Presidential portraits of James Madison (by John Vanderlyn) and Thomas Jefferson (by Rembrandt Peale).
Wikimedia Commons
Presidential portraits of James Madison (by John Vanderlyn) and Thomas Jefferson (by Rembrandt Peale).

Two founders and religious freedom

One hopes that Christian nationalists will reflect upon the words and deeds of Madison and Jefferson

WINDHAM — A bill is introduced in a state to tax citizens to support the teaching of the Christian religion.

Opponents circulate a petition opposing the measure.

The petition's author says that no politician is a competent judge of religious truth, that every citizen has the right to religious freedom according to the dictates of their conscience and that the Legislature has no authority at all over religion.

He states that Christianity does not require support from the government and that history has shown that when it is the official, legally established religion of a state or nation, the result is clergy who are arrogant and lazy, parishioners who are ignorant and servile, and that “superstition, bigotry, and persecution” abound.

Then he pointedly suggests that the only difference between the Legislature's effort to establish spiritual tyranny and the infamous Inquisition is a matter of degree. “The one is the first step, the other the last, in the career of intolerance.”

Finally, he concludes that if the people allow the Legislature to limit the free exercise of religion, they might as well say the government has the right to control freedom of the press, abolish trial by jury, and take away our right to vote!

Who is this impassioned rabble rouser? Is he a left-wing radical, a communist, a socialist, a member of Antifa?

No, the incendiary author of this petition was none other than James Madison, the chief architect of our Constitution, the author of the Bill of Rights, the fourth president of the United States, and one of our most revered Founding Fathers.

* * *

Madison wrote his petition - “A Memorial and Remonstrance” - in 1785 when “A Bill Establishing a Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion” was introduced in the Virginia General Assembly by Gov. Patrick Henry and other conservatives, who believed that Christian morality was needed “to correct the morals of men, restrain their vices, and preserve the peace of society.”

The bill would have imposed a special property tax, collected by county sheriffs, and it would have used the proceeds to teach citizens the precepts of the Christian faith.

The bill was withdrawn after Madison's remonstrance, and several other petitions, were signed by thousands of Virginians. After the bill was defeated, Madison helped pass the Virginia Bill of Religious Freedom, which was written by his friend, Thomas Jefferson.

In the preamble to this famous law, Jefferson wrote:

Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishment or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness [...] that our civil rights have no dependence upon our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry[...].

Jefferson's self-designed tombstone lists three achievements that he most wanted to be remembered for: his authoring of the Declaration of Independence and of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and his role as “Father of the University of Virginia.”

In referring to the Virginia statute, Madison noted: “This act was always held by Mr. Jefferson to be one of his best efforts in the cause of Liberty, to which he was devoted. And it is certainly the strongest legal barrier that could be erected against the connection of church and State so fatal to the liberty of both.”

* * *

Christian nationalists reject the time-honored principle of separation of church and state and believe that their religion should have a privileged position in our public life.

The Texas Senate recently passed bills requiring that the Ten Commandments be posted in every classroom and allowing public schools to mandate time for students and employees to read the Bible and pray.

The Texas House just passed a bill allowing chaplains, without state certification, to work as counselors in public schools, while rejecting a Democratic amendment that would have allowed students and parents to request a chaplain of their preferred denomination or faith.

Last June, Representative Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), speaking at a religious service, said that the church is supposed to direct the government because “that is how our founding fathers intended it. And I'm tired of this separation of church and state junk that's not in the Constitution.”

She referred to Jefferson's 1802 message to the Danbury Baptist Association, in which he affirmed his reverence for the First Amendment for building a wall of separation between church and state, as a “stinking letter.”

One hopes that Christian nationalists will reflect upon the words and deeds of Madison and Jefferson.

Regardless, the rest of us surely should take them to heart.

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