by Robert Morrison
March 20, 2009
James Madison’s birthday came around this week. We might have celebrated with ice cream, which his beloved wife, Dolley, first served at a Presidential Inauguration in 1813. March 16th was not attended with the kind of celebration we used to accord George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Nonetheless, this 5-foot, 4-inch founder was a giant whose memory deserves to be honored. Sadly, all of our greatest Presidents seem to have been submerged in the indigestible stew we now call Presidents Day. Despite this, we should all be grateful to little “Jemmie” Madison.
Madison was a leader in establishing religious liberty for Americans-and this “lustre of our country” (his beautiful phrase) made America a beacon for the oppressed of many lands. In the nineteenth century, America was treasured as a refuge for Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans, and Jews. Even today, Christian Arabs, Cuban and Vietnamese Catholics, Hispanic Pentecostals, Russian Jews, and many other peoples have found America a safe haven.
Madison’s leadership succeeded in bringing Jefferson’s vision of a free republic with complete religious freedom to their beloved Virginia. Jefferson had introduced his bill to establish religious freedom in 1779. Then, in the midst of our revolution, Virginia was still in danger of British invasion. The Virginia General Assembly did not act on Jefferson’s bill until seven years later. By 1786, with peace and independence secured, Madison could successfully carry the legislative fight for his best friend, Jefferson. The Sage of Monticello was away in France at the time. Separated by the Atlantic, the two corresponded regularly, and Jefferson congratulated his friend on their mutual success. All Europe, he reported, had received the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom with approval. Well, all enlightened Europeans, anyway.
Madison soon turned to Philadelphia. There, the lessons he learned in the fight for religious freedom helped him to see that in a multiplicity of factions lay liberty’s guarantee. Just as in Virginia, the many denominations of Christians helped ensure the religious liberty of all.
Madison had stood firmly against Patrick Henry’s attempt to have Virginia’s government tax all citizens for the maintenance of Christian ministers and teachers. Henry understood that republican government could not survive without religious support. Madison’s famous Memorial and Remonstrance of 1785, however, warned against allowing the state to determine who should be recognized as Christian and who should be eligible for state disbursements. Madison’s arguments proved persuasive to Virginia’s burgeoning Baptists-who sought nothing from the state but freedom to preach and teach.
Many of today’s atheizers see Madison as a natural ally in their determination to rid the public square of all vestiges of the Christian religion. Madison and Jefferson, they argue, supported the highest of high walls of separation between church and state. Where Jefferson and Madison declined, in their four terms as President, to proclaim days of Thanksgiving and fasting, atheizers see their own anti-religious views affirmed.
The atheizers have more trouble explaining away Madison’s famous churchyard debate with James Monroe in January, 1789. At Hebron Lutheran Church, near Charlottesville, Virginia, James Madison stood for three hours in the cold to appeal for the votes of Christian citizens in “that nest of Dutchmen [Germans].” Madison must have impressed the Lutherans with his soft-spoken sincerity and with his commitment to religious liberty. He was described as always the best prepared in any debate.
Arch separationists today would have us believe that we violate the First Amendment whenever politicians seek support from Christian citizens. But Madison won that election and proceeded from that snowy churchyard to New York. There, he joined the First Congress and wrote the First Amendment.
It is clear that Madison would have opposed federal grants and contracts going to churches as churches. The fact is that both Madison and Jefferson wanted a federal government vastly smaller, far more limited in scope and powers, than what we see today.
They would both have been appalled at the mountain of debt now threatening to crash down on us and our posterity.
Assuming, however, that Madison and Jefferson could be enlisted to support a broad system of federal grants and contracts, it is highly doubtful that they would have refused funding only to those organizations that are faith-based. In fact, Jefferson specifically authorized federal funds for missionaries to the Kaskaskia Indians. Those missionaries’ efforts for health, agriculture and literacy among the tribes would benefit all Americans.
So, today, we have faith-based organizations which have been permitted to compete with secular groups for federal funds. The faith-based groups have been advised, wisely, to incorporate as charitable, tax-exempt institutions which stand apart from churches and synagogues.
President Obama has signaled his willingness to let this program survive, but his projected changes may make it unrecognizable-and unworkable. His denial of the faith-based groups’ right to hire from among their own adherents while maintaining their organizational independence and their creedal integrity may mean that only those with views congenial to this administration will be funded.
This begins to sound like the very situation Madison remonstrated against in his great Memorial and Remonstrance. We may have a government friendly to religion only if that religion is friendly to a particular President’s objectives.