James Madison and Church-State Separation

By Boston, Rob | Church & State, March 2001 | Go to article overview

James Madison and Church-State Separation


Boston, Rob, Church & State


What The Father Of The Constitution Thought About `Faith-Based' Government Programs

When a bill officially incorporating an Episcopal church in Washington, D.C., reached President James Madison's desk one day in February of 1811, he knew just what to do: reach for a veto pen.

Madison was never one to tolerate any official ties between church and state. As he explained in a veto message to Congress, he rejected the church incorporation measure because it "exceeds the rightful authority to which governments are limited by the essential distinction between civil and religious functions."

It "violates in particular," said Madison, "the article of the Constitution of the United States which declares that `Congress shall make no law respecting a religious establishment.'"

The bill noted that the church would be involved with care of the poor and the education of their children. No public funds were earmarked for these charitable endeavors, but Madison saw the legislative action as a foot-in-the-door for such federal aid to religion. He told Congress the measure was "altogether superfluous if the provision is to be the result of pious charity." He added that the bill could "be a precedent for giving to religious societies as such a legal agency in carrying into effect a public and civil duty."

At a time when many of our national leaders tout taxpayer-supported "faith-based initiatives" as the answer to poverty and other social ills, it might be wise to consider what the author of the Constitution and co-drafter of the Bill of Rights thought about such schemes.

Madison's veto message of "An Act Incorporating the Protestant Episcopal Church," dated Feb. 21, 1811, should be required reading for politicians today. Maybe then they would see how far their church-state partnerships are from the thoughts and words of the man who helped create religious freedom in the United States.

This month marks the 250th anniversary of Madison's birth -- March 16, 1751. Unfortunately, in most of the country his birthday will pass without even a nod of recognition toward the man who played a crucial role in the formation of the nation and one of its central governing tenets -- the separation of church and state.

Ironically, Madison's low profile stems in part from his close cooperation with Thomas Jefferson, the physically imposing Virginian, rightly regarded as a genius, who popularized the familiar metaphor of the "wall of separation between church and state." Jefferson's figure looms large over the historical record relating to church and state and has often obscured the perhaps more important contributions of Madison.

Madison was one of the first thinkers in colonial America to understand why church and state must be separated. His advocacy for this concept grew out of his own personal experiences in Virginia, where Anglicanism was the officially established creed and any attempt to spread another religion in public could lead to a jail term.

Early in 1774, Madison learned that several Baptist preachers were behind bars in a nearby county for public preaching. On Jan. 24, an enraged Madison wrote to his friend William Bradford in Philadelphia about the situation. "That diabolical Hell conceived principle of persecution rages among some and to their eternal Infamy the Clergy can furnish their quota of Imps for such business," Madison wrote. "This vexes me the most of any thing whatever. There are at this time in the adjacent County not less than 5 or 6 well meaning men in close Gaol [jail] for publishing their religious Sentiments which in the main are very orthodox. I have neither the patience to hear talk or think any thing relative to this matter, for I have squabbled and scolded abused and ridiculed so long about it, to so little purpose that I am without common patience. So I leave you to pity me and pray for Liberty of Conscience to revive among us. …

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