James Madi­son: Cham­pion of the ‘cause of con­science’

The Washington Times Daily - - CELEBRATING FREEDOM - By Dr. Charles C. Haynes Charles C. Haynes, Ph.D., is vice pres­i­dent of New­seum In­sti­tute, found­ing di­rec­tor of the Re­li­gious Free­dom Cen­ter of the New­seum In­sti­tute, and se­nior scholar at the First Amend­ment Cen­ter. His col­umn, “In­side the First Amend­men

No cause was dearer to James Madi­son’s heart than the cause of con­science. And no founder of our coun­try was more re­spon­si­ble for what is now the world’s bold­est and most suc­cess­ful ex­per­i­ment in re­li­gious free­dom, or lib­erty of con­science, for all.

Madi­son’s vi­sion of re­li­gious free­dom was shaped as a young man grow­ing up in Or­ange County, Vir­ginia. At an early age, he was out­raged by the im­pris­on­ment of Bap­tist preach­ers for the crime of “pub­lish­ing their re­li­gious Sen­ti­ments.” In 1774, Madi­son wrote to his friend Wil­liam Brad­ford, de­scrib­ing the jail­ing of Bap­tists as “that di­a­bol­i­cal Hell con­ceived prin­ci­ple of per­se­cu­tion,” and asked him to “pray for Lib­erty and Con­science to re­vive among us.”

Two years later, in 1776, a 25-year-old Madi­son trav­eled to Wil­liams­burg to rep­re­sent his county at the con­ven­tion called to de­clare Vir­ginia’s in­de­pen­dence from Great Bri­tain. At a key mo­ment in the pro­ceed­ings, young Madi­son suc­cess­fully called for an amend­ment to the ven­er­a­ble Ge­orge Ma­son’s draft of the Vir­ginia Dec­la­ra­tion of Rights, chang­ing “tol­er­a­tion in the ex­er­cise of re­li­gion” to “free ex­er­cise of re­li­gion.”

With that small change in lan­guage, Vir­ginia moved from tol­er­a­tion to full re­li­gious free­dom — a prece­dent that would greatly in­flu­ence the new na­tion’s com­mit­ment to free ex­er­cise of re­li­gion un­der the First Amend­ment. No longer would gov­ern­ment have the power to de­cide which groups to “tol­er­ate” and what con­di­tions to place on the prac­tice of their re­li­gion.

Ten years later, in 1786, Madi­son led the suc­cess­ful bat­tle to dis­es­tab­lish the Angli­can Church in Vir­ginia by en­act­ing the Act for Es­tab­lish­ing Re­li­gious Free­dom, drafted by Thomas Jef­fer­son. Un­der Madi­son’s leadership — and with the sup­port of Bap­tists and other dis­sent­ing groups — the Vir­ginia Gen­eral As­sem­bly be­came the first leg­isla­tive body in his­tory to dis­es­tab­lish re­li­gion.

“The Re­li­gion then of ev­ery man,” Madi­son wrote dur­ing that bit­ter fight, “must be left to the con­vic­tion and con­science of ev­ery man to ex­er­cise it as these may dic­tate.”

In Madi­son’s vi­sion, re­li­gious free­dom is an in­alien­able right that must be pro­tected for peo­ple of all faiths and none, in­clud­ing the small­est mi­nori­ties and least pop­u­lar be­liefs. Com­mit­ment to the cause of con­science means lit­tle un­less gov­ern­ment takes se­ri­ously all claims of con­science — and then works to pro­vide ac­com­mo­da­tions when­ever pos­si­ble.

When the mat­ter of enu­mer­at­ing rights was de­bated at the Con­sti­tu­tional Con­ven­tion in 1787, Madi­son — who pro­vided the tem­plate for the “checks and bal­ances” in the Con­sti­tu­tion — was at first un­con­cerned about the ab­sence of a bill of rights. To list some rights, he be­lieved, might leave oth­ers un­pro­tected and im­ply that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment had power to de­ter­mine which rights to guar­an­tee.

Jef­fer­son — and pop­u­lar opin­ion in his home state — per­suaded Madi­son other­wise. “A bill of rights,” Jef­fer­son wrote to his close friend, “is what the peo­ple are en­ti­tled to against ev­ery gov­ern­ment on earth … and what no just gov­ern­ment should refuse.”

As a re­sult, Madi­son drafted the Bill of Rights in 1789, in­clud­ing what was to be­come the First Amend­ment to the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion. Based on that draft, Congress adopted and the states sub­se­quently rat­i­fied two prin­ci­ples — “no es­tab­lish­ment” and “free ex­er­cise” — that pro­tect one free­dom: re­li­gious free­dom, or lib­erty of con­science, as a fun­da­men­tal, in­alien­able right for ev­ery per­son.

Madi­son was con­vinced that sep­a­rat­ing church from state and pro­tect­ing the right of all peo­ple to fol­low the dic­tates of con­science was an ar­range­ment in free­dom that would en­dure for the ages. Af­ter en­act­ing the Act for Es­tab­lish­ing Re­li­gious Free­dom in 1786, Madi­son wrote to Jef­fer­son in Paris: “I flat­ter my­self that with this statute we have in this coun­try ex­tin­guished for­ever the am­bi­tious hope of mak­ing laws for the hu­man mind.”

Madi­son was, to put it mildly, overly op­ti­mistic. The United States did not live up to the full prom­ise of re­li­gious free­dom in the 18th cen­tury — and we have strug­gled to do so ever since, as Na­tive Amer­i­cans, African Amer­i­cans, Catholics, Jews, Mor­mons, Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses and now Mus­lims can at­test.

Nev­er­the­less, 225 years af­ter the rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the First Amend­ment, the re­li­gious lib­erty clauses still stand as a bar­rier to those on one ex­treme who would reim­pose their re­li­gion on oth­ers and those on the other ex­treme who would ban­ish re­li­gion from the pub­lic square al­to­gether.

At a time when divi­sion and dis­trust

In Madi­son’s vi­sion, re­li­gious free­dom is an in­alien­able right that must be pro­tected for peo­ple of all faiths and none, in­clud­ing the small­est mi­nori­ties and least pop­u­lar be­liefs. Com­mit­ment to the cause of con­science means lit­tle un­less gov­ern­ment takes se­ri­ously all claims of con­science — and then works to pro­vide ac­com­mo­da­tions when­ever pos­si­ble.

poi­son our body politic, can we over­come the ig­no­rance and con­tention sur­round­ing the First Amend­ment? Can we ful­fill the Madis­o­nian ideal by reaf­firm­ing lib­erty of con­science for all peo­ple, in­clud­ing those with whom we deeply dis­agree?

We must.

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