Prompted by Baptist leaders and others, Madison penned his now-famous Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments in July 1785.Biographer Irving Brant calls the 15-point document "the most powerful defense of religious liberty ever written in America." One reason is that Madison made freedom of conscience--meaning belief or conviction about religious matters--the centerpiece of all civil liberties.
"There is no principle in all of Madison's wide range of private opinions and long public career," writes biographer Ralph Ketcham, "to which he held with greater vigor and tenacity than this one of religious liberty." Historians mistakenly ignore the importance of Madison's early education.
Rather than going closer to home, he chose the College of New Jersey (later Princeton), an evangelical seminary known as both a citadel for republicanism and a haven for dissenting Presbyterianism. John Witherspoon--under whom Madison studied directly--is difficult to overstate.
Today is a good day to consider the cost of that neglect and, perhaps, once again become attentive. Simon Fellow for Religion and a Free Society at The Heritage Foundation and a regular commentator on religion for National Public Radio.
James Madison, letter to William Bradford, April 1, 1774 That Religion or the duty we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, being under the direction of reason and conviction only, not of violence or compulsion, all men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise of it according to the dictates of Conscience.
Conservatives, when not trying to Christianize him, invoke Madison's faith-friendly rhetoric to justify the latest attempt to reinsert religion in the public square. What is nearly indisputable is that his religious instincts fueled much of his political activity.
In the fight to pass the Virginia Bill for Religious Liberty, he shamed Christian conservatives--who tried to insert the words "Jesus Christ" in an amended preamble--with these words: "The better proof of reverence for that holy name would be not to profane it by making it a topic of legislative discussion...." In 1795, during a congressional debate over naturalization, he bluntly repelled anti-Catholic prejudices: "In their religion there was nothing inconsistent with the purest Republicanism." At age 65, in retirement at his estate in Virginia, Madison praised the separation of church and state because, by it, "the number, the industry, and the morality of the Priesthood, & the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased...." In the twilight of his life, Madison wrote that "belief in a God All Powerful wise and good, is so essential to the moral order of the World and to the happiness of man, that arguments which enforce it cannot be drawn from too many sources." Only in a culture that "bristles with hostility to all things religious" (as Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist recently put it) could such a common-sense view fall into controversy--or neglect.In 1722, he graduated from the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University).Real or imagined health problems which would span his life plagued young Madison, but they also gave him time to become a student of government and political philosophy.James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, circa June 20, 1785 The civil rights of none, shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext infringed.James Madison, letter to Jacob de la Motta, August 1820 We are teaching the world the great truth that Governments do better without Kings & Nobles than with them.Madison would pick up the fight again during the drafting of the First Amendment.As chairman of the House conference committee on the Bill of Rights, Madison's original draft was among the most ambitious: "the civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship..shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed...." Though somewhat less expansive in its protections, the final version--"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" --clearly bears the Madison stamp.James Madison, Amendments to the Virginia Declaration of Rights, June 1776 It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him.This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.In 1774, Madison served on the local committee of public safety, allying with other patriots in opposing British policies.Two years later, he attended the Virginia Convention, aided in drafting the states new constitution and formed a permanent bond with Thomas Jefferson.