James Madison

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James Madison was the fourth president of the United States (1809-1817), and was the primary author of the Constitution. He shared remarkably similar views on the role religion should have in government with Thomas Jefferson. Madison saw the relationship between man and his creator as being primary before his relationship with the government, as he stated in Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments:

"Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe: And if a member of Civil Society, who enters into any subordinate Association, must always do it with a reservation of his duty to the General Authority; much more must every man who becomes a member of any particular Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign."[1]

Here, Madison can be shown to unequivocally reject the idea that government should have any hand in establishing or favoring the practice of any religious faith over another. However, in his analogy between a person’s responsibilities to their creator with their responsibilities to civil society, with the responsibilities of a person to their civil society with their responsibilities toward any subordinate social group, and by saying that a person enters a civil society only after preserving their “allegiance to the universal sovereign,” he establishes an idea that government should make positive allowances for the protection of the free exercise of religious practices.

Madison strengthens his position of the separation of government and the establishment of a religion by arguing against the idea that “a civil magistrate is a competent judge of Religious Truth, or that he may employ Religion as an engine of Civil policy” by saying that it is “an arrogant pretension falsified by the contradictory opinions of Rulers in all ages” and that the second claim is “an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation.”[2]

While Madison, like Jefferson, supported and wrote many “blue laws” in an effort to positively affirm that the government must protect religion, they did so more as a reaction to the excesses of religious persecution that existed in the colonies before the revolution. The only way to fully protect religious freedom and to prevent the vigilantes from attacking other’s religious freedoms was for the government to step in and protect those freedoms. However, Madison thought that government involvement should stop there, and opposed any government gifts or support of religious institutions outside of those bounds. For example, while Madison was president, in 1811 a bill passed Congress that gave away land to a church in Salem, Mississippi. The church had built on government owned land through a mistake in surveying, and the grant was arranged as a way of correcting the error. Madison however, saw an occasion to provide a precedent on the issue of government supplying money to religious institutions. He vetoed the bill: Because the bill in reserving a certain parcel of land of the United States for the use of said Baptist church comprises a principle and precedent for the appropriate of funds of the United States for the use and support of religious societies, contrary to the article of the Constitution which declares that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting a religious establishment.’[3]

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