Faith and the Founding: The Influence of Religion on the Politics of James Madison
Loconte, Joseph, Journal of Church and State
A 22-year-old James Madison, on a jaunt through his native Virginia, visited a jail that held half a dozen Baptist preachers, arrested simply for publishing their religious views. It was a common scene in the Virginia of Madison's youth. State officials, under the sway of the established Anglican Church, tolerated the violent persecution of religious dissenters. Baptists were being driven out of one county and jailed in another. The bookish Madison bristled with indignation. "That diabolical Hell conceived principle of persecution rages among some," he wrote his college friend William Bradford, "and to their infamy the Clergy can furnish their Quota of Imps for such business." He closed the letter with a lament: "So I leave you to pity me and pray for Liberty of Conscience to revive among us."1
Though well known to Madison biographers, the above tale gets little attention from students of the American Founding. As a political theorist, architect of the U.S. Constitution, and America's fourth president, Madison has earned intense scrutiny. Nevertheless, numerous scholars have overlooked the importance of faith to his political philosophy. In his award-winning The Creation of the American Republic, Gordon Wood devotes generous space to Madison's views of persons and property, factions and federalism. Yet hardly a word on religion. Jack Rakove's James Madison allows virtually no place for religious belief in his political formation.2 In The Last of the Fathers, Drew McCoy patiently treats Madison's republican legacy, but offers barely a page on his lifelong struggle to secure religious freedom.3 Even Memorial and Remonstrance, Madison's peerless defense of the rights of conscience, is cast in purely secular terms: It signified his "full development as an Enlightenment thinker," according to Richard Matthews in If Men Were Angels. "If Madison worshipped a deity, it would be . . . the instrumental reason of the modern age."4
Considering just a few biographical facts, this neglect seems short-sighted. Madison's mother was a devout Anglican and his father was active in the church. Throughout his life Madison acknowledged-sometimes in extravagant terms-his debt to the clergymen who were his most important tutors.5 He attended a Presbyterian seminary and studied theology under one of the best-known evangelical ministers in the colonies. As a freshman lawmaker, his first initiative was legislation to protect the rights of religious minorities. After a decade of fighting religious liberty battles in Virginia, he became the most decisive force shaping the content of the First Amendment's religion clauses.
Madison almost certainly was not the devout Christian that some conservatives make him out to be. Yet neither was he the Enlightenment skeptic of liberal imagination, determined to quarantine religion's influence from public life. "Madison . . . represented in himself, more than any of the other statesmen, the center of the religious spectrum," writes Henry F. May. "He arrived at a consistent, lifelong defense of Christianity on the basis of both reason and intuition."6 What were the factors that contributed to his religious convictions, and how might they have shaped his views of human nature, government, and the role of faith in the public square? A handful of historians have tried to address these questions, relying on private letters, speeches, legislative records, and other documents. What follows is a summary of their most important arguments. Together they offer a portrait of a Founder whose religious instincts provoked and animated much of his political career. "Madison's views on religious freedom," concludes Gary Wills, "are the inspiration for all that was best in his later political thought."7
TUTORS IN FAITH AND FREEDOM
Like many of the Founders, Madison's precise religious views are difficult to pin down. Though scholars acknowledge in him a keen interest in freedom of religion, few are willing to speculate about its origins or its relationship to his political principles. …