacy? Sporadic events have been planned for the anniversary of his birth this month, but most are aimed at academicians. Princeton University, which can claim the distinction of being Madison's alma mater, celebrated the anniversary with a special conference last month titled "A Constitution for the Ages: James Madison the Framer." Ironically, the keynote speaker was Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a caustic foe of church-state separation whose views mock much of what Madison held dear.

Scholars say Madison's message is vital today as politicians are battering the church-state wall. Morgan recommends that contemporary politicians read Madison's veto messages. "The core of his thinking is in his two veto messages," Morgan told Church & State. "They are absolutely relevant to the present discussions."

"He is key to the debate," says Alley. "Discussion about Madison takes us beyond Jefferson's rhetoric. This is not to say that Madison's language was better than Jefferson's, but it was more to the point. He was a practical man. And now we have a lot of things being proposed that have practical implications. We must take alarm at any attempt to undermine the legacy of Madison."