“During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have 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
The year was 1785 when Patrick Henry of Virginia worked tirelessly to push for the state to pass a law diverting tax dollars to directly funding “Teachers of the Christian Religion“. The oppressive nature of state sponsored religion so attached to the governing principles of the old world seemed to be one step closer to infecting the new world also. The genius of the American experiment in self government was put at risk in 1785. Had laws binding the state to a religion passed in Virginia, the Constitutional Congress may well have produced a document far different to the one that we all know today. The principles of the Enlightenment may not have been so beautifully enshrined, and the American experiment may have turned out very differently.
As it turns out, Patrick Henry had one very formidable foe in his attempts to directly establish a church-state binding link. James Madison – Father of the Constitution – existed at the moment in history, and in the exact place he was most needed, to argue so eloquently for the establishment and enshrining of secular ideals. Madison had astutely recognised the difference between tolerance, and liberty. Tolerance, in matters of state, he was certain, was the opposite of liberty. His words and brilliance worked to define secular ideals that permeate to this very day.
In the same year, Madison penned “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments”. A beautifully articulate and concise declaration of religious freedoms, in response to the Bill forwarded by Patrick Henry. In it, Madison states his reasons for opposing the Bill:
“Because we hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, “that religion or the duty which we owe to 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 it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men.”
“…If “all men are by nature equally free and independent,” all men are to be considered as entering into Society on equal conditions; as relinquishing no more, and therefore retaining no less, one than another, of their natural rights. Above all are they to be considered as retaining an “equal title to the free exercise of Religion according to the dictates of Conscience.” Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us.”
– In two short paragraphs, Madison sets out the secular ideal. He makes clear the point that no single religious doctrine should be considered superior to any other, that the state should not promote dogma over reason, and that an individuals’ right to believe according to his or her own conscience is negated the moment the individual restricts the same right for another. For Madison, religious power over state had had its opportunity, and it was abused. For centuries religious power had fostered nothing but religious tyranny. With the minds of Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, the new World was not going to reflect the mistakes of the past when it came to religious power over state.
Further, Madison’s belief that no single religious doctrine be recognised as ‘official’ by the state, nor restricted therein is reflected in his support of Thomas Jefferson when establishing the University of Virginia. Both Jefferson and Madison believed religious theology had no place at the university, and Madison worked hard to ensure that the library books at the university contained moral philosophy, but no specific doctrinal teachings, so as to ensure a level playing field. The argument was simple, either the state has the right to invade and attempt to restrict the conscience of the individual, or it doesn’t. Madison’s response to Henry was a key factor is Henry losing the battle to divert tax dollars to the establishment of a religious order.
After the defeat of Henry’s Bill, Madison worked to ensure Jefferson’s ‘Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom’ passed through the Virginia Assembly, completely breaking the ties between the state government, and the Church of England. Indeed, Jefferson was so proud of penning the Statute, that he insisted on having it remembered on his tombstone. A tombstone that doesn’t even mention that he was President. Jefferson was in Paris on diplomatic orders as the Statute was up for discussion back home in Virginia, and it was James Madison who worked tirelessly to ensure its passage through the Assembly. The Statute states:
“Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”
– Not only does this ensure freedom of religion, it enshrines freedom from religion. No individual shall be compelled to support any ministry whatsoever. This is what was important to freethinkers and deists alike. Further, the statute makes clear that the beliefs of individuals should not affect their civil capacities. A line of equality drawn unequivocally. Virginians were to be considered equal in conscience, with no single faith or sect preferred in matters of state. This is reflected in a statement found earlier in the Statute:
“That our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry”
– During the debate in the Assembly, a motion to include the name of Jesus Christ in the wording of the Bill was easily defeated. Once passed, the Bill was translated into several European languages and became a beacon for secularists across the old continent. The revolutionary importance of the Virginia statute is difficult to overstate. Indeed, in the US it took another 30 years before Catholics were permitted to hold public office in the state of New York. For Madison – as for Jefferson – liberties such as that of the freedom of conscience, fought so hard for during the revolutionary years, with a basis in reason rather than Christianity, were essential for the experiment in republican ideals and civil rights to succeed.
In 1776, Madison had amended George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights, and specifically, article 16. The vision of liberty as opposed to tolerance became a reality in the words that Madison had so beautifully penned:
“All men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience.”
– At this time, Madison – still in his mid-20s – was now the voice of secularism and freedom of conscience in the Virginia House of Delegates.
In the Federalist Papers, Madison argued that by levelling the playing field, and equalising belief whereby one faith or one sect of one faith is not permitted to rise above another, nor recognised by the state, fosters an environment for open debate, free thought and discourages oppression. We must note how revolutionary this concept was. The preceding centuries were centuries of religious war. Indeed, Christians spent an awful amount of time killing other Christians, for being the wrong type of Christian. In England alone, the Tudor monarchs were at odds with each other, murdering religious supporters of their rivals, simply for not adhering to the correct ‘sect’ of the same faith. By 1850, new Christian sects – such as Mormonism – with their own interpretations, were springing up everywhere, without fear of oppression. Separation of church and state is absolutely beneficial to the religious. Far more so, than when one sect controlled the reigns of power.
Madison had also argued that attempts to compromise between religious sects whilst still holding onto the state-church connection – the Elizabethan settlement was simply a compromise – failed, and that only complete liberty of conscience under a state framework neutral in matters of personal belief, could ensure the protection of all. This isn’t to say that religious tension was forever banished from society, far from it, simply that it created an atmosphere preferable to the religious tyranny and the climate of fear that leads to such vicious oppression, and the stifling of progress of the preceding centuries.
In 1822, Madison expressed another key secular concept, in a letter he wrote to the Jurist, Edward Livingston. In it, Madison expresses his belief that whilst religion should ordinarily be free from state interference, the state should interfere to limit religious power if that power attempts to infringe upon civil rights:
“I observe with particular pleasure the view that you have taken of the immunity of Religion from civil jurisdiction in every case where it does not trespass on private rights or public peace.”
– Practically, this thought process can be seen in 21st century America. After the decision in 2013 of the Supreme Court to deem the Defence of Marriage Act unconstitutional, President Obama made this statement:
“This was discrimination enshrined in law. It treated loving, committed gay and lesbian couples as a separate and lesser class of people. The Supreme Court has righted that wrong, and our country is better off for it.”
– The President is right. He was politically wise not to mention that the only reason same-sex couples are so viciously discriminated against, their rights trampled, treated as second class, is because of the supremacy of religion over the state. To paraphrase Madison, the court was absolutely right to step in and limit the power of the religious, when that power attempts to infringe upon the rights of individuals. The decision to overturn the Defence of Marriage Act represented the very essence of secularism.
Madison was convinced that the only way to ensure the freedom of inquiry, the freedom of expression, and the freedom of conscience for all, was to break the chains of church and state and enshrine reason and liberty into the founding framework of a nation. His vision for America – predicated largely on secular ideals – was the vision that won out. It is no surprise that Madison’s chose the first Amendment to the Bill of Rights to ensure this principle, enshrining religious freedom, and forever inhibiting the state from establishing a religion in the United States. The secular ideals that I base much of my political beliefs upon, derive from the works of James Madison. I reflect on his writings often, and they work to solidify my conviction that secular freedoms for all upon a democratic framework, are the only possible way to ensure the civil rights of all. To this day, Madison’s clear, concise, and rational arguments are far more persuasive than any other system of governance thus conceived. We owe many of freedoms and protections to James Madison: The Father of Secularism.