Turn to James Madison (September 2003)

At a time when the religious right has acquired so much influence in our secular government, and servility is praised as the best trait in a patriot by many public officials, Americans ought to turn to the writings of James Madison.

Maybe it’s because Madison isn’t featured in effigy on our nation’s currency that he has slipped away from the public eye and into obscurity. After all, Lincoln has his memorial, Washington has his monument, and Jefferson his own architectural evidence of greatness. Then again, even the ideas of Thomas Jefferson, a staunch advocate of separating church and state, have eluded the American public while his face and name has been preserved.

Madison, reputed as the primary author and parent of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, is arguably the most important figure in our history. Fundamentalist religious sects will find no footing in Madison’s words for preposterous claims of a national religion, or for justifying allocations of federal money to religious institutions.

James Madison’s grand public debasement of religious assessments and public support for religious institutions is found in his speech, “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” (June 20, 1785):

“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. Inquire of the Teachers of Christianity for the ages in which it appeared in its greatest luster; those of every sect, point to ages prior to its incorporation with Civil policy.”

He encouraged a government separated from any religious convictions but also implores the intellect to be freed of superstition:

“What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny: in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers, who wished to subvert the public liberty, may have found an established Clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just Government instituted to secure and perpetuate it needs them not. Such a Government will be best supported by protecting every Citizen in the enjoyment of his Religion with the same equal hand which protects his person and his property; by neither invading the equal rights of any Sect, nor suffering any Sect to invade those of another.”

Madison expressed disdain for closed-eyed followers (“Who Are the Best Keepers of the People’s Liberties,” National Gazette, Dec. 22, 1792): ” ‘People ought to be enlightened, to be awakened, to be united, that after establishing a government they should watch over it, as well as obey it . . . Liberty disdains to persecute.’ “

Especially in the post-September 11 climate, we hide behind shields of rhetoric against terrorism to justify infringing liberty to achieve national security. Not only Madison but our other founders expressly warned that that sort of behavior would warrant the fall of liberty. Thus far, as reported by the Justice Department, more than 1,200 people have been detained on suspicion alone, that they might be involved in a terrorist organization. Of those only one person has been charged with involvement in the attacks on September 11, 2001.

If we desire to maintain the prestige and authenticy of our nation’s great birth and ideals, we need to look no further than the libertarian-minded founders of our nation. James Madison would be a good start.

Freedom From Religion Foundation