Madison’s argument 9

Was the Republic of the United States created as a Christian nation?

Warren Throckmorton, in a Townhall article here, asks a question more precisely focused but essentially the same: “Did the first amendment create a Christian nation?”

His answer is no. He explains:

Most states had established Christian denominations in the years before the passage of the Constitution but two states did not, Rhode Island and Virginia. Virginia, the home of Madison and Jefferson, is the most relevant to what would become the First Amendment. In 1786, Madison succeeded in shepherding religious freedom protections through the Virginia legislature that in his words, “have in this country extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind.”

Unfortunately not forever. “Hate crimes” are laws for the human mind. And they are entirely unnecessary. Those who commit them are either committing a crime, in which case they should be prosecuted regardless of what emotion accompanied it, or they did not, in which case the law should disregard them, hate though they might.

Still, what Madison did achieve was great and lasting – at least until now.

The law that gave Madison his ebullient hope was the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, which reads in part:

“Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

According to Thomas Jefferson, who had no small hand in the matter,some Virginia legislators wanted to direct the act toward Christianity by inserting Jesus Christ into a section of the Preamble. Jefferson’s account makes clear the extent of the freedom of expression which the Virginia legislature affirmed:

“The bill for establishing religious freedom, the principles of which had, to a certain degree, been enacted before, I had drawn in all the latitude of reason and right. It still met with opposition; but, with some mutilations in the preamble, it was finally passed; and a singular proposition proved that its protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word “Jesus Christ,” so that it should read, “a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan [Islam], the Hindoo [Hinduism], and Infidel of every denomination.”

So Jefferson allowed a “holy author of our religion” to haunt the law, but managed to exclude naming it Jesus Christ. It seems most of the legislators had some notion that “Jew, Gentile, Christian, Mahometan and Hindoo ” all shared a belief in such a being. If so, they were mistaken of course. And whether Jefferson himself believed in it no one can be certain.

Jefferson and Madison sought to get the state out of the business of “making laws for the human mind.” In so doing …  Madison and Jefferson moved Virginia, and later the nation away from a national religion. …

Virginia moved away from having one of the most solidly established churches all the way to join little Rhode Island on the side of full religious liberty and the separation of church and state.

Madison followed up his success in Virginia with a proposed amendment to the Constitution in 1789 covering religious expression:

“The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed.”

Through debate, Madison’s language was modified to the current First Amendment – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Madison’s work in Virginia and his original proposal make clear that freedom of religious expression is an individual right and not meant for adherents of a particular religion, namely Christianity.

The First Amendment forbids federal laws which interfere with a citizen’s free expression of religion and the Fourteenth Amendment extends the prohibition to the states.

Madison argued that Christianity itself supported the broad tolerance he was enshrining. Whether he was using the argument purely to achieve his end, or sincerely believed that Christianity was as tolerant as he was painting it, remains unknowable. The point is, it worked. He persuaded the people he needed to persuade.

He put it this way – explaining to the Virginia Assembly why they should not vote funds for teachers of Christianity:

“The establishment proposed by the Bill is not requisite for the support of the Christian Religion. To say that it is, is a contradiction to the Christian Religion itself, for every page of it disavows a dependence on the powers of this world: it is a contradiction to fact; for it is known that this Religion both existed and flourished, not only without the support of human laws, but in spite of every opposition from them, and not only during the period of miraculous aid, but long after it had been left to its own evidence and the ordinary care of Providence.”

With that he must have have sounded like a true believer, which he needed the Assembly to be convinced he was.

If he really was as firm a believer as he sounded then, it is all the more remarkable that he worked and pleaded so persistently and skillfully for the greatest possible tolerance of all religious belief and (by implication) none.  Or to put it another way: either he was an extraordinarily broad-minded Christian, or he was an extraordinarily persuasive non-believer. It matters not which, since he achieved the end which did matter and continues to matter – the absence of a national religion.

But now the freedom of conscience and belief that Madison bequeathed to the nation is under threat from “the Mahometan”.  Muslims whose freedom of religion he ensured, are exploiting the tolerance he enshrined, in order to destroy it.