James Madison on Religion and
Politics: Conservative, Anti-Rationalist,
Before writing this essay, I shared with many other Christians a general sense that America had drifted away from its religious roots. I suspected that Supreme Court rulings over the years had enshrined a secular vision of the public realm that limited my freedom of expression. I had gleaned from contemporary conservative polemics that the Framers meant something very different by the wording of the First Amendment than the activist courts mean now. I took the separation of church and state to be a secular liberal ideal aimed at forcing religion out of the public square and advancing a pro-abortion, anti-family social agenda. All these moves toward the secular and the liberal bothered me.
After writing this essay, however, I see Madison's vision of the separation of church and state as a position that should be embraced by thoughtful Christians. Moreover, I view it as a quintessentially conservative idea. This conclusion is not obvious, however. Conservative Christians have offered compelling criticisms of Madison's view of religion and politics. Richard Weaver, for example, holds that the separation of church and state necessarily leads to a false, secular vision of the culture that must, sooner or later, degenerate into a pathological form of pluralism and ethical relativism. By contrast Michael Oakeshott offers a strong defense of Madison based on a different understanding of conservatism.
To grasp these two kinds of conservatism better, I will begin by developing a typology of four different worldviews. I will argue that Oakeshott's “adaptive conservatism,” not Weaver's “nostalgic conservatism,” captures Madison's vision and should appeal to conservative Christians.