10 February 2007

Mr. Madison's Wall

I live in Alabama, the land of the “Ten Commandments” judge, so I’m familiar with the arguments posed by Christians who want the Ten Commandments in our courtrooms and schoolhouses. One of the arguments used is that the founders of this country were Christian men and that we should return to the Christian republic which they founded for us. Anyone who has looked into the issue cannot in good conscience hold to that argument, because it is obvious that the most significant of our founding fathers were not Christians -- and those that were certainly weren’t the type we see today. George Washington’s Christianity, for instance, was a far cry from George W. Bush’s. Some of the fathers were Deists, some Christians. Which ones can we say were significant in the formation of this nation? Well, I’d say the man called the Father of the Constitution would be counted as “significant”. That man is none other than James Madison, our fourth president. The reason I want to pay attention to him is because of a quotation I encountered years ago while listening to a song about bringing America “back” to God. Madison is alleged to have said “We have staked our future on our ability to follow the Ten Commandments with all of our hearts.” If this was true, then it would seem to support the argument of the Christian Dominionists. When I began looking for the source of this quotation, it became obvious that there was no source; no proof that he ever said it. In fact, the person first responsible for putting those words in Mr. Madison’s mouth has admitted that the quotation is fabricated, along with several other similar quotations. But could it be possible that Madison was the kind of man who would say such a thing? I decided to find out. First I wanted to see if Madison was at all a Christian, for obvious reasons -- a Christian would have said those things, but not a Deist. Then I would look into Madison’s stance on church/state separation. Did he think it was there to protect Christianity from the government, or was it there to protect the government from Christianity?

To begin, let’s tackle the notion that Madison was a Christian. Early in his life, he studied theology, thinking to become a minister, but left. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to American Presidents attributes this to his voice: apparently he wouldn’t have made much of a speaker. He attended an Episcopalian church -- St. John’s of Washington, starting a tradition that continues to the present day and gives that particular church the name of “The Church of the Presidents”. It should be noted that church attendance doesn’t indicate church adherence: many do so out of cultural obligation or to support family members who are believers. References to God in his public addresses are few in number. If Madison had thought of the United States as a Christian nation, you would think this would show in his State of the Union addresses -- but it doesn’t. The only mention of a god is in his closing remarks, where he thanks Providence for the continuing welfare of the young nation. Some of the State of the Union addresses are bereft of even this token acknowledgement. As pointed out by another blogger, these references are perfectly in line with Deism -- and that if Madison were a practicing Christian, references to the Christian god would be higher and more emphatic. What does this leave us with? The author of the Constitution may have been a Christian, but not one nearly as devoted to his faith as the Katherine Harrises and Ann Coulters would want him to be.

Now to addresses the issue of church/state separation. When I first began to read Madison’s’ writings (through Wikimedia), I was amazed: how could anyone mistake this man for someone in support of a government-endorsed version of Christianity? Some (like the one I will list below) are originally from Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, so allow me to explain the context. This was a document written in response to Patrick Henry (he of “Give me liberty or give me death” fame) wanting financial support from the State for people who were teaching Christianity. In it, Madison argues that religion is a personal matter, and the government should stay out of it for the good of everyone. He continued by asking who was to say what sect of Christianity would be taught above the others -- since some of the Christian faiths are radically opposed to one another. For a modern-day example of what this could lead to, you need only look at the conflict between Saddam Hussein’s Sunni Iraq and its neighbor, Shiite Iran. Both countries had Islam as the state religion, but each with a different sect, and the differences between the two led to war and still contribute to the proliferation of terrorism in the region. With that said, one of my favorite quotations from the article:

“During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”

You would be hard-pressed to find a sounder condemnation upon Christianity as a state religion. Madison’s attitude in writing this would not prove to be unusual for him. The Memorial was written in 1785. In 1811, Madison (now President), stayed in character by vetoing a bill that would have allowed Congress to give money to a church to help the poor. It seems he had the impression that if the churches got their foot in the door, they wouldn’t stop there. Madison as president vetoed three bills that he felt violated the Establishment clause. These instances show a consistent pattern of behavior, one that we can trust enough to draw conclusions from -- and the obvious conclusion is that Madison in no way supported Christianity as a state religion in the United States. He was firmly committed to his friend Jefferson’s “wall of separation”.

So to end: would Madison have said those words? There is little if any support for the idea that he would have. The quote itself is an admitted fraud. But even if the quote was not known to be a lie -- if we were still wondering about its validity -- I think that those questions would be laid to rest through the knowledge of his character. In the end, Madison’s religion was his own. Whatever his creed, he did not make it part of his political platform. Whatever his religious notions, he stayed true to the idea of fairness through secularism -- and set an example that contemporary politicians would do well by following.

“Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us. If this freedom be abused, it is an offense against God, not against man: To God, therefore, not to man, must an account of it be rendered." (James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments)