Champion of Religious Freedom: James Madison – Father of the Constitution

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One of the most important figures in the concept of the separation of church and state in American history was Virginian, James Madison.

Although it was Roger Williams; founder of Rhode Island who must stand as the first to advocate and establish a government that promoted a “liberty of concience” and a separation between civil and ecclesiastical authority (church and state), the founding of the United States and it’s principles of freedom of conscience are most heavily influenced by the liberal philosphies of the European Enlightenment, a philosophy of government that deeply influenced two Virginians who would later become the 3rd and 4th presidents: Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. One, the author of the Declaration of Independence. The other, the primary author and architect of the constitution.

James Madison

In an article from The Weekly Register published by the James Madison Center entitled Epilogue: James Madison and the Separation of Church and State, author Devin Bent points out that:

“There is no doubt that James Madison believed in the separation of church and state. It was a constant theme of his career and an area in which his views were sometimes stated without his characteristic moderation.” In the Memorial and Remonstrance of June 20, 1785, he wrote:

“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.”

In Madisons Detached Memoranda, he states:

“Ye States of America, which retain in your Constitutions or Codes, any aberration from the sacred principle of religious liberty, by giving to Caesar what belongs to God, or joining together what God has put asunder, hasten to revise & purify your systems, and make the example of your Country as pure & compleat, in what relates to the freedom of the mind and its allegiance to its maker, as in what belongs to the legitimate objects of political & civil institutions.”

“Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion & Govt in the Constitution of the United States the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies, may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history.”

According to Leo Pheffer, “Madison’s ‘Detached Memoranda’: Then and Now.”, what is significant with respect to the date of its writing is that Madison’s “Detached Memoranda’ interprets the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and, unlike the Declaration of Independence, does not rest exclusively on the laws of nature or nature’s God, on Madison’s own “Memorial and Remonstrance, or on Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, although all are reported, confirmed, and defended. It would seem, therefore that the “Detached Memoranda” would be the best source for determining the intended meaning of the “religion” clauses of the First Amendment (and the provision of article VI of the Constitution forbidding religious test for public office) at least by the primary draughtsman of both the Constitution and First Amendment.

The “Detached Memoranda” considers eight issues relating to religion that have reached the Supreme Court in one way or another since the Constitution was adopted: (1) ecclesiastical monopolies; (2) incorporation of churches; (3) grants of public land to churches; (4) tax exemption of religious entities; (5) the Deity in government documents; (6) congressional chaplaincies; (7) military chaplaincies; and (8) religious proclamations by the government.”

References:

  1. Excerpts from Madison’s Detached Memoranda. researched by Jim Allison
  2. James Madison and the Separation of Church and State: by Devin Bent.
  3. The James Madison Center.
  4. The Constitutional Principle: The Separation of Church and State
  5. Pfeffer, Leo, “Madison’s ‘Detached Memoranda’: Then and Now.” The Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom, Its Evolution and Consequences in American History, Edited by Merrill D. Peterson and Robert C. Vaughan, Cambridge University Press (1988) pp 286, 87.