The Original Anti-Christian Nationalist
James Madison’s Radical Aversion to Christian Politics in America
In James Madison’s 1792 contribution to the National Gazette, the future President expressed his belief that there was an essential kinship between the ideals of the American and the French Revolutions. He proclaimed:
In Europe, charters of liberty have been granted by power. America has set the example and France has followed it, of charters of power granted by liberty. This revolution in the practice of the world, may, with an honest praise, be pronounced the most triumphant epoch of its history, and the most consoling presage of its happiness. We look back, already, with astonishment, at the daring outrages committed by despotism, on the reason and the rights of man; We look forward with joy, to the period, when it shall be despoiled of all its usurpations, and bound forever in the chains, with which it had loaded its miserable victims.[1. James Madison, “For the National Gazette, 18 January 1792,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-14-02-0172]
By this passage, we can discern elements in James Madison’s political philosophy that have often been neglected. Recent conservative historians and political scientists such as Russell Kirk, James McClellan, and M.E. Bradford, following the lead of American Founders such as Fisher Ames and John Randolph of Roanoke, characterized the American Revolution as an essentially conservative event in which a unique political society asserted its independence to protect its inherited liberties from a foreign government.[2. Russell Kirk, Roots of American Order (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2003), 393-441; M.E. Bradford, A Better Guide Than Reason: Federalists and Anti-federalists (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1994), n.p.; James McClellan, Liberty, Order, and Justice (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1989), 52-60; Fisher Ames, “Equality no. 2,” in Works of Fisher Ames: With a Selection from His Speeches and Correspondence (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1854), 210-212; Russell Kirk, John Randolph of Roanoke: A Study in American Politics (Indianapolis, IN: LibertyPress, 1997), 41-85.] Madison, in explicit contrast, portrayed the American Revolution as a much more radical break with the past. It was not simply about reasserting America’s prerogative to govern itself as an independent political community. Instead, the American Revolution presaged a “revolution in the practice of the world” and intended to usher in a new way of life. The purpose of the Revolution was not principally to protect the American nation from the subjugation of Great Britain. Rather, it was intended to break the “chains” of the ancien régime and unravel the shackles of the old world’s monarchical traditions.
There was an essential error, Madison believed, that undergirded the philosophy of traditionalist conservatives. They believed that, if a citizen enjoyed liberty, it was because he happened to live in a country—one such as Great Britain—in which habit, tradition, and custom had bequeathed to him a free constitution. The “charters of power,” therefore, preceded the “charters of liberty.” To Madison, however, this reversed the proper relationship between power and liberty. A political philosophy that took its bearings from the “reason and the rights of man” would acknowledge that man is naturally born free, that liberty is his unalienable right, and that no political power could possibly be legitimate unless it flowed directly from the individual’s consent. Hereditary monarchies were consequently universally illegitimate, irrespective of what the tradition or history of any given territory suggested. In that same spirit, Madison criticized John Adams for his statement that “there was not a single principle the same in the American & French Revolutions” because this implied that the elder Adams never regarded “the abolition of Royalty” as one of his primary “Revolutionary principles.”[3. James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, 20 May 1798, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-17-02-0090.]
The nature of Madison’s revolution, the “new and more noble course”[4. James Madison, “Federalist no. 14,” in The Federalist, eds. George W. Carey and James McClellan, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2001), 67.] that the founder believed offered such promise for mankind, required a new political approach to Christianity. Madison believed that there was an intimate connection between the monarchical and hierarchical politics of the Old World and Christian religious establishments. “In most of the governments of the old world,” he complained, “the legal establishment of a particular religion without any, or with very little toleration of others, makes a part of the political & civil organization.”[5. James Madison to Jasper Adams, September 1833,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/99-02-02-2830] The doctrines of the Declaration of Independence, however, signaled to Madison the advent of a new era. Madison celebrated the fact that everywhere the natural rights teaching of the Declaration of Independence had been firmly established church and state had been firmly separated. In the Southern States, there was “previous to the Declaration of Independance [sic], a legal provision for the support of Religion.”[6. Ibid] But ever since the signing of the Declaration, religious establishments had been on the decline, and the support of religion had been surrendered to the “spontaneous support of the people.”[7. Ibid] Though some New England states had retained their religious establishments, Madison looked forward to the day when those republics would finally establish political orders in keeping with his own more liberal political principles.
Madison’s “revolutionary principles” pose urgent questions for the conservative movement. Modern Christian conservatives have debated the benefits and weaknesses of “Christian nationalism,” and proponents and detractors alike have sought to connect their beliefs to those held by the American Founders. As the Christian nationalists rightly point out, many if not most of the Founders were informed by Christianity and believed that their political project operated in harmony with the religion. To Founders as diverse as George Washington, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, Samuel Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, a republican government could not subsist without moral virtue, nor virtue without religion. But Madison was different. As Michael Novak explained: “Throughout the new states, the opinion was universal—save only in the case of Madison—that religion added to the resources available to reason powerful new motives for learning good habits, and for this important reason, among others, religion had indispensable civic utility.”[8. Michael Novak, On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002), 130.] John G. West astutely observed that Madison, “more than any other major Founder, was the forerunner of the modern secularist” and suggested that this fact accounted for the frequency with which he is cited by legal scholars and judges today.[9. John G. West, Jr., The Politics of Revelation and Reason: Religion and Civic Life in the New Nation (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1996), 68]. Not only was Madison a most rigid doctrinaire on the separation of church and state, arguably going even further than his friend Thomas Jefferson, but he even went so far as to question the social and political value of the Christian religion altogether.[10. Though Jefferson, like Madison, was anti-clerical, rejected orthodox Christian theology, and favored a very strict separation of church and state, he never explicitly sanctioned, as Madison did in the first Congress, a federally-incorporated right to freedom of religion that the federal government could wield against the states] This article will explore Madison’s thoughts on Christianity and the separation of church and state and show that, for him, the logic of classical liberalism entailed the permanent separation of religion and politics. Of all of the Founders, Madison mounted the most forceful critique of Christian nationalism and it is one that must be confronted by any citizen who seeks a greater role for Christianity within American politics.
Was Madison a Christian?
It is quite likely that the beginning of Madison’s rejection of Christian nationalism is found in a rejection of orthodox Christianity more generally. Like George Washington, Madison was meticulous in his effort to keep his precise religious beliefs private, and he shied away from discussing theology or religious doctrine in all of his private correspondence. Whereas Thomas Jefferson and John Adams left ample evidence in their writings that they rejected the divine origins of orthodox Christianity, Madison’s papers never explicitly denounced doctrines such as the divinity of Jesus Christ or the resurrection.[11. For a discussion of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams’ Unitarian religious beliefs, see Gary Scott Smith’s “Thomas Jefferson and the Separation of Church and State,” in Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush (Oxford: Oxford University, 2006) 53-90; Smith, “John Adams: A Church-Going Sage,” in Religion in the Oval Office: The Religious Lives of American Presidents (Oxford: Oxford University, 2015), 10-48. Also see Mark David Hall, Daniel Driesbach, and Jeffry Morrison, The Founders on God and Government (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), n.p.] And yet, it is a mistake to rely upon arguments from silence as a means of bolstering Madison’s claims to orthodoxy. In 1774, when Madison the youth was studying under the Rev. John Witherspoon and considering a career in ministry, he praised the “advocates of the cause of Christ.”[12. James Madison to William Bradford, 25 September 1773,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-01-02-0025.] But after this, references to Jesus Christ in his private correspondence disappeared and he appeared to approach religion with more indifference. As an adult, Madison is said to have refused to kneel for prayer, and though he sometimes attended an Episcopal Church, he never joined it and never participated in holy communion.[13. Vincent Phillip Munoz, “Religion in the Life, Thought, and Presidency of James Madison,” in Religion and the American Presidency, eds. Mark J. Rozell and Gleaves Whitney (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 61.] Friends of Madison, such as the Bishop William Meade, attested to his unbelief,[14. Bishop William Meade, quoted in James H. Hutson, Forgotten Features of the Founding: The Recovery of Religious Themes in the Early American Republic (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2003), 158-159: “His religious feeling… seems to have been short-lived. His political associations were those of infidel principles, of whom there were many in his day, if they did not actually change his creed, yet subjected him to a general suspicion of it.” Meade further testified that, upon conversing with Madison on the subject of religion, he came to believe that “his creed was not strictly regulated by the Bible.” Meade, however, perhaps understated the extent of Madison’s skepticism of the social value of religion when he concludes “whatever may have been the private sentiments of Mr. Madison on the subject of religion, he was never known to declare any hostility to it. He always treated it with respect, attended public worship in his neighborhood, invited ministers of religion to his house, had family prayers on such occasions though he did not kneel himself at prayers.”] and George Ticknor recounted a conversation he had with the President in 1815 wherein he “intimated to me his own regard for Unitarian doctrines.”[15. George Ticknor, quoted in Hutson, Forgotten Features of the Founding: The Recovery of Religious Themes in the Early American Republic, 158.]
But more disturbing than Madison’s apparent shift away from the evangelical theology of his youth is the sense one gets while reading his corpus that his final position entailed more hostility towards traditional Christianity than has often been acknowledged. As early as 1772, Madison included a striking note in his Commonplace Book, quoting from the Cardinal de Retz: “Nothing is more Subject to Delusion than Piety. All manner of Errors creep and hide themselves under that Veil. Piety takes for sacred all her imaginations of what sort soever.”[16. James Madison, “Commonplace Book, 1759–1772,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-01-02-0002.] Throughout Madison’s long career, he often returned to this theme about the political dangers of piety and religion. “Religious bondage,” he said to his friend William Bradford, “shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprize every expanded prospect” [sic].[17. James Madison to William Bradford, 1 April 1774,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-01-02-0031.] While Madison in one instance referred in passing to Christianity as the “best & purest religion,” it is likely that he, like his friend Thomas Jefferson, primarily praised it with a view towards its ethical precepts—precepts accessible to unaided, natural reason—and emphatically not its doctrinal claims uncovered within divine revelation.[18. It is a mistake to read too much into this comment from Madison. Jaspar Adams had sent Madison, alongside other Founders, a pamphlet arguing that America was a Christian nation, and Madison was notably the only dissenter from that view, whereas John Marshall and Joseph Story embraced the arguments mounted by Adams in the pamphlet. When Madison calls Christianity the “best & purest religion,” he is trying to make it sound like, with or without religious establishments, Christianity will be unaffected. But as this paper suggests, the full substance of Madison’s view suggests that Christianity will–and must–be effected by disestablishment, for he sees Christian orthodoxy as both irrational and also as a threat to political liberty. James Madison to Jasper Adams, September 1833,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/99-02-02-2830.] In fact, Madison thought that doctrinal orthodoxy needed to be eliminated in order to further the cause of progress and enlightenment. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, Madison complained about “Sectarian Seminaries” in Virginia—almost certainly alluding to Calvinist or Reformed institutions of learning—and their incorporation into the Virginia state charter on the grounds that this would empower churches of “any creed however absurd or contrary to that of a more enlightened age.”[19. James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, 31 December 1824,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/04-03-02-0453.] Doctrines must shift and change with the times, and any attempt to ground the nation in a static doctrine of Christianity is a threat to progress.
An 1825 letter that Madison wrote to Frederick Beasley offers additional clues about the character of his religious beliefs. Madison claimed that he could not comment on Beasley’s “Being & Attributes of God” without making recourse to the “celebrated work” of the English Unitarian divine Samuel Clarke, a theological rationalist who influenced the rise of English Deism.[20. James Madison to Frederick Beasley, 20 November 1825,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/04-03-02-0663.] Madison acknowledged that the belief in God was “essential to the moral order of the world & the happiness of man.”[21. Ibid] But he also discussed the limits of human certainty in its pursuit for knowledge of God. “The finiteness of the Human understanding betrays itself on all subjects,” he claimed, “but more especially when it contemplates such as involve infinity.”[22. Ibid. Madison is clearly indebted to the epistemological skepticism of John Locke, whose empiricism suggested that the claims of religion cannot be known with certainty because they are not grounded in experience or sense perception.] Because of the limits of the mind, human beings naturally posit the existence of God as an answer to the question of the first cause. The mind cannot easily comprehend the eternal self-existence of the universe, and so it postulates a first cause—God—to explain the world. But any knowledge of God that men have is uncertain because of the limits of human understanding and the mind’s inability to comprehend matters that concern infinity.
In Federalist no. 37, Madison also discretely addressed this matter. Discussing the limitations of language and the difficulty of perfectly conveying ideas using words, Madison illustrates his point about the haziness of our access to divine truth with a provocative example:
When the Almighty himself condescends to address mankind in their own language, his meaning, luminous as it may be, is rendered dim and doubtful by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated.[23. James Madison, “Federalist no. 37,” in The Federalist, eds. George W. Carey and James McClellan, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2001), 183.]
Even if God himself condescends to speak to man in their own language, as in the Divine Revelation of the Scriptures, his meaning will always be “dim and doubtful” due to the haziness with which ideas are received through language. Even the Scriptures cannot deliver human beings any degree of certain knowledge about God. Reasoning “from Nature to Nature’s God,” Madison concedes, presents less philosophical difficulties than denying the existence of a Creator altogether, but even this claim is framed in oblique terms that suggest the founder’s basic uncertainty about religious truth.[24. James Madison to Frederick Beasley, 20 November 1825,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/04-03-02-0663.] The mind is finite and limited, and while the individual’s beliefs about religion may be very important to them, they should not be considered certain or verifiable truths.
Because Madison imposed a rigid separation between reason and faith, he also surmised that the religious impulse was much less rational in its character than other founders had believed. In a 1787 letter to Thomas Jefferson, in which Madison first gave expression to ideas that would be developed in Federalist no. 10, he included a revealing passage about religion and its insufficiency as a solution to the political problem of faction:
Religion. The inefficacy of this restraint on individuals is well known. The conduct of every popular Assembly, acting on oath, the strongest of religious ties, shews that individuals join without remorse in acts agst. which their consciences would revolt, if proposed to them separately in their closets. When Indeed Religion is kindled into enthusiasm, its force like that of other passions is increased by the sympathy of a multitude. But enthusiasm is only a temporary state of Religion, and whilst it lasts will hardly be seen with pleasure at the helm. Even in its coolest state, it has been much oftener a motive to oppression than a restraint from it.[25. James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, 24 October 1787,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-12-02-0274.]
Samuel Adams had once spoken of how it was “the exalted virtues of the Christian system” that could alone “subdue the turbulent passions of Men” and prepare citizens for self-government.[26. Samuel Adams, The Writings of Samuel Adams, ed. Harry Alonzo Cushing (New York: Octagon Books, 1968), 4:343.] Madison in this 1787 passage, by way of contrast, expressed his belief that religion is essentially rooted in passion, not in reason, and thus that it is ill-equipped to bolster man’s capacity for self-government. Religious enthusiasm is “like other passions” in that it draws individuals away from gentle rationality and gives them an incentive to join together in mobs and violate the rights of other citizens. But Madison does not regard this as a problem that is exclusive to religious fanaticism or sectarian extremism. For he clarifies that even in religion’s “coolest state” it has generally been a “motive to oppression” rather than a “restraint from it.” This sheds light on Madison’s famous contention in Federalist no. 10 that “neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on” to stave off the problem of faction.[27. James Madison, “Federalist no. 10,” in The Federalist, 45-46.] Religion will not decisively elevate the moral and rational capabilities of the citizenry and prepare them for self-government. Rather than focus on religion or moral education as methods of promoting self-government, as Washington recommended in his Farewell Address,[28. George Washington, “Farewell Address, 19 September 1796,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-20-02-0440-0002.] Madison primarily seeks to protect individual rights by accounting for the “defect of better motives” and designing institutions that take their bearings from the fundamental realities of ambition and self-interestedness.[29. James Madison, “Federalist no. 51,” in The Federalist, 269. Tellingly, Madison says that interest is not only useful at the political level, but he adds that “the policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests” can be traced through the “whole system of human affairs, public and private.” The implication is that even religion itself is a product of private interest rather than any public-spirited desire to spread the Gospel.]
Madison and the Great Divorce of Christianity and Politics
Because he believed that religion is essentially a passion that causes rather than discourages faction, Madison also contended that it needed to be pacified for liberty to be preserved. The primary method of solving the political problem of Christianity was to encourage religious diversity and foster disunity. As Madison’s friend, neighbor, and first biographer William Cabell Rives reported, the President was fond of quoting Voltaire’s maxim that “if one religion only were allowed in England, the government would possibly be arbitrary; if there were but two, the people would cut each other’s throats; but, as there are such a multitude, they all live happy and in peace.”[30. William C. Rives, History of the Life and Times of James Madison (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1866), 2:220.] And Madison himself left no doubt that these were exactly his sentiments. He spoke in Federalist no. 51 of how the “multiplicity of sects” was the only security for the preservation of “religious rights.”[31. James Madison, “Federalist no. 51,” in The Federalist, 270-271.] In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, Madison celebrated the fact that the “mutual hatred” of Virginia’s Christian denominations “has been much inflamed.”[32. James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, 20 August 1785,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-08-02-0324.] He added: “I am far from being sorry for it, as a coalition between them could alone endanger our religious rights.”[33. Ibid.] Where the Apostle Paul spoke of the need for harmony, unity, and love within the body of Christ, Madison preferred that the church be characterized by disarray, discord, and faction. Only then would Christianity fail to mobilize itself as a political force, and only then would the natural rights of individuals be safe from a majority faction. Madison’s view, too, contrasts with the more Pauline beliefs of George Washington, who celebrated the “harmony and Brotherly Love which characterizes the clergy of different denominations” because it further substantiated his conviction that “Religion and Morality are the essential pillars of civil society.”[34. George Washington to the Philadelphia Clergy, “Address of the Philadelphia Clergy, 3 March 1797,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-21-02-0249-0005.]
It is therefore unsurprising that in his 1783 “Memorial and Remonstrance,” Madison anticipates a society defined by mass immigration and the steady erosion of America’s Christian hegemony. America must become an “Asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every Nation and Religion.”[35. James Madison, “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments, (ca. 20 June) 1785,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-08-02-0163.] By privileging Christianity over and against other religions, Patrick Henry’s proposal to designate public funds to support Christian education will deter individuals from other faith traditions from emigrating to the country. No one religious group, Christian or otherwise, can be allowed to dominate the public discourse of American politics, and to that end, legislators have a duty to break down the grip that Christians have over the culture by encouraging the emigration of peoples from diverse religious backgrounds.
Hence, we can see why Madison was, in principle, among the most militant of all of the Founders in his rigid devotion to the separation of church and state. Also in the “Memorial and Remonstrance,” Madison calls for a principle of noncognizance of religion. Government must have absolutely no relationship with religion, and Henry’s proposal Madison dismissed as a “tyrannical abuse of power.”[36. Ibid.] Madison justified himself by speaking of the fundamentally private, individualistic character of religious conviction. “The Religion then of every man,” he asserted, “must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man, and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right.”[37. Ibid.]
At first glance, Madison in the famous “Memorial and Remonstrance” seems to frame his argument for the complete separation of religion and politics in language that is pro-religion. Man’s unalienable right to freedom of religion, Madison claims, flows from the fact that his duties to God precede his entry into civil society.[38. Ibid. This claim, however, presupposes the unnaturalness of political life because man’s natural condition is in a “state of nature” that precedes his entry into civil society. This is at odds with classical Protestant political thought, which regards the natural condition of man as one of community.] Additionally, Madison contends that, with evangelists and ministers banished from any active engagement in political life, they can focus their efforts on preaching the Gospel and uplifting the church in private society. But a careful reader of the “Memorial” will see that Madison’s basic presuppositions are guided by early modern classical liberalism, and that he is informed not by the Bible or church history, but by a basic fidelity to John Locke’s Second Treatise and his Letters Concerning Toleration. Madison in the “Memorial” never appeals to Scripture for support, and he seems patently oblivious to church history when he contends that religious establishments had never been valuable for the Christian religion. Such creeds as the Nicene Creed, the 39 Articles, and the Westminster Confession, which have edified generations of Christians from different traditions, would not even exist had Madison’s secularist teaching prevailed earlier in Western history.
Madison’s essentially liberal premises are most clear when he alludes to John Locke’s “state of nature” teaching. He contends that the basic idea undergirding his critique of religious establishment is that “all men are by nature equally free and independent.”[39. Ibid.] Religious establishments violate the “equality which ought to be the basis of every law.”[40. Ibid.] If all men are free and equal in the state of nature, and if all citizens ceded a portion of their natural liberty in exchange for civil liberty when they entered into the political society, then it does not cohere to say that any one religion can legitimately be supported by that same society. “All men are to be considered as entering into Society on equal conditions,” Madison elaborated, “as relinquishing no more, and therefore retaining no less, one than another, of their natural rights.”[41. Ibid.] The crux of the matter is that religious establishment would privilege Christians over non-Christians or certain sects over other sects, and necessarily imply that unbelievers forfeited more of their natural liberty when they entered into civil society. Per the terms of the social contract, this represents an injustice that must be overruled by the strict separation of church and state. Then again, if the social contract itself is imaginary, as Protestant theologians from Jonathan Edwards to Robert Lewis Dabney to Groen Van Prinsterer argued, so are its imagined violations.[42. Jonathan Edwards, “Miscellanies no. 96 (Trinity),” in Works of Jonathan Edwards Online, Vol. 13: The “Miscellanies”: Entry Nos. a-z, aa-zz, 1-500 (1722), (New Haven: Yale University, 1994); Robert Lewis Dabney, “Anti-Biblical Theories of Rights,” in Discussions III: Philosophical (Richmond, VA: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1892; Groen van Prinsterer, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity a Refutation of Liberalism, trans. Jan Adriaan Schlebusch (St. Petersburg, FL: RefCon Press, 2022), 22-23.]
The final end of Madison’s dogmatic philosophy of the separation of church and state includes not only the destruction of religious establishments, but also the displacement of Christian language from American political life. In 1820, Madison penned a “Detached Memoranda” that articulated a strikingly secular vision of politics. “Strongly guarded,” Madison claims, “is the separation between Religion & Govt in the Constitution of the United States.”[43. James Madison, “Detatched Memoranda, ca. 31 January 1820,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/04-01-02-0549.] But even so, Madison resented that various chief executives—including, he regretted, himself[44. In the Detached Memoranda cited above, Madison asserted that he only issued his own proclamation due to political necessity and the pressure of a Congress that was concerned about the War of 1812.]—issued Thanksgiving Proclamations that posed a “danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies.”[45. Ibid.] Referring to this practice that was first inaugurated by President George Washington, Madison argued that although Thanksgiving Proclamations are “recommendations only, they imply a religious agency, making no part of the trust delegated to political rulers.”[46. Ibid.] When elected officials recommend to citizens that they thank God for their blessings as a society, Madison holds that they are tacitly endorsing one single conception of religious truth, and henceforth violated the separation of church and state. As non-sectarian as Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamations were, they nonetheless sanctioned a monotheistic and Providential God who was involved in the destiny of America. The Proclamations therefore seemed “to imply and certainly nourish the idea of a national religion.”[47. Ibid.] There is no such thing as a Christian nation, Madison claims, because only individuals–not communities–can be Christian. Even if absolutely all of the “individuals composing a nation” identified as Christian and were in favor of establishing their religion, Madison contends that religious establishment would still be an injustice because all religious ideas “ought to be effected thro’ the intervention of their religious not of their political representatives.”[48. Ibid.]
Madison’s conclusion is that religion must be exiled from political life. Even such a practice as a Thanksgiving Proclamation subtly denies the natural equality of mankind and suggests a communal—as opposed to an individualistic—conception of human nature. But Madison also held that other “encroachments” from Christian-minded legislators threatened the rising American republic. Like many modern liberal and progressive commentators, Madison criticized tax exemptions for churches and other religious entities, celebrating the fact that he, as President, vetoed “two bills passd by Congs.” and withheld his signature from another because they would have “exempt[ed] Houses of Worship from taxes.”[49. Ibid.] Public support for chaplains in the Congress or the military, Madison added, also threatened the secular basis of American politics because these policies used public taxation for religious purposes. And most significantly of all, Madison maintained that the attempt by Christians to graft religious language into their legal or political documents needed to be defeated at every opportunity. Referring to the fight in Virginia’s House of Commons over the Statute for Religious Freedom, Madison (like Jefferson in his Autobiography) lauded the fact that reference to “our Lord, Jesus Christ,” was removed from the document before its passage.[50. Ibid.] To Madison, any integration of Jesus Christ’s name into law or politics would make “his religion the means of abridging the natural and equal rights of all men” and would also defy his “own declaration that his Kingdom was not of this World.”[51. Ibid.] When the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and, indeed, the United States Constitution, abandoned any reference to God, Christ, or Christianity in their text, we know that Madison undoubtedly approved. The political community is not, as for the Puritans, a covenantal society in which individuals unite, under the authority of God, in bonds of Christian love.[52. John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity (1630),” in The Puritans in America: A Narrative Anthology, ed. Alan Heimert and Andrew Delbanco (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1985), 81-93.] For Madison, the political community is a secular arrangement that protects natural rights to property but distances itself from religion, faith, or belief.
James Madison did not envision that America was or ever could be in any sense a Christian nation, but he instead believed that it was a fundamentally secular republic. He saw the nation as a composite of individuals of distinct religious traditions, and he believed, as a devoted student of John Locke, that the aims of the state were concerned only with the preservation of property rights. “Government is instituted to protect property of every sort,” Madison avowed, “as well that which lies in the various rights of individuals… This being the end of government, that alone is a just government, which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.”[53. James Madison, “For the National Gazette, 27 March 1792,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-14-02-0238.] At best, Madison sees Christianity as a religion that perhaps provides a useful moral and ethical system for individuals to order their private lives around, but he does not believe that it provides any meaningful guidance about politics or society. If Madison is to be believed in his “Memorial” and his “Detached Memoranda,” God does not concern himself with the actions of political communities because, if He exists at all, He is only interested in the individual’s inner spiritual life. But this Madisonian argument is inept, for it ignores that the political community has a fundamentally religious basis. Individuals are called by God to associate with others in bonds of community and society. Further, as Jonathan Edwards observed, religion is not rooted in irrational or dangerous passions, but it is an affection that belongs to the highest and most rational part of the soul.[54. Jonathan Edwards, “Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival of Religion in New England (1758),” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards Online, Vol. 4: The Great Awakening, ed.. C. C. Goen (New Haven: Yale University, 2009), http://edwards.yale.edu/archive?path=aHR0cDovL2Vkd2FyZHMueWFsZS5lZHUvY2dpLWJpbi9uZXdwaGlsby9nZXRvYmplY3QucGw/Yy4zOjYud2plbw==.] The idea that a “rational” and enlightened government could separate itself from religion by focusing only on individual rights therefore is chimerical in its basic assumptions. By rejecting the authority of religion over political life, Madison’s politics assails reason itself. Additionally, by rejecting the religious basis of virtuous self-government, Madison’s secularist philosophy of the state ultimately endangers the liberty that he seeks to protect.
As American conservatives consider the merits of Christian nationalism, and as they seek to evaluate its place in the republican order established by the Founders, they must confront the shadow of James Madison. The fourth President believed that the logic of classical liberalism entailed a repudiation of political Christianity, and it is even likely that he—like his friend, Thomas Jefferson—hoped that the privatization of religion might help to loosen the grip of traditional orthodoxy on the minds of American citizens.[55. Thomas Jefferson believed that the liberal institutions and attitudes that prevailed within the United States would eventually destroy orthodox Christianity and lead to near-universal acceptance of Unitarianism. He writes: “I rejoice that in this blessed country of free enquiry and belief, which has surrendered it’s creed and conscience to neither kings nor priests, the genuine doctrine of one only God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the US. who will not die an Unitarian.” Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Waterhouse, 26 June 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/98-01-02-2905.] Madison’s secularist program in his own day was defended by many Christians who hoped that the absolute separation of church and state might protect their denominations from persecution, a mode of thinking that has continued right down to the present day. But, with centuries behind us, the Madisonian vision has been consummated, the political order has with great success banished God from its institutions in the name of “equal rights,” and we have seen the rise of moral decadence that would have been unthinkable at the time of the Founding. Christians have become exiles in a country that they played an indispensable role in building, and the Madisonian secular state has proven unable or unwilling to respond to the moral challenges facing the nation. If Madison is correct, and if classical liberalism is ultimately poisonous to the concept of Christian nationalism, then conservatives should seek to ground their vision of liberty in a teaching that is more distinctly Christian than that offered by the fourth President of the United States.
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